Category Archives: New Media

Balloons could add new flavors to the ‘Cloud’ and Digital Democracy

Most of you know how I dislike the word ‘cloud’ as a catchall for anything accessed online. So how about getting used to balloons? As in Google’sProject Loon that has been in the works for some two years, and now is supposed to be set to launch in Sri Lanka.

It’s a crazy, heady idea. Sri Lanka will be the first country to get ‘universal Internet access’ as TechCrunch put it.

I just got back from Sri Lanka, and did an extensive train and road trip with the family. I experienced first hand what connectivity is –and is not. The new, fast highways are obviously connecting more people to more opportunities. The Telcos are providing easy-to-get (via a scratch card) low-cost bandwidth for smart devices. There is growing free Wi-Fi presence in towns as diverse as Galle, Anuradhapura, Kandy and some places in Jaffna; even on a train we took to the hill country! Access does get spotty and sluggish at times, but the appetite for connectivity is growing in leaps and bounds.

And now balloons!

Here’s why I welcome this. Not for the obvious reasons, such as giving everyone including tuk-tuk drivers or election monitors the ability to tweet or upload pictures – which could be useful in and of itself.

Education: First sorely needed bandwidth to homes, schools and offices will change the game. I was at one outstation school, and the science teachers had to use a dongle to get online. ‘Universal access’ for schools would change the dimension of how learning takes place beyond the Google search. Young people could be empowered to create content and not just consume it. It’s about time schools got a better deal when it comes to connectivity. Why haven’t the telcos given schools a better deal? What will they do now?

Political participation. Sri Lanka has demonstrated that despite the dismal examples of governance, that democracy and citizen participation works. ICTA reported recently that “Sri Lanka has shot up to 74th position in the United Nations E-Government Survey of 2014, after climbing 41 places since 2012.” Nalaka Gunewardene goes into rich detail about how Digital Democracy is at work. Beyond elections, this will affect transparency and accountability, when everyone has an uplink, a camera and a voice.

There are obviously several more examples, which some of you might like to add. Please do!


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Screens come under scrutiny – again!

I knew we’d be talking about this sooner or later: Do touch screens reduce how much we absorb, while paradoxically increasing ‘engagement’? Or, are the dumb things that happen in Real Life better teachers than VR, or smart screens?

Researchers have been warning us –from pre-Internet days–  that excessive screen time was having negative effects on children’s attention, learning (cognitive skills, language development), and sleep.

A screen is a two-dimensional (2D) experience that is hard to resist, across all age groups. Yet, a recent report tells us that screens “do not inherently provide (children under 3 with) rich opportunities for whole mind-body learning.”

For instance, it says:


“Researchers who study how children learn have concluded, however, that it is easier for young children to comprehend information from real-life experiences with people and objects compared with information delivered via a screen.”  (“Screen Sense. Setting The Record Straight”)

No one is asking us to eliminate screen-time. But we could rethink how creative thinking, problem solving and experimentation could work without pixels.


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Chat Apps could ignite true engagement

We know that Chat Apps are driving a lot of mobile service providers to rethink their once-lucrative profit center. But these apps are also disrupting traditional social networks, because providers know how important it is to keep the user engaged within the channel.

Consider our fragmented mobile experience. We toggle between Email, Facebook, Twitter (or Hootsuite), and SMS. They each have their distinctive experience. Status updates and informative mails are not the same thing; content sharing on a social network, with the ability to garner a small ‘mob’ around a cause or a pet peeve is not the same as firing off a text message to 20 people. International texts are expensive so we may tweet a message instead…

I’ve been intrigued by these so-called ‘conversations’ online, especially since many of them are not always in real-time. They are really partial dialogues, with one word (or one button) responses that are a proxy for people joining in.

That why we need to keep an eye on where Chat Apps are headed. They are simple –as in distraction free– formats that could garner true engagement.

At a recent event, I was asked where I though our social media lifestyles would be headed. My pat answer was that we might see a lot of social media fatigue. The media overload we are all facing might mean vast numbers of us will be quitting those social media channels that just don’t fit our personality. But that’s not to say that we will retreat to our caves, and get back to notebooks and pencils, or phone calls. We will seek out those experiences that help us stay connected. And that’s where I see Chat Apps gaining ground.

THE NEXT WhatsApp or Viber (the free phone app combines the chat feature– free even with people in other countries) could threaten Facebook and Twitter. It could combine elements of email and micro-blogging, so that we may never need to go to the other platforms to see what our friends are saying, and to chime in.

Multiple language chats. I fielded this question to a panel of international students at Scottsdale Community College last week:

  • How many of them spoke more than one language. All hands were up
  • How many spoke three languages. Eighty percent of the hands remained up
  • More than three? About fifty percent

What would happen if we could chat with people in different countries, in different languages, using the same app? Already WeChat, which is apparently a lot like Line, an app not known to many in the West, lets one do this.

Maybe ChatApps are where we may find the genie of true engagement. I admit I may be somewhat biased, because of the title of my recent book.

What do you think? Does social media fatigue drive you to give up on certain channels?


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Update on my book: “Chat Republic”

It’s official, and I’m now ready to announce the title of my book, which is in its final stages.

It’s called Chat Republic.

Angelo Fernando, Chat RepublicI’ve been covering the intersection of technology and business; technology and culture for more than 18 years. More recently, I’ve focused on digital media and our social media-centric lives, and I wanted to put my ideas into perspective.

Chat Republic is more than a fictional country. It’s about the spaces you inhabit.  Those online and offline communities you move in and out of: conference rooms, Google Circles, IM lists, Facebook, online forums. I think of it as a ‘country’ whose fluid borders take the shape of a giant, invisible speech bubble.

The conversations and opinions pouring in and out of our republic, in real-time, are what make our communities more civil, more vibrant. Our chats are certainly not friction-free! But absent these conversations we would be one dimensional citizens, won’t we?

As of today, I am planning to launch the book in two time zones, in June.

Some specs:

  • 25 Chapters – Divided into 3 sections
  • Case Studies from the U.S. and Asia
  • Interviews with non-profits, tech companies, activists, chief execs, editors, citizen journalists, PR consultants, podcasters, government officials

More information here at


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Context is king. Book’s web site has lesson for us

I was looking up author, David Carr, after using a quote from him in my previous post. His is a fascinating story captured in his book, The Night of the Gun.

Since every book today has a companion web site, I nearly skipped it, assuming it was another content dump with blurbs and links. I was wrong!  It’s a trove of context, not content.

  • One of the tabs opens a page laid out in a grid of 60-squares. Click on each square and it takes you deeper into Carr’s story by way of candid interviews, photos, scanned documents etc.
  • Another tab has a timeline, which takes you on an online experience you couldn’t even come close to in the pages of a book.

The publisher, Simon and Schuster, notes that it created a database of content because Carr ended up with a large stack of material, recording his thoughts and interviews using many formats – video, audio, notes etc.

With help from the New York Times‘ digital guy, (a ‘User Interface Specialist!) they built a site as a multi-media backdrop, or more precisely, a back-story, to his memoir.

While it makes for a novel way to market a book, we could learn some important lessons in how to surround any other form of communication with rich, contextual information.

In the end The Night of the Gun is more than a book -a living story that cannot be contained within templates, hard covers or style sheets.


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Instagram Vs Pinterest explained

Still trying to find the difference between Foursquare, Instagram and Pinterest?

Social media sounds more complicated than it is. I like it when someone demystifies it. I like it better when someone uses a ‘dumb screen’ instead of gratuitously holding up some tablet (as do too many TV news reporters today, notice?) to make a point. Thanks to Douglas Ray for this.

This might help!

Speaking of white boards, this feels like an homage to the late Tim Russert (of NBC’s Meet the Press) who was a master of the white board when trying to simplify an idea in  a story.

I sometimes wonder if Tim would have ever clutched at an iPad to make his point as he did here, during the last election.

If you’re interested here’s the video of his explanation to Brian Williams.

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Posted by on February 20, 2012 in Journalism, Media, New Media, Social Media


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Inconvenient truths about citizen journalism

This article was published by LMD magazine this month.

“This is not good anymore… Once the battery charges, I’m going to download it from the camera and stream it to you live. I mean, I don’t believe this is happening. Seriously, I don’t believe this is happening…”

They were the last words of one of the bravest citizen journalists of our time – Libyan Mohammed Nabbous, killed in Benghazi in March (find the story at

When we talk about citizen journalism, we think of accidental reporters who, in the face of a catastrophic event, grab a cellphone and capture a story that would otherwise never have been recorded.

Many in the West recall the first heartbreaking reports of the 2004 Asian tsunami, captured by citizens in Sri Lanka. Commuters, not trained reporters, provided the first grainy videos when terrorists bombed subways and buses in London in 2005. Likewise, the first images of the dramatic ‘splash landing’ of an US Air­ways flight into the Hudson River in Manhattan were captured by a citizen journalist. But like those in mainstream media who have put themselves in harm’s way (those like Daniel Pearl of The Wall Street Journal, who was killed in 2002; and Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Misrata, in Libya recently), citizen journalists are following in their footsteps.

Now that large media organi­sations have downsized, citizen journalists are often filling the gaps.

Whether we approve of them or not, they are often the first responders, covering a broad range of events – wars, hurricanes, earthquakes, elections, civil un­rest, famines and terrorism – that seem to be taking place with greater frequency these days.

Media Test Kitchen. There are many questions of course, as this ‘accidental profession’ shows signs of turning more professional (‘Pro’) than amateur (‘Am’). How will established news-media organisations deal with this new phenomenon? Or the more pertinent question is, how will governments adapt to this reality?

First to the Pro-Am relationship. In the early years, the Pros were sceptical. Yet, more recently across the world, as mainstream media organisations began cutting back on staff, this gave rise to newsrooms where Pros could be sought after (or outsourced) like Ams. Steve Outing, Direc­tor of the Digital Media Test Kitchen, once observed that “few news organisations have the manpower to cover everything that their readers are interested in, but by tapping the volunteer (or cheap) resour­ces of the citizenry, a news organisation can potentially provide coverage down to the little league team and church-group level, as well as offer better and more diverse coverage of broader issues by bringing in more voices and perspectives”.

In 2006, probably the turning point of citizen journalism, the BBC announced that it would in fact pay Ams for their contributions that could include video footage taken and saved on cellphones. The BBC’s Direc­tor of Global News Richard Sambrook observ­ed how invaluable citizens’ input had been in reporting the London bombings the previous year: “Within six hours, we received more than 1,000 photographs, 20 pieces of amateur video, 4,000 text messages and 20,000 emails. People were participating in our coverage in a way we had never seen before.” (For a discussion of the struggle between Pros and Ams, listen to the BBC report at 0711)

Sambrook called this new phenomenon ‘open-source journalism’, where there was collaboration between a Pro and his or her readers on a story. In other words, the Pros were working alongside the Ams!

Indeed, citizen journalism has pushed the boundaries of traditional journalism. Just like the BBC, many major news organisations have begun tacking on a citizen-powered news stream, and it is becoming more of a hybrid. And the vast number of events taking place in parts of the world that are hard to access has created the perfect conditions for niche-media outlets.

In Libya, a citizen journalist noted the following: ‘Before the revolution, there was only one newspaper that belonged to the Government. But after the revolution, now there are almost five…” He appeared jubilant that even he could play a small part in making that happen.

His profession – when he isn’t a citizen reporter – is…? A dentist!

Just this June, The New York Times opened up a story for citizen participation in making sense of a trove of email records (24,199 in all) from Sarah Palin, released by the Governor’s Office in Juneau, in Alaska: “We’re asking readers to help us identify interesting and newsworthy emails, people and events that we may want to highlight. Interested users can fill out a simple form to describe the nature of the email, and provide a name and email address so we’ll know who should get the credit.”

Likewise, The Washington Post invited readers, saying: “That’s a lot of email for us to review, so we’re looking for some help from Fix readers to analyse, contextualise and research those emails right alongside Post reporters over the days following the release.”

Note the words ‘alongside Post report­ers’. To qualify, people didn’t need to have a degree in journalism… just a computer and an internet connection!

Others have been cooking up different recipes in the test kitchen of citizen participation. Media observers have been calling it ‘non-profit journalism’ and ‘grassroots journalism’.

“Non-profit journalism organisations as well as citizen journalists are producing news that too often is overlooked by traditional media,” observes Jason Stverak, President of the Franklin Center for Govern­ment and Public Integrity, a non-profit journalism organisation.

The distinction between online journalists and those who write in to newspapers and magazines or work in radio or TV are disappearing, and their skill sets are being cross-pollinated. Stverak rightly says that “not all those who write online stories are journalists yet, but the ones who are should get the same access and treatment as those few still employed by newspapers, television and radio”.

For the Ams (who are often videographers, bloggers and podcasters), access and ‘treatment’ are sticky issues. Consider the following. Even when it comes to major events such as the World Economic Forum (where bloggers and YouTubers provide up-to-the-minute and live coverage), press accreditation is reserved for ‘all accredited media’. Three bloggers who called themselves ‘alternative journalists’ sued the New York Police Depart­ment for giving them the cold-shoulder treatment – by denying them press credentials.

In the UK, the Tameside Council (a borough of Manchester) ruled that bloggers could not be permitted to tweet, since they were technically not members of the press corps. The council however permitted the Manchester Evening News and the Tameside Reporter to use Twitter during its meetings. In many instances like this, a person needs to prove that he or she is an ‘accredited representative’ of the press.

Which begs the question: would someone like Nabbous have been considered an accredited member? Probably not!

Jay Rosen, a promoter of the Pro-Am model for many years and a journalism professor at New York University, thinks that the profession has not been making much progress in this area – for the simple reason that the Pros have not been making it easy for citizens.

“The ergonomics of participation in Pro-Am journalism are poorly understood. We don’t have enough experts in it,” he says. In order to engage people in this model of reporting, “they need to see and feel the connection between the small part they are asked to contribute and the big story that will result”.

Then there is the credibility factor. Citizen journalists do not have the built-in reputation of a news organisation, especially if they are working solo. But this has been changing. As the BBC’s Michael Buerk noted while talking to an Egyptian citizen journalist, “it’s not important because of what old-style journalism can’t do, but for what they won’t do”.

There is an upside to all of this, not just for the media but for communities and for democracy. The ‘inconvenient truths’ in a functioning democracy, says Sanjana Hattotuwa, Editor of citizen-journalism outfit Ground Views, is that with citizen participation “you risk the multiplicity of voices and strengthen media literacy”.

And yes, it is messy… but you end up with an informed citizenry, which isn’t a bad payoff. They, the hoi polloi, decide on which media they will believe – and as has been the case in Iran and Egypt until recently, they often do not believe the official narrative coming from the mainstream media.

Professional Amateurs. Some ex-journalists and entrepreneurs have spotted opportunities in this space and begun to create business models, albeit non-profit businesses. One of them, The Uptake (, is a ‘citizen-fuelled news organisation’.

“Online tools will not solve community development,” says The UpTake. It stresses the need for a different type of citizen journalist – the Professional Amateur.

It also explains how one person wearing many hats is not the norm in citizen-fuelled news. Shooting the video, editing the story and publishing it online is more than what a Pro-Am ought to be asked to do.

Uptake recommends three core areas a citizen-fuelled organisation needs to focus on: train, organise and crowd-source. More importantly, it looks at citizen journalism not as a reactive means to cover a story as it breaks.

The co-founder of The UpTake Chuck Olsen calls it “committing an act of journalism” – meaning, going out there and finding the story, not reacting to it. “Most acts of citizen journalism are simply documenting something – a London subway cellphone photo, for example. And that’s very important,” he notes.

But as the model matures and takes on a Pro-Am status, Olsen calls for more: “We want to elevate citizen journalism from being reactive to being proactive. Go out and find stories that interest you, and provide some training on how to capture and tell that story.”


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