Cross-cultural in so many ways: Insights from ‘Digitally Connected’

It was a small but mighty gathering at Harvard’s Berkman Center this week – mighty in diversity of geographical, personal and professional perspective (40% of the participants were from the global South). It was called “Digitally Connected,” but it was about a more inclusive and, I think, more lasting, holistic sense of what “connected” means. It was co-organized by UNICEF and Harvard University’s Berkman Center, but in closing Wednesday, Berkman Center executive director Urs Gasser thanked the participants for “peer-producing” it.

That wasn’t just a kind send-off. The conference ended up modeling three things that participants called for in it: 1) it was well-organized but iterative – palpably open-ended, with a collective learn-as-you-go feeling); 2) it was cross-functional as well as -cultural (this was the “peer” part, a sense that each felt there was something to learn from every other participant); and 3) it moved past participation to co-creation.

Co-creation was a key theme of the conference for me: It’s not enough to give voice to youth, marginalized populations, economic have-nots (or conference participants); they need to be co-creators. David Sengeh from Sierra Leone (now studying at MIT) pointed out the difference between listening to youth and co-creating solutions and policies with them. He said lasting solutions to social problems have to grow out of the context (lives), interests and ingenuity of the people experiencing the problem (he gives examples in a guest post at CNN). Akaliza Keza Gara of Rwanda tweeted that “community solutions should come from WITHIN that community,” echoing what a Lebanese friend and family therapist told me years ago: “The solution is always within the child.” Sharad Sapra, director of UNICEF’s Innovation Center in Nairobi, asked why people aren’t part of the solution at every stage rather than mere recipients of services? He was suggesting that innovation is harnessed not imposed.

Otherwise, what happens is what Uganda’s seeing: “Uganda is a graveyard of successful pilot projects,” said Dorothea Kleine, director of the ICT4D Centre at University of London, successful but unsustainable projects. She said ICT4D (ICT for Development) is “demand-driven, user-centered and participatory,” engaging with youth as users and co-creators rather than solving problems from adults’ viewpoint.” See what I mean about a theme?

Further insights:

  • Clearer  on “connection”: The conference expanded my sense of what “connected” means. It feels like I’ve always known how fluid the term is for young people, but perspectives from all over the world reveal its fluidity for all kinds of populations, as defined by age, ethnicity, ability/disability, culture, religion, etc. It can involve low-tech, high-tech or no-tech, but it always involves human connections and always goes better with skills and literacies – social, technical and media literacies.
  • “Connected” means different things to different people. When I spoke with Rachel Alwala of Kenya’s Communications Commission, I learned that, while we in the US tend to think of mobile as just another way to connect, text, socialize via the cloud, Kenyans think of the Internet and mobile as two separate things. So people in the US read research about “connectivity” very differently from people in Kenya.
  • “Connected” can mean unmarginalized: Regina Agyare, founder of Tech Needs Girls Ghana, said 1 billion people on the planet are disabled. She spoke of how people with hearing and other disabilities are marginalized from mainstream society. “I never even saw them,” she said, until she was compelled to focus on helping them gain skills that increase their opportunities.
  • Low tech, high connection (and distribution): Paulo Rogerio Nunes of Brazil showed how his organization, Vojo of Brazil, “gives voice to the disconnected” with low-tech, MIT-developed Vojo.co by teaching youth in the quilombos (villages originally created by escaped slaves) to “identify and denounce the violence they witness in their communities” by publishing news stories with public phones (landlines) or used cellphones.
  • Development from the inside out: Chris Fabian of UNICEF said we need to move away from the notion of development “projects for other people” to development of grassroots networks of problem-solvers like Ureport.ug,” which was built by young people for young people’s participation and their professional development. Jeff Hensley, director of philanthropy for the Internet Society, said that the more the content is in the local language and the more invested the local pop is in its development, the more successful the project will be.
  • Digitally equipped but humanly connected: Prof. Jack Qiu of Chinese University of Hong Kong told of Hmong youth in China who find discarded cellphones and use them to collect and share music. When they get tired of their own music collection, they just swap phones. Other members of Hmong communities use phones to share Hmong-created stories (text, audio, video). Their phones are not “connected,” but they’re very connected, their connections enriched by personal sharing of  digital media they love on digital devices.
  • Disconnect between youth, research, policymaking: When we make policy intended to help youth, do we get their input? Juan Cruz Gonzalez Allonca of Argentina’s Ministry of Justice says his ministry works with youth in developing policy. Someone said, “youth are makers, connectors, technologists and designers,” and policymaking needs to reflect that, not just popular narratives representing young people as potential victims.
  • Risk & safety education. Sonia Livingstone of EU Kids Online asked to what degree youth-tech development projects incorporate Internet risk education. In response, Paulo Rogerio Nunes said that, while the Vojo project teaches young Brazilians journalism and community activism, it also teaches them about gender issues, race relations and “peer to peer relations.” Brilliant! They’re aligned with research showing that teaching social-emotional skills reduces the social aggression that is the most common risk online youth face. Wivina Belmonte of UNICEF in Malaysia said, “We want kids to be street-proofed on the Internet but not to allow their participation to be hijacked.” She also stressed the importance of not letting “child protection” become an excuse for censorship.
  • The importance of resilience: “What I see is the resilience of children,” said sociologist Maria Herczog of Budapest and the Committee for the Rights of the Child. “Instead of restricting access, we should try to make children strong so they can protect themselves (see this for more on resilience). There’s a growing danger that restriction of access could lead to other restrictions.” The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world (the US has not joined the rest of the world and ratified).
  • Different definitions of “safety,” “danger”: One breakout session touched on the need to understand how youth, marginalized populations or any other beneficiary define these terms – what is “danger” to them? What is privacy to them?
  • Learning by creating collaboratively: Researchers teach young people art and media literacy by asking them what “danger” means and asking them to document it by mapping danger in their cities (e.g., Boston and Abu Dhabi). Participants such as filmmaker and New York University professor Mo Ogrodnik in Abu Dhabi and young journalist Rene Silva of the Brazilian Slum Conglomerate showed how different “danger” looks in Abu Dhabi and Rio de Janeiro, respectively. Rene gained 32,000 Twitter followers in 24 hours after he started “mapping safety” via Twitter to make sure neighbors could get to safety when local police were replaced by heavily armed soldiers to put down Brazil’s most serious civil unrest ever (see this about the “drug war”). [See this for more on the extraordinary international art project for youth that Mo is facilitating: MAKE.]
  • Beyond the binaries: A theme of the conference was how nuanced people’s, including young people’s, Internet use is. In a breakout on participation, Nishant Shah of the Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore, talked about the need for researchers (and I’d say adults working with youth) to get past whether or not people use specific services or tools in them to how they use them and how they adapt them in a spectrum of uses that are very contextual – how they create new uses. He talked about how Likes and other tools are used to share humor, parody, irony, sarcasm, etc. And in a plenary session, he urged us to look at how users can adapt and even abuse the original design of a service for different purposes (in the US, we saw this happen with Formspring.me at the end of the last decade and later in Europe with Ask.fm). Understanding users’ own contexts is essential to creating appropriate responses.
  • Noteworthy numbers: Prof. Michael Best of Georgia Tech said the news media trope is that “all youth are online.” Actually, he said 1/3 of the world’s 15-to-24-year-olds are online. But that’s changing fast. The number of youth online is dwarfing the number of adults online by three times in the global South, where “digital native” is defined as 15-25 YOs with 5+ years’ online experience. “We’ll see the doubling of digital natives in the next 5 years across the globe,” he said. Prof. Alexandre Barbosa from Brazil said that 30% of his country’s population is under 16, half of the overall population is connected to the Net and about 80% of 9-to-15-year-olds are (in Brazil, many lower-income users connect at Internet centers); 53% of Brazilian 9-to-15-year-olds live in places where no adults use the Internet, so they’re connecting with “no adults guidance” he said. And the growth in basic cellphone adoption will contribute to that explosion. UNICEF’s Shared Sapra said the planet’s growth in technology is not in smartphones but in 2G phones and SMS, and Sonia Livingstone said that, in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, 81% of 8-18 YOs have mobile phones, 1 in 3 smartphones. [I’ll be posting separately about Livingstone’s presentation.]
  • Digital research & policy challenges: Put forth by Berkman Center director Urs Gasser: 1) “Synchronizing time” (human beings are changing very fast – how does peer-reviewed research keep up?); 2) “The semantic gap” (the challenge of global medium vs. community, national and regional perspectives on issues like “privacy”); 3) “Headlines make bad laws” (the problem that scary headlines activate policymakers; 4) “Youth agenda hijacked” (exploiting youth protection rationales to restrict or control speech); 5) The “unintended consequences” of policy not based on research; 6) “Corporate dilemmas” (what to do about researchers’ great interest in proprietary aggregated data and what to do when users post media that documents what could be harming them, e.g., kids posting videos of kids sniffing cinnamon); and 7) The great need for “learning systems” systems that ensure that insights from research is accessible to policymakers.
  • Net access a human right?: Is it as basic a right now as water, food and shelter? UNICEF’s Dr. Sapra said, “I believe in transversality. It’s not water and food or Internet. It’s access to information, not necessarily the Internet, that’s a fundamental right. How you gain that access is part of it.” Information is what shows people what their rights are and how to exercise them.
  • Agency, choice, dignity: Chisenga Muyoya, co-founder of the Akisanga Network in Zambia, tweeted UNICEF’s Shared Sapra as saying, “Out of choice comes dignity and out of dignity and choice comes freedom.”

And there’s so much more from my peer-participants at DigitallyConnected.org. Thank you, Berkman and UNICEF, for such a rich, thought-provoking experience.

Related links

  • Here’s a very visual, media-rich collective “account” of the conference co-created by the organizers and participants at Storify.
  • American youth perspectives on life with digital media: Student leaders from Illinois, Michigan, the Washginton, D.C. area and West Virginia at the US’s Safer Internet Day conference in February
  • Takeaways from the FOSI conference in Washington, D.C., last November

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