October 18, 2010

Out where social media isn’t a vanity sport

There was a time not too long ago, when the bit that followed Marlon Parker‘s name on a speaker’s list was “Cape Peninsula University of Technology”. One of those times was at a dinner to wrap up the 4th iteration of Nomadic Marketing.

Marlon was introducing the Reconstructed Living project (RLabs), using that most loved-by-teens|vilified-by-teachers/parents mobile platform, MXit. MXit maven Rafiq Phillips (and one of Marlon’s past students) had shown us that it could be more than just a cheap chat channel, but what ensued from this project astounded everyone.
Lives were saved. Literally not figuratively. Gangsters, drug-dealers, addicts, the suicidal, the abused yanked back from dangling over the abyss by a deceptively simple mobile IM chat platform and some blogging.

Clinton Liederman’s story (From Gangster to Twitter) is just one to share, but gives you a good idea what this is about:

It worked because it used the principles of getting the context right, being in the natural playspace of those who needed it, without interrupting, using the language that is familiar/authentic to that playspace. And more importantly this wasn’t a well-meaning set of social workers on the other end of the IM, the stories were real and rugged and hopeful because they were ex-gangsters, -addicts, -dealers, -abused and had visceral experience of being in a desperate situation – and knew exactly what it takes to get out. The steps not much different from any guidelines NGO’s or government programs may define, but it was infused with life and intelligence because the person delivering the message was the real deal, a makeover, someone who had reconstructed their own lives out of dire/shameful/deadly circumstances. It rang true. and it worked.

Who among us is immune to the charm of the makeover? The before and after pics, the journey through shame and determination, we humans are suckers for these kinds of stories. The thrill of turnaround numbers on a failing business, a doomed economy revitalised into a roaring success by a few tweaks – none can resist the strength of the makeover as social currency, it converts to all markets and lifestyles.

beyond the egosystem of social media at RLabs

The means of telling those stories changed radically over these last decade. At its core, social media is just a new means of production and distribution. From highly skilled expensive people and equipment and expensive, proprietary distribution, the cost and skills associated to both have dropped to close to zero by comparison.

What is brought on was a great flood of amateurs overrunning the banks of media channels and scared the hell out of the bastions of the Media. It has us all awash in useless, unsubstantiated, surprising, unverified, brilliant, illegal, mashedup, beautiful, horrifying, profound, unstoppable content coursing in from every corner of the world [adds own blog to the flood].

It’s also spawned an egosystem around the “Internet-famous” absorbed in feeding from the bubble of its own coolness. But for all the mockery that it may draw, there are those who have used it to change their fortunes where nothing else could have worked.
The Reconstructed did just that and grabbed the chance to put a surprising twist in to break the expected plot of their lives.

If you live in South Africa, try playing word associations and listen what comes up when you proffer “Cape Flats”. If gangsters, drugs and violence don’t feature, you’re standing before an anomaly, someone who hasn’t seen a TV, read a newspaper or any other traditional media source for perhaps decades. If you come from the Cape Flats (where you’d find RLabs) you have an instant set of archetypes that accompany your journey, a set of prejudices that you probably have to work that much harder to overcome.
We all have our own special set of holographic set that activates when we say what we do, where we’re from, but some are in more intense technicolour than others.

Archetypes and prejudice is a brain evolution that’s helped us become the dominant species on this grand blue ball. We can’t pay attention to everything so we chunk info for efficiency, if we can determine rules for what is good and what is dangerous and tell each other stories to illustrate it rather than each of us discovering afresh that tigers aren’t just big lovable lolcats. If we had to go through a day without our assumptions about how the world (mostly) works, we’d burn throughour brain’s available oxygen and glucose for the day in 13 minutes and pass out from sheer overwhelm. We need shortcodes to make sense of it all.

In more elegant illustration, Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie did a talk at TED that goes right to the heart of how dangerous it is to have one defining story about a place or people ..a special dedication to those who lapse into referring to Africa as a country

It’s easier for media to tell the sensational stories, the once-offs, and many still follow “if it bleeds it leads” so they aren’t hot on the trail of the feel-good fluffy ones. Social media is more of a tribal thing, and we want to know the backstory and follow-up and whose connected and why. It offers a place to get your own story heard. How you want to tell it, on your terms and on demand, not with the print run, January issue or particular flighting time.

Telling an amazing makeover story, with friends who have done the same, on video, blogs, mobile platforms, forums, in talks, demo’s, social networks, podcasts, radio, print, games is a surefire way to start interrupting a persistent archetype. [Fighting the urge to say transmedia storytelling in here, but that’s for another day]. RLabs is starting to make a dent in the story of their community. Using only mediated traditional media it wouldn’t have happened. For them social media isn’t a vanity sport.

It also isn’t about charity. True to form, RLabs takes an unusual position on stepping away from traditional NGO on intravenous funding. Charity isn’t sexy. It numbs creativity and determination. Doing good and doing good business is enlivening. They’ve started a social media strategy unit (oh stop with the groaning, I know) called the Social Media Factory. But if you think it’ll be like any other social media consultancy, you haven’t been paying attention to this story. These are people who have tasted death, who know the power of social media in the way that few of us do, who come bearing character and can help those who need to get a grip on being truthful, strong and connect to their community in more than words. It’ll be anything but anodyne – guaranteed. [no, I don’t need a disclaimer, I haven’t taken shares].

PS. my favourite new podcast is one I’ve been recommending wildly, the delicious Kitchen Sisters have a new series on NPR called the Hidden World of Girls (7-10 min stories from all over the world that will do your head in, go check it out).


I had the honour of doing a training session for the hero corps at RLabs last week and recommend it highly! If you have strengths to share to help them circumvent the tiger-as-kitty traps with tricks, tips, equipment, tools, skills to accelarate the reconstruction of more lives through social media, offer here (Rene Parker is the digital dame to get you in, say Max sent ya).


October 18, 2010