A friend sent me this link to a terrific paper by Ethan Zuckerman. Here are some excerpts but read the whole thing here.
Zuckerman's focus is on cute cats and activism. He identifies the issue:
Web 1.0 was invented to allow physicists to share research papers.
Web 2.0 was created to allow people to share pictures of cute cats.
For Zuckerman, the popular uses, even if they seem to overflow the information networks with all sorts of boring content, are actually inseparable from the net as a medium for activists (he also discusses this in terms of the porn test--the presence of porn in a medium means that the medium is working; the blogger equivalent might be the troll test; the presence of trolls means you've got readers). He writes:
Zuckerman uses as his primary example the story of some events in Tunisia. Tunisian activists made a video exposing governmental corruption:
Sami and Astrubal posted the video on their personal blogs… but as known activists, their blogs have been blocked in Tunisia for years. They also posted it on DailyMotion, a video site popular in the French-speaking world. Shortly after, the Tunisian government blocked access to DailyMotion.
This is a good thing if you’re an activist. Most Tunisians don’t identify as activists and might not be engaged with politics. But, like Americans and Europeans, they’re interested in seeing cute cats being adorable online. When the government blocks DailyMotion, it impacts a much wider swath of Tunisians than those who are politicially active. Cute cats are collateral damage when governments block sites. And even those who could care less about presidential shenanigans are made aware that their government fears online speech so much that they’re willing to censor the millions of banal videos on DailyMotion to block a few political ones.
Blocking banal content on the internet is a self-defeating proposition. It teaches people how to become dissidents - they learn to find and use anonymous proxies, which happens to be a key first step in learning how to blog anonymously. Every time you force a government to block a web 2.0 site - cutting off people’s access to cute cats - you spend political capital. Our job as online advocates is to raise that cost of censorship as high as possible.
China’s censorship genius is that they’ve found a way to let people have their cute cats and have censorship as well. While China will block sites like Human Rights Watch, they won’t block domestic Web 2.0 sites, and hence the collateral damage from blocking banal content doesn’t draw non-activists to become aware of activist issues. Is this unique to China, or will we see this technique spread? It’s hard to imagine Ethiopia, for instance, being capable of building their own Amharic internet applications and blocking all Web 2.0 tools.
(ps--Zuckerman has another article that mentions a cool app where cnn updates appear as lolcaptions on cute kitteh photos. Unfortunately, the link goes to a 404. What I really don't get is why cats are so much more popular than other cute animals.)