Archive for June, 2009

Commerce Virtual Worlds

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Last week Helix Commerce International invited a select group of guests (including Manara) to a breakfast event at the Cricket Club in Toronto to share some of their research and findings on commercial use of virtual worlds and launch their first report on the subject, based on over 2 years of research on 27 companies using virtual worlds.

Helix CEO, Cindy Gordon, provided an interesting overview about Canada’s latest ranking in innovation among OECD countries (we ranked 13 out of 17, which is a D!) and some thoughts on how to support a revival of innovation leadership in North America. Then Kathryn Gibson presented a live demo of the newly launched Helix Innovation Center in Second Life (SL) with a brief guided tour to a number of business properties as well as a sophisticated jazz club in that virtual world. Kathryn is the virtual world Ninja at Helix and has designed an impressive space for the Helix Innovation Center. You can read her blog or follow her on Twitter or better by seeking her outstanding avatar in SL.

Kaline Hax Avatar

Kaline Hax Avatar

In the discussion we learned of several technology initiatives underway, most of them at the pilot stage and exploring various social media applications for building communities including virtual world presence. Major Canadian corporations involved included Rogers, a couple of Canadian banks, and investment firms.

Not many people think of virtual worlds when speaking of social media. Judging by the serious investments being made by a number of technology heavy weights (IBM, Intel etc.) it is safe to predict that this space will witness increasing importance and growth in the near future.

Stay tuned for more as we delve deeper into this aspect of social networks.

Social Media & Revolutionary Change – Reflections

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Another popular uprising by people wanting their voice heard. This time in Iran and draped in green but also in black, mourning those like young Neda, who died pursuing her dream of freedom and human rights.

Once again social media are hailed as the tool for the revolutionary masses revolting, challenging the established powers of government and its police apparatus, helping people organize and communicate, and informing the world about their struggle. The stream of information coming from Iran through Youtube and Twitter is defining this particular struggle much more than the traditional media, who have been “subject to Iranian restrictions on their ability to report, film or take pictures in Tehran” as Reuters’ editors disclose at the begin of each news item from Iran.

What’s new this time around

This time around we have seen some new developments: The social networks carrying these social media have taken proactive action.

Twitter rescheduled maintenance down-time of its systems after the U.S. State Department intervened to keep the service up and running for the Iranians protesters using it (and the Americans and many others monitoring).

Facebook released an early version of its platform in Farsi (the official language of Iran) in direct response to the Iranian crisis. This allows Iranians to navigate Facebook in their national language instead of English. Google hastily introduced Farsi support for Google Translate quoting “ongoing events in Iran”. You can read more details about these actions in several places including on Rahaf Harfoush’s blog “The Foush“.

As Rahaf wrote, these unprecedented actions raised many questions. Is the neutrality of the networks waning? Were these actions driven by ideological, philosophical, political factors or simply by opportunistic self interest of these corporations (for PR or rapid alpha testing of a product in development for example)? Were these actions triggered by internal corporate thinking or through pressures from powerful external parties? or all of the above?

These are reasonable and complex questions. I will leave it to others to come up with answers to them. The aspect I would like to explore further is the following:

Social Media as Revolutionary Weapon

The Iran uprising like the preceding ones (The Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, etc.) is an attempt to change the existing balance of power. Whenever such an attempt is made a struggle between the incumbent power and those trying to change it ensues. External parties join rapidly the fray (if they weren’t already involved or behind the attempt). In the course of this struggle all sides will use the full range of tools/weapons at their disposal to achieve advantage and victory. Technology is but one, albeit an important one, of these tools/weapons. It is therefore interesting to observe how this battle unfolds on the social media front and draw further conclusions.

On the revolt side the main advantage of social media is its distributed nature both from a content creation and distribution points of view. Individuals with cellular phones or small video cams are able to generate multimedia content and broadcast it through social networks like Youtube, Twitter and Facebook. These social networks are also used for communications and organizing based on the perception that they are outside the traditional telecommunications networks usually controlled by the incumbent powers.

The distributed nature of social media is very appealing to the external parties interested in the conflict but wishing to intervene only covertly. In the case of Iran it became obvious that the State Department is monitoring closely all Iran related social media transmissions when it intervened with Twitter to postpone the planned upgrade that could have brought the systems down during the “active” hours in Iran. There have been reports about Israeli involvement in an infowar operation in support of the Iranian protesters. This could well be part of Israel’s already existing covert operations in Iran and other countries in the region (a number of spy cells were uncovered in Iran and more recently in Lebanon). Iran has accused the BBC Farsi service of interfering actively in internal affairs and expelled its correspondent Jon Leyne from Iran.

The Empire Strikes Back

Given all of the above, it would be naive to believe that social media tools or counter-measures won’t be used by the incumbent power. Case in point: The Iranian government shut down cellular service, blocked social network sites, and used power outages to disable uploading through proxies. It also engaged in its own social media counter- offensive. This battle is still raging at the time of this writing with list of “infiltrator” accounts being posted and updated by supporters of the protesters, misinformation is being planted by multiple parties, and even a guideline for cyberwarfare in this crisis has been published.

Social media undoutebly democratizes content creation and distribution. But distribution can only happen where and when social networks are available. So the fundamental question becomes: who actually owns or enables the infrastructure required by social networks (SN) to function, i.e. the SN servers or “cloud”, the storage, and the pipes connecting users to them. The answer is sobering: in almost all cases these are owned by governments or large corporations, who have the capabilities to monitor all content and to stop the service if deemed necessary for their interests.

So we have a wide spread ownership of content production means on one side but a tightly controlled ownership of or influence on distribution channels on the other. This means that social media can be severely impeded through disablement of its distribution networks if the changes demanded by people are too radical or undesirable for the entities controlling the infrastructure.
A good example for this is the global battle for open proxies in the Iranian context brilliantly shown in this visualization, and the people unfortunately don’t seem to be winning it. Preparing safe proxies (as the renesys blog suggests) may help, but I don’t think it is the answer.

What Is Missing

For social media then to fulfill it’s promise of change reflecting people’s needs and desires, it would seem that we need a distributed technology and ownership for SN. Conceptually, this is what the peer-to-peer technologies provide: a decentralized network of independent nodes connecting as and when needed in constantly changing topographies that no one can shut down easily.

Michael Lewkowitz (a.k.a @igniter) of the ChangeMedium initiative has been writing about Public Micro-messaging Medium (PMM) like Twitter “as the most participatory public medium in history.” He is proposing coordinated research to accelerate the evolution of this tranformative medium. I tend to agree with him on the potential of this emerging “real-time internet”, but am convinced that for such potential to be reached, we must have fully distributed technology which would enable distributed ownership of the SN, that are so crucial to social media in general. Substantial R&D has been done on so-called ad-hoc networks (initially for the military, first responders, conference organizers etc.). I am interested in learning about any technologies that could enable such decentralized messaging systems for the crowds.

Incumbent powers are resisting anything peer-to-peer or trying to “incorporate it” into their institutional structures. The next great battles are going to be around these issues. Stay tuned for interesting times.

#IranElections & Acts of Corporate Good (Pt1)

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

It is evident that the role of social media and digital communications play a critical role in sharing information during environmental disasters or times of political unrest. These tools help spread information, share news and level the playing field in a way that (at least for now) traditional governments can’t seem to stop, and not for lack of trying.

Using social media sites to organize and mobilize groups of people is nothing new. What I am finding particularly intriguing as I watch the Iranian Election crisis unfold, is how some of these social networks are making decisions as corporate entities that are evolving their roles from neutral platforms to powerful players within a new digital narrative. It’s no longer about USERS leveraging a site’s features, but organizational decisions which are adding a new variable to social media’s role in impacting global change.

For the first time, tech companies like Twitter, Facebook & Google are taking direct action in response to an unfolding crisis and are having a big impact. I’m trying to puzzle out the corporate agendas behind these acts as well as thinking of the implications that these decisions will have on driving the development of governmental IT policies and the creation of emerging digital rights legislation.

1) Twitter Reschedules Maintenance after US Government Appeal

The US State Department asked Twitter to reschedule its maintenance in order to keep the service available to Iranians so they could continue to share up to the second reports of the unfolding situation. A CNN blog post reported that US Government officials are pushing to ensure that they (and the rest of the world) continue to receive as much information as possible from social networking and content sharing sites. With this request coming from the US Government, it is clear that social media channels are being monitored by the Obama administration which has no diplomatic relationship with Iran. The content they are receiving through Twitter, Facebook and Youtube is an invaluable source of information.

Twitter made the corporate decision to change their maintenance date to provide the Iranian people the opportunity to share information at a critical juncture.

On to Facebook & Google

2) Facebook releases Persian Translation

On June 18, Mashable reported that Facebook released an early version of the platform in Persian in direct response to the Iran Elections Crisis:

The Persian translation is already live on Facebook, but the company warns that it’s a test version. In other words, the company and its 400+ volunteer translators have not completed all the steps to assure that all translations are correct, so the text or language may be awkward in places. Here’s what Facebook said in a draft release that should appear later tonight:

“Since the Iranian election last week, people around the world have increasingly been sharing news and information on Facebook about the results and its aftermath. Much of the content created and shared on Facebook related to these events has been in Persian – the native language of Iran – but the users have had to navigate the site in English or other languages.

Today we’re making the entire site available in a test version of Persian, so Persian speakers inside of Iran and around the world can begin using it in their native language.

Persian was already in translation before worldwide attention turned to the Iranian elections, but because of the sudden increase in activity we decided to launch it sooner than planned. This means that the translation isn’t perfect, but we felt it was important to help more people communicate rather than wait.”

http://www.manara.ca/wp-content/plugins/wp-o-matic/cache/2b00e_facebook-Iran-unblocked.jpg

3) Google Introduces Farsi support for Google Translate

http://www.manara.ca/wp-content/plugins/wp-o-matic/cache/79e9a_projects_google-persian.jpgNot to be outdone by Facebook and Twitter, the search-engine giant announced they would be offering Farsi support for their Google Translate tool. The service was hastily launched meaning users may experience some bugs and delays for now.  According to the Google Blog:

“Today, we added Persian (Farsi) to Google Translate. This means you can now translate any text from Persian into English and from English into Persian — whether it’s a news story, a website, a blog, an email, a tweet or a Facebook message. The service is available free at http://translate.google.com.

We feel that launching Persian is particularly important now, given ongoing events in Iran. Like YouTube and other services, Google Translate is one more tool that Persian speakers can use to communicate directly to the world, and vice versa — increasing everyone’s access to information.

As with all machine translation, it’s not perfect yet. And we’re launching this service quickly, so it may perform slowly at times. We’ll keep a close watch and if it breaks, we’ll restore service as quickly as we can.”

Mulling it over: What about China?

So I am left with more questions than answers. Are the these companies remaining neutral or being subversive? If the Iranian government succeeds in suppressing rioters, will there be consequences for online companies who can be blamed for promoting civil unrest? Or will it be citizens who find their online rights even more curtailed than before?

Governments will have to think about their technology approach, they’ll probably take a cue from the Obama administration’s decision to hire a CTO. I find myself wondering what the Iranian government has learned from this process and how they will adapt to these collaborative technologies in the future.

I really want to believe that Twitter, Facebook and Google’s actions are a step in the right direction for transparency and greater access to information. However, the cynical part of me remains caustic. Was this a move to help a troubled part of the world or a great opportunity for some PR?

With official statements regarding Iran, I wonder why we don’t see as much of a push for digital rights in China? The Chinese government  continues to block sites such as YouTube and heavily censored everything from the Economist to the Huffington Post for the anniversary of Tianemen Square.  Maybe China is just too profitable a market to risk its wrath? In fact, just today, the Chinese Government ordered Google to place even more restrictions on some of the sites it makes available.

What do you think?

In the next part of this mini-series, I will take a look at how social media is redefining activism and how people are showing their support worldwide.

YES WE DID Book Launch – Thank you!!

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

I can’t believe that last week I officially launched Yes We Did! What an exciting week it has been for me.  I started out the morning of June 4th as the Keynote Speaker for the MARCOM conference where I did my first official book signing. It was so completely surreal to see so many physical copies of the book and to have people want a signed copy. It made me feel giddy and so excited! It was also a weird coming of age feeling as the conference took place in the same ballroom that I had my highschool graduation in. Basically, I gave the keynote standing about 20 feet away from where I accepted my diploma all those years ago.

Rahaf June 4th 2009-16 by Jesse Morgan

I think my favorite part is meeting so many cool people who shared their own favorite campaign moments with me.

Rahaf June 4th 2009-13 by Jesse Morgan

As the afternoon progressed I become increasingly nervous for the official launch. Rotman had contacted me to let me know that there were over 400 people attending! Having my longtime mentor, Don Tapscott (who also wrote the forward to my book) introduce me was such an emotional moment for me, and I became doubly nervous knowing he would be in the audience. Once I got underway I started feeling all of the support pouring in from my family and friends  and got through the presentation without any major hitches.

rahaf-booklaunch

I just want to say a big, big, BIG thank you to everyone who came out to support me or who send their digital love via   facebook messages, emails, text messages and tweets. I could not have gotten through the last few months without the humor and warmth of my community and I count myself to be so blessed to have such amazing friends in my life.

I’ll be touring around various places promoting the book for the rest of the year, but I am happy to say that this month has been the peak of the insane travel I have planned. I just might get to enjoy living in Europe for a while instead of constantly trekking back and forth to North America in the mother of all commutes, lol.

I have sorely missed my blog and plan to revive TED Tuesdays with a vengeance, along with a few more blog series I have kicking around. I am a bit behind in terms of my schedule, but hopefully after this week I’ll be back on top of everything.

The Foush is back!




A little video from spain…

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

I just got back from a whirlwind trip promoting YES WE DID, and sat down to answer some questions about the book, politics and life in general from the blogging team of Nuestracausa (which means  Our Cause in Spanish), a website dedicated to helping empower young people use collaborative technologies in order to participate in the political process. Pretty cool!

You can take a peek here:

Coming up: An interview on BNN, and photos from the official YES WE DID booklaunch party at Rotman!!

YES WE DID Book Launched

Monday, June 8th, 2009

On June 4, 2009 the Rotman School of Business hosted the launch of the book “YES WE DID – An Inside Look of How Social Media Built the Obama Brand” written by our very own Rahaf Harfoush and foreword by Don Tapscott.

The event was sold out with over 450 people filling the Fleck Auditorium and the balconies above it.

After introduction by Alex Manu and foreword by Don Tapscott (Adjunct Professors at Rotman co-sponsoring the event), Rahaf presented highlights from her book including the 7 lessons learned from her experience as a volunteer at the Obama campaign headquarters that could be applied to the corporate world. A Q&A session was followed by a book signing session and a reception for attendees.

The event was tweeted live by several people in the audience. If you’d like to read what people said about the presentation and the book just enter #yeswedid in the twitter search field on your browser or twitter application.

The book is now available at major book stores as well as online on Amazon.

The Foush at Government 2.0 Conference

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

The Lac Carling Congress annually brings together senior ESD practitioners (e.g. DMs, CIOs, ADMs, DGs, Project Directors, etc.) from all three levels of government in Canada with private sector companies who are or wish to be partners in the delivery of ESD solutions. The event focuses on the advancement of electronic delivery of government services in Canada. The theme for Lac Carling 2009 is: Govt. 2.0 – The Value Proposition.

The Conference is being held June 14-16 at the Queen’s Landing in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Rahaf will be the keynote speaker and participate in a panel discussion on Sunday June 14th.

Marcom 2009 – Canada’s Public Sector Marketing & Communications Symposium

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

The Foush will be speaking at Marcom 2009 – Canada’s public sector marketing and communications symposium held June 3-4, 2009 at the Pearson Convention Center, 2638 Steels Avenue East, Brampton, Ontario.

Rahaf’s keynote presentation will be 8:30 to 9:30 AM on June 4th followed by a book signing event.