A couple weeks ago I had a discussion with President Obama’s New Media team, where we talked about what they might do to reach out to ordinary Ghanaians on his trip next week – which will culminate in his speech in Accra on July 11th. There is a lot of excitement in Africa around Obama, and this trip is going to set the continent humming.
WhiteHouse.gov/Ghana isn’t live yet, but on July 11th, it will become available. They are going to stream the talk at whitehouse.gov/live.
It’s a fairly interesting initiative to undertake, with a slew of problems, as you try to engage with as many individuals in an open travel campaign as possible. At the same time, you know that any channel you open up will get absolutely flooded with incoming comments, questions and spam of every sort. In the end, the team decided that Radio, SMS, then Facebook would be the primary new media access points – and in that order.
Radio, SMS and Facebook
Radio is still the number one communications medium across Africa, and Ghana has a particularly vibrant and active one with a lot of local and national community interaction.
As everyone knows, mobile phone penetration has grown at an explosive rate in Africa, this means that SMS is a fairly democratic means for getting feedback from people of every demographic across the nation. (Funnily enough, not available to US-based residents – more below on that)
Lastly, there are no major homegrown web-based social networks in Ghana, and like many other countries across Africa Facebook has a decent amount of penetration. In Ghana, it’s at 100,000+, so it makes the most sense for the new media team to engage and interact without splitting their energy over too many services. Having Twitter on as a backup is natural, as there will be a great deal of chatter there as well.
The details (from the White House)
SMS. Weâ€™re launching an SMS platform to allow citizens to submit questions, comments and words of welcome (in English and in French) . Using a local SMS short code in Ghana (1731) , Nigeria (32969) , South Africa (31958) and Kenya (5683), as well as a long code across the rest of the world*, Africans and citizens worldwide will be encouraged to text their messages to the President. SMS participants will also be able to subscribe to speech highlights in English and French. Long numbers for mobile registration pan-Africa: 61418601934 and 45609910343.
This SMS platform is not available to US participants due to the Smith Mundt Act (The act also prohibits domestic distribution of information intended for foreign audiences).
Radio. A live audio stream of the President’s speech will be pushed to national and local radio stations during the speech. After the speech, a taped audio recording of the Presidentâ€™s answers to the SMS messages received will be made available to radio stations and websites. The President hopes to answer a variety of questions and comments by topic and region. The audio recording will also be made available for download on White House website and iTunes.
Online chat. We will host a live web chat around the speech on Facebook (it will be at http://apps.facebook.com/whitehouselive). The White House will also create a Facebook â€œeventâ€ around the speech wherein participants from around the world can engage with one another. A Twitter hashtag (i.e. #obamaghana) will also be created and promoted to consolidate input and reaction around the event.
Obama talks about his upcoming trip
That was a reply from a rural Liberian farmer to Malcolm Joseph, the managing director of the Center for Media Studies in Liberia. He shared that with me as I discussed the way communication has happened between the media and the public here over the past few years. It’s an interesting challenge, trying to marry up communication channels and technology mediums to be as effective as you can be across a varied and spread out demographic.
Radio is important. It’s still the main way that rural groups get their news. Newspaper circulation drops drastically outside of the cities. While many countries have at least a couple of radio stations of national reach, you still find a number of smaller radio stations that work within districts, down to the the real rural community radio stations that operate with a 5-10 kilometer radius.
The question we have to ask ourselves is, how do we connect better through this medium? It’s not good enough to just say that, “mobile phone coverage is good enough”. Even though the mobile coverage might be good, the credibility and community-inclusiveness of even a small radio station means that it cannot be ignored when trying to reach ordinary Africans. Add in illiteracy rates, which are typically higher in rural areas, and it becomes even more important.
Not ever web or mobile service needs to consider this, but we all need to think better on how to integrate radio into the mobile and web world in Africa. This isn’t just a post for aid and development groups either, it’s for people who want to create digital services that reach beyond African urban settings.
More thoughts and resources:
I’ve been waiting for someone to create an African ad network for a couple of years, and I’m really happy to see that Pamoja Media has launched. Started by Joshua Wanyama (of AfricanPath) and Benin Mwangi (of Cheetah Index), it’s an ad network created to serve advertisers trying looking for a one-stop-shop for publishers in Africa, or that reach Africans in the diaspora.
Pamoja is brand new, and just starting to get going. That hasn’t stopped them from gathering an impressive list of publishers with a total of 10 million impressions dedicated and another 10 million more confirmed impressions if ad inventory is filled. That’s impressive, but more interesting is to see some of the names on their list of publishers, including: Mail & Guardian (South Africa), the Daily Nation (Kenya), Modern Ghana and Stock Market Nigeria.
Other publishers are welcome to apply, as long as they meet the following requirements:
- Be focused on Africa, or the African diaspora
- An Alexa ranking of 250,000 or better
- Have a minimum of 2000 pageviews per day
- Be aesthetically pleasing (or at least not embarassing)
as whoever has been involved in this knows, getting publishers on board is the easy part. Everyone of them is happy to go with the media outfit that will provide them with a solid amount of advertising income. Getting advertisers is the hard part, and that’s where Pamoja Media is focusing their work now that they have the initial 20 million impressions. Current advertisers include Pingo, PoaPay, Accents Telecom and Zain.
Advertisers joining so far have come in because they’ve seen the brand name portals available through the network. Pamoja can get them on board at a better rate for a smaller advertiser than if they go to the Nation or M&G themselves, because they do a bulk buy with multiple advertisers. As the network grows with other large portals giving up excess inventory, Pamoja will become even more attractive than it already is.
(I happened to take this about 1.5 years ago on a chance meet up)
Pamoja is onto something here. One of Pamoja’s really big focuses is to get advertisers to start looking and buying advertising on websites built for African readers in Africa. That means they need to continue looking for partners who can extend the value of the African network in Europe and Africa – people and agencies who already have connections. It will be crucial for those relationships to come together in order for more brandname advertisers to come on board and give even greater credibility to the network.
Pamoja is new, so like any other startup they have to prove themselves before the bigger advertisers come to the table. Right now they’re attracting small- to medium-sized advertisers (outside of Zain) through providing value added consulting and design services. With that capability, and time and proof of success, the network should be able to increase their margins and possibly roll out additional business units.
I think a lot about the fact that most Africans aren’t online reading websites in Africa – the penetration just isn’t there yet. That means this is a perfect time to grow a business and grow a name in a space with little to know other competition. As it the market grows, so will Pamoja.
Closely related to that last point is the fact that there’s a wide open space in the mobile market in this space too, and I hope that Joshua and Benin are thinking strategically about how they will incorporate mobile advertising in their network in the near future.
Last weekend there was a live screencast of the Aspen Institute’s Forum on Communications and Society, and one of the meetings that I tuned in to was the one on Media and Civic Engagement. The members of that meeting was a who’s who of media, regulatory and business moguls that are trying to, or have cracked, the online space (Craig Newmark of Craigslist, Marissa Mayer of Google, Peter Shane of the Knight Foundation, Dana Boyd, etc…).
Google on Anonymity VS Trust
I heard a very troubling comment during that discussion, and surprisingly it came from Marissa Mayer of Google (found at 52:45). That was how anonymity is the enemy of trust, and that she doesn’t see a future for anonymity online. It destroys community and promotes anarchy.
To give some sense of reference, without having to watch the video, here is a word-for-word transcription of Marissa’s comments. It starts with her talking about youth and misinformation on the web leading to apathy, she stated:
“…I think it’s really important as we look at tools to think about how we can support fact checking, how can we guard against misinformation, how is there going to be established an element of authority and trustworthiness? …I grew up with the newspaper and the encyclopedia, which you could trust. And now you have blogs, which are held often as news and often aren’t factual. Or you have Wikipedia, which usually gets most things right, but there are a lot times there is vandalism or corrections that need to be made.”
“When you look at the elements of anonymity and the lack of accountability that happens on the web, it really does start to create doubt in the fibers of who can you trust. Especially when you think of why should I engage? The sense of identity. If I’m anonymous and I’m not accountable for my actions and there are other people out there putting out a lot of misinformation of which the same is true, I think it does lead to apathy and a lack of engagement, which is why I think it is important as we look at these tools to understand the effects of identity. To understand the effect of accountability, authority, trustworthiness and make sure that we’re developing tools and social systems online that encourage an element of engagement and try to fight that apathy trend that says, ‘well I just can’t trust anything. Why should I care?’.
On the question of if there is a way to hone in on the issue of misinformation, beside media literacy:
“Well, I think there are two ways to look at it, on the institutional level and on the individual level. So I think that what you’re seeing is that there are institutions that are rising up online that basically have an element of brand and credibility and standards that they apply. When you look at the Huffington Post, the Drudge Report, inherently the people who run those organizations are saying that here are stories I believe, I believe they’re verified enough that I’m willing to attach my brand and my name to it. So you can see that that’s starting to happen on an institution level online.”
“And I also think there are individual systems where people are verified or credentialed, or you have a profile that tells all about you and shows the other contributions you’ve made to the system. Just there’s greater accountability on the personal level… So I think a lot of the systems that support pure anonymity… I really believe that virtual systems should mirror physical systems. The physical world has been around for a lot longer, and in the physical world you really can’t do anything anonymously. So when you look at systems online that break that paradigm where you can be completely anonymous, or be whoever you want to be, without any since of history or of what you did last week, that’s not really reality and that breaks down the elements of trust and authority.“
That’s about where I jumped in with my comments on not being able to trust those who are monitoring your online speech. Where Marissa then answered:
“Well, I think anonymity has its place. So there’s certainly times, when you know you should have commentary or some type of act giving should be anonymous. But, by and large most systems should have accountability the same way they do in the physical world.”
Besides all of my thoughts swirling around the fact that the web really grew due to anonymity, I balked at this comment because I was surprised at hearing one of the highest Google executives speak so lightly of it.
Projecting Our World Onto Others
Maybe this is where I differ a little from my American tech counterparts. You see, there’s something about growing up in a country where you can’t pretend to believe that the government really has your best interests at heart that makes one a little squeemish about not having this anonymous free speech. For, if it wasn’t anonymous, then it definitely wouldn’t be free.
We have a way of projecting our world view on to those around us. In this case, I believe Google (or Marissa) is doing just that. Having these open, trusting, everyone-knows-everyone systems is all well and good when you live in the US. It’s not so good in other parts of the world.
It’s especially not good when you ask who controls all that personal information, and how they let outside bodies (government or otherwise) access that personal data about you.
I came to terms a few years ago about having a lot of personal information on the web, open to others. That’s a personal decision, and not one that any company should be making claims to knowing what’s right to do or not. What I hear, extrapolating from this, is that it’s okay if you don’t want to be a part of it, you can always opt out – but if you do, you also opt out of any meaningful part in the discussion. Frankly, I find that troubling.
Below is the video archive of this talk on Media and Civic Engagement, and is about 1.5 hours (browse the “on demand library” and it’s the 6th from the top on the list):
[Rachel Sterne of Groundreport created a great backchannel platform for viewers to discuss these items in real-time, and there was some direct discussion happening between online commenters and the participants in the room.]