Summer is conference season and MAP is reporting live! Over the next few days I’ll be reporting from the Allied Media Conference in Detroit and David Faris will be reporting from the Global Voices Summit in Nairobi.Check out this blog and ourTwitter streamfor reports and ourFacebook pagefor photos
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“We help move people from the tweets to the streets.”
“We need technology that we can use, not that uses us.”
“We don’t want to be the products being sold.”
“How can we ensure that the internet is not private property but public property?”
“We can use communication technology not only to know the world, but to change it.”
These were but a few of the wise and inspirational statements made by participants at the network gathering convened by May First/People Linkon day 1 of the Allied Media Conference(AMC). MF/PL is a non-profit web service provider that operates like an activist co-op: collecting dues, buying equipment, and providing services to people who might otherwise not have them. Today they brought together media rights activists with technologists, hoping to surface activist needs which could be met by developing new software. However, in the age of social media, creating new software is not always the best strategy for supporting activists.
As a way to get the ball rolling a number of technologists presented some examples of open source software designed for activists: Decider, Riseup Pad, Facebook alternatives Crabgrass and Diaspora, DropBox alternative SparkleShare, Twitter alternative identi.ca, and Flickr alternative openphoto. Other than being open source, these tools allow greater security, autonomy, and data control because they can run off of any server, not a centralized server owned by a corporation.
This is good, but it is also not so good. It is good because it provides a more secure alternative for activists who may be under surveillance and ensures there is some level of competition, and thus user choice, in these market niches (Firefox works particularly well in this regard).
They are not so good in that the social media platforms – Crabgrass, Diaspora, and identi.ca* –cut activists off from the majority of the world’s citizens, who are using commercial platforms.This marginalization is why many of these tools have failed to gain much of a user base. The value of any social media platform increases with the number of members it has, a principle encapsulated in Metcalfe’s Law. Without members these platforms have little pull, except for the hard core of activists.
The truth is that mostopen source software is only used by technical elites and those who have been directly trained and educated by elites (Firefox being a major exception). This doesn’t mean that open source’s impact is small, just that the user base is usually small. For example, Apache serves more than half the world’s websites, but its actual user base is a relatively small technical elite of developers.
Open source projects work best when they operate well using a small user base. Mobile crowd-mapping application Ushahidi has dozens of instances, but for each instance only one person needs to be able to manipulate the software – the person who installs it. Everyone else just needs to be able to send a text message. Guardianwould love for thousands of people in repressive countries to use their mobile encryption tools, but if even several hundred key activists become users, they have made an impact.
Social media, on the other hand, requires scale to succeed, and this is why open source alternatives have failed. A social network with 500 people won’t succeed unless the people already have strong ties because casual users will become dormant or leave. By building alternative social networks, open source activists have create walled gardens that propose marginalization and isolation more than meaningful radical space.
During a break-out session, I proposed an alternative to this self-defeating strategy: “enter the mall.” The mall – ugh! We hate the mall. It is banal and commercial and trivial and corporate. But it is also where everyone hangs out. If you build a small alternative fair trade market down the road you may attract those who are already your ideological allies, but in order to really scale you will need to go to the mall. Now, you could enter the mall and advertise for your alternative market down the road. You could also set up the market inside the mall, between Hot Topic and The Gap. It would mean entering the belly of the capitalist beast, but it would also give the ideals of fair trade to a much larger audience and give the ideas potential to scale. I am using a rather goofy analogy, but there are serious issues of values and strategy to be worked out if supporters of alternative media were to consider using corporate media to extend their ideological reach and further their longterm goals.
Of course, open source still has value and open source technologistsinterestedin supportingactivistsshould focus their efforts on security and niche tools,like Ushahidi, that provide a specific functionality to a specific user group. However, because open source projects need to define success within the scope of a small user base, technologists building social networking, where mass is critical, will find they are fighting a losing battle. It was worth experimenting with open source social media platforms. Now it is time to access the results.