Libya, liberation and the crowd

March 17th, 2011 by

microtask_lybia_crowdThe recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have taught the world a lot about people power. Depressingly, they’ve also shown how easy it is for a crazy dictator to shut down the internet.

At the time of writing, Libya is still almost totally offline.

It’s clear that oppressive regimes are scared of the web. Considering the online creativity of the young, tech-savvy crowd you can understand why. Deprived of broadband, the opposition has shown that in the age of crowdsourcing, a cell phone can be a megaphone (if you add a burning sense of injustice and a little help from Twitter, Google and CNN).

Alive and tweeting
In the early days of the Libyan revolt there were no foreign journalists on the ground (presumably because the world’s media was still camped out in Cairo). As the fighting spread, citizens turned to web and mobile technology to get their stories heard.

Many Libyans started using Google’s new Speak2Tweet service. Set up during the Egyptian crisis, Speak2Tweet turns voicemail messages into tweets. The service is perfect for Libya, where internet penetration is low but mobiles are almost universal.

Initially, all messages were in Arabic but, within days, a crowdsourced translation platform called Alive in Libya appeared on the scene. Alive in Libya uses a distributed army of online volunteers to translate tweets, emails, audio and video clips into English. The published results are compelling: often Libyans are literally tweeting under fire.

New media storm
Since the Iranian election protests in 2009 there’s been fierce debate about the so-called “Twitter Factor” in world events. Is social networking the voice of a new generation, or are internet activists just an over-hyped bunch of pretend protesters? Stepping away from this minefield conflicting opinion, I think it is interesting how news agencies, as well as protesters, are now using online media.

If you thought 24 hour-rolling news was the maximum coverage any crisis could get, think again: this is the era of the crisis liveblog. Once upon a time, a battle-scarred foreign correspondent could file his copy then head straight to the nearest bar. Now journos have to tweet, blog, and update interactive maps as well as writing articles.

With so much copy to write, the professionals are eager for crowd-based help. Collaboration between journalists and the crowd is a win-win relationship. If a small platform like Alive in Libya can give the crowd a voice, CNN can give them a megaphone. As Al Jazeera director general Wadah Khanfar recently said when talking about Egypt’s uprising:

“…we found these people in the street and all of them were our reporters: feeding us with pictures, video and news… Al Jazeera took the voice of these people and amplified it, allowed a new sense of possibility.”

Crowd on camera
Al Jazeera is now planning to devote permanent airtime to the crowd. The network has scheduled a new program, The Stream, a half-hour news slot where all content will come from tweets, social networking sites and online footage (the editorial process is going to be epic).

I guess the immediate issue with crowd-based news is verification: how do you know if a tweeter is telling the truth? An even bigger concern is whether big media players will manipulate the crowd. Will networks start “massaging tweets”? Pushing biased political views while claiming to represent the voice of the people?

Crowdsourcing works well when projects are focused and well targeted. Alive in Libya is a snapshot of a unique, historic moment. Crowdsourced documentary 18DaysInEgypt works on the same principle, bringing together material from the specific period of the Egyptian uprising. Will a constant stream of crowdsourced TV be as compelling? I guess we will have to tune to Al Jazeera English to find out.

  • Patrick

    Thanks for your post, this is probably one of the most amazing crowdsourcing efforts to come out of Libya yet:nnhttp://libyacrisismap.netn