The recent furore over the 1 Million T-Shirts debate sparked a great deal of interest- over 50 blog post and quite literally thousands of tweets over a period of a few days. I’ve already put up a post about the process here. There are plenty more in a variety of colourful shades.
The event, as has been discussed in several places, was an interesting process that caught the eye of all sorts of people involved in aid and development practice (right down to a management meeting I was sitting in on in my own organization a couple of days ago). Namely, it brought together practitioners and thinkers from a range of organizational and experiential backgrounds; donors; ideas people; the general public; the media; and even people purportedly representing the mindset of the beneficiaries themselves. This culminated in an open live teleconference which was simultaneously live-tweeted in which various stakeholders discussed their positions on the initial concept (sending a million t-shirts to be distributed in Africa). The outcome of the debate is still pending.
The near-instantaneous creation of a new literature relating to this specific issue is discussed in this excellent post which I’ve linked to before. But the language really got me thinking.
In traditional academia, literature- that is, the written (and possibly spoken and/or recorded) form of the expertise that is carried by thinkers and practioners of a particular discipline, and which forms the basis for transmitted knowledge- is a relatively slow process. Journals are published on a periodic basis (hence ‘periodicals’)- usually monthly or quarterly. A topic is researched, often at considerable length. Citations and references are inserted, in footnotes or endnotes. An article is submitted for peer review. Then it’s passed through an editor and finally published in a journal (if it passes muster). It then joins the ranks of the accepted wisdom of the school, where it can be applied, tested, and critiqued. Comments can be written in and published, and articles proving or disproving its central hypothesis produced. There is an accepted level of rigour involved in this process, and it is moderately tightly controlled.
It is also quite slow.
You could argue that as aid and development bloggers, we take ourselves too seriously to consider our contribution to these global debates as ‘literature’. After all, we’re just a bunch of professionals, enthusiasts or generic busybodies who like the sight of our own text up on a screen, and share it at any given opportunity.
I’m sure there’s some truth in that.
By the same token, look at the process.
We take our own experience, knowledge and training and apply it to a particulary problem (for example, a high-profile donor who has decided to carry out an ill-advised development intervention).
We draw on the work of others, often inserting hyperlinks and referencing a broad manner of documentation and (usually web-based) resources.
The work is put up into a public forum, where peer review happens simultaneous with feedback, commentary and challenge: how much a blog post is praised or lambasted by a Twitter audience; how many re-tweets or pingpacks it gets; the quality, quantity and leaning of comments. In short, do other practitioners think this is a valuable piece of insight and consideration, or is it just a waste of megabytes?
The post is immediately added to by people who comment, critique, support and reject its central hypothesis.
And within hours, or a day or two at most, thoughts have been captured and publicized in the virtual space of the interwebs, for future reference (and reference there is aplenty, for those pieces that are well respected as enshrining good practice or solid argument; a brief wander through the pages of Blood and Milk, Tales from the Hood, Good Intentions or UN Dispatch, to name a few, will show how much linking and back-referencing to former arguments occurs there).
In my eyes the parallels are striking. The difference is twofold. On the one hand, rigour. On the other, timeliness. There is a clear tradeoff. Traditional academic journals are slow to pick up on issues. Months, even years pass for particular trains of thought to be raised- if they even get through the screening processes. They are also relatively elitist to access (think English-language, academically-linked and profecient at written prose). They are however highly rigorous, and only those ideas that have been well-thought-through and researched pass the gates.
By contrast, the new media scene is regulated only in as much as ideas gain traction among others in a similar school or profession- the rigour of self-moderation. But it’s fast. Flashes in the pan. Some ideas are out there and filed away in less than 24 hours. If they’re big, maybe a week or two, while the body of work is added to by others interested in its unfolding.
This application can be seen in all sorts of fields. Technology is the obvious one. Minutes after new tech (like anything by Apple) is announced, there are blogs and commentary and tweets flying. This has implications for marketing- though not so much for product development, which takes years from concept to production.
But the world of aid and development- and particularly, emergency relief- is a particularly interesting example, partly because of the timeframes involved. Like news media, where currency of information is of the highest value, time matters in an emergency.
Not all emergencies, of course. I don’t think anybody- doctors and patients alike- would want to see discussions of best practice in emergency theatres being created on Twitter during the two hours that an MVA victim was on the table.
But aid has several specific aspects to it that lend itself to this form of highly rapid group critique.
Complexity and Uncertainty: Decision-making in an emergency response is highly pressured and deals with highly-complex, poorly-understood systems of affect and feedback that are very, very hard to understand. Impossible, even. Any decision is a best-guess. In a situation of high time pressure (such as the early days and weeks of a disaster such as the Haiti Earthquake), decisions will always be based on a high level of uncertainty and gut reaction. One person alone is unlikely to have the most effective perspective on a problem in this context- especially as an outsider (usually the case in emergencies). I’m not advocating for group decision-making processes in the slightest. But being able to put an idea (like the Million T-Shirts concept) out into the public and professional domain for real-time critique could provide unforseen input from people with experience in a similar context. And this complexity and uncertainty- which anybody who has worked in an emergency setting can attest to- in some ways nullifies that need for high levels of academic rigour. With this level of chaos, rigour just won’t add much value- it’s almost impossible to fully understand, even when it’s all over.
Distance: Key stakeholders affected by a decision (or who might be able to contribute to an effective decision) are seperated by physical and organizational space- a side-effect of a highly mobile practicing diaspora and the large geographical jumps in the locations of practice, depending on where emergencies happen to be occuring (vis-a-vis where practicioners with relevent experience may be based; or equally, between where some decisions are made- headquarters or donor offices, versus where implementation takes place). The virtual space of Twitter and the world of blog unite highly disparate interests into a focused framework wherein ideas, commentary and experience can be consolidated, examined, critiqued and reformed into a process of value-add, all at minimum financial and temporal cost.
Rapidity: Time is of the essence in an emergency. Although the issues of lives-at-stake is (at times) overstated, there is none the less huge pressure on logistics, fundraising, media and communications aspects of organizations to deliver on decisions, and deliver yesterday. The ability to analyse a context, build on multiple experiences, tear down or create a recommendation in a matter of hours has huge potential in this industry.
Accessibility, Transparency and Accountability: Having decisions or issues floated in a public space such as provided by the interwebs allows, in principle, any stakeholder to participate, to contribute, and to watch what is going on- both process and outcome. Far moreso than through traditional means of producing an academic literature, which is highly restricted and limited. Not to say that there still aren’t biases (English language, access to computing hardware and knowledge of computer skills)- but they are far more open, and growing ever more open as mobile internet technology spreads across the planet.
Ten years from now, technological accessibility is going to transform our accountability and decision-making framework, and I for one welcome it.
This is not to negate the value of slower, more rigorous processes such as traditional journals. These are important, particularly post-emergency to analyse, capture and carefully process learnings and evaluative data, and to ensure publication to a broad audience of practicioners, donors, policy-makers, recipients and academics alike. But it is to recognize the legitimacy and value in this faster, lighter, more open process of enshrining new and better ideas and practice.
Likewise it is not to ignore the potential harm that new media can produce as it tackles issues. The lack of rigour and the high speed obviously means that ideas may not be as well thought through (though: a) having quick group critique does counterbalance this, and b) I’ve seen the way some ‘academic’ & subsequently-published articles were designed and written). Anybody can write anything. Language and attitudes can sometimes deteriorate into non-academic discussion and personal attack (although we all love a bit of snark here and there). There is always the danger of virtual mobs- people jumping onto ideas with a fad-like devotion without fully understanding the issues- potentially propelling something that’s not actually very smart into the heady heights of the blogosphere lexicon. And, there’s always the danger of the detatchment from reality. Authors hide behind an online persona- sometimes known, and sometimes unknown- but always an avatar of the true self- which can change attitudes and also hide weakness (maybe J. is just making it all up and in fact the only time he’s been outside the US was for a vacation to Cancun- he’s just really good at sounding convincing).
Really, I’m a big fan of anything that has potential to add value, and I’m increasingly seeing the potential value in new media as a forum for consolidating, communicating and transfering knowledge and experience at a high speed. It’s not a replacement for established forms of academic thought and process, but it is, in my opinion, a compliment, and a valuable one at that.
The postmodern critique is of course always necessary. Who’s blogging, and why? How does that affect their messages? Are their thoughts getting airtime just because others around them want a piece of their online popularity? And so forth.
Ask those questions. Filter what you find. And then take the rest back to your organizations, your donors and your policy-makers, and tell them to get online and get onboard.