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Demonstrators protest the Gaza situation in Amman, from World Focus

Reach Out and Touch Somebody: The Ecology of New Media and New Social Movements in Jordan

After the attacks on Gaza in December 2008, a group of bloggers and journalists got together to plan a food and clothing donation drive to help alleviate the suffering. Despite using new media tools extensively for our activism and social lives, none of us could have imagined what happened next. How did a small group of bloggers and journalists release the generosity of Jordanians, turning a 48-hour campaign to collect food and clothing into a large-scale operation that lasted for the duration of the Gaza offensive? This paper examines this example, and maps the new media ecology that enabled the campaign.


A new media ecology is developing in Jordan, one that’s offering an ever-growing number of people an opportunity to express their opinions, and creating greater space for collective action and social change.


On December 27, 2008, Israel launched a series of attacks on the Gaza Strip. The next day, the staff of 7iber.com met to discuss how we could respond. We had already been working with a number of new media tools and experimenting with ways to engage the growing number of digitized readers, and were looking for a project that could serve as a trial run. Unfortunately, it came in the form of death and destruction.


This paper explores the rise and utilization of digital small media, specifically focusing on blogs and social networking sites as platforms for organizing collective actions. I understand digital small media to be communication (asynchronous or synchronous) that uses digital technology, is not mass-produced, and is interactive; blogs, SMS, and Facebook pages are examples of digital small media. This paper shows how a new media ecology is developing in Jordan; one which offers more people an opportunity to express their opinions and by doing so, creates an alternative public sphere originating on the blogs. To show this, I trace the impacts of two case studies or large impact occasions as they traverse this new media ecology. The networks within which the occasion exists can be disentangled, identifying and discussing each, and then re-entangled to be examined as a complete unit. The ecology metaphor is particularly pertinent as it evokes a constantly changing, growing, interconnected, and flexible environment. A large impact occasion refers to an event that garners widespread attention on the blogosphere and Facebook, and spreads virally through social networks. These occasions enter mainstream media after originating in the blogosphere. Through the examples, I present evidence to support the continued use of digital small media as an technology for emancipation.


We can begin with a brief history of media in Jordan and the growth of the blogosphere and other comparable media. We then discuss cultural implications of the new communication tools, and the role of blogs in the Jordanian media landscape. The theoretical foundation for my paper consists of three components, as a vehicle to study and understand the advancement of blogs, their impact on society, and the emancipatory role of the technology. First I employ a systems approach in order to center my analysis on the human element rather than the technology. A systems approach also helps understand the complexity of the continually evolving ecology. I next use activity theory to understand the roles of subjects, tools, and motives. Finally, I explore the concepts of public sphere and hegemony and discuss the media climate and status of the public sphere in Jordan, and what changes are taking place. I explore two examples of large impact occasions, and trace their impact across the media landscape.


Building on a foundation of network analyses, a systems approach departs from conventional methods of studying networks by extending it to incorporate more holistic aspects by examining the system as a whole, rather than identifying a single component of the system and encompassing more of the cultural terrain that is crucial to this assessment.  This analysis employs an ecological approach, where the entire social environment is considered, while understanding that this assessment is one of many entry points and a positioned viewpoint at that.[1] To best understand a social system, one should gather multiple perspectives since each perspective is not “a reflection of ‘real things’” but “dependent on a multiplicity of factors.”[2] A systems approach differs in that the entire system is considered; it offers us the ability to zero in on one aspect and examine it carefully, while at the same time while understanding that everything is interconnected and thus, through the entry point of one perspective, the analysis will also touch on other aspects of the entire system. 


According to Thomas H. Davenport in Information Ecology, a human-centered approach puts “how people create, distribute, understand, and use information at its center.” People who adopt an ecological approach believe that information cannot be stored on computers easily, that it can take on various meanings. In other words, it acknowledges that humans shape and manage technology.  This notion, of analyzing the human in the center and not the technology, frees us from the powerful technological determinism of globalization rhetoric.  For example, some regard technology in Jordan as a savior and even the government has encouraged the growth of IT in all areas such as e-government and training new ICT specialists.  Despite this growth, Jordan adopted the rhetoric of globalization and did not focus on how the technology can be used, but rather focused on the technology itself.  Now, we see a market over-saturated with IT specialists, while e-government initiatives and websites do not meet their goals.


I've identified several important attributes in understanding the environment in which they function: 1) acknowledging multiple perspectives and embracing complexity 2) valuing interrelationships, and 3) recognizing a dynamic environment.  Generally, these points demonstrate the importance of understanding that technology is shaped and managed by people and not an invisible force that controls technology.  This enables this analysis to focus on how the technologies are being used incorporation with each other, rather than the technology itself.


Activity theory argues that the basic unit of analysis in an activity system is ''any ongoing, object-directed, historically-conditioned, dialectically-structured, tool-mediated human interaction…in that it analyzes the way concrete tools are used to mediate the motive (direction, trajectory) and the object (the "problem space" or focus) of behavior and changes in it.”[3] Through activity theory, we examine cognition and behavior in social interaction, such as on the blogosphere, Facebook, and through SMS.  David Russell states, “[t]he object of analysis is neither texts nor minds nor conceptual schemes per se, but what is in between, the social intercourse.” Russell sees activity theory with three basic elements: a) subjects, b) tools, and c) object/motive.  Activity theory therefore offers an appropriate vehicle to examine situation, the tools and the interactions around tool-mediated communication in my research.  We are able to identify the subjects, 7iber, Action Committee and the volunteers, the tools, which include 7iber, the blogosphere, Facebook, and SMS, and the motive, to organize a collective action.  With these categorization tools, we can understand how the Gaza campaign unfolded. 


Originally from the Greek, hegemon means leader or dominant state or person.  Antonio Gramsci's notion of hegemony was popularized by the work of the English New Left in the 1970s and 1980s.  Generally, hegemony is used to describe political dominance.  However, Gramsci's contribution offers a more nuanced view of the term, one where media becomes extremely useful tool in the production and reproduction of the structured, dominant thought in civil society. Rather than a static, locked notion, it is profitably understood as the process of securing hegemony through a balance of force and consent. At each iteration of the production, openings become available for counter-hegemonic narratives.[4]


Hegemony is an important concept to consider in media, as Gramscian hegemony suggests that there exists a dual superstructure in political society: (1) the state and its agencies, and (2) civil society and those institutions belonging to the masses.  Hegemony cannot be established until the dominance of the state becomes accepted by the masses and is reproduced through public institutions such as community groups and the media.  Media is a key aspect in the reproduction of the dominant way of thought, and thus enables hegemony to take hold as it percolates through all of civil society. 


Jurgen Habermas originally describes the concept of Offentlichkeit in 1962, and since then, the concept has been developed by numerous academics.  As no English word exists to comprehensively describe the concept, theorists have used public sphere as a comparable concept.  John Downing describes the concept as the “opposite sociopolitical reality, namely, [to] the royal court.”[5] During the time of the Europe's monarchies, new communication tools became available - such as pamphlets, flyers, and early prototypes of newspapers – that helped introduce such ‘opposite sociopolitical realities, allowing the expansion of the political and economic debates to emerge from the secrecy of the royal courts and into a new emerging public sphere. 


The public sphere is not without debate, however.  Nancy Fraser argues that Habermas' public sphere is incorrectly portrayed as the only public sphere; while many others existed, the “limited model of the bourgeois public sphere” was the dominant one.  Fraser argues that this public sphere embraced exclusion, particularly excluding women, minorities, gays, and indigenous peoples.  She says “[t]he official public sphere, then, was, and indeed is, the prime institutional site for the constriction of the consent that defines the new, hegemonic mode of domination.”[6]


But rather than to dismiss the concept of public sphere completely, Fraser offers a more nuanced conceptualization by challenging assumptions “that are central to the bourgeois, masculinist conception of the public sphere.”[7] She states four assumptions, but for the purposes here, the first two suffice.  She challenges Habermas' assumptions: (1) that societal equality is not necessary for political democracy, (2) and that more publics are seen as the decline of the public sphere.


Fraser argues that rather than bracketing social classes into separate spheres, the elimination of inequality would allow for a more robust democracy.  We find that it is an expression of power by the upper social classes to control the lower classes by bracketing and dividing, and to promote a healthy public sphere, equal voice must be given to all.  Lynch believes that the relationship of democracy to the public sphere by arguing that the lack of democracy maybe an important factor in the creation of various public spheres.  He argues that  “[t]he public sphere does not depend on the existence of democracy – and indeed the emergence of the Arab public sphere can be read as a direct response to the absence of democracy in almost every Arab country, which has led frustrated Arabs to seek out this new space for political argument and debate.”[8] Equal voice is a key aspect of media as an emancipatory function, which I discuss further in this paper. 


In addition, Fraser argues that a multiplicity of publics signal a healthy public sphere rather than its decline.  She says, “[i]nsofar as these counterpublics emerge in response to exclusions within dominant publics, they help expand discursive space.”[9] The collective voice of publics, ones rising in opposition, others in order to promote an alternative space, make up the collective public sphere.  The expansion of a discursive space is a useful addition and very much necessary for a healthy democratic public sphere. 


With this theoretical platform, we can then begin to piece together how the Gaza campaign was organized and what tools and forces lead to its success.


On December 27th, 2009 7iber was hosting a discussion on social media for various uses in Jordan. We heard from speakers that ranged from topics about using Facebook to organize a political campaign to how a band was using social media to promote itself. During the workshop, the attacks on Gaza were announced as participants received information of the destruction.


After finishing the workshop, we met as team to decide what to do. What emerged from that first meeting was a plan for a food and clothing drive: we decided on 48 hours to take the campaign viral, and then collect donations for only two hours. Those two hours turned into four weeks. We set about posting information on 7iber's website and on each member’s personal blog, and sent out event invitations through Facebook. A logo was created, and local bloggers were called on to repost the details.


Within minutes of the original post, a few comments appeared and several trackbacks were logged (a trackback is a link to the original post from another blog or website and is increasingly used as an indication of a given post’s popularity). As word of the donation drive spread, more and more bloggers reposted the information to their own sites.


As it turned out, the campaign raised an entire warehouse full of donations, roughly 40 – 50 tons of food and clothing — so much so that, despite the limited time allotted to the campaign, hundreds more volunteers were need to spend weeks packing and shipping the donationas. Each evening, for the duration of the four week assault on Gaza, hundreds of volunteers would drive 30 minutes from Amman to the Aramex warehouse to organize, sort and pack the donations. From this original effort, other efforts were started, one including a drive for medical funds that raised thousands of dollars worth of medical equipment.


Though we were intimately familiar with the technologies we deployed, we really didn’t know at the outset what impact they could have. What we do know now is that the Gaza campaign ‘went viral’ through the convergence of various actors, different media tools, and a single stirring motive—an example that offers much to be learned about how a new media ecology functions.


Orchestrating a large-scale event, as the donation drive shaped up to be, relied on the efforts of several actors and the specific means at their disposal. 7iber.com's website was the place where the donation drive was announced, continued to be updated to reflect new volunteer opportunities and accomplishments, and built up a stock of pictures and video from the campaign. Local service organization The Action Committee engaged their networks to organize volunteers, and the volunteers offered hours upon hours of their time.

And of course, the number of new media tools available to Jordanians has grown dramatically in the past few years. Many of these have been used to create avenues for action that didn’t exist in the past. While current laws in Jordan deny groups the right to assemble without permission from the government, as new media tools become more available obstacles such as these regulations diminish.


For the Gaza campaign, we deployed a whole set of digital new media tools and watched each one shoot off on its own trajectory and converge again, with content spreading even to areas of traditional mass media such as radio. There was the 7iber website, the home base for the campaign. Then there was Facebook, which allowed us to reach a larger, more varied audience through group postings and event pages, complete with invitations and discussion forums. One such event had more than 800 confirmed participants within 24 hours. Facebook was also a prime spot for volunteers and to document their experiences and tag their friends, drawing out more volunteers along the way.


As for the Jordanian blogosphere, it may be quite small compared to that in, say, Egypt or Morocco, but this can also make for faster and more thorough spread of information, andas in the case of the Gaza campaigna chance for a more unified and supportive front to emerge. As bloggers picked up the story and reposted it to their sites, they not only increased its audience reach, but became active participants in the campaign, personally invested in its success.


Blogs in English and Facebook were used to spread information, but these reached a specific group, a mostly elite and English-speaking portion of the population. Meanwhile, 7iber tapped into Watwet, a Twitter-like service for the Arab world, to keep subscribers up to date in real time and post messages to the 7iber website with a single SMS. As mobile phone penetration in Jordan exceeds that of the Internet and any other media tool, mobile networking is a key component in the ecology. Our emails, messages on Facebook were converted into SMS messages by individuals and forwarded en masse, likely allowing them to reach a much wider audience. Granted, it’s difficult to track this kind of dissemination except through anecdotal evidence. It's even more difficult to control the accuracy of information, as original messages were shortened, edited and personalized as they were spread. The same goes for email, which also played a valuable, if minor, role in getting the word out about the campaign.


But it was our encounter with radio that brought the most unexpectedand in Jordan, unprecedentedturn of events. Several radio stations around Amman have begun to pay attention to what is being written on local blogs. In one case, a DJ who’d heard about the campaign decided to read our call for volunteers on the air, and began keeping their listeners up to date with our website posts. In this way, the new media ecology was able to partner with and co-opt a portion of the conventional media to further the aims of the Gaza campaign.


Naturally, the Gaza attacks had a tremendous emotional impact on many people in Jordan, which translated into sudden and spirited demonstrations throughout the country. There were calls for economic boycotts, and to annul the peace treaty with Israel. The Israeli flag was burned in a session of parliament.

Eventually, the most vehement protests were shut down, but in many ways, the Gaza campaign became a “movement” through viral marketing. The decentralized nature of the information allowed for the information to be always available, and resilient to attempts to cut it off.


This decentralization was one of the four key factors that emerged from our experience with the Gaza campaign: In a state-controlled media environment such as Jordan’s, decentralization is key to sustaining the flow the information.

It was crucial to build the networks of information on various mediums, and to utilize more than one network in case one was shut down. But while decentralizing content and information was key to the sustainability of the project, information consistency also needed to be controlled by providing central locations for the information to exist. A blog or a Facebook event could be utilized as a way to quickly update and provide a source for the information.


The other key factors were mobility; tailoring the message to the specific medium being used to disseminate it, and using different tools to impact different socioeconomic classes.


So, for example, while most people in Jordan use a cell phone and SMS, fewer use email, even fewer use Facebook, and the fewest read blogs. While the upper classes and English-speaking strata of society are no strangers to the blogosphere and Facebook, most social classes enjoy SMS and email. This means that depending on the desired target audience, careful consideration had to be given to which tools were used: the message had to change to be appropriate to the medium, and the audience receiving it.


Finally, tools like Watwet brought the added advantage of mobility, allowing Jordanians to spread information across multiple networks quickly and cheaply, anywhere a mobile phone has a signal. In general, mobile tools can be utilized in a number of political and non-political situations—from poll monitoring or recording events at a protest to simply updating family members about a newborn baby. 

In short, the four factors listed above are all aspects that are critically important to the success of collectively organizing large actions.


At the same time that these information-transmission strategies are being used, people must be interacting, cooperating, discussing and organizing online—generating debate and ideas that can then be transmitted.


This involvement translates into a more connected society, which shares more information. Eventually, this may lead to a society that is more engaged, where more information can enter the public domain and more spaces can be created for critical examination of events. Moreover, those discussions are less likely to remain tightly contained within one social class or geographical sphere.

It is anyone’s guess as to what will happen when even larger numbers of individuals come together with the space and freedom to critically examine their world, and tools to coordinate their actions. What we can say is that these tools have opened up a new world of potential for something to happen.


While the media have focused most on the potential of Facebook and Twitter for simple activism and protest organizing, the Gaza campaign begins to demonstrate how these tools, along with other elements of a new media ecology, can lead to and enable a wide variety of different kinds of conversations, expressions and collective actions.


Ramsey Tesdell completed his M.S. in Technical Communication from the University of Washington in Seattle. He thesis, entitled The Ecology of New Media and New Social Movements in Jordan, discuses how social media is being used as an ecology of sorts to organize collection actions.  He is the founder of 7iber.com, a citizen-media platform based in Amman, Jordan. Tesdell works on new media projects around the Middle East and is particularly interested in discussions over cups of tea and the power of story telling.

[1]              Davenport, T. H., & Prusak, L. (1997). Information ecology mastering the information and knowledge environment. New York: Oxford University Press.

[2]              Bertalanffy, L. v. (1969). General system theory; foundations, development, applications. New York: G. Braziller.

[3]              Russell, David. (1997). Rethinking Genre in School and Society: An Activity Theory Analysis. Written Communication 14 (4): 504-554. http://www.public.iastate.edu/~drrussel/at&genre/at&genre.html

[4]              Gramsci, A., & Buttigieg, J. A. (1992). Prison notebooks. European perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press.

[5]              Downing, J. p. 27.

[6]              Fraser, Nancy. (1992) Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. In C. Calhoun (Ed.)  Habermas and the Public Sphere. (p. 109-142) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. p. 117

[7]              Fraser, N. p. 117.

[8]              Lynch, M. (2006). p. 34

[9]              Fraser, N. p. 124.

About Ramsey Tesdell

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