Can Social Networking Be Used for Social Change?

Posted by sharakarasic on Nov 19, 2008

On day three of MobileActive ’08, I attended a session led by engineer Blaine Cook, formerly Twitter’s Chief Architect.

Cook summarized what the group was looking for:

“We would like an ongoing, up-to-date tool. A migration tool that keeps us moving from one social network to the next so NGO’s can move and migrate from platform to platform. We need the ability for any one organization to connect with any other organization.”

Mixit was mentioned as a useful tool, but Cook noted cross-border interoperability issues: Mixit requires GPRS which isn’t that credible across borders. Using a SIM card costs a lot to text across borders. Cook suggested that there could be a network where you send to SIM chip in Uganda from Uganda, but set up a network with nodes to dramatically cut costs of cross-border activism.

Cook said that it costs around $20,000-30,000 for a short code in the US and you can send as many SMS’s as you like. He mentioned that Twitter got a bill for $37,000 in Egypt for only 6000 Twitter users.

One of the participants mentioned that in Ghana it took three years to negotiate a deal with MDM and suggested that perhaps as part of the Mobile Bill of Rights, NGO’s can qualify for a specific rate instead of going in with a different story each time – to get connect rates of one cent or less.

Cook said that SMS is successful on the person-to-person scale – 40 SMS cost $3 – which is not expensive for an individual user. But when you’re an organization and you have to multiply the spend to 40,000 people, that costs $30,000. Cook said, “SMS is the one technology that the more you send out the more expensive it is, instead of cheaper like most technology.”

Cook stressed that we need a centralized network of SMS users. Privacy, safety issues, and cost are all factors. He explained the technical underpinnings of SMS – that an SMS is a packet of data. Six of those get sent every time a call is placed that’s not answered. The marginal cost is zero. A Vodacom exec Cook talked to said that it’s the billing infrastructure that costs a lot, even if SMS is free.

Cook said he was “just seeing mobile as part of the toolkit –as a tool to organize in a suite of other tools.”

He added: “I look at social networks – Facebook and Microsoft are walled gardens. When you spend money to build tools on their platforms you’re sharecropping. But clearly no matter what my social network is I’d like to engage with other networks. I’m interested in seeing technologies that allow you to interact from your primary point but engage people at other social networks.”

Cook added that in the mid 90’s AOL, Compuserve, etc. had their own separate emails, but then people got access to more email and could email anyone. Compuserve didn’t open up and it died. AOL opened up – and became an organization big enough to be bought by Time Warner.

He concluded, “So we’d like to open up and build small networks that can cooperate with other small networks – create an African network for example.“

Twitter in Egypt

A good reason for Twitter's hype was how activists in Egypt used Tit to announce actions and news, report their own detention, coordinate following detained protesters so they are not disappeared, and of course doing that in such a way the media finds it sexy to tell. Now activists are relying on a failing Jaiku, and hoping that starts working soon.

There should be a way for cheaper SMSes.

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