‘Web 2.0 provides a great opportunity for NGOs to become even more intimate with their target audience.’ Andrew Keen, author and broadcaster.
Can web 2.0 be useful for organizations working with farming communities?
Definitely. Web 2.0 gives NGOs a tremendous opportunity, not only to spread their wisdom, but to use the information and intelligence of their participants to build interesting, reliable and intellectually rich communities for farmers. It needs to be done in a structured manner though, and there needs to be some kind of accountability. The thing that concerns me most is anonymity. If an NGO was able to establish a social network which forced people to reveal who they were and had professional gatekeepers to make sure that people weren’t using it to pursue their own agendas, then I think it would be great.
Web 2.0 is also a good way for farmers to educate the world about their challenges. Most people in the West know nothing about the challenges of farmers in the developing world. The mainstream media does quite a good job reporting on wars and other big stories but they don’t tend to concentrate on the challenges of poor farmers so it’s also a great way to get their story out. But again it needs to be done using credible resources instead of throwing up blogs where you’re never quite sure who’s really authoring it. I think anonymity is the curse of web 2.0.
Why is anonymity so bad?
The problem with web 2.0 is that it undermines the authority of the experts. You can never be quite sure who or what to believe. Let’s say that a farmer wants to look something up on Wikipedia, on one level that’s good because he doesn’t have to pay for it, but on another level the information is very unreliable. From a farmer’s point of view, if they want reliable and objective information, then my advice would be that they are much better off relying on traditional sources. That doesn’t mean the web is bad. But the website has to be properly mediated and managed by professional editorial staff, people who are paid and are not anonymous, and who have some degree of credibility and accountability.
I actually think that for the less well educated web 2.0 is much worse than for the educated because the educated know their way around the media, they know when to be sceptical and how to read through the media. They know that a lot of blogs are not really authored by the people who claim to be authoring them and that they are, by definition, biased and not grounded in objectively verifiable fact. I think for the farmer who is accessing the world wide web for the first time, I personally, would much prefer that they accessed a website that was professionally authored than authored anonymously by amateurs.
One advantage of web 2.0 is that others can add and share information in a collective space, but do NGOs need to be careful where that information comes from?
I think so. Much of the work an NGO does can be political. The issues for farmers in Zimbabwe, for example, are by definition deeply political. Anonymity is probably necessary for that type of network. If you are going to criticize the government in Zimbabwe you probably can’t do it if you reveal your name, and the same is true in much of Africa where agriculture is often political. Some of the farming sectors in these countries are very poorly managed by politicians, there may be a great deal of corruption, plus Western governments and companies may have their hand in the ‘exploitation’ of the situation. So sometimes it is the responsibility of the NGOs to protect the identity of the farmer.
Who’s to stop members of the Robert Mugabe government, for example, from writing on an NGOs website: ‘I live in the Zimbabwean countryside and I think it’s a wonderful government and I’ve never been so happy’. It’s not hard for these thugs, who are so focused on PR and getting away with murder - both literally and metaphorically - to use these open networks for their own advantage. Again, that’s why you need filters. And that’s a challenge for an NGO. How are they supposed to know that the person infiltrating their blog is a genuine farmer or the government? I don’t see how they can.
This is not paranoia or scaremongering, this is real?
Absolutely. There have been cases in China where Yahoo gave away the identity of bloggers using their system. It’s not inconceivable that the government or security services can actually find out how you are using the internet. The internet has no real security, it’s always possible to trace what you’re doing back to your computer or your web account.
There are many free services available on the web now, offering word processing, spreadsheet and email applications, which remove the need to install software. Can these be useful for small organizations?
They can be very useful on some levels but people need to understand that with, for example, Gmail and Google [who provide Gmail], that it is not a charity. Google is a for-profit company and they make money out of it, often through advertising. If you use Google as a free search engine you are also making yourself vulnerable to Google advertising. If you use Google email often that will come with advertising and, of course, Google maintains all the information about you. The more it learns the more it can personalize that advertising. Google is a good example of how nothing is really free. People think it’s for free but it’s costing someone somewhere, and often many of us everywhere.
It may sound a little patronizing but my sense is that when people aren’t that well acquainted with the internet they are more likely to be vulnerable to advertising. That’s what concerns me about the $100 laptop. How are kids going to react to pornography or gambling adverts? The less well educated and the less experienced in this media tend to be more vulnerable. The problem with some of these services is that they are seductive. They give you all this, but if you read the fine print in terms of privacy and in terms of access to you information then you would have second thoughts.
It’s not that I don’t trust Google, I don’t think they are bad people by nature, I think they are a little bit intoxicated by their own importance and goodness that I would encourage people to be a little wary of them. They’re not quite as good as they seem. It’s important to remember that all these services, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, are making money out of ‘giving away’ their information.
If nothing is for free, how do people and organizations end up paying?
Someone has to pay. No media is free. Someone is paying for backbone, someone is paying for the tools, accessing the tools, someone is paying to host the website. None of it is really free and rural communities need to understand that too. Even if it’s free for them to access and post, someone is paying somewhere. Then you have to ask, why are they paying? Are they genuine NGOs or do they have particular agendas of their own?
How can people and organizations better protect themselves?
NGOs need to licence some of the online software to be able to provide rural communities with what they need and provide the security that they need too. There’s so much good stuff out there. Web 2.0 has remarkable tools and they’re only going to get better but I think it takes the NGOs and people who understand the challenges of rural development to get their hands on this stuff and shape it according to their needs and interests and to protect them as well.
Web 2.0 offers tremendous excitement and potential for developing communities and NGOs but they have to understand that there are consequences and there will be casualties of this revolution that they need to protect, professional editors, for example. In many ways web 2.0 needs professional editors to make sure people are asking and answering the right questions, building the appropriate infrastructure on the website. Web 2.0 doesn’t do away with the expertise, I think it raises new demands and new kinds of expertise. I’m very optimistic about the use of web 2.0 in the developing world. Web 2.0 provides a great opportunity for NGOs to become even more intimate with their target audience.