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"Tell the chef, the beer is on me."
I run my business largely on Google's platform: email, files, calendar, my telephone number and easy syncing across multiple devices. I'm also a power user of Google's Android mobile operating system - it's my choice for both phone and tablet. Of course, Google is my default search engine and mapping program. And like many journalists, academics, and information obsessed geeks, I organized the RSS feeds from blogs and news sites that I followed with Google Reader.
Last week in my Forbes column, I joined the general din of outrage among hard-core Reader users when Google announced it was killing the service.
Does Google understand the concept of corporate social responsibility? That seems to be the basic question around the company’s strange decision to shut down a tiny service that serves as a major audience conduit for many thousands of bloggers, citizen journalists, and self publishers.
Google’s announcement today that it is destroying Google Reader, the most popular RSS syndication tool was a massive blow to the blogging community – and to most of those speaking out tonight via social media, an entirely unnecessary attack on an important corner of the public Internet by a company with more than $50 billion in revenue and a newly-won reputation as a tech giant on the move.
Don't forget, Google launched Reader to gain an important niche in the news world - and because of its dominance in search and email, Reader quickly became the largest RSS outlet in the world. But Google seems obsessed with its failed social media platform G+ and is apparently interested in competing with Amazon and Apple on paid magazine and news subscriptions. So Reader became a cost center of limited value....or so the Google chieftains believed.
In fact, the decision to shutter Reader has been a disaster for Google because the company alienated that key user base so completely (and cluelessly, if you ask me). For the couple million it probably saved in not maintaining Reader, it lost many untold millions in social capital and negative publicity, threatening the reception of its upcoming Glass product - and leading most of the tech press to mock this week's release of its new note-taking product, Google Keep.
The headlines told the story - nobody trusts Google to keep a service, even if its successful in winning adoption.
Om Malik was particularly tough - and on point:
Sorry Google, but you might not realize that you are acting like the company you wanted to replace: Microsoft. The Barons of Redmond used to float products into the market — smart displays and weird stuff — that companies like Samsung and LG would put out in the market, only to yank them later. In the end, I stopped believing in Microsoft and shifted my dollars and attention to other brands.
And so on. It really is a matter of trust, and that's something that co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin don't seem to understand. Sure, they're great at innovation for a large company. But where's the sense of common cause, the recognition that social capital actually matters over the long term.
Maybe Dave Winer is right: maybe Google really is no good at being evil.
Postscript: I'm trying Feedly as my new RSS reader. It's pretty good. A little too "magazine" like compared to Reader's spare stack of links, but I'll keep it for a while and see.
On Sunday night, Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network will be one of the two or three betting favorites for the year's best picture at the annual Academy Awards extravaganza in Hollywood. The film tells the (largely fictionalized) early story of Facebook, wrapped in the coming-of-age tale of founder Mark Zuckerberg and the compromises he chose to make on the road to creating what is fast becoming the privately-owned dial tone of social media. Yet that Graduate-meets-Silicon Valley story, fascinating as it is, may only be a prequel to a more significant epic - the role of Facebook in worldwide freedom movements and the real coming-of-age story that represents for our networked world.
I don't know if Sorkin plans a sequel, but if not surely the last three months in Facebook's brief history qualifies for a sweeping cinematic treatment. Pity David Lean no longer walks this mortal coil, because the follow-up would clearly channel Lawrence of Arabia more than The West Wing. If Facebook is to help lead in the modern world, and to move beyond its mere multi-billion-dollar valuation to grasp the social value Zuckerberg is always talking about, the lessons of Egypt and the revolts roiling the wider Arab world must not go unlearned.
My friend Micah Sifry has a must-read post up at techPresident that serves as a sort of challenge for Facebook and he nimbly puts his finger on the nub of that challenge: the investors' imperative to continue to grow the vast online service and reap ever greater revenue and profit rewards versus the more idealistic goal of building a vital social graph to encourages (and indeed, helps to guarantee) human freedoms, particuarly free speech. "While Facebook is a company built by young techies who care about openness and transparency," writes Sifry, "it is also struggling to expand into countries like China, which abhor those values."
This is a struggle that all nonprofits and NGOs - and the less formal movements beyond - must consider before investing their time, their networks, and their intellectual capital with Facebook and other social networks. While I cannot help to advise clients to "go to where to the people are" and therefore recommend a strong Facebook presence, I'm conscious of the fact that Facebook is a private enterprise, currently wired to make money and reward shareholders; and I think the ownership of data and relationships - the DNA of the social graph - is dangerously tilted towards ever-larger centrally-controlled private concerns that (despite great intentions) are non-democratic.
Sifry cites the example of the disappearance from the Facebook page of Cairo University professor Dr. Rasha Abdullah of a video showing the murder of an Egyptian protester by security forces. It mirrored Facebook's takedown of Wael Ghonim's iconic "We Are All Khalid Said" page last November - the page eventually credited with powering the January 25th revolt. "Young people using the site as a "democratic republic" need to know that their rights will be protected--including their privacy in settings where governments may not be so friendly to democratic conversations." And indeed, Newsweek reporter Mike Giglio's article in the Daily Beast shows how Facebook's "policy" toward human rights campaigns and democratic organizers is so much chewing gum and bailing wire; it took the the behind-the-scenes intervention of a Facebook executive in Europe to keep Egypt's most important young activist on the site - and Ghonim has been effusive in his praise of Facebook as a brilliant organizing tool for young Egyptians. Giglio's piece showed the ambivalence at the company.
“Facebook has seemed deeply ambivalent about this idea that they would become a platform for revolutions,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center on Internet and Society. “And it makes sense that they would be deeply ambivalent.”
The former Facebook official says of the company: “There’s a bit of schizophrenia in trying to think that you’re operating a neutral platform. People at Facebook definitely have pro-freedom views. And there’s also a desire to not get shut off.”
It's understandable that Zuckerberg and Facebook face competing forces, and Zuckerberg has favored a more libertarian view towards his platform (he once griped about having to take down the pages of Holocaust deniers).
Yet clinging to an anodyne Terms of Service to bounce anything controversial seems - I dunno - so damned last year to me. The world is changing rapidly, and open social communications are leading the way, at least in part.
Those of us who reject so-called "hacktivism" displays of preening "civil disobedience" - you cannot legitimately support free speech by shutting down speech on the web by DDos attack, however much you disagree - are intellectually cornered, in a way. We need to root for the big semi-open platforms - Facebook, Google, Twitter - while wearing down the finish on our worry beads over their monied, private control. Yet it's almost as if, in the argument over social media and its role in revolution and resistance, Facebook argues against itself. Witness the lame spokesman speak evident in the company's comment for a recent New York Times article on its reluctant role in Egypt:
“We’ve witnessed brave people of all ages coming together to effect a profound change in their country. Certainly, technology was a vital tool in their efforts but we believe their bravery and determination mattered most.”
Who wrote that, Malcolm Gladwell?
Compare that corpspeak mess to the enthusiasm of Wael Ghonim. When CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked him, “Tunisia, then Egypt, what’s next?,” Ghonim replied succinctly “Ask Facebook.” He then went on to personally thank Mark Zuckerberg, and said he’d love to meet Facebook’s CEO. Clearly, Ghonim (who works for arch-competitor Google, ironically) was channeling the Mark Zuckerberg who, upon hitting 200 million registered users, placed Facebook at the center of social change: "Creating channels between people who want to work together toward change has always been one of the ways that social movements push the world forward and make it better."
[As an aside, I'm very much looking toward some deeper reporting and analysis on the role of networked activism, social media, citizen journalism, and street-level organizing in the Egyptian revolution. Luckily, my friend Al Giordano and his compadres from the Authentic Journalism school - which I wholeheartedly support - are headed to the Middle East to find out. In an excellent post this week, Giordano wrote: "The media, including that part which has been sympathetic and in solidarity with the Egyptian revolt, has proved so far completely incapable at the task of coldly and rationally documenting what exactly the young organizers, authentic journalists, bloggers and other change agents in Egypt did, under extremely difficult conditions, to end a thirty-year dictatorship in eighteen days. That’s where the story remains, largely unreported."]
The choices Zuckerberg and Facebook make now really do matter for the networked future. Last week, Rebecca MacKinnon wrote a well-considered assessment for Foreign Policy of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's second major address on Internet freedom:
Clinton was certainly right to highlight the fact that corporations running Internet platforms and telecommunications services have equally serious obligations to uphold universally recognized rights to free expression and privacy, particularly when governments fail to respect these rights. Companies around the world face strong pressure to censor, monitor, and silence users and customers when it suits government interests. The Egyptian government's shutdown of Internet and mobile services could not have succeeded without the private sector's cooperation. Research In Motion, the owner of BlackBerry, has been asked by a range of governments to comply with surveillance requirements.
Some activists are concerned that Facebook is making it easier for governments to track them down by enforcing terms of service requiring the use of real names, no matter where in the world you live. It was thus encouraging that Clinton called on companies to join the Global Network Initiative, a multi-stakeholder effort by companies, socially responsible investors, human rights groups, and academics to help companies make and uphold such commitments. Unfortunately only Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have had the cojones (as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would put it) to join.
Secretary Clinton's speech was the most important a major American political figure has ever made on the subject of an open Internet and a more networked government. And it signaled a major step in the movement to open up governments - even superpowers - t0 the increased scrutiny and a participation of the citizenry.
Yet I thought the weakest part centered on private companies and their role in freedom movements, online and off - and the power relationship they have with data. Media technology is one of the strongest financial and cultural assets the U.S. has, and it's clearly thought of as a vital national asset by the Obama Administration; Clinton's speech (and ongoing State Department collaboration with social media companies) and President Obama's well-publicized dinner with a gaggle of Silicon Valley machers were clear signals to this effect. So I guess it was understandable that Clinton didn't push the private data control aspect too hard.
In any event, I'm fairly certain we cannot rely on government to guarantee a Facebook that's as socially aware - as socially vibrant - as it is socially wired. No, that'll take the crowd itself.
More than its investment bankers, Facebook listens to its network and adjusts its practices accordingly. Sure, the company has long been guilty of "launch, fail, react" cycles - but it has been responsive to its users. There have been many uprisings in Facebook's brief history, and to Zuckerberg's credit, he's never played the Hosni Mubarek role.
Who knows if The Social Network's tale of youth and founding moments will grab the Oscar on Sunday, and in Egypt and Libya and Tunisia and Iran, I doubt if anyone cares. Sorkin's film had a clever marketing tagline: "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies." Nor do you create real social change without making the tough choices.
History is written too quickly for the filmmakers in 2011 - and Facebook's own Tahrir Square is abuzz with change, hope, and major challenge to Mark Zuckerberg's vision of the social web.
[Cross-posted at CauseWired]
"Think For Yourself" would have been an apt subtitle for Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget, my pick for non-fiction book of the year and the most important piece of writing on technology and communications to be published in 2010. Instead, Lanier and his publishers went with "A Manifesto" and it certainly is all of that - bright, opinionated, often meandering, occasionally pedantic, happily confrontational and in its totality a bold red stop sign in the path of wired society's long march toward a thin, common identity.
Not that I wanted to stop at that particular intersection.
My 2008 book CauseWired chronicled the rise of online social activism and presented a generally (but not entirely) rosy outlook for a socially-networked world with access to information and the digital tools needed to change society. I chose to focus on the development of positive, collaborative platforms like Kiva, Change.org, GlobalGiving and DonorsChoose and the creation of networks to fight poverty, disease and genocide. And I saw the ascendancy of vast social applications like Facebook and Twitter as generally benevolent to the movement for social change; greater participation could yield more democratic structures, more authentic power from below - and if more individuals could see a wider view of the injustice in the world, more of them would organize to fix it.
Yet I've never embraced techno-utopianism or served time as a social media triumphalist; back in the 90s Jason Chervokas and I would regularly rail in @ny against a form of cyber-libertarianism that argued for a self-regulated technology industry and no societal restraint on anything digital. Where some treated "information wants to be free" as a physicist's formula, we saw it as a political slogan. Chervokas and I recognized that that the "freedom" some technologists were arguing for was merely a cover for seeking power; in a new world ordered by technology, who would be in charge? Fast forward to the socially-networked Internet of 2010, and it's no surprise that a few powerful players now control vast amounts of our identities and our content.
Nonetheless, You Are Not a Gadget was a head-snapper for a me. And the intellectual whiplash was worth the collision.
The central tenet of Lanier's manifesto is the idea that humanistic values are too often lacking in widely-adopted digital technology - that in using online services driven by algorithms and marketing (and what's better for the programmer and the advertiser), users naturally adopt a less complex online personality, a less nuanced identity. In CauseWired, I relayed the wisdom of my then-16-year-old daughter, who explained that Facebook wasn't your actual self, it was "your best you."
Fitting neatly into a Facebook profile is reductive, argues Lanier, who wonders "whether people are becoming like MIDI notes - overly defined and restricted in practice to what can be represented in a computer." Twitter limits in another way, by placing severe strictures of the actual form of communications. With each message limited to 140 characters (much less with a link and a hashtag or two) it often removes the gray space. The big issues can be reduced to a half sentence and a link, really very little more than a click on the Facebook "like" button. It becomes a fantastic echo chamber, a vast din of repetition with easily-delineated sides like a soccer match. No wonder every single politician and celebrity gravitates to Twitter - the control over the messaging is fantastic (indeed, the comical early mistakes some pols made on Twitter were the exceptions that proved the rule). Marketers now understand the on/off MIDI-like notational quality of short messages - they're paying six-figures for so-called "promoted" tweets and trends, which are just a fancy and expensive method for Twitter to lie to the very userbase that built the service. Or as Lanier puts it in discussing social networks like Twitter: "Am I accusing all those hundreds of millions of users of social networking sites of reducing themselves in order to be able to use the services? Well, yes, I am."
Lanier's point is that by reducing personality and the wide sweep of human thought into chunks that can fit easily into databases and digested through clever widely-popular front end designs, the possibility for horrific "crowd-sourced" activity is that much greater. To put it simply, the good guys don't always win. Throughout history, they've often been shouted down by crowds. While it's impossible to argue with the sunny opening lines of the introduction to Yochai Benkler's seminal Internet text The Wealth of Networks - "Information, knowledge and culture are central to human freedom and human development" - and to sympathize with a point of view that argues that great access to those qualities improves the lot of mankind, Lanier's warnings also seem in tune with the times.
It's not crazy to worry that, with millions of people connected through a medium that sometimes brings out their worst tendencies, massive, fascist-style mobs could rise up suddenly. I worry about the next generation of young people around the world growing up with internet-based technology that emphasizes crowd aggregation, as is the current fad. Will they be more likely to succumb to pack dynamics when they come of age?
That kind of thinking flies in the face of a more utopian view of free information, embodied in hacker philosopher Richard Stallman's famous '90s proclamation that when "information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving." I'd naturally ask "what does generally useful mean?" and Lanier goes a step further, noting that the free flow of information also brings large-scale vitriol to arguments between semi-anonymous actors on the Net. "What's to prevent the acrimony from scaling up? Unfortunately, history tells us that collectivist ideas can mushroom into large-scale social disasters."
Lanier's "digital Maoism" may be the intellectual equivalent of crying "fire!" in a crowded theater, especially one filled with venture capital-backed tech companies, media conglomerates and telecommunications outfits all mining profits from the social gold rush (not to mention the trade press that loves them). And Lanier's is a particularly well-aimed attack on geek culture: "The new twist in Silicon Valley is that some people - very influential people - believe they are hearing algorithms and crowds an other internet-supported nonhuman entities speak for themselves. I don't hear those voices though - and I believe those who do are fooling themselves."
You Are Not A Gadget also warns against an Internet-based democracy, a world of governing chaos in which "superenergized people would be struggling to shift the wording of the tax code on a frantic, never-ending basis." The remedy is our current actual democracy - "the slower processes of elections and court proceedings" - which are like calming bass waves in Lanier's musical metaphor. They reduce "the potential for the collective to suddenly jump into an overexcited state when too many rapid changes coincide in such a way that they don't cancel one another out." It's dull and it doesn't make a handy retweet. And it also argues against some of the aspects of the latest techie cause célèbre - Wikileaks, a secretive organization that claims it represents the interests of more open government but renounces public accountability. Three weeks ago, I wrote that I didn't think "Wikileaks advances the cause of more accessible government or international justice." And Lanier didn't win too many allies with his essay in The Atlantic last week that argued for more skepticism toward Julian Assange and his shadowy organization, while taking "nerd supremacy" to task for the near lock-step support of Wikileaks at the cost of traditional avenues of trust:
"The strategy of Wikileaks, as explained in an essay by Julian Assange, is to make the world transparent, so that closed organizations are disabled, and open ones aren't hurt. But he's wrong. Actually, a free flow of digital information enables two diametrically opposed patterns: low-commitment anarchy on the one hand and absolute secrecy married to total ambition on the other."
In a spirited Atlantic response to Lanier's piece, Zeynep Tufekci (who by chance I happened to sit next to on the stage for our panel at the Personal Democracy Forum's Wikileaks symposium on Dec. 11) argued that he "makes the fundamental conceptual mistake of conflating individual human beings and powerful institutions, like governments and corporations." In other words, those large organizations stand opposed to individual liberty - which the free flow of information can help to guarantee. And that idea also infused some of the criticism of You Are Not A Gadget, especially reactions to Lanier's dystopian view of a purely crowd-sourced social commons, his somewhat alarmist suggestion that "collectivist ideas can mushroom into large-scale social disasters."
Frankly, it's part of the deeply romantic view that so many technologists hold of the Internet (I'm not immune to this) and it's an especially American viewpoint. We tend to view corporations and big organizations and "the state" as monoliths, rather than collections of many individual humans working toward a loose common cause - and we tend to welcome the new frontier than disintermediation brings. In 1997, in a column for The New York Times, Chervokas and I wrote:
For more than 200 years Americans have been driven by the myth of the frontier, the feral, boundless space beyond known civilization where opportunities are infinite, where homesteaders can discard identities of birth and inhabit instead their own identities of mind, and where law is what you make it. This libertarian, romantic myth has informed a lot of the national discourse about the Internet -- America's new "freer, vast, electric world," to borrow a phrase from Walt Whitman.
That "freer, vast, electric world" still holds tremendous promise, in my view. Questioning our direction does not mean losing that promise or ending the Internet experiment. Yet Lanier's point of tends to get lumped into naysayer's category. In a tweet today, NYU press watcher Jay Rosen posited that as they age, digital people tend toward the insight that "de-excites." Some keep going, he wrote, while others "become professional debunkers." Challenged by Jeff Jarvis, he named Jaron Lanier as one of the latter - but I think that's a bit off the mark. If you dig into You Are Not A Gadget, the sense of wonderment at the possibilities of this digital age remains intact. Lanier is more than a professional debunker. And in my view, the very questioning of the impact of crowds and networks on the social commons is welcome.
"Next to the many problems the world faces today, debates about online culture may not seem that pressing," writes Lanier. "We need to address global warming, shift to a new energy cycle, avoid wars of mass destruction, support aging populations, figure out how to benefit from open markets without being disastrously vulnerable to their failures, and take care of other basic business. But digital culture and related topics like the future of privacy and copyrights concern the society we'll have if we can survive these challenges."
I agree. You Are Not A Gadget didn't change my thinking, but it made me a think a lot more. It's the book of the year for 2010.
Lately, I've been sort of surprised - shocked, actually - to hear this refrain from both clients and the corporate, nonprofit and foundation leaders I often speak to at conferences:
"Isn't Twitter pretty much over?"
This is very much not a variation on the old but reliable "I just don't get Twitter, explain please" line. No, this harsh Twitter query is coming from people who use the service, understand it, and have invested significant time and resources in building followings, lists, and networks. They tweet. They're mobile. They use apps. But they're newly skeptical of Twitter's long-term advantages. And I think my new standard answer to this questions surprises them:
Don't get me wrong: I use Twitter, I find it rewarding, and I recommend it to my clients as a key part of the social media mix. But there's this nagging imp on my shoulder and his message is constant. "Twitter's not the same, it's not like it used to be, it's not as good."
This moment comes for all social networks when the early adoption crowd is run over by everyone else. What felt cool, and forward-leaning, and semi-private now feels like Times Square at midday clogged with double-decked tourist buses. Attention is down. Noise is up. Success can spoil the club. That's human nature.
But there's also something else. Twitter is a private company, of course, but it always felt like a public accommodation - far more so than, say, Facebook or MySpace. It was the user base that created most of Twitter's innovations from the hashtag to the @ message. The small start-up company provided the pipes and tended the code and database. Even smaller companies took the data and created useful applications. Innovation didn't just thrive on Twitter - it fairly seethed. This felt like a new way of communicating - and of sharing causes on the social commons - the occasional fail whales be damned!
Fast forward, as we must. Twitter now has a userbase of 150 million people and a hydra-headed imperative: revenue growth, big company status, an eventual public offering, marketshare, brand domination. We read that it must compete with Facebook and Google or face relegation - that it must find a way to satisfy marketers eager to exploit its vast, tech-friendly, super-connected audience.
And so Twitter is now acting very much like a marketing company. Nothing wrong with that, of course. They're determined to ramp up revenue. But with Twitter, it also seems the decisions they make internally aren't as - well - smart as the ones their committed base of users once made for them.
Take "Promoted Trends." Please. This "innovation" allows advertisers to buy their way to the top of the popular trends lists that adorn Twitter pages on the service's website. Thus, movies and airlines suddenly appear on top of true crowd-sourced trends like real news and pop culture phenomena. Of course, a purchased "trend" is not a real trend at all. It's a lie - though brazen and open in its telling. The other day, for instance, a movie called "Paranormal Activity 2" was the top "trend" on the New York version of Twitter's homepage. It's marked with a yellow "Promoted" tag, which doesn't explain how much money was paid for the privilege. Nor would that label be - in any way - clear to newbie or light users who may not be Twitterholics reading the Twitter blog or following @ev or @biz. And yet it was somehow "trending" higher than "Cablevision" - the real news story of a cable TV black-out at playoff time.
It was weird as well to see Jet Blue buy a fake trend, or Conan O'Brien's usually savvy public brand make the mistake of jumping the line of actual trending topics in the last few days. Couldn't they have - oh, I dunno - actually engaged the community and earned real trends? I tweeted on this of course (I still enjoy Twitter quite a bit) and got thoughtful responses from Morgan Johnston of the Jet Blue team, including this one: "We (@JetBlue) have always embraced Twitter as a company & the community dialog it encourages. Promoted trends contribute to both." And I believe that's true, though I do think it makes Jet Blue look like a line-jumper in the end. But heck, they're advertising a brand and Twitter is offering the unit - at the expense of all the social capital it worked so hard to gather - so who you really gonna blame?
The so-called "promoted trend" is a massive symbolic stumble for Twitter.
It's entirely inauthentic, just shy of truly offensive, and deeply at odds with the ethos that has governed Twitter up until 2010 - an ethos that turns out, in the end, to be about as genuine as promoted "trends."
Further, it adds to the already difficult signal-to-noise ratio that is Twitter with mass adoption. Quite frankly, trends have lost a lot of their value since hashtag spamming exploded during the days of the Iranian revolt. Attention, even with thousands of followers, is hard to come by. Conversation isn't what it once was.
Twitter remains a fantastic network for sharing links and coming across interesting information from a network of great sources. It's also a terrific amplification and promotional tool for campaigns (and products of course). But it feels less social. And with paid "trends" and the direction for the company they may indicate, Twitter feels a lot less authentic these days.
Women in the World, which unfolded this weekend at the historic Hudson Theater just east of Times Square - where Arsenic and Old Lace made its Broadway debut in 1941 - was the energetic vision of one of New York's most connected women. Tina Brown, proprietor of The Daily Beast (where I occasionally contribute), assembled this town's old guard media tribe and then some: Barry Diller, Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour, Diane Sawyer, and Charlie Rose mingled with Queen Rania of Jordan, Meryl Streep, Madeline Albright, Donna Karan, Nora Ephron and the ever-present Diane Von Furstenberg.
"My hope is that it will help grow this important message of economic empowerment for women as the key to prosperity, and help spread this message around the world," Brown told USA Today.
Bringing together what Brown referred to as "lioness leaders" in the cause of telling stories, getting prominent people (including corporate and media types) more involved, and building a movement. Yet this movement clearly dates to 1995, when Hillary Clinton famously told the UN's. Fourth World Conference on Women that "women's rights are human rights." Yet it's a decade and a half down the road, and the horrors that women endure in fields of conflict, throughout the developing world, and just down the block continue to shock and sicken on almost a daily basis. Just a day before Women in the World opened, a young woman was savagely beaten in the bathroom of a clb only a few blocks from the Hudson Theater - reportedly for refusing the dance with the man now charged with her attempted murder.
"Sexual terrorism" carries different meanings in different settings - yet it's the terrorism part of the phrase that should get more attention. Gender itself is so vast, so seemingly non-organizable. It was no accident that Brown named the Daily Beast's conference Women in the World; "of" is untenable, yielding more of a soft-touch 1964 World's Fair exhibit of a title than a call to action. No, this gathering, for all its glamor, had a sharp point with a barbed tip. The barb that stayed caught was the quest for political and economic power. Time and again at Women in the World, I heard speakers talk about meaningful participation in governance and the world economy. This was a gathering of women not content with traditional philanthropy and corporate hand-outs, with slogans and ribbons and rubber bracelets.
Yet story-telling is so important. One of the real highlights was an evocative reading (directed by Julie Taymor) of Seven, a play that is a collaboration between Vital Voices and seven award-winning women playwrights, including that profiles seven women leaders from the Vital Voices' Global Leadership Network. Meryl Streep added Oscar-worthiness to the ensemble cast, which also featured Marcia Gay Harden, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Stephanie Okereke, Archie Panjabi, Julyana Soelistyo, Lauren Vélez. Over 90 minutes, Seven moves its protagonists from the desperation and powerlessness to activism and achievement. But the overarching theme isn't organizing - it's bravery.
From Inez McCormack, a civil rights leader in Northern Ireland (portrayed by Streep with humor and a believable Ulster brogue), to my personal hero, Mukhtar Mai of Pakistan, who was played effectively by Aghdashloo, the willingness to court more violence in the pursuit of justice pervades the reading of Seven, whose stories were subtly propelled by sparse sound effects and strong photograpic images on the large screen behind the actors. Seven women, speaking for billions. Seven stories to mobilize half of humanity.
Yet in chatting with Rebecca Lolosoli just before the reading of Seven, I was struck by how quickly village-level organizing can attain a bigger profile - and with it, more of a say in the halls of power. Rebecca is the founder and director of the Umoja Uaso Women’s Village, a community of survivors fleeing domestic abuse and arranged marriages in Kenya. She wears the brilliant colors and beaded necklace of the Samburu and, though Vital Voices, has become a recognized voice for changing traditions that make women into victims. We were talking about the violence in Kenya, and she said that real political power remains elusive.
This echoed the words of Suraya Pakzad, executive director of Voice of Women, which provides women in Afghanistan with shelter, counseling and job training. "Don't think of women's issues as a project - women are not a program," she told a panel on women in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakzad, who courageously risks her life to run her shelters, argued that women belong at the table for peace talks. And this echoed the top global issue facing women identified by a coalition of leaders who gathered last fall in Florence under the Vital Voices banner: Lack of political will and accountability.
That technology can help even the playing field is taken as an issue of faith at gatherings like Women in the World. And indeed, the growth of cell phones and networked organizing is changing the landscape quite a bit. As I wrote in the Daily Beast last week: "The systemic challenges facing billions of women in the developing world defy easy, clickable solutions. Yet from linking remote villages via increasingly ubiquitous mobile-phone messaging to improved water safety and cooking tools, technological innovations are changing the lives of women and their families for the better, around the world."
I heard many people say over the weekend that the network really matters to them - the ability to connect women in remote developing regions to colleagues in NGOs, corporations, and government provides a shorter path to recognition. Cherie Blair talked about her partnership with the GSMA association of mobile operators to get inexpensive phones into the hands of more women in developing nations, where there remains a demonstrable technology gap between the genders. But technology can also bear witness. At Women in the World, the word "Congo" bore as much emotional power as "Katrina" or "9/11" do for many in the U.S. and the reason to me seemed clear: horrific cell phone images of the victims of infamous mass rape.
"Congo" has become short-hand for sexual terrorism.Yes, images do matter. In introducing Seven, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the story of her recent visit to Guatemala and the request of an American diplomat there when she met with a a civil rights leader. The ambassador's request to Secretary Clinton was simple: take picture with her. "They're trying to kill her." A photo with one of the world's most famous and powerful women carries some power. "Here's a woman who is putting everything there is on the line."
"Tell the chef, the beer is on me."
"Basically the price of a night on the town!"
"I'd love to help kickstart continued development! And 0 EUR/month really does make fiscal sense too... maybe I'll even get a shirt?" (there will be limited edition shirts for two and other goodies for each supporter as soon as we sold the 200)