A Movement of Hundreds of Small Movements

[Guest post: Maria Grabowski Kjær is a MSc student in Social Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, with a fundamental interest in social change and human rights. She is currently working towards her thesis, exploring how deployers use Ushahidi to organize and communicate, with interest in how the online and offline 'feed' into each other. Alongside her studies, Maria works as managing web editor of a Danish environmental organization, Forests of the World. She also writes for Global Voices Online, contributes to the Global Voices Podcast and she is co-editor for the Danish Global Voices site. ]
In July 2011 I went on fieldwork as a part of my Master in Social Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. I was wondering how the online tool, Ushahidi, created new ways and premises for people to communicate and organize in situations of crisis and political conflicts, and I wanted to explore how this was expressed in the scopes, motivations and aspirations of the users (in my research mainly deployers). The fieldwork lasted from July 2011 to January 2012, and in this period I have been based in Denmark, Egypt and Kenya.
During my fieldwork I have interviewed around 30 informants, most of them working with Ushahidi deployments on a volunteer basis next to fulltime job. I was practicing qualitative ethnographic research.
In this blog I will shortly introduce the field I studied and touch upon the theoretical frameworks that I am interested in.
Nairobi: Post Election Violence & Tech Entrepreneurs
30 December 2007 President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of the presidential election. The population’s response was swift and enraged, and two months of intense violence followed. At one point all mainstream media was shut down, and updates on the events were only available through the blogosphere. This is when Ushahidi was launched to spread information and call for local and global attention.
With a new constitution in 2010, and a severe drought still sweeping, some of my informants seemed surprised that the events in the Middle East and North Africa had not yet spread to East Africa. Common for my informants in Nairobi was the urge to do something and to change something. A growing tech community seems to be a tendency in Kenya and this point is important for this study to understand the broader context, assuming that Ushahidi deployments cannot work without numerous active online networks.
Cairo: the Arab Spring & the Online Community
Following the uprising in Tunisia, protests in Egypt began 25 January 2011. Initially, the government blocked the Internet and mobile phone communication, but news of arrests and police repression still circulated online. After massive protests and pressure President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on 11 February and ended a 30-year period of ruling.
My fieldwork in Cairo did not have the revolution as a focal point. However it was essential for me to understand this circumstance, as it echoed in the responses of my informants:

“The revolution has sparked motivation (…) showed us that things can change”.

One of my informants explained how the online community had grown extremely fast in Egypt since the beginning of the protests. He also explained that much more people now engaged themselves politically, pointing towards a growing informal activism. This undercurrent development is interesting for my research given that a high level of participation by active mobile/Internet users is a prerequisite for a successful Ushahidi deployment.
In the following I will shortly introduce which possible analytical perspectives I find useful at this point.
Social Movements, Cyberactivism & Agency
The Ushahidi deployments are often founded by one or two people, but rely on much more people to take action. From my interviews I got the impression that many informants felt that they were a part of something bigger, as one informant put it:

“Political activism has grown because of the feeling of sharing”.

With the Internet, alternative spaces have opened up online wherein groups can make their voice heard by global communities and create international solidarity. An interactive online platform, as Ushahidi, appears to be an effective tool for a transnational audience, exactly because it allows cooperation on a massive scale.
I place Ushahidi in the emergence of New Social Movements: loosely coupled egalitarian network that stretch beyond national borders and embrace diversity, decentralization and informality to a larger degree than ‘traditional’ social movements.

I see Ushahidi as a movement of hundreds of small social movements – deployments with their own agenda connected in a large network.
An informant from Cairo explained to me, how there was nothing else to do but to write reports during violent episodes in the spring of 2011. This is characteristic of online activism or Cyberactivism: to organize and communicate around events as they happen. Activists have not only incorporated the Internet in their repertoire, but also changed what counts as activism: “By a click people are changing something,” a Cairo informant stated. One might also argue that this is a new type of informal activism, a new type of electronic ‘grassrooting’.
Even though information and communication technologies have lowered the barriers to participation and increased opportunities for communication, technology itself does not create social change nor is it a neutral tool. This was emphasized by a majority of the informants. Ushahidi should therefore be seen in the complex way it interacts with humans – it does not replace physical interaction, but complement and reinforce it.
A contribution to peace’, ‘a passion for the community’, ‘doing something positive’. All these are answers to my question about motivation. “Curiosity, hope, anger” an informant answered me, when I asked him. Another explained that it was a matter of: “Do or die”. Most of my informants are private persons have ‘taken the matters into their own hands’, and it seems that the Ushahidi platform have made the step from idea to action less intimidating for them.

Many informants described situations of helplessness, where they had used Ushahidi as a way of: “doing something instead of complaining (…) doing actions of meaning, giving hope.”
Some deployments have goals such as producing a report for the authorities, some have advocacy strategies as the purpose, and others wish to spread awareness. But some deployments remain without a defined goal. In those cases the very purpose of the deployment is simply to do something and hoping that someday it will change something.
This counts as preliminary thoughts on what I learned from all the people I interviewed – and I am deeply grateful for their time. Please do fill in with comments, questions and ideas. (My thesis will be available in April 2013).

On my blog: Maraison.