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

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Alternative hypotheses

“I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

– Blaise Pascal

“Further than this, besides simply not hindering progress, I think we might do something to hasten matters, and I have suggested two ways in which this might be done. One is to train scientists to look among the older sciences for wild analogies to their own material, so that their wild hunches about their own problems will land them among the strict formulations. The second method is to train them to tie knots in their handkerchiefs whenever they leave some material unformulated – to be willing to leave the matter so for years, but still leave a warning sign in the very terminology they use, such that these terms will forever stand, not as fences hiding the unknown from future investigators, but rather as signposts which read: ‘UNEXPLORED BEYOND THIS POINT.’”

– Gregory Bateson, from Steps to an Ecology of Mind

In the last post, I examined the hypothesis that cash from ransom payments to Somali pirates was driving the booming development in Eastleigh. If, as I concluded, ransom payments wouldn’t be sufficient to explain the level of development here, then what else could account for the rapid economic growth?

Particularly, what could explain the fact that Eastleigh’s development patterns have been largely disconnected from those of the global financial system as a whole, and that development projects, real estate purchases, down payments on stores and other large transactions are often conducted in cash?

This post will present a complex range of historical, economic and social factors that potentially combine to explain the dynamism of Eastleigh, with no single variable likely to be the key driver of growth. It’s important to note that these ideas are in an early form, are not necessarily presented in order of importance, and serve largely to help us get our ideas out in one place. As the project progresses, each idea will be further developed along with additions and changes as new evidence is collected. This is the beginning of a stage that requires making a mess so that we have enough to clean up later.

Potential factors:

• Historical factors such as the presence of Somalis in Eastleigh, and the historical role of Isaaq Somali traders in East Africa, and the building of networks through livestock trade

A significant community of Somalis have lived here since the 1920s, having been brought to Kenya by the British Colonial Administration. Isaaq Somali traders have also played a historical role in East African trade, especially in livestock. Somalis were reportedly an important source for cattle in Nairobi, and Somalis often provided beef to the British colonial administration, as it was known that cattle would be slaughtered according to more sanitary halal practices than other local butchers. We were told by one source a reason Eastleigh was chosen as original settlement was the availability of land and thus the ability during colonial days to graze cattle on this side of Nairobi, although another source reported that Somalis were located to Eastleigh after an outbreak of disease in the city center.

 

• Influx of Somalis as a result of the 1991 civil war

The civil war in Somali pushed out a significant percentage of Somalis with the means to relocate. These included many elites, those of the educated class, successful businesspeople and others with either significant assets or the means to generate assets.

 

• The collapse of the Islamic courts in Somalia 2006

When the Islamic Union of Courts collapsed in 2006, leading to the reemergence of widespread conflict, so did the hopes of many Somalis to return home in the near future. We’ve been told many times that Somalis who had been saving up for a return to Somalia decided to make long-term investments elsewhere. An influx of capital at this point would correlate much more closely with the surge in development than the later surge in piracy. A few sources have told us that savvy Somali investors anticipated a boom after the collapse of the Islamic Union of Courts in 2006, and thus were offering far above the market price to get prime real estate before things really took off. One Somali currently residing in the US told us, “So many of the non-Somalis in Eastleigh didn’t understand what was going to happen here. My brother bought someone’s home for KS180,000 (Kenyan Shillings) in cash, which is only about $2,000. The owners had paid maybe KS100,000 for it themselves, so they accepted his offer immediately. Then two years later, he had fixed it up a bit and sold it for KS300,000.”

 

• Push factors from refugee camps / pull factors of city bringing critical mass of people

Hundreds of thousands of other Somalis were pushed into refugee camps throughout Kenya. Although some level of informal economy sprung up within these camps, many refugees sought opportunities in the city. Eastleigh proved an attractive draw to many, as its existing Somali community, separation from central Nairobi and informal economy provided shelter and opportunity for those without official status.

 

• Somalis as self-reliant pastoralists

Many Somalis have been traditionally accustomed to a nomadic life, and though while pastorialists tend to be less educated due to their nomadic nature than settled farmers, the constant changing conditions in their lives makes adaptation to new circumstances a constant cultural theme. Nomadic herders are often accustomed to risk taking, are willing to travel to find opportunities, maintain close kinship networks for survival, have experience in negotiation and other cultural factors that may make them particularly well suited to migration-driven adaptation and entrepreneurial activity. Many Somalis you meet here say they would much rather build their own business than work for someone else, and the town is ripe with stories of successful businessmen rising up from low-level street hawking via hard work and careful planning of business deals to reinvest profits into growing their businesses and leveraging larger deals.

At one professional school in town, I was struck by the sight of youngsters working in a computer lab on Excel spreadsheets. One boy of perhaps 10 or 12 asked me if I could help him with accounting, as “I want to start my own business and I’m trying to learn how to calculate a payroll.”

Learning Excel at the Sky School for Professional Studies

Shot of his screen

 

• Strong community networks with long-term investment perspective

One of the dominant features of the overlap between traditional Somali culture and current business practice are the tight networks among communities in a clan-based society that allow for various forms of community investment. It’s not uncommon to find real estate deals involving the pooled resources of 30 to 50 members, many of which have now been saving significant capital from developing businesses in higher income countries since the civil war. Families will pool resources to help a relative with a viable business plan start an enterprise rather than sending smaller sums for subsistence only. These factors may combine to allow Somalis relatively easier access to loans on a collective basis, and via the hawala system, such loans from extended networks often take the form of cash. Businesses are often seen as part of longer-term plans to generate capital for eventual relocation back to Somali when the situation stabilizes.

 

Willingness to trust, even people far removed geographically

The most common response from Somalis about why they will do business with other Somalis, even ones they don’t know personally, is the issue of trust. “Even if I don’t know you, if you’re a Somali, I’ll trust you to do business with me” was a line reported by one source.

When asked why this would be true if Somalis have such a recent history of civil conflict within Somalia itself, we’ve often been told that once pushed out of Somalia itself, Somalis have developed a much stronger sense of community and nationhood as outsiders in other countries. Another source reported, “Within Somalia, we’re concerned about clan and family, but outside we’re all Somalis.”

Another reason the trust network might function is the traditional aspect of Somali clan culture that creates groups of mutual responsibility along clan lines. An act of wrongdoing by one member is the responsibility of a much larger group to make right, as evidenced through the practices of ‘blood money’ in cases of murder. Somalis are thus born into types of insurance networks that bond the members to each other and thus add a layer of trust outside Somalia, as business cheaters can incur penalties on much wider groups of relatives.

 

• An economic role as newly arrived immigrants

Somalis, much like the south Asians who preceded them into Kenya a century before, are willing to work hard for relatively small margins, and thus dominate the lower end of the market Interestingly it was reported to us that many Indians who have been displaced from the Eastleigh markets have moved up the economic ladder into light industries like bottling plants, shoe factories and so forth.

 

• Globalization making low-end Chinese goods and those sourced through Dubai readily available.

The influx of Somalis to Eastleigh also corresponds to the rise of large scale Chinese exports in the garment and electronics sectors. The availability of these goods on a mass scale harmonizes well with the low margin, volume based trading that Somalis have built into their retail and wholesale business models.

 

• The possible shift in the lower end of the African apparel market from second-hand to new

This development of Somali-Chinese trade relationships has also reportedly help fuel an appetite for new, low-end apparel throughout East Africa. Whereas in the past, previously the Kenyan clothes market was dominated by ‘mitumba’ (second hand clothes), often imported from wealthier markets such as Europe, nowadays many lower end consumers seek out new clothing, even if that means a compromise on quality and durability (reported by sources, and seemingly true from anecdotal evidence in town, but yet unconfirmed). As in the West, clothing here is becoming more of a disposable good with a short life span.

 

• Economies of scale provided by Chinese suppliers

Chinese merchants and producers are also eager to get in on the trade, and allow Somalis to apply a type of leverage in their business models by offering stock on credit. It’s been widely reported to us that once a Somali has a path for distribution and enough capital to purchase in bulk, negotiations with Chinese suppliers might result in a deal whereby a Somali will pay for one shipping container worth of good upfront, with another one or two shipping containers worth provided on credit. As this trade connection has been deepened, Chinese manufacturer have even posted agents to Eastleigh to negotiate such deals directly.

 

• More willingness to invest post-Moi and Kibaki’s more business friendly policies post-2002

 

Innovative business models

Such as the previously mentioned Garissa Lodge model of hotel room retail space leading to micro-subdivision of retail space in current shopping malls.

 

Khat trade generating wealth for exporters based in Eastleigh

Somalis have traditionally played a significant role in the trade of the mild stimulant plant khat, which is chewed widely throughout East Africa and by diaspora communities in the US (pre-ban), Canada and UK. This trade potentially raises significant capital which can be directed to other resources. There are rumors that woman who bought the Garissa Lodge from it’s original Indian owners in the early 90s raised her cash equity through the khat trade.

 

Growth of banking in Eastleigh and other financial services

Currently there are nine banks in Eastleigh where only a few years ago there were none. We also visited the first insurance company in Eastleigh (Takaful – a Kenyan-owned Islamic insurer), which opened its doors four months ago, and is focused on commercial insurance for shop owners. Generally these both indicate (and promote) a transition to a higher level of financial sophistication in the market, as loans and insurance policies both require more sophisticated risk mitigation practices in the market.

 

Attractiveness of Eastleigh for Nairobi residents

The low margin / high volume model in Eastleigh makes the neighborhood a magnet for consumers in Nairobi. Every day you can see consumers from other parts of Nairobi who all report that clothing and electronics are significantly cheaper in Eastleigh than in their own neighborhoods. Residents of the Eastlands especially find Eastleigh attractive, as they can find lower prices closer than the city center.

 

People of Eastlands provide a cheap labor force for small enterprises like shops, restaurants and hotels.

 

Construction costs relatively low

 

• Relative stability of Kenya and centrality of Nairobi attracting investment

As previously noted, Nairobi is well situated for easy accessibility to Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Congo, Southern Sudan.

 

Wide-ranging diaspora networks

A 2009 UNDP report claims that 14% percent of the population of Somalia currently lives outside the country.

To give a sense of the enormous scale of this outward migration, the equivalent for the US would be the loss of 42 million people, or 4 million Canadians, 5 million Kenyans or 8 million British citizens. Perhaps the closest historical parallel is that of the Great Irish Famine in the mid-19th century that resulted in the Irish population dropping from over 8 million to less than 6 million within a decade.

…Kenya and Yemen have most refugees. In Europe, the UK has the largest Somali community and attracts Somali migrants from elsewhere in the same continent. The next largest are Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Italy. The US and Canada have big Somali communities concentrated in Minneapolis, Ohio and Toronto. The Somali Diaspora is still on the move. Malaysia and Australia are new growth areas.

– UNDP, Somalia’s Missing Million: The Somali dispora and its role in development

 

• Links to significant Somali community in Dubai

Dubai serves as an especially significant location for trade and goods flowing into Eastleigh.

 

• Diaspora networks with prior business experience and capital, and often access to a Western business education

 

• Strong desire in the diaspora to return to East Africa

Despite the large number of Somalis living abroad, many report a sense within the community that they want to return home, or as close as possible. Many have been working abroad for relatively high wages, but also often in relatively low-status positions. Savings accumulated from years working abroad can be used to start a business in Nairobi and thus a relatively higher standard of than in the UK / USA or other higher income countries. In Eastleigh, there is also the added benefit of being surrounded by other Somalis, rather than as a potentially unwelcome minority in a foreign culture. While Eastleigh not Somalia, it feels close enough for many returnees, who might also want their children to grow up in a more Islamic / traditionally Somali environment.

 

• Surge in piracy funds since 2008

With rather opaque investment environment in terms of origination and auditing, coupled with rampant official corruption and weak anti-money laundering regulations, Kenya would make an attractive destination for illicit funds. Some piracy finds have undoubtedly found a home in Eastleigh, but for previously stated reasons, its unlikely they have arrived in a large enough volume to drive overall development or significantly distort prices.

 

• Possible bribery at Mombasa and Eldoret leading to lower rates of taxes on imports or tax avoidance

 

• Imports smuggled from Somalia

 

That’s by no means an exhaustive list of potentially significant factors, but indicates areas we think are worth further investigation. It also gives some picture of the complexity of the issue, and perhaps tells you why I’ll just sigh and nod the next time I hear someone say, “Well it’s all pirate money, isn’t it?”

For the next posts I’ll be leaving the big economic picture behind and instead try to figure out what the online social networks of Somalis here can tell us, give you a look at the research process from the perspective of a local research assistant, and examine emerging trends in the Kenyan social media and mobile technology scene.

Did pirates finance your local shopping mall?

“It’s not that transparent, but Kenya is fast becoming a real estate mecca for pirates looking to stash their booty.”

Fast Company: Laundered Somali Pirate Money a Boon for Kenyan Arrr-chitecture

“In neighboring Kenya, new buildings are rising, their construction fueled by piracy money in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood, where many Somali immigrants live.”

NPR: Somali Pirates Take The Money And Run, To Kenya

“According to Bruno Schiemsky, an independent consultant on piracy, ‘It might have the consequence that property prices [in Kenya] inflate artificially because of the sheer amount of money the pirates have.'”

France 24: Piracy money inflates Kenyan property market

Is pirate money fueling the booming economy in Eastleigh? The short answer, probably not.

A common non-Somali explanation for the visible success of Eastleigh hinges on supposed flows of illicit funds tied to ransom payments to Somali pirates. For some in Kenya and abroad, the idea of Somali refugees and diaspora creating a thriving commercial center without the help of pirate booty seems implausible. As reported in a Huffington Post article titled, Pirate Ransom Money May Explain Kenya Property Boom, “The hike in real estate prices in the Kenyan capital has prompted a public outcry and a government investigation this month into property owned by foreigners. The investigation follows allegations that millions of dollars in ransom money paid to Somali pirates are being invested in Kenya, Somalia’s southern neighbor and East Africa’s largest economy.”

While security issues aren’t really the focus of an ethnographic project such as ours, it’s a good question to address when studying the economic rise of Eastleigh as part of a larger focus on trust and trade networks among Somali diaspora. But how, precisely, do you go about answering this kind of question? Somali shop owners are understandably dismissive of such ideas, claiming that while some piracy funds might find their way into the local economy, ransom money certainly isn’t the driver of growth here. For those predisposed to see a pirate in every Somali closet, such denials are to be expected. Those involved in legitimate local businesses, however, understandably see it as an implicit accusation of criminality and disregard for the hard work they do to build and maintain profitable enterprises. Treating source communities with the respect they deserve while still maintaining a critical and objective attitude is an important balancing act to maintain if you want to establish credibility and trust as a researcher.

For researchers, there are also potential security issues that have to be taken into consideration while working in the field. An interview with one of the largest local property developers in town ended with him warmly shaking our hands and saying, “Good luck with your research. I hope you survive.” That proved rather effective at instilling a certain amount of paranoia, as being known as the white guys poking around a town like Eastleigh asking everyone about pirates and terrorists probably isn’t the best idea.

As an additional word of caution for future researchers, people here are relatively tech savvy despite outward appearances, and it’s common to have interview subject Google your name or befriend you on social networks after a brief meeting. Two of the defining features of the digital age are transparency and permanence, and researchers should be aware that locals will quickly find out who you are and what you’ve worked on before. Managing both local perceptions and your digital identity are issues that need to be taken quite seriously for those who want to securely gather quality information in the field.

Considering the evidence

Looking at local investment figures and databases of tax filings would be a start to unraveling the piracy question, if only such data was widely available here. Reliable figures in many areas such as census and economic data are difficult, if not impossible to obtain in Kenya, as political sensitivity, bureaucratic indifference, and informal local business practices combine to make the collection of good data a challenge.

Disclaimers and limitations aside, perhaps a brief look at some data in the public domain can shed light on the issue. One rather rough but interesting way to speculate on the impact of piracy funds in an economy like Eastleigh would be to create our own estimates and try to correlate that with available data on piracy. Short of polling the entire town or getting hopelessly mired in the red tape of the tax office, one approach could be the use of Google Earth’s historical imagery feature to track changes to the local landscape over time.

Composite satellite images taken from Google Earth

With some screen captures and two rather tedious hours spent counting buildings in 21 different satellite views of Eastleigh, I came up with a rough estimate of historical development that looks something like this:

A serious analysis would need to look at comparable square footage of new commercial and residential space, but this rough view can give some indication of market trends.

One feature that stands out is that Eastleigh’s historical development doesn’t correlate at all with trends in the global financial markets. As an experienced real estate portfolio manager (i.e., my girlfriend) told me, “It means they’re relatively isolated from the global markets. They’re not depending on banks to finance development, so equity takes the form of cash in this market.”

A quick check of piracy figures would show that while the 2004 development in Eastleigh would not be explained by piracy, 2009-2011 development does nicely correlate with the upsurge in piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean:

Mystery solved? Bearing in mind that ‘correlation does not imply causation’. (if it did, we could also link piracy to say, global warming), we should take a closer look at the actual funds involved. Would the volume of ransom money be adequate for the level of development seen in Eastleigh?

It’s not how much you make, but how much you keep

Some estimates claim that approximately $200m was paid in ransom money to Somali pirates in 2010 (up from just $80m in 2008), though that’s gross revenue, not profit. Piracy is, after all, just another business, and an extremely competitive one at that. A considerable chunk of that revenue would need to be pumped back into the business via wages, equipment, weapons, ammunition, boats, servicing facilities, multi-day wedding parties with nonstop dancing and goat meat, etc.

With one interesting analysis claiming that profits after expenses might run $120m per year and another estimating that financiers and sponsors receive 50% of the ransom revenues, then perhaps $100-120m became available last year to those in the piracy trade with investment savvy. Could all that money find a home in Eastleigh? It’s possible, but unlikely for a few reasons. First it would assume that all piracy funds from the plethora of reported investors would come to Eastleigh, rather than Dubai, Djibouti, Yemen, or within Somalia itself on homes, vehicles, security, and so on. Secondly, it would assume than nothing is reinvested into the piracy business to finance future operations. Assuming that no legitimate enterprises in this region could offer returns on investment to rival piracy, real estate development in a place like Eastleigh might only be a attractive for more conservative investors, or as part of a diversification strategy. More importantly, such sums would constitute a fraction of cash inflows for an area that may be drawing upwards of a billion dollars a year in total investment.

There’s also the issue of timing. The average period between capture and ransom payments has been growing along with seizures and ransom demands. A pirate crew seizing a cargo ship might negotiate for three to six months before releasing their crew, with the longest hijacking lasting more than a year. On the construction side, one developer told us that getting a new project through the permitting process can take upwards of a year (and no shortage of bribes), while work on a large structure might take 18-24 months. Assuming that new construction was financed up to two years before completion, and ransoms paid up to six months after hijackings, this could shift the graphs to indicate that piracy has a trailing rather than direct correlation with commercial development in Eastleigh.

If not piracy, then what?

If development capital doesn’t come from piracy, where does it come from? Though we’ll explore a longer list of alternative hypotheses in the next post, it’s worth briefly mentioning the volume of remittances, i.e., funds sent home by Somali diaspora working abroad. Even a casual look at the figures indicate that the small funds sent to friends and relatives from paychecks and savings abroad add up to substantial capital flows. Current data on global remittances place the total figure for 2010 at approximately $440bn, with global remittances to Somalis both here and in Somalia at approximately $2bn per year.

The tightly communal nature of Somali business practices, pooled equity funding models, commercial development that often takes place outside the regulations of the banking sector, and relatively high levels of official corruption in Kenya undoubtedly combine to make Eastleigh an attractive destination for illicit finances (for 2010, Transparency International ranked Kenya as the third most corrupt country in East Africa after Somalia and Sudan). Some pirate money has almost certainly found a home in Eastleigh, though with piracy funds currently coming in at 1/10th of those from remittances (and we’re ignoring for the moment the revenues generated by ongoing business in Eastleigh), it’s more likely that ransom money in Eastleigh is chasing the development boom, rather than driving it. Although it’s far less sexy to talk about hard work and legitimate funds when analyzing a Somali-dominated economy, as I don’t have any plans to sell my services as a Somali piracy expert, my vote is going to have to be ‘no’ on the development via pirate booty hypothesis.

The next article in this series will explore a number of alternative hypotheses for what has driven Eastleigh’s economy, happily complicating the story along the way.

Have your own ideas about what happens to pirate booty? We welcome all ideas, critiques or wildly speculative theories; so don’t be shy when it comes to the comment box below.

Additional resources:

• A good, short exploration of these issues can be found in the Chatham House Briefing Paper, Somali Investment in Kenya, by Farah Abdulsamed (March 2011)

• One of the few press articles that goes after complexity rather than speculative sexiness is by the BBC: Chasing the Somali piracy money trail

• Decent piracy figures and charts can be found on the Blue Mountain Group website

• Bloomberg: Piracy Syndicates Selling Shares to Finance Attacks

• Somalia Report: The Myth of Eastleigh’s ‘Piracy Cash’ Boom (A California-based website, Somalia Report offers excellent coverage of Somali issues)

• Another fascinating article from Somalia Report: How Pirates Spend their Ransom Money

• A respected source on Somali remittances is Anna Lindley’s, The Early Morning Phone Call: Somali refugees’ remittances

• The International Maritime Bureau also publishes detailed statistics each year on piracy, though their reports are only for purchase via their website

• Finally, a wonderful example of the love for excessive detail by the Wikipedia community can be found on their Somali Piracy page

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Neil Carrier’s Website

The Oxford Diasporas Program Website: Diaspora, trade and trust: Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Little Mogadishu

Eastleigh: East African boom town

The first of three pieces on economic development in Eastleigh, this article will give some brief descriptive orientation to the neighborhood, with the follow-ups exploring some hypotheses for the rapid economic development.

The first week of research has been a whirlwind of interviews and neighborhood orientation – a stark contrast to last year’s first week spent largely organizing ourselves and preparing for travel. This owes much to Neil’s preparatory work getting a feel for the town, and our luck in meeting an excellent local informant on the first day. While checking out the largest new hotel in Eastleigh, we came across Kaamil, a local cable TV and online newspaper reporter from Mogadishu who’s been working in Eastleigh for the past nine years. Kaamil’s reporting instincts make him fearless in knocking on doors and helping arrange high-level interviews at a blistering pace.

Our local guide Kaamil

Click for larger map image

This first report will give a brief description of Eastleigh and some of the economic action in the neighborhood. Our thinking is that getting a handle on the economic dynamics in this neighborhood is a good starting point for contextualizing the motivations and experiences of the Somali diaspora with connections here. We’ve had a number of interviews with business leaders, property developers and retailers, who have all been tremendously helpful in giving us access and information across a range of social levels. Although there’s certainly a lot more to learn about a place as complex as Eastleigh, here’s a basic description of commercial development in the town.

One of the first things to stand out about Eastleigh is the sheer volume of activity. Eastleigh has developed into one of Kenya’s largest commercial districts, with approximately 100,000 residents, more than 30 large shopping malls, thousands upon thousands of retail outlets, and a huge number of hawkers covering the sidewalks and even roadways, all packed into less than one square mile of land.

Shopping malls lining Jam Street, Eastleigh

Somali merchants serve as the primary wholesale distributors for low-end apparel and electronics across the entire region. Every day large trucks are loaded with goods from Eastleigh to supply markets throughout Kenya and as far as Tanzania, Uganda, southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

Commercial traffic along First Avenue outside the Olympic Shopping Mall

Growth has been explosive since the 1991 Somali civil war, and particularly meteoric in the past few years, with new retail and residential space popping up all over town.

Shopping malls have been a particular focus of ours in this first week, as they serve as the hub for activity in the garment and electronics sectors, as well as housing banks, travel agents, cyber cafes, clinics, development and construction firms, restaurants, mosques, professional training centers and more. They’re also a major focus of investment from Somalis here and abroad.

The mall concept originated with the old Garissa Lodge, which was the main hotel for Somalis visiting the area in the early 90s. Somali merchants would display goods on their beds during the day for prospective buyers, and eventually the entire hotel developed into a series of small shops operated out of the hotel rooms. This basic model has been transported into today’s malls filled with tightly packed small shops. The micro subdivision model of retail space offers low barriers for market entry and a wide selection of goods within each shopping mall.

Wholesalers / retailers such as these in the Sunlight Mall cut costs by consolidating retail and storage space

Until recently, the banking system serving Somalis in Eastleigh was virtually non-existent, which meant that most real estate projects here have been realized out of equity rather than debt. Property developers will often create a funding structure that is a hybrid of Somali community investment practices and Islamic finance models. Networks of Somalis who know and trust one another pool funds, thus circumventing the need for external financing from banks with security taking the form of existing assets. Such models can be quite similar to the Sharia’a-compliant financing vehicles of limited partnership (Mudaraba) or joint venture (Musharaka). The idea behind the Sharia’a-compliant financing is to enable Islamic investors such as local Somalis to increase their return via leverage with borrowed capital without breaking Sharia’a rules that prohibit charging interest, the use of hedging instruments, or involvement in certain sectors like gambling.

In line with such practices, a developer may raise capital by charging prospective shop owners a high upfront fee called ‘goodwill’. Definitive numbers for the neighborhood as a whole are hard to come by, but our informal surveys indicate that an upfront non-refundable payment of 25 to 40 times the monthly rent is typical for a 5-year commercial property lease. While the practice of charging ‘goodwill’ generates no small amount of controversy among shop owners, property developers claim that such fees are what allow them to realize property development projects out of equity in the absence of widespread access to traditional banking services.

There is also considerable investment in hotels and residential apartments, which along with the shopping malls are steadily replacing the older single level courtyard-style residences in Eastleigh.

New developments among older single story residences

A small sample of historical development at the southern edge of Easleigh illustrates the pace of new construction in just the past five years. In that time, property prices have doubled in most areas, and have jumped by nearly 500% in some places.

Satellite view comparison of development in southern Eastleigh 2006 and 2011 (Click on image for enlarged view)

Despite a new trend towards finished glass facades, most construction is generally of basic quality, and construction sites tend to be relatively inefficient and labor intensive.

Overhead view of construction site. All concrete is mixed by hand into a single mixer at the lower right, then raised by winch and delivered by wheelbarrow.

Close-up of supports for laying of upper floor

One property developer told us that such properties usually take a year to move through the permitting process (in which bribes play a central role), and then another 18-24 months for actual construction.

The rapid expansion of banking outlets in the city and other higher tier economic services such as commercial insurance providers, along with newer projects built to a higher standard, such as the Grand Royal Hotel, indicate that Eastleigh may be reaching a more advanced stage of economic development due to market saturation and attendant competition.

View of the Grand Royal Hotel - currently the tallest structure in Eastleigh

The big question is whether market saturation will lead to a general slowdown or bursting of a property market bubble, or whether the next stage will entail slower, but more sustainable growth. Some new shopping malls are sitting on significant retail vacancies, but this could be due to an over-saturation in specific markets like clothing retailers which favor these small sub-divided retail spaces, while other sectors such as financial services and healthcare seek more appropriate locations.

The primary complaint from residents and developers alike is the sorry state of local infrastructure. Paved roads and municipal services like garbage collection are nearly non-existent, leading to the local business association to file a suit against the Nairobi City Council.

Intersection of Second and 10th Avenue in Eastleigh after heavy rains and two days of drying out.

Water and electrical services are also woefully inadequate for the level of growth in this area, and collections of household water jugs, along with large diesel generators powering shopping malls are common sights. Claims of government corruption and speculation that fears of competition threats to the downtown business district are behind the lack of infrastructure investment are common among local residents. That said, the Kenyan High Court recently ruled that the City Council is barred from collecting taxes from 3,000 businesses for not providing municipal services, and there is talk now of large-scale infrastructure projects slated for Eastleigh later this year.

The next post will explore the common argument / local rumor that the boom in commercial development in Eastleigh is driven by ransom funds from Somali piracy.

If you have any questions or ideas to add to this post, please feel free to comment below. We’re just getting started with our investigations and analysis, and so welcome any insights you might have to offer.

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Neil Carrier’s Website

The Oxford Diasporas Program Website: Diaspora, trade and trust: Eastleigh, Nairobi’s Little Mogadishu

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.

Security Issues in Social Media

The following is an Executive Summary from a keynote I gave recently to an international business group focused on security issues. The major themes will be explored in detail here soon.

Traditional approaches to the security implications of social media tend to focus on social networks as vehicles for software virus transmission, and potential risks such as stalking and identity theft. Further attention should be placed on the data contained within emerging social graphs, which through sites such as Facebook can reveal both objects (e.g., people, photos, events, and pages) and the connections between them (e.g., friend relationships, shared content, and photo tags). Criminal networks are learning to exploit such information, allowing much more sophisticated forms of social engineering to be used in identity-based fraud. However, criminals may also be vulnerable to exposure through the information contained in social graphs, and the use of such data should be understood by investigators.

The spread of social networking services also has important implications for privacy, transparency and security through the convergence of social media and mobile devices with Internet access, location awareness and digital imaging capabilities. Social media adoption enables a wide range of self-organizing behaviors, which is shifting power away from traditional institutions, and into the hands of interconnected users. While the range of novel social services incorporating these capabilities is difficult to predict, future erosions to privacy and threats to security are just as likely to come from the sharing activities and security practices of other users as they are from governments or service providers. Significant divides over appropriate levels of sharing, transparency, privacy and connectivity will continue to emerge on both inter-cultural and inter-generational levels. Bridging these gaps will present ongoing challenges to global businesses with multi-generational workforces.

For organizations that resist the temptation to block access to these services at work, social media offers enormous opportunities for learning and information sharing. Social media can also lend unprecedented speed and scale to customer education and relationship building. Organizations seeking to benefit from a shift in economic activities based on knowledge stocks to knowledge flows should understand both the network structure and psychological drives behind the recent burst of social media activity. One important element in adapting to competitive and criminal pressures should be sustained efforts to harness social media based knowledge flows, and proactive efforts to define best practices and norms of participation within these digital environments.