We’re as free as we want to be. Perhaps it’s a trite statement, yet with the Fourth of July holiday upon us, I cannot help but consider it.
Freedom is a choice. At least for those of us that are fortunate enough to live in countries where we aren’t punished for speaking our mind in private conversation or online. You need only look at Turkey’s ongoing crisis to realize that free speech is not certain in this world.
Yet many of us don’t feel free. We feel trapped by the rat race, that we’re not engaging enough online. We feel like we should meet preached expectations of social media success.
Some fear being viewed as positive or negative, or having our personal views and feelings exploited by friends, family, employers, and yes, the government. Others of us feel like we’re suffering through litanies of rants and negativity while desperately seeking meaningful connectivity.
Patagonia winds whisper to me like it was yesterday.
How I crave to be in the mountains walking up and down rugged landscapes, hoping to see yet another breathtaking view, some aspect of the world I never expected, and breathe in the clean cool air.
To be surrounded by nothing except the stunning wilds, untethered from the Internet, no cell phone, just an occasional group of people, most of whom don’t speak English or give a damn about me. Ah, heaven.
Ronin – A lordless samurai, especially one whose feudal lord had been deprived of his territory.
There are many of us today, many more than 25 years ago, even 10 years ago. The economy combined with the empowering freedom of social tools has created an abundance of free agent communicators. Like the ronin in Japan’s feudal times, we know no master, some by choice, many by circumstance.
It’s not an easy life. You live by the sword, and eat what you kill. Many do their time until they find a new employer, God willing. others struggle along, barely scratching by.
Then there are those of us who make a go of it. We thrive on the independent work style. The freedom and the consistent change in work enthralls us. It becomes hard to think of returning to the world of one mission, one objective.
The best free agents develop a reputation for excellence, cultivating ongoing interest from potential employers who pay contract fees for a portion of time. They may be well known publicly, especially in the age of blogging. Some are not. They work by word of mouth, letting client tell client about their services.
In some cases, loyal relationships are created, lasting years on end. The free agent becomes like French General Lafayette, sitting by General Washington’s side always there to help and assist, but never fully taking on a country’s colors.
Others simply go on to lead schools of thought, marketing themselves to other free agents as “thought” leaders. These marketing “dojos” can become quite large, but many times they are not battle tested. Thought is cheap online, experience is not.
In an attention economy, experience does not matter as much, unfortunately. It’s harmful because people listen, and can be led down paths that will not help them with their own clientele. But in the real world of client engagement, it can be life and death for a business.
The best schools take their words as a responsibility to the market place, sharing research, experiences and real market examples. Learning experience-based best practices — those based on campaigns, not personal glories — can teach a free agent to become more successful. Success spawns opportunities, which in turn can empower the free agent to pick and choose their work.
Secretary of State Clinton made a speech last week committing to the ideal of an uncensored Internet as a primary tool for freedom. Her remarks — while in contrast to U.S. reactions about Wikileaks and the Obama Administration’s questionable policies on net neutrality — were made in the wake of the incredible events that have occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other Arabic countries. As a result, liberty via the Internet has become a top policy objective.
Throughout the Middle East’s unrest, individuals have used the Internet to communicate, speak out, and organize against totalitarian regimes in their countries. Further, citizens in Arabic countries can inform the rest of the world via social publishing tools, providing networked awareness of protests and actions. Just watch NPR’s Andy Carvin share updates he’s found from the Middle East, and you will see this form of network weaving in effect.
Dissidence can be very dangerous. Speaking out doesn’t always yield a positive result. For example, Syrian blogger Ahmad Abu Khair was arrested this past weekend (Khair was released today). Given how some hardline totalitarian regimes like Syria, Iran and Libya react to protest, Khair’s life could have been in danger. Social networking can also provide a trail of dissidents for authoritarian governments.
Yet the net gain of Internet tools cannot be dismissed. As Clay Shirky said in response to Malcolm Gladwell, “Even the increased sophistication and force of state reaction, however, underlines the basic point: these tools alter the dynamics of the public sphere. Where the state prevails, it is only by reacting to citizens’ ability to be more publicly vocal and to coordinate more rapidly and on a larger scale than before these tools existed.”
For those of us that have been professionally working online since the World Wide Web’s inception, this triumphant use of Internet tools harkens back to the Information Superhighway. It was under Bill Clinton’s watch that Al Gore worked diligently to promote the National Information Infrastructure, with its vision of placing digital printing presses in every human being’s hands. The Digital Divide was a huge issue then, and in light of recent events, it should be again. We see now that the dream can be realized, that the Internet catalyzes freedom.
Empowering speech online as a catalyst for greater freedom means providing these tools to every person across the globe. Statistics show that almost 2 billion people have access to the Internet, roughly 29% of the planet’s population. However, roughly half of all Internet users do not have access to broadband globally, limiting their ability to interact.
In a typical mistaken way, the State Department celebrated its policy declaration by publicly launching Twitter feeds in Arabic and Farsi. While propaganda is an old hat for the government, it doesn’t empower people to think or choose their own ideas of freedom. What is needed is a much stronger policy towards providing infrastructure rather than political ideas.
There are three main priorities for increasing access to the Internet and the incredibly diverse universe of ideas and conversations globally:
Wireless Infrastucture: Wireless has allowed many countries to leapfrog the landline telecommunications nightmare, an insurmountable investment in fiber optics. Encouraging widespread diffusion of 4G, WiFi and other broadband wireless technologies is the critical first step.
Mobile and Portable Computing: Smartphones and portable computing devices like tablets and netbooks are the tools of freedom. Lower costs break the Digital Divide, empowering people across the world to access the Internet via broadband tools and easily publish information online. By seeking to provide as many wireless enabled smart computing devices to global citizens, countries can foster a higher level of communication and interaction.
Accompanying deployment of mobile devices, is the development of software and Internet tools that work well on these devices. Desktop applications need not apply. In that sense, HTML 5 is a great equalizer, as have been the many mobile applications built over the past few years. There is more room to grow for the mobile/portable web.
Skills Development: Education initiatives across the globe should focus on how to teach people to digest information intelligently. We need an empowered, functional Fifth Estate, and a critical aspect of that is digital literacy. The overall quality of content has decreased with the rise of social media, infusing much more opinion than fact.
Teaching citizens from the U.S. to the Middle East and beyond how to use digital communications and publish better information will help dialogue. Nonprofits and companies like Internews Network and AllVoices are working towards this laudable goal. We need to go further, and make digital literacy and publishing a core tenant of any child’s education.
All governments should seeks these three objectives as a means to promote liberty online. What do you think of the Internet as a tool for freedom?
Tomorrow marks the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr. day as an official U.S. federal holiday. It is during this holiday that MLK’s famous “I Had a Dream” speech plays on TV stations, radios and is discussed on the Internet. Perhaps the greatest aspect of the dream was hope for a meritocracy where his children, “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
How are we doing with racism, segregation and diversity in conversations online? Particularly as social media empowers, giving everyone a digital printing press. Has the digital divide fallen or is it sill rearing its ugly head? Are we talking? And to each other?
To compliment the thoughts below, Influential1 Founders Mike Street and Dupé Ajayi interviewed in a point, counterpoint format on four questions. Influential1s seeks to highlight many un-recognized influencers in the urban space.
The Economic Divide of Access Still Exists
Mobile and social media have done a lot, with minorities adapting Twitter more than the whites. But there’s still a lot of work to do. A recent Pew study revealed that Internet use is still an economic privilege. Consider this: Some 95% of Americans who live in households earning $75,000 or more a year use the internet at least occasionally, compared with 70% of those living in households earning less than $75,000.
The technology gap gets more pronounced with less income. The median white family income in 2009 was $54,461, the media hispanic family income was $38,039 and the median black income was $32,584 (U.S. Census Bureau). You do the math on who is getting the short end of the digital divide stick.
Mobile and social media have done a lot to provide equal access in the past few years, but there’s still a gap. What is that gap in your mind?
Mike Street – Mobile, social media, and all of the above have brought communications to a whole new level. But I feel that while we have much more access to information, African-American’s and Latinos are not leveraging these platform or creating new platforms in order to create the next level of technology. This is the new gap.
We’ve turned the digital divide into the digital crack but now there is a whole new divide that needs to be closed. While both communities are consumers and content generators, the pace to compete within the startup space is VERY slow. It troubles me on many different levels but this fact drives me to be out there more and to help highlight and honor minorities working in this space.
Dupe Ajayi – To me, that gap is tied to education and economics. Last year I sat on a panel that Mike hosted and almost got into a fist fight over this one! The other panelist’s argument was the digital divide comes as a result of minorities choosing to spend their money on items such as sneakers and bags as opposed to tech gadgets that would open up help close the gap.
I agree with [Mike] to some extent but feel education is key: inform people as to why it will pay in the long run to invest in tech. Furthermore, educate people on the fact that the use of tech tools goes way beyond social networking: you can use them to find a (better) job, get money for school, find resources to help you start your own business, etc.
Blacks and Latins Get Shut Out
Think this is untrue? Let’s look at the social media marketing blogosphere’s defacto barometer the AdAge 150 and its top 20. The only minorities in the top 20 are Brian Solis and John Chow. As you scroll through the list of the actual 150, the numbers don’t get much better.
When the issues of social media rise up to the mainstream media, who gets cited? When the Quora fight du jour occurs on who the social media experts are occurs, who gets listed? Conference speakers? Etc., etc. The reality is that — at least within this market space — we are an almost all white homogeneous group. Intentional or not, digital segregation lives on. It does validate arguments that social media communities often polarize diverse groups of people.
Why is it harder for African and Latin Americans to receive notoriety in the mainstream conversation?
Mike Street: This is the million dollar question and I don’t have the answer to this. This was one of the main reason why myself and my business partner, Dupe Ajayi, decided to create Influential1s.com. We had had enough of seeing list of the best of social media that often excluded any diversity. So what we are doing is using the Influential1s.com platform as a showcase to highlight the efforts of people of color working in digital, marketing, social media, fashion, and beyond.
Dupe Ajayi: The question of the hour! I think mainstream media has made the decision to not highlight these people. It has to be. Mike and I both know of people who are ‘killing it’ in the social space across many specialties. However, when we look at ‘Top Ten’ lists, the faces of color are almost non existent. To add to the curious dilemma is that fact that minorities are top users of all things social.
I believe that we have been satisfied with striving to make the mainstream lists and then settling when we get a bit of recognition. This issue is at the foundation of us launching influential1s.com. We want to say, “Hey we’re here and we are a force.” We also want to truly celebrate our colleagues.
What Are the Answers?
The digital divide has more questions than answers. It’s hard to point in any direction with the surety of a silver bullet. Online, mindful inclusiveness is critical. Are you subconsciously shutting people out.
Long term, one thing is certain, focusing on education opportunities for minorities provides a key foundation point for equal opportunity. It addresses financial opportunity to some extent and gives individuals a better chance for success. There are so many more areas to focus on culturally and economically, so keep an open mind as to how you can help.
What is the answer in your mind?
Mike Street: The answer is for us to be fully visible and sit at the table. I’ve been in the NY tech space for years and have gone to several events, even recently, where I am the ONLY person of color. But I feel that it is important to work to opening these doors, helping to create safe spaces for African-American’s and Latino’s to prosper in the digital age. I run an African-American tech group called Black’s in Technology. I recently took over this group and will be working on providing solid networking opportunities that will help African-American working in this space to create new platforms like Foursquare.
What Would MLK Think?
One can only think MLK would be happy to see so many new tools open to minorities in general. At the same time, he would not be thrilled with the lack of progress in achieving equal stature in positions of authority, whether that be digital leadership or political standing.
He might have said that while freedom is within everyone’s grasp now, so few attain it. For every Barack Obama, there’s a dominant white U.S. senate. MLK would likely be focusing on empowering people to succeed and use digital tools to better their lives, as well as creating new opportunities for minorities.
Also, it is certain that MLK would not be happy with the lack of civility in U.S. political life. He would have been horrified by the Arizona shootings, and the political discourse that preceded them.
How would MLK view the current state of the interwebs?
Mike Street: I think MLK would be happy overall with the political activity going on now. Communities of color are more involved in the political and civil rights movement and using Facebook and Twitter as a means of organizing. However, I feel he would think we need to be a bit more proactive and helping to fully solve any issue that affects the quality of life of Americans
Dupe Ajayi: I think he’d say there is work to be done. I am a service junkie. I’ve spent the past few years dedicated to the non-profit movement because I really want to see change happen. I’ve spent time in learning and mastering social because I feel that these tools can be used to effect change. MLK would say that while finding out who wore what when and tweeting about it is cool, lets use our social networking muscle to create equality, jobs and level the playing field.