Over the holidays I was playing catch up with a number of my podcasts and a fascinating one I encountered was “Cute Cats and the Arab Spring” with Ethan Zuckerman from CBC’s Ideas series (originally broadcast December 8, 2011).
Listen to Podcast here: CBC Ideas – Cute Cats and the Arab Spring.
This podcast is worth listening to as it delves into some of the phenomena that led to the waves of protests that swept over the Arab world in 2011. It also encapsulates many of the thoughts we have shared in our presentations and ongoing research (notably, our syndicated study, The Bridge) on Canadians and social media. I encourage all to put aside an hour to listen to this fantastic presentation.
There are four aspects that I would like people to think about when they are listening to this presentation:
- Never underestimate the simplicity of people’s need and willingness to share. As noted by Mr. Zukerman, much of the sharing that happens online consists of jokes and pictures of cute animals. He also notes that understanding the dynamics of that presents an opportunity for understanding how pathways of information are shared.
- The deployment of an epidemiological approach in the search for “Patient Zero” for the Arab Spring. Given my training within an epidemiology program back in the 1990s, we have adopted such an approach frequently with the work that we do for our clients (i.e., relating to our work in technology, tourism and government policy and setting up experiments and considering a “disease-based” approach to marketing and communication). It is refreshing to see someone delving into this method to grasp some of the underlying processes as to how the protests evolved from the actions of one individual to reach millions of people across multiple countries.
- Things are way more complex than they appear. Mr. Zukerman flags one of our frustrations with “social media experts” who establish a point of doing certain actions and then say “and then it goes viral.” The reality is that only rarely does something like that happen; there are many necessary and sufficient conditions that need to be established and in place for something to gain momentum. Many of these things happen outside of an online environment and the dynamics between social media/additional online media, interpersonal interactions, and traditional media, need to be mapped and understood.
- Social media offers multi-layered context. What may be a familiar context to North Americans in their ability to maintain an address book and interactions with friends and colleagues may take on a completely different interaction amongst an Asian or Arabic population. With the the latter, populations in countries with a different system of government (i.e., not a Western democracy), individuals are aware that their online behaviour is being monitored and consequently they use the medium in dramatically different ways with different language.
- If it is obviously missing, it becomes important. In any crisis, people look first for information on what is happening on the ground. If people are unable to find the information they need, they automatically assume (within certain environments) that that information, given the issue at hand, may be censored. Thus, they start to seek other means, but also this raises their level of suspicion about why something is being censored. As Mr. Zukerman has indicated, the very act of shutting down cell phones networks and access to the Internet actually motivated people to go out on to the street to find out what was going on. Thus, unintended consequences of incomplete and missing information do result in actions which force people to forge stronger bonds – such as events – where true, real-time, in-person interactions can occur.
I hope you do take the time to listen to this podcast as Ethan does a fantastic job of presenting this information in an entertaining way.