Reporting from the Field # 1: Background of Study

Posted on November 7, 2011

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‘Reporting from the Field’ is a series of posts relating to my fieldwork in the fall of 2011. The fieldwork is a part of my Master in Social Anthropology from the University of Copenhagen, and the final thesis will be completed in early 2013. The posts are part of a research- and analyzing process and should not been seen as conclusive.

Introduction

“It is a way of holding hands…virtual hands maybe. What is important is the connection” (Anonymous, Conference on Cyberactivism, Copenhagen 2011)

The premises for social activism have changed radically in recent years. Unhindered by geographical constrains, online Internet platforms have made it possible for individuals all over the world to share information. The power of online platforms and social media have indeed been recognized in the ongoing political revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, where online networks such as Facebook, Twitter and have worked as important means of communication among protestors and their supporters.

Ushahidi (Ushahidi.com) started as a website that collected and mapped eyewitness reports of violence in Kenya in the 2008 post-election fallout. It is a platform that since has been used as response to crisis scenarios, such as the Haiti earthquake 2010 and the uprise in Egypt 2011. Different scopes, motivations and aspirations drive the users of the platform, and the proposed research aims to explore these.

Focus of the Study

My general interest is, how an online platform like Ushahidi creates new ways and premises for people to communicate, organize and mobilize in situations of crisis and political conflicts; I suggest, that the interaction around Ushahidi challenges a ‘traditional’ understanding of a social movement (SM) by adding more spontaneous characteristics. Surely there is not one understanding of SMs, but nevertheless most scholars describe SMs as organized and long-term (van de Donk et al.2004:2-4, based on issues like class-conflicts, economy and collective identity (e.g. Nash 2005; Tilly 2002; Diani 2003).

Different from SM theories, New Social Movement (NSM) theories focus more on human rights and horizontal associations. The actors of NSM do not attempt to change things within the system, but to create alternative systems (e.g. Touraine 2002; Escobar 2008). This brings me closer to the users of Ushahidi, but as the platform is located online, I will draw on a newer branch of SM: Cyber Activism (CA) (e.g. McCaughey & Ayers 2003; van de Donk et al. 2005).

Activists have not only incorporated the Internet in their repertoire, but also changes what counts as activism (McCaughey & Ayers 2003). It seems that online activists react with immediate responds to events in the world around them, more than they perform strategic plans; and with new online avenues of action, it appears that more informal groups have gained voice and that new dimensions of mobilization and networking have arisen (van de Donk et al. 2004).

Motivation

During the past year it has stunned me to experience, how information have been spread worldwide in no time (wikileaks.org), and how massive forces of support have been gathered with simple online tools (avaaz.org).

Attending a conference on CA my excitement was hushed up:

“Internet did not invent courage. Demands of freedom and dignity were there before, but only not told in the media” (Mona Eltahawy, Conference on CA, Copenhagen 2011)

This statement reminded me to keep a critical distance to CA, and to be aware that technology itself does not lead to social change (Ekine 2010:xv; McCaughey & Ayers 2003:209); thus I felt a need to enter a field of users of online technology. I am entering the field as a research intern for Ushahidi guided by the following problem statement:

Based on the perceptions and actions of the users of Ushahidi, I will explore: How the users of Ushahidi communicate, organize and mobilize as a network online; and how this type of Cyberactivism propagates to people on the ground?

The study will be conducted on basis of the following research questions:

Problem Statement & Research Questions

  1. What kind of people/groups use Ushahidi and why?

    Ushahidi Deployments, November 2011

    Ushahidi Deployments, November 2011

  2. With what purpose do they use Ushahidi and how do they attempt to bring the purpose into effect?
  3. What do they believe or experience that Ushahidi has changed or made possible for them (politically/socially/culturally)?
  4. How do they explain the relationship between the communication online and the operations offline on the ground?

Significance & Perspective

Online networks and CA are growing phenomena; more people get involved each day and technical solutions are constantly refined to make access and use easier. What we are experiencing seems to be a change in the communication and organization of SM (McCaughey & Ayers 2003; van de Donk et al. 2004). Skepticism against this technological development is running parallel to the extensive excitement (e.g. Edelman 2005), and I hope to contribute to this discussion and provide a detailed insight into the practice and behavior of cyber activists.

More social science authors call for further contemporary knowledge on informal citizen groups and network-based SM (Ekine 2010; McCaughey & Ayers 2003; Shirky 2009; van de Donk et al. 2004). I hope that my fieldwork will not only contribute to a deeper understanding of the users of Ushahidi but also to the anthropological understanding of SMs and CA.