The first social hour: We have a lot to learn—and a lot to do

Last night, the Social Media Exchange hosted its first social hour. I regret now that we didn’t liveblog it, but we did videotape most of it, so look for some clips to be posted soon.

The idea for the hour was to pose the following questions: Is there an alternative media space in Lebanon? If so, how can we benefit from it? We invited two bloggers, Razan Ghazzawi and Moussa Bashir (both of whom blog for Global Voices, as well as their own blogs) and Maya Rahal, the founder of the new Lebanese citizen journalism site, to give their thoughts on the subject. The panel was moderated by Bashir Saade, also a blogger.

I wanted to stay out of the discussion as much as possible, so I stuck my head behind the video camera. It was hard not to pop back out again.

Right out of the gate, Saade introduced the panel by saying he was “a bit skeptical about the whole blogging thing.” By and large, the other panelists agreed with him, citing valid reasons, such as that blogging is an elitist activity (since you have to have access to certain tools and types of education to make use of them) and that blogs basically replicate the same kinds of discussions—often attacks—and polarization that take place in other public spheres. I had heard similar things about Armenia and Kenya at the Global Voices Summit and have been thinking about ways to mitigate this ever since, without exercising censorship, an option that all too often gets suggested as a viable means of controlling this kind of speech. (One idea I’ve had recently is to establish a blog aggregator with community guidelines. What do you think? Leave a comment, and let us know.)

Moussa Bashir, a physics teacher and keeper of the blog Ur Shalim, began by saying, “Blogs are overrated,” but qualifying the statement later, he explained that he was really talking to other bloggers with this statement; people who may expect that blogging by definition imparts some sort of authority to the keeper of the blog. He wanted to disabuse them of this notion and keep expectations of power, fame, and fortune low. At one point, he began to speak about the success of blogs in other parts of the world, but alas, the conversation didn’t evolve in that direction.

He also fine-tuned the discussion, shifting from the perspective of bloggers to that of readers, especially readers outside Lebanon. As the Lebanon editor for Global Voices, he has counted about 300-350 Lebanese blogs, many of them written by Lebanese living outside the country. Based on this knowledge and his experience as a blogger during the 2006 July War, he asserted, probably rightly (for now, anyway) that blogs have little influence inside Lebanon. They are more important for the information they relay to the world outside Lebanon, at least they were during the war, when blogs in Lebanon, he says, “were used to the maximum effect” (even though many bloggers including Bashir were still using dial-up). All the major networks were calling during the war, he recalled, but after it ended, “things went downhill; people lost interest in Lebanon.”

Razan Ghazzawi wondered what was meant by “alternative,” and said that if it meant “substitutes,” then no, an alternative media doesn’t exist in Lebanon, and blogs aren’t alternative because they mostly reproduce the arguments that are taking place in other media spaces. Instead, she called for a new discourse, a new rhetoric. As a holder of a Syrian passport, she offered some insight into the difference between blogging in Lebanon and Syria. “Syrians are virtuals,” she said. “They cannot exist on the ground.” She added that only 10 percent of Syrians are on the Internet, and these are the elite, which means that we are only “addressing ourselves.” By contrast, in Lebanon, people can exist on the ground and can document.

Still, while documentation is important, Ghazzawi doesn’t see blogging as offering anything new. “There is attack; there is copy-paste.” She also mentions that the West’s involvement in campaigns such as Free Kareem and Free Tariq depends heavily on what the bloggers’ positions are rather than on principles of free speech.

Maya Rahal wrapped up the panelists’ initial statements with an introduction of as a site for alternative journalism, citizen journalism, where people can be their own sources of information, rather than have to rely on the politically influenced news from the major Lebanese networks. But she cited frustration with the contributions she’s been getting so far. People only “write their opinion,” she explained. They’re only “attacking politics and the jao (atmosphere) around them,” she says. “They don’t try to write what they really see.”

The evening wasn’t at all what I expected. In addition to some rather rude and ill-considered interruptions by a German radio journalist, a tangent emerged about what constitutes journalism and citizen journalism. There seemed to be agreement among the panelists and many in the room that bloggers couldn’t be journalists, or perhaps even vice versa. It was hard for me to keep the headphones on.

I also teach online and citizen journalism and use blogs as a teaching tool. I read blogs written by journalists and journalism written by bloggers. People were throwing out assessments that journalism was an institution, as if someone had to invite you—or admit you—for you to belong. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Many of the world’s best journalists were never trained or licensed to be journalists. This is a question, that of who is and who isn’t admitted to this club, that the advent of digital tools has raised worldwide.

As one comment led to another last night, we slipped down that slope to the query about whether there ought to be some higher-than-us (you and me) content-evaluation system that could tell us whether or not we should believe a blog or citizen journalist. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to give that responsibility away to anyone, not my husband, not my friends, not my boss, and certainly not to the talking heads on my TV.

Still, I have to listen to the discussion because it’s a question we often get in our seminars: How do we know what to believe on the Internet? Usually, I answer, How do you know what to believe on television or anywhere else? And then I get a little more serious and ramble on about critical thinking and information triangulation, which all basically adds up to: You don’t have to trust the source; you have to trust yourself.

While the evening ended on a sort of somber note, and little to no time was devoted to talking about how social media can empower people and restore a sense of agency—a cardinal point in our seminars—I owe some of my disappointment to a lack of preparation on our part. It’s possible that we should have framed the evening with a less
open-ended question, like: How can blogs and other social media be leveraged for social change? But if we had, I don’t think we would have learned so much or been so energized to continue our efforts at the Social Media Exchange.

NB: I only focused on the initial presentations in this post, but the discussion went on for a full hour or so more. We hope to provide a transcript along with the video clips in the near future.

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SMEX is a registered Lebanese NGO that works to advance self-regulating information societies in the Middle East and North Africa.

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