NDN Blog

The World Cup: The World's First Truly Globalized Media Event

We're soccer fans here at NDN, in case you haven't noticed, and we're currently addicted to the World Cup in a bad way.  As the Cup approached, I wrote a couple short posts on how the World's Greatest Sporting Event might affect global connectivity-- whether it would drive adoption or innovation-- particularly in the mobile space.  And it has, no doubt.  If you've been watching on ESPN, you've heard the announcers remind you that you can "follow all the action online, on your TV or on your mobile phone" (with British accent-emphasis on the mow-boile phoune).

In addition, it turns out all this football madness has had an impact on this here internet.  Post Tech reports that the opening day of the World Cup saw the highest web traffic ever, with over 12 million visitors every minute around noon EST.  That's a good 50% higher than the second-highest peak in history of 8 million visitors/minute, which occurred on the evening of November 4, 2008.  Note that the third-highest peak ever was also a World Cup moment-- it happened around the time the US was eliminated from the 2006 Cup by Ghana. Akamai has the numbers.

Maurice Edu Scored That GoalWhat's driving all this? A few facts, followed by a few theories: Numbers this big are necessarily driven by North American internet users.  While every other continent is over 100% above usual internet usage (North America is at about 90% above typical usage), all those continents combined don't equal the number of viewers in North America.  So despite the canard that Americans don't care about soccer (popularized by Europeans, adopted by American conservatives)... they do.

But, if the numbers are driven by the U.S., why does the World Cup cause a bigger spike than, say, the Super Bowl? Or Michael Phelps? Or the Christmas Day bomber?  Part of the explanation, at least, has to be that the Cup, unlike most sporting events, happens at odd hours, while Americans are at work, rather than on their couch, so they're depending on the internet, more than television. But I think there's also a more interesting explanation...

As NDN has noted time and again, we live in an increasingly globalized, interconnected world-- and this trend has accelerated as connectivity has expanded to include the over 4.5 billion people on earth with a mobile phone. Increased web activity around this truly global event is echoing beyond borders, and the passions of foreign football fanatics are driving greater activity of American web-users. 

What I'm saying is that World Cup frenzy in the US is being driven not just by soccer-maniacs, but by regular people who are responding to the global obsession. Though Stanley McChrystal snuck into Twitter's Trending Topics today, the top-ten list has been absolutely dominated by World Cup-related items over the past two weeks.  Media produced around the world is being gobbled up by Americans. And who could have imagined the word Vuvuzela on the lips of so many Americans this week?

Global football madness is driving Americans' activity on the web, whether they know it or not. I can think of a few examples of American media driving global activity, but this may be the first time it's gone in the other direction. Does that make this World Cup the first truly globalized media event?  I'd say so.

Looking Back at the Iran Uprising & Social Technology

Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the Iranian presidential election that sparked the Green Revolution. In advance of the anniversary, a spate of articles have come out criticizing the excessive emphasis the media put on the role of Twitter in organizing the uprising. RFE's Golnaz Esfandiari writes in Foreign Policy that reports of a "Twitter Revolution" were massively overstated and misleading.  But, as she concludes: 

It's not that Twitter publicists of the Iranian protests haven't played a role in the events of the past year. They have. It's just not been the outsized role it's often been made out to be.

And in the Guardian, Hamid Tehrani, Persian editor of Global Voices, is quoted saying:

The west was focused not on the Iranian people but on the role of western technology. Twitter was important in publicizing what was happening, but its role was overemphasized.

Clearly, there was an awful lot of hype around the role of Twitter, which, it turns out, was used minimally for organizing and much more as a tool to bring news to the world outside Iran. But that global connectivity is, in itself, remarkable. The words, images, and videos broadcast to the world by iran's Green Revolutionthe Iranian people were far more powerful than the sanitized news reports we would have otherwise received from the few reporters allowed to stay by the government.

We're moving toward a world in which every person on earth has a direct connection to everyone else. Within Iran, SMS was used as a crucial organizing tool, and the video of Neda's death, circulated via e-mail, was recorded on a tiny cell phone camera. Twitter, YouTube, and other social media brought news beyond Iran's borders. Dictators and democrats alike will try to use these new technologies to their own benefit, but a network that diffuses organizing and communication power to the hands of every person is one that will tilt, if gently, toward freedom.

No, Twitter didn't bring democracy to Iran. As Tehrani said in the Guardian, "The cornerstone of this movement is not technology, it's people." Of course. But that technology is, ultimately, history's most potent tool to empower those people.

Dispatches from Personal Democracy Forum

Personal Democracy Forum 2K10 has been a great couple days with a lot of very cool people.  I just want to take a quick moment to highlight one of the big themes that I've seen coming out of session after session, and talk after talk.

The leading question of the conference, as I mentioned, is "Can the Internet Fix Politics?" And whether directly or indirectly, many of the speakers I've heard in the past couple days have refuted the principle of the question.  It's not about the internet, or cell phones, or technology at all-- it's about people. The potential of the technology lies in its ability to connect real people to one another, build communities, and use leverage their network to achieve their goals.

The best talk on this subject was from Scott Heiferman of Meetup. His killer line was "Use the internet to get off the internet."  Definitely recommend watching his video when it's posted at personaldemocracy.com.

There has also been a good deal of really interesting discussion on the trouble media is having in the new networked world, and the trouble we're having navigating the glut of information. Eli Pariser of MoveOn (who gave perhaps the best talk of the conference-- another one to watch once it's available), offered a mindblowing statistic: more information was created in 2009 than in all of human history up through 2008.

As I've written in the past, the next killer app will be the one that helps us navigate the endless flood of information and find what matters. In his talk, Pariser highlighted the efforts of Google and Facebook to solve this problem, focusing on the ways they narrow their content to give you what you want-- but not necessarily what we need.  In his words, these companes "do a good job of serving us as customers, but not as citizens," and he voiced concern that we're moving toward a network in which we're each surfing "an internet of one."  Solutions?  Not so much.  But lots of meaty stuff to think about.

Framing Questions for Personal Democracy Forum

I'm on my way up to New York this morning for the 2010 edition of the Personal Democracy Forum, which Jose Antonio Vargas aptly calls "The quintessential hub of examining where politics is headed in our tech-centric, increasingly mobile, socially connected 21st century."

The leading question at this year's conference is "Can the Internet Fix Politics?" which makes an interesting frame.  I've argued here before that, despite all the dust that's been kicked up over whether the internet is a good thing or a bad thing, a panacea or the inevitable ruin or our society, the internet and all other connection technologies-- mobile phones, social media, etc.-- are, at the end of the day, just tools. This global network has the potential to be a platform for warfare, terror, oppression and manipulation. It also has the capacity to fight ignorance, isolation, poverty and disease the world over.

With extraordinary potential for both good and ill, they'll seem to take the characteristics of those whose hands they're in, but they're just tools. So, as PDF opens, Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej ask the question:  "We all agree the internet is changing politics, can it fix politics too? Can it make politics more open, participatory, responsive and accountable? Can it help restore trust in self-government and perhaps convince more of us that the country is on the right track?"

I'm looking forward to responses to these questions over the next two days, and you can expect to be updated here (or follow the twitter-action at #pdf10).

Marshalling New Technologies

I want to highlight one passage from the Obama Administration's National Security Strategy, released last week. It comes in the "Advancing our Interests" chapter, in the "Values" section, under the "Promote Democracy and Human Rights Abroad" subheading:

Marshalling New Technologies and Promoting the Right to Access Information: The emergence of technologies such as the Internet, wireless networks, mobile smart-phones, investigative forensics, satellite and aerial imagery, and distributed remote sensing infrastructure has created powerful new opportunities to advance democracy and human rights. These technologies have fueled people-powered political movements, made it possible to shine a spotlight on human rights abuses nearly instantaneously, and increased avenues for free speech and unrestricted communication around the world. We support the dissemination and use of these technologies to facilitate freedom of expression, expand access to information, increase governmental transparency and accountability, and counter restrictions on their use. We will also better utilize such technologies to effectively communicate our own messages to the world.

Congress to Take up Telecom Act

A bevy of Democratic lawmakers announced today that they plan to take a whack at updating the 1934 Communications Act of 1934 and the Telecommunications act of 1996 (which amended the original). Starting in June, the Commerce Committees of the House and Senate will convene issue-focused stakeholder meetings to work toward a bipartisan amendment to the act.

Here's your background: In March, the FCC unveiled their National Broadband Plan to connect all Americans to the broadband network. In April, the DC Circuit Court ruled against the FCC in Comcast v. FCC, throwing the FCC's ability to regulate broadband into legal question, and putting the Broadband Plan on weak legal footing. In May, the FCC announced they would find a "third way" between giving up on their Plan and subjecting broadband access providers to the stringent "Title II" regulation scheme, and said they would only apply a few basic Title II provisions that would establish clear FCC control without strangling the industry.

While the FCC's proposal was, at face value, a very good one, the legal framework was built on promises, and the door would be left open for future Commissioners to radically re-interpret the FCC's authority. For the FCC to have the authority to pursue its goals-- and just about everybody agrees their goals are important and well-worth pursuing-- congressional action is the best step forward. Congress has the ability to give the FCC clear authority over broadband, and to write the policy in a way that doesn't discourage investment or innovation.  In an address to NDN back in March, Verizon EVP Tom Tauke argued that this was the best way forward, and I'm glad to see that his sensible suggestions have been taken up by our Democratic lawmarkers.

In 1996, not many of us were using broadband.  And just about none of us foresaw the legitimate competition that mobile broadband would eventually pose to wireline broadband providers. And in 1934, well, things were even more different then. The struggle over whether broadband should be classified as a "telecommunications service" or an "information service" is indicative of just how badly we need an update to our laws.  Hats off to Sens. Rockefeller & Kerry and Reps. Waxman & Boucher for taking up this daunting task, and I look forward to some good dialogue.


Pakistan Quashing Net Freedoms, Citizens Speaking Out

Yesterday, on orders from a Pakistani court, the Pakistani Telecommunications Authority (PTA) blocked access to Facebook. The move was in response to a page on the site called "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day," exhorting Facebook users to draw depictions of Mohammed, in the purported hope of spurring debate about Muslims' objection to images of the founder of their faith. Today, the PTA expanded their ban to include Flickr, Wikipedia, and YouTube, citing a rise in "objectionable content."

Twitter, however, has remained online, and many of Pakistan's tech-savvy have been venting frustration there. Shoaib Taimur (@shobz) captured the basic sentiment of the Twitterati in one remark:

note to everyone: I oppose the ban on websites. I dont endorse Blasphemy but curtailing our freedom of speech is too much #fb

The Facebook group is broadly considered to be a tasteless and tactless effort, but the ham-handed response by the Pakistani courts and the PTA is worse. Huma Imtiaz (@HumaImtiaz), a Pakistani journalist, sees the work of Islamic hard-liners in the action of the government. In a blog post, she argues that the PTA has previously shown great ability to block individual pages showing content that would be damning to the Pakistani government, but is now responding with blanket censorship to appease a radical minority.

Sabeen Mahmud (@sabeen) and Dr. Awab Alvi (@DrAwab) organized a press conference this afternoon to speak out against censorship.  As Mahmud tweeted later:

I have been insisting that the outrage needs to be about Internet censorship not FB. @kidvai

The press conference quickly devolved into an accusatory shouting match, with the media taking the side of the government.  As Dr. Alvi tweeted afterward:

Safely home Sad experience, our point we condemn cartoon caricature but Not a blanket ban on websites, became issue of muslim non-muslim

And Mahmud followed, sarcastically:

>> Well done mainstream media. You outdid yourself today. To think we marched on the streets for your freedom.

Oh wait, I remember now! You thought I shouldn't have expressed outrage and should have watered down my stance >>

It's heartening to see individuals standing up against censorship for their freedom of speech and freedom to information. What's happening in Pakistan right now is a prime example of the danger the internet faces of losing its open, global nature, and becoming a series of national networks, subject to censorship, borders, and the whims of policymakers. Some of Pakistan's Twitterati predict the bans will be lifted in the coming days, and I hope they're right.

It's nearly midnight in Karachi now, but I expect these individuals and this situation will be active and exciting to follow tomorrow.  On Twitter, I'd recommend following @sabeen, @DrAwab, @HaroonRiaz, and @HumaImtiaz for good, regular (English-language) updates.

Space-Binding, Time-Splitting Soccer

"Live" coverage of the Olympics and the World Cup are space-binding and time-splitting technologies of international sporting culture, recorded and read across the world through a complex prism of nation, region, race, class, sexual practice and gender.

- David Rowe, Jim McKay & Toby Miller, Come Together: Sport, Nationalism and the Media Image

That quote comes from Mediasport, an edited volume on how media affects sport and vice versa.  It was written in 1998, before the real space-binding technologies went truly global. I wrote last week about how the World Cup has Mandela & World Cup Trophythe potential to be a big driver of mobile adoption around the world. Basically, I argued that, because this is the first World Cup to be played in a world with widespread mobile access, people from Togo to Tokyo will want to get SMS score updates, audio broadcasts, and even live video of the games.

The appropriate level of technology will vary from place to place, but I'd be surprised if we didn't see a global bump, as everyone upgrades just a little-- whether it's an Argentine farmer who buys his first phone so that he can get score updates in the fields, or a Danish businessman who needs a way to watch the games in his lap at the conference table.

I'll go a step further even, to speculate that we'll likely see a great deal of innovation and new products and services emerging to enable yet more space-binding and time-splitting technology around the world. In places where television access is limited, I'd have to imagine there's a strong market for SMS score updates, and further, a place for a company to step in and offer those updates for free, in exchange for the occasional SMS advertisement. In the developing world, SMS is a marketing tool with powerful, largley untapped potential. The World Cup may go a long way to pushing that forward.

Anyhow, here's another video to pump you up for South Africa's World Cup, this one brough to you by the good folks at Pepsi, and including some space-binding, time-splitting play from Lionel Messi, Thierry Henri, Didier Drogba:

#HaitiTech: Lessons for the Future

I was over at the State Department yesterday for a series of conversations on the role technology played in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. DipNote has a writeup of the day's events, but I wanted to highlight the first panel of the day, which Katie Stanton rounded up here

Much has been made of the way text messaging saved lives in Haiti after the quake. In her speech on Internet Freedom, Hillary Clinton closed with a story about one woman who was pulled from the rubble after texting for help. But the actual process that sprang up to make all of this work was intricate, incredible, and frankly, highly improbable. 

It began just hours after the earthquake, when a group of Tufts graduate students (Roz Sewell spoke on the panel, and pointed to Patrick Meier as a driving force) used their connections in government, in the non-profit world, and in the Haitian diaspora to build a system that worked something like this: Haitians could send a text message to a free shortcode-- 4346-- and their message would be immediately added to a database, where it would be translated from Creole to English, and then sent back to the operations center at Tufts (so proud of my alma mater). The group of volunteers there would decide whether the texted request was actionable, and if it was, they would forward the request on to the people on the ground who could take action.  Through this whole loop, a message could move in a matter of minutes.

I mean, amazing, right? But so improbable, really. And entirely dependent on the initiative of a few creative, inspired students. Clearly, this should be institutionalized for the future, so that the next time a disaster strikes, there is an organization or government body with the clear task of making something like this happen.  Even then, it's hard to know whether it could work in a disaster that-- for lack of a better way of saying it-- got less press.

The Tufts folks have started an independent, academic review of their work, which will hopefully yield a clear picture of what they did right, what they could have done better, and what we should learn and mimic for future disasters. They're also transitioning the capabilities and resources of their "4346" service to a new, Haitian government-run, citizen text hotline. Both good ideas. Hopefully, we'll be ready to respond to the next disaster in an effective and timely manner.  And hopfully, we can help Haitians get back on their feet, empower their own government, and rebuild their country.

The World Cup and Global Connectivity

Every four years, it's amazing to see the way soccer (futbol) brings people together from all over the world, with eyes in Japan, Iran, Algeria, Brazil, and every other country on earth glued to the TV screen. For a month, politics and dispute disappear, and the world comes together over one simple thing.

The World Cup is now barely a month away, and I've been thinking about what this huge global event (the hugest global event?) means for global connectivity. Four years ago, when the World Cup was held in Germany, less than half of people on earth had access to the global communications network.  Only about 41% of the world's population had a mobile phone-- barely 20% in Africa. Today, in South Africa, where the World Cup will begin next month, nearly 100% of the population has a mobile phone-- and through that device, instant access to the worldwide information and communications network. Over 4 billion people on earth are connected.

I talk a lot about how universal access to a truly global network is, in itself, a seminal event in human history, and I wonder if this World Cup will be a tipping point in that regard:  pushing up the number of mobile subscribers because everyone wants to know the score of their games, increasing the number of smartphone users because everyone will want video on the go, increasing the use of cross-border communication for cheering, chatting and taunting... Fururism is a hazy science, but how could this global event not feed off of and contribute to global connectivity?

Anyhow, this ad, which already is one of my all-time favorite ads, sums up the nature of the World Cup as well as anything:

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