While navigating through the digital terrain of South Africa, I happened upon a blog of our own Georgetown Professor, Rohit Bhargava: “South Africa & The Age Of The Leaderless Revolution.” Written shortly after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, it explored the contrast of modern, Leaderless Revolutions with the revered figureheads of past activism, like Mandela, Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama.
Rohit’s Question: In an age where leaders are becoming optional, are ideas alone enough to unite us?
My Answer: No, but I believe ideas, blended with technology, is enough.
Before the sweeping advances in technology, before Web and PR 2.0, before the notion of “real-time,” communication was vastly different. Whether you were selling radical ideas, or selling coffee, communication was from the Top-Down approach. Today, things have changed, and I believe technology is the unifying force.
The Top-Down Approach
In the past, a person, company, or organization in authority would carefully craft the message, and then strategically feed it out through their communication channels. Because these channels often involved print advertising, it was a one-sided dialogue. Consumers weren’t engaging in conversations, they were doing as they were told.
So What? Because technology was archaic, the messages were often scattered, especially in stressful circumstances. Therefore, I believe populations were drawn toward one figurehead to unite a cause, and to be the inspiring symbol to guide the movement.
The Bottoms-Up Approach
Fast forward a few decades later, and the communication landscape has changed. Those same people, companies, and organizations are losing their authority. The carefully crafted messages, sent out on digital channels, are now met with instant feedback: both positive and negative.
So What? Communication has shifted towards being “Bottoms-Up.” The consumers, the general population, Joe Shmo with a Twitter account, are now the ones in control. Instead of looking to an authority figure to guide the next steps, people search their Facebook newsfeeds, and these tools help to unify ideas, and impact change. In South Africa, Ushahidi and JamiiX are two tools acting as revolutionary catalysts.
Ushahidi and JamiiX: Tools for Change
Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, is a website that was developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout in 2008. Now, they provide tools for “democratizing information, increasing transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories.” In 2008, they tracked breakouts of xenophobic attacks in South Africa by crowdsourcing information, helping South Africans navigate safely through an environment of hate crimes.
JamiiX is emerging as the next South African export poised to impact the global stage. While Ushahidi collects information from the people at the scene of significant events, JamiiX uses social media channels to share vital information with people on the ground. And while South Africa has one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world, 50% of South Africans primarily use the internet for social networking. Furthermore, South Africans have more mobile phones than taxis, TV’s, and radios combined, and have more active SIM cards than citizens, so they have potential for huge impact in two-way, Bottoms-Up communication.
Whether you’re a politician, celebrity, organization or company, you must be prepared to engage your audience in two-way conversation, and brace yourself for their honest feedback. This is the nature of Bottoms-Up Communication. The public is no longer looking toward an authority figure for guidance, whether it’s which cereal brand to buy, or where to meet in protest of an unfair government regime.
Rohit: In countries like South Africa, the past inspirational acts of Nelson Mandela will always resonate. But moving forward, I believe social media, and emerging technologies like Ushahidi and JamiiX, will unify ideas and ignite action.