Breakfast over Mogadishu: fear at (almost) 36,000 feet

Photograph of a page from Stilgherrian's notebook

Saturday 27 June 2009. This isn’t exactly the world’s newest Boeing 767-300ER, and there’s slightly too much pubic hair in the toilets. Breakfast is being served, and my stupidly-expensive Moleskine notebook is filling up with notes about the Parable of the Quartered Donkey.

That’s quartered as in hanged, drawn and quartered.

I’m the donkey.

The smiling Kenya Airways staff go about their business of bread rolls and bitter coffee en route from Bangkok to Nairobi, where I’ll change for my flight to Dar es Salaam. I wake from a brief period of something vaguely approximating sleep to the realisation that Project TOTO has one significant flaw: multiple goals, with conflicting requirements.

Something deep in my gut says this is going to be a problem.

Flash forward to today. It’s only two weeks since I arrived in Tanzania and a week since I left again, but the world is eager to analyse the project’s “success” or “failure”. We already have Laurel Papworth’s Stilgherrian: Wherefor art thou, bloggers? (which has triggered some excellent discussion) and Fi Bendall’s Sharing the knowledge: How NGOs can benefit from online consumer awareness.

Both articles are well worth reading. Both highlight what I think is a serious problem: short-term thinking.

But first, those multiple goals.

  • “Give poverty a voice.” This was the “public” goal. Training Tanzanians in blogging and getting their blog online, as promoted in the original #secretmission briefing note and media release. This requires uninterrupted time at a computer with a decent Internet connection — although there’s also the paper blogs training exercise. But that’s just the orientation and technical set-up. Actually establishing a corporate blog requires discussion within an organisation, and then slowly, steadily building an audience. That takes months, unless you’re Stephen Fry.
  • Tell the story of poverty. Expose me to the reality of African poverty, so I can write about it. This requires both plenty of contact time in the field, and plenty of quiet reflect-and-write time in solitude. As I wrote a fortnight before I left Sydney, an insightful essay can take half a day, and I was already worried then that it was going to be tough.
  • Expose a hidden problem. The report Breaking the Curse, commissioned by development charities including ActionAid, reckons African states have been deprived of royalties and taxes by mining firms, thanks to a lack of legislative oversight and overly-generous tax concessions. They want to expose Australian mining companies if they’ve been behaving badly. This is investigative journalism. It’s all about establishing trusted contacts and research over an extended period.
  • Raise ActionAid’s profile. This whole project came about because Austcare, a “trusted brand” in charities here in Australia, was becoming ActionAid Australia, and needed to promote it new identity. If people were reading about the project, then they’d learn the new name.
  • Raise money. In amongst all that is the need for ActionAid to cover the costs of the project — as well as fund its continuing operations, of course. Fundraising targets were amongst the KPIs Fi Bendall write about in her piece, though they’re not spelled out.

It strikes me that all of these things take time.

Indeed, as Laurel writes:

Social media can be slow — everything happens in the long tail of rippled content, rather than the short head of traditional campaign activity.

And as Ash Nallawalla commented:

I didn’t know about Stil’s trip until the day of his send-off party, and only because Neerav mentioned it.

It’s all too easy to forget that just because we might be hyper-focussed on some issue and hanging on every tweet, for others it’s just part of the background chatter in their lives.

I felt like I’d been talking about Project TOTO for weeks, to the point of boring everybody. However I was still getting messages on Twitter a week after I’d arrived in Tanzania from people wondering why I wasn’t in Sydney. People asked me today whether I was still in Tanzania, when I left a week ago.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this. People retweet things said days ago because they’ve only just logged in and scrolled back. People add comments to blog posts from months or years ago, because they’ve just stumbled across them while searching for something on their agenda today.

Despite knowing this, Laurel is disappointed by the lack of instant reaction:

I expected Australian bloggers to get more behind Stil, and I’m a little disappointed they didn’t. A few blog posts on the going away party — we bloggers love boozy tweetups — but no real analysis of the changes that citizen journalism can wrought to this new hybrid of Social News and Social Action.

But one commenter, Just some guy, absolutely nailed it, I reckon: Authenticity. Or rather, the lack thereof. His comment is worth reading in full.

As an outsider — I don’t know any of you people — I have to say that the apparent lack of interest in this project has to do with the failure of Stilgherrian to communicate in an authentic voice.

For someone who, according to the voice he chooses to use in social media, can barely lift the telephone or make it up Enmore Road without a “FFS” about some perceived injustice against his delicate sensibilities, to suddenly become the Mother Theresa of African blogging read as forced, fake, self-censoring and pandering to the politics of his sponsors.

It’s absurd to be harangued for not getting behind the project when, from an objective point of view, all we saw was an endless series of tweets about getting there only to be followed by more tweets about getting out of there and worrying about getting a decent hotel room in Bangkok.

It was ridiculous to find one of Australia’s most cantankerous voices on the internet replaced, suddenly, with an apparently calm acceptance of things we know, from experience, he would never put up with in his day-to-day life in suburban Sydney.

Regardless of how socially significant the project may be — which was never really explained or expressed outside of months of chatter about “sekrit” meetings — its expression read as two-dimensional and insular.

If you genuinely believe that Australian bloggers outside your network should support and promote this kind of international action, you need to back off from the provocative language and engage a real-world audience with something a little more useful. As it stands, it looks like all that happened was a piss-up and a couple of long drives in the African countryside as narrated by Evelyn Waugh on Valium. Got anything better to offer?

Whoever he is, he’s right. I did self-censor. And I did worse. I committed the unforgivable sin of being boring.

From the time of The Gnome Incident, I was stressed about saying something else that might cause problems. Though I had a document in which my editorial independence was agreed there was, as vealmince pointed out weeks ago, inevitably an invisible pressure to conform to The Message simply because ActionAid was paying for my ticket.

This is, of course, precisely the criticism aimed at embedded journalism. And rightly so.

As I said in my previous post, for most of the time in Tanzania I was completely exhausted. And exhausted, I didn’t have the focus to say what I was really thinking and feeling. While I didn’t have time or, often, an Internet link to blog, I did tweet to sustain the presence — but my tweets became banal.

One of the recommendations from Thursday’s debriefing with ActionAid Australia was that the next outreach blogger will need time to recover from jet lag and a less-packed schedule if they’re to write while in the field.

Barry Saunders also nailed it in Social media and social justice:

I’m quite keen to blog about [Project TOTO], but frankly, I’m more interested in hearing the voices of the Tanzanian bloggers. The last thing the blogosphere needs is more middle-class white westerners drowning out other people’s voices.

Hear hear!

Quite frankly, I’m uncomfortable with the slogan “Give poverty a voice”. Poverty already has a voice. Everybody does. What poverty needs is for us to shut the fuck up and listen for a change.

While my longer blog posts are only just starting to appear, we’ve established some valuable human links between Sydney and Dar es Salaam — both through actual voices from Africa in the blog Jambo Tanzania and whatever other stories emerge . It’ll be interesting to see how that evolves.

Update: The following point occurred to me as I was responding to comments. I think it deserves to be pulled up into the body of the post.

Which of these two aims was the real aim of the project?

  1. Give poverty a voice.
  2. Look at me and tell your friends! I’m giving poverty a voice!

Humans are highly-evolved social animals. I think we have a special part of the brain designed to detect insincere attention-seeking behaviour.

7 Replies to “Breakfast over Mogadishu: fear at (almost) 36,000 feet”

  1. it’s strange, i thought your output was excellent, but i was following your twitter feed. i never expected posts of substance to start appearing instantly from the field, but your tweets were short, sharp, witty, and made me wait expectantly for the next burst.

    i also knew about your trip well in advance, but again that’s because i follow you on twitter, as well as a few of your closer colleagues (your crikey comrades particularly really talked up the project #toto adventure, even building suspense with their very entertaining #sekritmission references).

    i think possibly people expected the instantaneousness (is that a word?) of social media to equate to a similar instantaneousness (if i use it twice, i *has* to be a word, right?) in the project #toto output. as i commented on @barrysaunders’ ‘blog, i think the ‘social justice’ crowd and the ‘social media’ crowd are still getting to understand one another – and to learn each others’ limitations.

    what i think we can look forward to tho’ is momentum – as your subsequent posts begin to roll into the next Outreach Blogger’s mission, and so on, and so forth (assuming it continues to move forward like that) the effect will snowball.

    your contribution will seem greater as time moves on, as a snowball forms around it – but without it, the next ‘blocks’ will have nothing to stick to. i assume (and indeed hope) that your words won’t simply cease when the next blogger takes the chair.

    well done, i have enjoyed the journey so far, and i look forward to hearing more over the coming days, weeks and months.

  2. Stil,

    if giving the initial concept of giving poverty a voice – it worked. The problem here, is that the blog-o-sphere is full of people who “virtually” live in the world that they create. Not the real world. I fear that , blogging about this to bloggers will not give the aims that you set out to do – realistically, ActionAID and your aim – as i saw it – was to connect the poor of africa to THE WORLD… not just to bloggers, but THROUGH bloggers!

    Self importance will always be the downfall of the blog-o-sphere, so congratulations on trying to bridge the gap between the rest of humanity, the poor and the poor bloggers.

    I think you have started something great.



  3. @Michael Quall: I think “expectation” is the key word there. For the “insiders”, expectations were not clearly defined. That’s a no-blame for ActionAid and its contractors: this was new in so many ways that we were discovering what we needed as we went along. But it did mean that every individual then formed their own set of expectations based on however they were viewing the project through their own individual prism. As is natural.

    For some people, the way the project unfolded on the ground didn’t fit with their expectations, and that caused tension.

    I was one of those people.

    I’d envisaged posting a wond’rous essay every morning — which usually requires me to be at my desk, undisturbed, for a couple hours and involves plenty of pacing and thinking. Or every evening — but that never works because I’m a morning person. I don’t know why I imagined that I’d succeed. A morning of writing usually means my afternoon is good for nothing but minor housekeeping tasks, not more brain-intensive work. So I was extremely stressed because I wasn’t meeting my own expectations.

    Until I changed my expectations.

    For some reason, though, it took a couple days to realise that I needed to work with the reality in front of me, not with an imagined plan which has been rendered obsolete by changing circumstances.

    Yes, “instantaneousness” is a word. 😉

    @rob manser: Thanks, but there’s a long way to go yet. The bloggerati surged to Jambo Tanzania to congratulate the guys on their initial posts. But I wonder how many subscribed to the RSS feed, or went back to read the post about malaria?

  4. “Is this Stilgherrian using a nom de plume?” I thought.

    If it ain’t, I pondered further, then someone’s done him a grand favour of summarising and publishing each of the key flaws that must have gnawed at him throughout this journey.

    You see, now we can say that the boil has been lanced; one of the impediments to getting back to the business on reflecting upon, writing about and discussing project TOTO is now removed. (seriously, semicolons signify nothing…)

    I am very easily pleased. I found the tweets exercised my imagination (did someone mention goats?) and I saw it as a key outcome for the project when I was able to post a response to Abdul’s first blog entry.

    Clearly, Stilgherrian would have benefited from adding an advisory to his #toto writings that at the first signs of boredom, the reader should immediately seek entertainment distraction from a big budget movie DVD…

    TOTO has only just begun.

  5. @sylvano: Stilgherrian did mention goats, yes, but he’d never talk about himself in the third person — so that anonymous commenter can’t have been him.

    You refer to this post as a boil being lanced. Last night on Twitter I described it as unblocking the constipation. Same thing, really: something unpleasantly unhealthy was getting in the way of regular operations, and now the blockage has been removed.

    @rob manser: Something you said just hit me:

    [Given] the initial concept of giving poverty a voice — it worked.

    Well, I still think it’s too early to tell. We have a blog online, yes, but it may or may not turn into something worthwhile in the long term. However, it does raise an important question…

    Which of these two aims was the real aim of the project?

    1. Give poverty a voice.
    2. Look at me and tell your friends! I’m giving poverty a voice!

    Humans are highly-evolved social animals. I think we have a special part of the brain designed to detect insincere attention-seeking behaviour.

  6. Stil, I think there are three issues here. One is training Tanzanian’s to blog and get them up and running, the second is to get coverage while you are doing that, third is to effect some long-term awareness.

    I think you succeeded in Point One — clearly your trip was successful in getting the new bloggers up and running. The third point, effecting awareness over time, needs time. It’s the second point I am concerned about — news is news when it is new. I think the wrong social networks were activated — my personal opinion — I would’ve asked the not-for-profit bloggers, the live local, the issues-aware ones to get behind this campaign. Not the media/marketing bloggerati who are inundated with requests to support issues. I’m not sure if this was your responsibility or you just got roped into talking up your work with Cult of Pesce network.

    If there was no PR campaign around your travel, then so be it. You did your job, you came home, end of subject. But if there was supposed to be an awareness raising, activation of social media discussions, then it was not as successful.

    The point of my post is that I had the same issues in Saudi — I trained them, they signed up 1,000s of members per day. We actually did really well in PR and media — but not in Australia. Shel Israel, BlogHer and others picked up the story — that conference that Scoble and Winer etc went to in China talked about the project. Shel included the work I did in a book sponsored by SAP. But Australia? Not a ticketyboo.

    Either there is something different with the way we activate social media bloggers here, or else we downgrade everyone’s actions to Tall Poppy — insincere attention seeking behaviour. Such a shame.

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