Chomsky: Twitter is not a medium of a serious interchange

In a recent interview, the MIT linguist and critic of mass media Noam Chomsky was asked about social media, and had this to say:

Well, let’s take, say, Twitter. It requires a very brief, concise form of thought and so on that tends toward superficiality and draws people away from real serious communication… It is not a medium of a serious interchange.

Although this conforms with many mainstream views of the shallow nature of digital communication, it perhaps misses the point, considering that Twitter and many other forms of social media often aren’t trying to be a medium of “serious interchange”. By serious exchange, I’m assuming Chomsky means substantive argument, but why should ‘serious communication’ be limited to persuasion?

Among the many uses of language, two important forms are persuasive, and informative. We use the persuasive mode when we try to convince others of the correctness of our views or the necessity for action, while the informative mode is used to exchange information about our world and coordinate action. 140 characters is a terrible length for persuasive arguments – a claim, reason, evidence and acnkowedgement of counterarguments don’t fit well into 140 characters – but it’s an excellent length for exchanging information: “there are rioters burning the bank on High Street”, “floods expected in the north of the city, residents should evacuate.”, or “read this amazing persuasive argument: (link)”

In situations like this, a Tweet might be a better idea than a serious interchange

Where Chomsky goes wrong is in assuming that ‘public’ language is the only significant language. While exchanges like Twitter posts may be displacing some types of communication, in many cases, they can also enable and enhance other forms of serious, though non-public discussion.

Further Reading:

• Nathan Jurgenson, ‘Why Chomsky is Wrong About Twitter – Salon.com

• An interesting recent interview with Chomsky covering everything from the comic potential of bananas to 1940′s baseball statistics to Twitter and transparency in government, can be found here. Incidentally, this post includes some great photographs from around Chomsky’s office at MIT

How mobile technology helps Kenyan farmers get a better deal

An interview with Jamila Abass, CEO and co-founder of M-Farm

Jamila Abass, CEO of M-Farm

The winner of the first IPO48 Nairobi event in November 2010, M-Farm is an all-female mobile / web start-up that seeks to improve the economic condition of Kenya’s farmers. Using a basic SMS interface, M-Farm helps farmers by providing them with access to current market prices, aggregating their needs into discount orders with suppliers, and giving them direct, collective access to both regional and export markets for their products.

The young company has faced many challenges over the past 9 months, not the least of which was a change of their short code by mobile service providers after four months in operation that necessitated an awareness and retraining campaign for their existing customers (the current short code is 3535 in case you’re in Kenya and want to use M-Farm).

Despite a host of steep learning curves, challenges and setbacks familiar to many startups, M-Farm is currently used by more than 2,000 farmers. M-Farm is planning to target five additional regions for marketing and awareness campaigns starting later this month, and have a goal of adding 10,000 more users by the end of the year.

I met with CEO and co-founder Jamila Abass, a 27-year-old Kenyan Somali from Wajir, at this year’s IPO48 event and asked her about life since the launch, lessons learned, her perspectives on the Kenyan tech scene, and her thoughts on the promise of mobile digital technologies for development.

What first got you interested in technology and computing?

Well, my path was a bit different. My dream was always to become a neurosurgeon, but that never happened. I got a scholarship to study in Morocco, and I thought it was to join the medical school, but we got there, we found out that of the seven of us who had received the scholarship, only one of us would get to study medicine.

I had to look for other options. One of my friends from Sierra Leone was studying computer science, and he encouraged me and showed me what computers can do. That’s how I ended up getting a bachelor’s in software engineering. I wasn’t prepared for it at the start, but I’m really, really glad that sometimes nature dictates what we are supposed to do.

Jamila's Facebook network, visualized with Gephi. Click for larger image.

It’s so exciting, the little effort you put into technology, and how it can change people’s lives. The beauty of it is that you can do whatever you have to do anywhere and anytime. As a technologist, you can come up with something that touches a lot of people’s lives.

How did you first get involved with the other women of M-Farm?

I was working with a company called Kenya Medical Research Institute, as a medical records… developer? I’ve even forgotten what I used to do! All I remember is that I used to develop medical records systems. One of my colleagues told me about iHub being put together, and the first thing I saw on the blog was something about AkiraChix – this group of ladies who came together to promote the presence of ladies in the Kenyan IT community. I was wowed… I never knew such a thing existed. I emailed them and they welcomed me to the iHub. When I saw this place being built, I realized there was a big potential here. When iHub was launched, the IT boom was just crazy. It was a hard decision, but I quit my job and joined the iHub as an intern.

Inside iHub Nairobi on the first day of IPO48

You see how they have all the daily newspapers over there in the rack on the wall? Me and Susan Oguya (M-Farm’s CTO) noticed that the farmers were complaining – at one point you’d see at least three articles every day talking about different complaints. They don’t have price information, the middlemen just come and dictate what the prices are – they’ll come and tell the farmers, ‘the markets are really flooded, there’s overproduction, so you can’t get good prices. You either sell it to me cheap, or you’re not going to find anyone who will buy.”

People were just manipulating the lack of transparency in the market and the farmers were the ones losing. So we linked the farmers’ complaints to a lack of information. We said, ok, what do we know how to do best? Delivering information, right? So how can we use that knowledge to deliver that information to the farmers? As we were brainstorming it, IPO48 was announced. Then we got more serious about our idea, and decided we were going to present it.

M-Farm’s winning final pitch at IPO48 Nairobi in 2010:

During the 48 hours, Susan, Linda Kwamboka and I and two other ladies kept on working on the idea. We developed the business plan, the prototype, everything within the 48 hours, and we won. I remember that night, I didn’t believe we won. When they mentioned our names, you know all that excitement that you really won, and that you wanted all that to pass through, launch it, and become a business… we all left out jobs to make this business work. Then here you are – you’ve got the opportunity to make that happen. So it was so overwhelming, those first three day, it was crazy. Nobody knew us before, but all of a sudden within three days of competition we become a local star. OK… what next?

Was winning a blessing or a curse?

Can I say a combination of both?? Most of it was a blessing, and some of it was a curse. The blessing was we got free publicity and free marketing. Almost everyone who’s a blogger here talked about us, so the word got out very quickly. Many NGOs and farmers’ groups got to hear the news quicker than we thought. So that was the big blessing. The second blessing was we got many people interested in the idea, and many more people beyond our small team believed in the idea, so we got support from the whole community.

With Linda Kwamboka of M-Farm (second from left) and friends at IPO48 this year

The curse was, sometimes you’re just too new, you don’t know what to do with what you have. You have this big anxiety inside of you. You don’t know how to control it and it overpowers you. You just won the investment prize, but that takes some ownership of your company before you have any concept about valuation, legal or financial issues… the list goes on and on.

Also, having all these people who know about you and are interested in your idea, it really becomes difficult to select who to talk to and who not to talk to. We didn’t know how to selectively choose who to set up meetings with. So the first three months were non-stop meetings, everybody wanting to talk to us, everybody wanting to meet us. Some days I would spend all day replying to emails… some of our time was simply misused.

What’s been the most difficult part of developing a viable business in the year since you launched?

The most difficult thing was getting the business model right. When you’re sitting in your office, you think that your business model is really set. It isn’t. When you go out into the real world, launch the product and hear what the people who are supposed to use the product say, everything changes.

When you’re an entrepreneur, you really wish that people will really accept the idea that you brought forward, and they will buy the service from you and you’ll start making money quickly. But when you have to spend six more months coming up with new business models, testing it out, coming back, changing everything… you have to be very, very patient for that kind of work. So that’s been a really big challenge.

Tweaking the code

How would you describe the change from the business model you started with to the one you have now?

The change isn’t so drastic, but things that we thought would work easily didn’t work out. For example, we started with the business model where the farmers would use the service to collectively buy farm inputs like seeds and equipment. Having aggregated the farmers’ needs, we would link them with a supplier so they got a competitive price and that would make their lives easier. What we found is that if you’re not helping the farmers sell their produce, then they don’t have the money to investing in the planting cycle.

For us, we planned to start our relationship with the farmer from the time they put the seed in the ground to the time they harvested the crop. Apparently, it needs to be the other way around. You start from the time they harvest – that’s the beginning of the business cycle. If you don’t help them sell, they don’t have the money during the planting time, and then you can’t sell any other services to the farmer. So you have sell for them first, and do the rest afterwards.

Next, we thought the pricing information was going to be such a genius idea, but later on we found out that giving them price information alone is not enough. OK, I so you’ve given me the information, right? If I don’t have any other way of finding out what to do with this information, then you haven’t changed anything in my life. We later on found out that information alone isn’t enough. Information needs execution – without that you’re not changing anyone’s life. The way our ideas worked was almost upside down. We had to start from the selling, then to the buying, then to providing other information that they would have required.

What’s the biggest challenge for building brand awareness in a place like Kenya?

It depends on whom you’re targeting. If you’re targeting the urban dwellers, it’s really easy – TV, radio and newspapers. If you’re targeting the rural areas like we’re doing, then things take a different direction. It would be a waste of money if we started doing radio campaigns or TV or newspapers, because the people that we’re targeting won’t get the news. The challenge is finding out the proper channel to use to deliver this information.

We approach the local leaders in the rural area, tell them what M-Farm can and cannot do, and if they buy the idea, they’ll spread it to the rest of the people. That was the difficult thing, because using people as your agents to spread the word is much more difficult than running an ad campaign on radio or TV. The local leaders are trusted much more than radio or even TV, so even though the process is slow, it’s also short in a way. People will believe it because they heard about it from the local chief, the local counselor or something like that – they need someone they can trust in the process. The challenge in that approach is in scaling that up quickly and delivering the news to the people who are supposed to hear it.

How do balance the needs of running a business with the need to keep up on IT and programming trends?

Most of the time I feel outdated, especially because I also have to run a business. When you’re running a business, you can’t do everything by yourself. When you have customers waiting on you, you can’t say, ‘you know what? Let me just finish up what I’m doing now, and then I’ll come back with the software and I’ll do it myself.’ So you have to trust other people to do things. For me that means depending on other people to do the development while I run the business. That’s why sometimes I find myself feeling so backwards that when I try to look at code that other people have written, I just get lost.

What websites do you use to keep yourself updated?

Net.tuts – I like that one because they summarize everything in a sweet way, and you can easily know what’s going on. And I also like Business Insider and Tech Crunch, even though they don’t write much about programming, at least they keep you in the loop about what’s going on in the IT world.

What do you find exciting about the tech scene in Kenya?

Now we have a place we can call home in the iHub – a place where we share ideas about the problems the tech community is facing, and we have representatives who can talk about it and have our voices heard. Before having structures like the iHub and the m:lab, and the other incubation centers that exist, however loud you shouted, nobody heard you. But now you can sit together, talk about something, and all of a sudden you’re speaking the same language.

Coaching a prospective start-up on pitching skills at IPO48

With that you get to do more things. For example, you never, or at least very rarely used to walk in somewhere and meet the head of Google in Kenya for example, but that’s happening now. You meet people you’d otherwise never have the chance to meet.

Nowadays you hear lots of people in the tech scene in Nairobi using an elevator pitch. Before, nobody even knew what that was – why would you want to speak to an elevator? So we’re bringing all the stakeholders under one roof, which rarely happens. We also have more people focusing on the social problems that Kenyans are having. We have many creatives and entrepreneurs coming up with solutions, so two things happen: the entrepreneur gets to do a project that they really enjoy and you get to address a social problem that’s affecting millions of people.

Sharing ideas at iHub Nairobi

Many of the young people have been complaining about the lack of jobs, so now you’re creating jobs for yourself and other people at the same time. The other thing is information is power. All of a sudden, you’re able to put your point across and people understand what you mean. We have the means of delivering a message that we didn’t have before. In the past, how many people would have a mobile that’s internet enabled, or a mobile that could access data? Right now almost everyone does, and that’s a big change.

How is the mobile device changing Kenya?

Traditionally people would use it for calling and for SMS, just to communicate with their loved ones. Now they’re using it for business. So the more people you get using their mobile phones for business, the more opportunities developers will get to develop applications that target specific groups of people. The developer is making money by creating an app, the end user is saving money by using the app.

It’s connecting people as well, for example, most schools in Kenya don’t have quality content to present to their students – they have qualified teachers, but they don’t have the books. If they could use a mobile phone to see what a teacher in a more sophisticated school has written or used, or have s student in the heart of Turkana (the poorest region in Kenya, with a poverty rate of 94%) share a note with a student in Nairobi who has more money to attend a good private school, then sharing knowledge becomes easier.

I could also share information that is negative, but the point is, people get access to things they’ve never experienced before. Just like for myself, before I knew how to use Google, my thinking was limited to what I learned in books, but now my thoughts are broadened just because I can access something written by a professor at Oxford.

Where do you want do go with all of this? Where do you see yourself in the future?

That’s really a big question. I’ve always been passionate about empowering people. I grew up in a place where accessing information was almost impossible, a place that almost everyone has neglected. So I grew up knowing that someone has to make a difference, to go out and get the skills to bring change to the place where I was born. There’s a lot of negative energy coming out of that place, “oh the government neglected us, oh we don’t have rain, we have these droughts.” We don’t have people sitting down and thinking of what we already have and thinking about how to use those things in a positive way. That’s the person I want to be.

Hassan Kochore: Advice on being a local research assistant

Your fieldwork is only as good as the people you work with.

- Neil Carrier

Hassan Kochore (far left), assisting with research in northern Kenya, 2010

Hassan Kochore is an Anthropology student at the University of Nairobi, and a research assistant with the British Institute in East Africa. We worked with Hassan, a native of Marsabit, on a research project last year in northern Kenya. Hassan’s rare blend of superb language skills, deep local knowledge and an understanding of western anthropological research methods made him an invaluable asset in the field. As the quality of local contacts can either make or break a project, I recently sat down with Hassan in Nairobi to ask him about any advice he might give to other prospective research assistants.

 What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to prospective local research assistants?

Always find out what the research project is all about. You’re the one taking questions from people. You’re the sacrificial lamb, so to speak, as the suspicions and doubts will be focused on you. Research is a spiritual commitment. There are ethical dilemmas in the collection and use of research materials that you can’t immediately resolve. You’re working to balance two worlds – the interests of the researcher and the researched. You take on a third role between those, so you’re not really either.

You have to ask yourself, what’s the interest of the researcher, and what’s the interest of the researched? Learn how to explain those things to both sides. Then there’s the whole issue of collecting people’s information, being in possession of those things. What are you going to do with that information? Are you going to do them justice? How is it going to be used? You don’t really know at the beginning.

What do you mean by the interests of the researched?

They want to know, “What will happen to all this information? How is it going to be useful to us, or harm us?” They don’t care about you publishing – that’s your interest and benefit, not theirs. If you don’t know yourself, you’re only going to be lying to them if you say that it will benefit them. It’s also going to be an embarrassment to you when people find out you don’t know what you’re doing.

Hassan with member of a local community near Marsabit

Of course sometimes you wake up and realize you’re at a loss about what you’re doing. That’s
normal. It’s hard to understand it all at one go, and sometimes the research focus changes depending on what you find. Take as much time as you need to understand the project, its aims, and what will be done with the research.

The people who end up doing well are those who are willing to walk away from a research project if they’re not comfortable with it.

What are the most common mistakes made by new research assistants in Anthropology?

First of all, you’re tempted to be the broker; it’s very natural. You want to make an impression, because there’s money and prestige at stake. Naturally you want to control the research process and be indispensable. But to really be indispensable, you have to pretend to know all the answers to the questions – you want to feel very important – but that’s more like trying to play PR, “yeah guys, I know all these things.” Be honest from the word go; don’t say anything just to gain entry.

Even initially, I felt that way, wanting to be indispensable. But one thing I’ve always known is not to distort research or impose my own views. There’s a propensity to always answer things from your own perspective. Someone local you’re talking to might answer and give their own view, but you’re a local too and maybe don’t feel like that’s the popular view. So you impose yourself or try to please the researcher. Sometimes you’re not even processing what the subject is saying, but processing the idea yourself.

At the end of the day, just give the raw information, but if you feel something important needs to be added, do it afterwards, “This person thinks this, but I think this…” Suspend your own ideas for the time of the interview, and add your ideas later at the appropriate time to add context and depth to the research. Because I’m a local in my own right, if I don’t agree, I can debate it. But do that later when it’s the appropriate time. I wouldn’t have asked myself these ethical questions 2 or 3 years ago. It’s never perfect – nothing is 100% – but with time you get better at it.

Working with researchers between Isiolo and Marsabit, 2010

Is there anything in particular you’ve learned about how to avoid imposing yourself on the research?

You should develop a self-induced amnesia for a while. Forgetting that you have a certain position in the community is important to gain a degree of objectivity. But that has to come after you gain an understanding of the project.

You’re not just interpreting language and words, but culture and embedded meaning as well. Try not to mix your own ideas and other people’s. That’s a very important stage as an assistant. Then it will be evident that you have good interpretation and communication skills , that you’re
the right person for this job. That’s how to win the trust of the researcher.

It sounds like it can be tricky to get off on the right foot with researchers.

Take it slowly at first. If you see this person as a tourist and not as a researcher, it’s a different thing. Many people who work as informal research assistants mix those two things up. The researcher you’re working with may not be excited to go around to all the places you’ve found. Researchers won’t be excited about going to sideshows. Maybe everyone can relax and socialize in the evening, but get the timing right – read their mood and do things when they want to, rather than when you want to. It’s hard for visitors sometimes to decline invitations. It’s hard work to follow you the whole day, and if you’re trying to take them where you want and it doesn’t further the project, it damages your credibility.

What do you find most satisfying about working as a research assistant?

As a human being, I want to express myself and have my ideas heard, and being a research assistant is a good avenue to do that. It’s also good to participate in research because you get to dispel misperceptions.

Just at this moment a local came up to us in the restaurant where we were talking and asked me somewhat pointedly, “What are you writing down?” When I explained that I was doing research and taking notes about my conversation with Hassan, he replied, “I’m a Kenyan. I’m a stakeholder in all of this. I want you to hear my thoughts too.” After some assurances that I was going to give an honest account of Kenya, he turned to Hassan and said, “Give good information. Sell Kenya properly.”

That’s just what I was talking about. People can be concerned how the information is going to be used, how it might help them or hurt them.

So how do you as the research assistant manage the expectations of people in the source communities?

That’s tricky. There are places you’ll want to avoid because of what people will think about your association with a wazungu – that you’ll have money, so forth. But those are places the researchers will want to go. You have to step up and know there are some compromises you have to make as a research assistant. You have to be direct sometimes with people. Don’t run away from misperceptions or the possibility for misunderstandings, just approach those things head on.

When you run away from people, or try to dodge their questions, they know you have something to hide. When you run away or avoid places, you create a bigger and bigger map of places you don’t want to go. Then after a while you can’t go anywhere.

Be open with friends and relatives about the kind of money you make from this kind of work, that you have a job to do and that it’s not making you rich.

Also, people in these communities sometimes think that you’re looking for something else, rather than the really obscure thing that’s the focus of a Western research project. They don’t expect a mzungu to be looking for such mundane, obscure things. They have the preconception that the researcher is looking for something big.

There is a way I’ll sometimes frame the questions so that I create a scenario of curiosity by telling someone, “I know you might be surprised that what we are asking you is common knowledge but it’s not easy to understand and explain as you do because…” This is why being honest and trying to understand the project as best you can is so important.

How did you get into this kind of work?  

I was born in Marsabit, but went to Meru for high school, which a lot of people in Marsabit consider to be a foreign land. When people from Marsabit are going to Nairobi, they’ll often say they’re “going to Kenya.”

In 2008, I had been studying biochemistry in Nairobi, but had deferred because of various issues including personal experience with the course as well as a financial aspect. So I was back in Marsabit with nothing much to do. A girl from my village worked in a hotel and a group from the British Institute in East Africa came to stay. She heard they were looking for local assistants and mentioned my sister. It’s funny, but because me and my sister both went to ‘down country’ for high school the woman thought, “these people are foreigners and these kids have been to school (to learn foreign ways). Maybe they’ll understand each other.”

The researchers came to our home to look for my sister, and she worked with them for some time. After she left for school, they asked if I could assist them in their research. I immediately said yes. I wasn’t doing anything anyway, I just wanted to make some money without even knowing anything about their work. In retrospect I wouldn’t do that now. I’d ask what they were doing first.

I quickly became curious about the research questions – I started asking them about what’s behind all of this. I started asking them questions all the time. “What does Anthropology really mean?” “You’re a professor in Anthropology – what does that really mean?” My curiosity really helped build a relationship between us.

After two days I even forgot I was supposed to be paid. I just trusted that it would accumulate. It built a reciprocal relationship. Try to trust other people, and then they’ll trust you. Another guy working with us wanted to get paid every day, and never really built a trusting relationship with the researchers.

When they went back to Nairobi, I took a ride with them because I had plans to go to Nairobi anyway. On the way, we got into a discussion and they hired me to process and interpret the data. A few days later I was sitting around with some researchers trying to enter data into a computer, and I was wondering what had happened to me, what was I doing? The first few days were hard. But I kept asking questions and slowly started figuring things out.

That’s when I learned that research isn’t just walking around talking to people. It’s also trying to process all of this information. Listening to all the tapes we made, I started figuring out after how poor in communication I was – asking questions before someone was even finished talking, asking the wrong questions, not being attentive in interviews, not taking the time to really listen to what’s being said in an interview. When you work like that the data is so discordant, it doesn’t have any flow. You have to be careful that the questions you ask really build on each other, that you have a flow between the things you ask. When you’re in the field, you just have to bear in mind that this is the start of a process, not the end. It was a very helpful experience for me.

After the project ended, my good friend and mentor Dr. Hassan Wario Arero convinced me to go back to school to study Anthropology—it was not an easy decision to make as I still had passion for Biochemistry, but I decided to take up Anthropology, and it’s one of the best decisions I ever made in life! For that I feel greatly indebted to Dr. Wario who made in me, a ‘jijiram’ (change in boran) –not in the way I look but in the way I look at the world.

Where do you hope all of this leads you?

If you’d asked me twenty years ago what I wanted to become, I’d have said a teacher. I still hold that view: I have a feeling that I’ll end up in academia and my dream is to be a professor in a good university. One of the main reasons I’d want to live long is to see and understand what’s happening… it’s not easy.

Near Marsabit, 2010

Hans Rosling: It’s Easier to Reach Fame Than Impact

Hans Rosling is a perfect case study in the potential impact of a single great presentation shared via social media. As a professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinskaya Institute, Rosling has spent years conducting research into the paralytic disease Konzo in Africa, developed a stunning public resource for global development data visualization – gapminder.org – and worked tirelessly to dispel myths about global development. Rosling’s superstar moment, however, came with this now-famous TED talk:

If you haven’t seen it, the TED website nicely summarizes the effect of his presentation work:

What sets Rosling apart isn’t just his apt observations of broad social and economic trends, but the stunning way he presents them. Guaranteed: You’ve never seen data presented like this. By any logic, a presentation that tracks global health and poverty trends should be, in a word: boring. But in Rosling’s hands, data sings. Trends come to life. And the big picture — usually hazy at best — snaps into sharp focus.

I recently asked Rosling about lessons learned using social media, and his advice on teaching in the digital age (Rosling’s comments in red):

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned about using social media for teaching and outreach?

It is easier to reach fame than impact. If it’s so personal, you run the risk of standing in the way of your content.

The issue of entrepreneurialism and outreach is particularly tricky for academics hoping to use social media for impact. There’s much to be said for using emotion and passion as the vehicle for conveying information, and Rosling seems to succeed here because he balances intense passion with very high quality information and analysis.

Most of us fear the label of an empty self-promoter, and many of us are uncomfortable with taking responsibility for the development and maintenance of our own personal ‘brands’. However, for academics, actively managing their online identity, exploring new ways to generate wider community interest in their work and developing a more authentic personal presentations are significant professional skills we should be developing. As the academic market continues to undergo transformation, more of us will need to get comfortable promoting our work and ideas outside of the classroom.

What’s the single most important piece of advice you would give to someone just starting out in university-level teaching?

Pick the subjects and courses that really interest you rather than those that are predicted to give you nice job and salary, but study what you study very hard and go deeper and broader than what is required.
This is a tricky issue for new academics, as the pressure for secure positions and tenure strongly impacts decisions about how we approach our work. As a new academic, should you follow your passions and expect that the security will follow, or chase the security in order to have the freedom to follow your passion?

The depth of study recommendation goes hand-in-hand with the issue of passion. A challenge for both students and teachers these days is learning how to work with an unprecedented volume of digital information to develop solid analysis. Online search can promote an over-reliance on readily-accessible, superficial sources, and can offer students an easy way out of deeper research and contemplative consideration of sources. Access to nearly unlimited digital information presents tremendous opportunities for accessing new information, but also presents potential paralysis for those who haven’t developed a nose for quality sources and an understanding of what constitutes sufficient research. Too much information can be just a debilitating as too little, and establishing that balance should be a key research skill we help our students develop.

Are there any special skills we should be teaching our students in the digital age that are different than those we would have taught them in the past?

Critical thinking, reasoning and a quest for sources of all information. And when in doubt, rely on Wikipedia. It is amazingly good, especially if you carefully read the history of the text of interest.

Closely following on the last point, the use of Wikipedia by students is a deeply contentious issue among academics. Wikipedia has become the first, and often the last stop for many students in their research, and for many has become the symbol of a superficial approach to learning that exchanges depth of original knowledge for ease of access. I know of many academics who strongly warn their students away from the site (and refuse to accept references to the site in writing assignments), with warnings about the unreliability of crowd-sourced information.

While there is much to be said for an approach to deep knowledge that relies on the analysis of original source material and peer-reviewed academic writing, Rosling’s point should be taken for a number of reasons.

- It’s foolish to expect that students will simply ignore Wikipedia, as it simply covers too many subjects with useful depth. Often it can serve as a good orientation and entry point for new subjects, and a venue for cross checking certain kinds of information.

- One of our tasks as teachers should be to help students orient themselves within the flood of information available on the internet, and learn how to identify quality, reliable information. Learning how to identify the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia (and other crowd-sourced materials) and of finding reliable ways of digging deeper into topics should be an important part of digital literacy. Exploring this issue also holds many embedded lessons about the kinds of issues that crowds handle well, and those they handle poorly.

- As Rosling says, a careful reading of the discussion section of Wikipedia entries can be an excellent way to see the development of collective knowledge. If you’re unfamiliar with this side of Wikipedia, just click on the ‘Discussion’ tab in the upper right corner of each page entry:

An interesting example of a Wikipedia discussion page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Certainly, it’s as uneven and imperfect as the rest of the site, but to throw Wikipedia out of our classrooms because of its flaws ignores the much deeper lessons we could be teaching our students about managing massive amounts of information and developing meaningful, up-to-date analytical skills in the digital age.

Incidentally, if you want to see more of Rosling in action, this is my personal favorite Rosling lecture, given in 2009 at the State Department:

Social Media Rockstars – Reese Leysen

The first in a regular series, Social Media Rockstars profiles success stories in reaching a wide audience via social media channels, and asks them what they’ve learned about creating impact and building communities in the digital world.

This week’s feature is on Belgian internet activist Reese Leysen. Reese is a self-described self-development activist, a co-founder of the I Power Project, a longtime Net Neutrality activist, and co-producer of the YouTube channel AtheneWins. A mostly game-themed channel, AtheneWins has generated nearly 375,000 subscribers, 24 million channel views and more than a quarter of a billion total upload views.

I’ve been following Reeses’ work for several years, and recently interviewed him about his work, future plans, and lessons learned.

 

First, how would you describe what you do to someone who isn’t a follower of your internet work?

Reese: When I get this question asked at any sort of situation where people aren’t very interested and want a quick short answer, I usually say something like “I work for YouTube”, which is true in the sense that I’m a YouTube partner and make a living from that.

An elaborate way to answer that question would be to talk about how I work together with my closest friends, Chiren, Tania and my brother Dean on online entertainment in order to grab the attention of a very large audience so that part of this audience takes an interest in what we’re really about, which is ‘self-development activism’. We run an online community/social network called I Power and our main goal with this project is to inspire and create the best environment possible for people to exchange ideas, find others to collaborate with and just generally ‘get serious’ about being open-minded and pro-active in their lives.

But a very simple answer to this question would just be: I try to make a positive difference in the best way that I can. In the end, I Power is just a means to an end, I just want to make the world a better place and I’m always open to bigger and better ways to do it. But at the moment, working on an approach where we can, over the years, perhaps have a huge impact on how ‘self-help’ is perceived and help move that whole sphere to a more concrete form of it (what we call ‘self-development activism’) seems to be the absolute best thing I can do.

 

You say you could be described as someone who works for YouTube. What’s a normal workday?

Reese: I’d say 50%-60% of my ‘work time’ is spent editing, the rest is spent shooting, answering mails and interacting, working out planning with Chiren, and keeping an eye on I Power and moderating the site a bit. The reason why a lot of time is spent editing is because the Athene videos are almost pure improv and the continuity or ‘story’ is created in editing.

 

That makes editing a huge part of the creative process, rather than just consisting of ‘putting the best takes together’. I have different types of work days, many of them are just spent editing all day long, luckily a lot of them are also very social (when Chiren &  Dean and I are shooting and throwing around ideas) and one day a week or so I spend just by myself thinking about what we’re doing, re-evaluating things and possibly shooting and editing a vlog as well.

 

 

What was the path that brought you to ‘self-development activism’, and how do you differentiate it from mainstream approaches to ‘self-help’?

Reese: As a group of close friends who would often debate about philosophy, ethics, morality, politics etc, we initially became known as political activists with our Belgian ‘NEE’ project six years ago. What we learned from this is that we were able to make a difference just by being creative, even without having much budget or means to do it with.

This was huge to us because we had often debated about whether or not a tiny group of people could somehow contribute on a ‘large’ scale to somehow making the world a better place. With this knowledge and experience, we asked ourselves: what is the best thing we can do? If we want to make things better, what’s the best way to go about it? It didn’t take long for us to all agree on the answer: if we can inspire people to be more open-minded and pro-active, we would be addressing the root of most of the problems that all societies face. The idea for I Power (including the name!) was born long before we even started ‘Athene’, but we knew we had a long way to go before we would have enough of a following to launch it in a significant way.

Self-development activism makes more sense to us as a term, rather than ‘self-help’. People who achieve satisfying levels of emotional balance and clarity of mind tend to have a very positive impact on their environment and the most the most effective practices of self-development seem to be aligned with our brains’ evolutionary inclination towards contribution and altruism. Self-help practices tend to focus on nothing more than temporary and shallow quick-fix approaches when they are disconnected from this, and we wanted to give it a label that clearly communicates that that’s not what we’re about.

 

Looking at your current YouTube videos, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious connection to your self-development work. What is your strategy to connect the Athene character videos with your larger aim of encouraging more contribution and altruism?

Reese: To answer this fully I have to go over the evolution of how we’ve approached Athene and I Power. It’s obvious that, in the beginning, we were just doing Athene and other projects to gain subscribers and establish an audience, and then at a certain point we launched I Power and for a while we used AtheneWins for all I Power videos and announcements. I think it was around half a year later that we reached sort of a tipping point: we had a community that was really into SDA on one hand and on the other hand we had a huge audience with Athene of which most are not interested in I Power. Not only did this make things difficult in the sense that we got much more complaints than support whenever we’d put an I Power vid on AtheneWins, but it also created serious problems for the community: angry Athene fans coming to I Power to troll everyone is something that we really had to work on (and still have to be careful with to avoid today).

Since then, we kept things mostly separated (AtheneWins & IPowerChannel etc). Though whenever we’re doing something really huge, whether it being an urgent net neutrality thing or the release of the AToE documentary, we do at least announce it on AtheneWins. I think, in the past, the way we experimented with ‘gaming the system’ on YouTube took its toll on our fanbase in the sense that it made them intolerant towards anything we would throw at them that would be non-Athene (they felt they were being ‘tricked’ into things).

Here’s what’s happening now: we’ve come back from a long Athene hiatus and I Power has moved from being a side-project to an important priority to us, as we had always planned would happen one day. Much of our fanbase has both grown up a little bit more and has also become more flexible in the sense that the days of us pulling annoying tricks on them to gain more subscribers are long gone and it’s now very clear to everyone that AtheneWins is a combination of entertainment as well as glimpses into what we’re really about. With a very successful Athene comeback, we’re now experimenting with a bunch of different things to achieve our goals: as I type this I’m about to edit what could be a really funny but also very insightful Athene SDA-oriented video, as well as a related video for Chiren’s new personal channel that we’re about to launch and that will undoubtedly attract tons of fans who are really into his ‘persona’ and get more people interested in our ‘serious’ side. Putting SDA stuff into Athene videos and Chiren having a non-Athene channel are just a few of the things we will be doing to bring I Power to a bigger audience as it has now become a bigger focus of ours. There’s tons of ideas on our list and I’m really excited about em!

 

Obviously there’s a problem with not pleasing anyone if you’re trying to reach a mass audience, but there’s an alternate trap if you orient yourself too much towards pleasing the crowd. How do you maintain a balance between entertaining and communicating what you feel is important?

 Reese: We’ve always looked at things in a very long-term frame and for the most part of our projects we have been much more focused on entertainment than activism. This way we can keep a large crowd interested and at the same time have a lot of impact when we take action. We’ve noticed in the past that the community and the fanbase can grow tired of us quickly if we focus too much on the activism but they become huge supporters if we balance it the right way. However, the main plan is actually to expand the team and go about this much more efficiently in the future. This is something we’ll be making videos about in the near future, we’re looking for people to join us in our projects, not just as supporters but as equals, meaning they contribute ideas and if they make more sense then we go with those instead of our initial ones etc. We’ve come a long way but we’re only in the very early starting phases of the I Power project. It’s a learning process and we’re now trying to figure out how we go about expanding the team, how we go about optimizing things so we can keep the AtheneWins channel growing and reaching even bigger audiences while at the same time we turn I Power into a much bigger priority of ours.

 

So what advice would you give to someone who wants to become a social media rockstar?

Reese: What we’ve learned and are really starting to take to heart now in how we do things is that these seem to be the key ingredients:

- care

Use YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, e-mail etc to really interact and not just ‘announce’. Have as much ‘conversation’ with your audience as possible. This is especially important when your audience is small or even tiny (like one or two people maybe when you’re just starting out). What’s really crucial in this is that you view everyone as being really important to you. For example: even if I get the most ridiculous hate-filled troll comment on a vlog, I often try to respond to that with genuine caring. I think having the ability to say “maybe you’re right, I’m sorry that this or that annoyed or disappointed you, please let me know what you think I should change/improve” is one of the most underrated things ever when dealing with controversy or ‘haters’ in your audience. And toward people who love you: same thing, realize how big of a deal that it is that there are people checking out your shit, even if it’s one or two guys, and express it. Most powerful way of doing this is individual responses to each comment, people never forget it when you do that.

- confidence

This works best when you really know what you’re doing and/or have a big following and can often be the opposite of the ‘caring’ approach but both approaches have their place. When you look at people who have a big following online, whether it’s Gary Vaynerchuk or in self-development Tony Robbins or in our case, ‘Athene’, so much is often attributed to how they ‘don’t give a shit’, how they seem to know what they’re doing and are relentlessly driven in how they do it. If you can express that in what you do, it can be incredibly inspiring and can often be even more important than caring in certain areas. As I’m typing this I just now realize that the Athene/Chiren duality can actually be boiled down to confidence/care and that’s probably a big reason why that has worked so well thus far.

- adapt but persist

Very delicate balance, things take time to grow but at the same time figuring out what works, what goes viral and what connects people has been a learning process for us and we haven’t always made the right calls in when to adapt and when to persist. The road we’ve traveled has taught us a lot in that. The most legendary call we ever made in this is when we started doing Athene: we were extremely determined, working hardcore every day on a movie project that we thought was going to get us awards and make us huge and give us the platform we needed. While doing this, we played around with making these ‘Athene’ videos and, while we were so immersed and passionate about our movie project… After the first few Athene vids we had to face reality: the chances that the movie was gonna become as big as Athene was promising to become were slim. So we adapted to that fact and… It’s a good thing we did.

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