The political protests will be mediated (though maybe not televised)

Yes, I know, “the revolution will not be televised” is a cliche by now (though a great song). But one of the reasons it persists through time is because people involved in some form of social change feel it to be true that they don’t get enough media exposure due to perceived suppression from incumbent powers.

Venezuela has been involved, for a long time, in a polarization of political opinion that is best illustrated in its media. Looking at what happens in the country through media outlets sympathetic to either side results in a seriously disjointed view from two competing narratives.

There have been claims of government censorship for a while (most notably in the cases of RCTV and Globovision), while the government says it is more open than before it came into power. Newspapers claim they’ve not been given the conditions to buy paper to print on, the government says that is a lie.

The opposition says it has no representation in the media, because the government has suppressed it through abuse of power. The government says it has no representation in the media, because the opposition owns most of the media.

The Internet has muddied even more this division. Banned from cable and satellite television channels, like NTN24, become available through Youtube. Newspapers utilize their web presence to give expanded information. But perhaps the biggest development is amateur reporting. Here’s a few numbers:

* As of 2013, Internet penetration in the country was up to 42% with the number considerably higher in urban centers (where electoral patterns show the opposition tends to concentrate).
* According to Pew Research, Venezuela ranks as the third country in Latin America in smartphone ownership (31% of the population).
* In the same report it states 83% of Internet users use social media while 77% of cell phone owners take pictures/videos and 39% use it to get political news (highest in the poll).

Having the opposition have predominant access has meant that the government’s relationship with social media has had its ups and downs. In 2010, most feared Chavez would take the same route as Iran and pull the plug when he said “the Internet cannot be something open where anything is said and done”, however, in a shocking turnaround, he invited his supporters to counter the opposition bias and even joined Twitter himself, becoming the country’s most followed account and definitely left a legacy as the US’ biggest Internet troll.

His successor, Maduro, has had a worse relationship with social media. His Twitter account was hacked (as was the ruling party’s), he’s been accused of overextending government surveillance and recently there’s been claims by Twitter and Pastebin of blocking the services during this week’s protest. (Yesterday broadband outages were also alleged in Tachira, one of the protests’ hotspots).

With news of Twitter blocked, Canadian VPN TunnelBear offered their services free of charge to Venezuelans and, another VPN, HotSpot Shield, did the same. I also saw Tor’s Onion browser was being recommended across forums while Hola Unblocker became popular on Facebook.

Right now the importance of social media is that it is considered by the opposition to be the only way to spread information in the face of an alleged media blackout. Videos of massive protests as well as evidence of excess by the armed forces and attacks from government supporters are posted, the shared by citizens, government officials and journalists. For example, a reporter claimed on Twitter to be attacked by the police when covering a protest while a user was uploading a video of the incident to Instagram, which helped the news get published. (There are many reports of attacks on journalists)

Information, though mostly rumors, fly through Whatsapp, Blackberry Messenger and other instant messaging applications. Initially, the Zello walkie talkie app gained popularity, but during last night‘s National Guard repression campaign (during which a presidential speech using emergency broadcasts that overtake traditional media, which are common), Twitter was a buzz with reports of the app giving away location of people hiding in buildings as well as government supporters “intercepting” and recording alleged damming conversations.

An obvious drawback to this unfiltered reporting is that misinformation and conflicting reports are rife, as has happened in other protests (here’s Zeynep Tufekci on the subject). The government has used widely shared doctored photos as evidence to discredit information being shared on social media and state it is all part of a coordinated attack.

Generally, within minutes of an incident, opposition supporters have taken to Reddit to get some international attention, successfully making it to the front page with a couple of posts (about 4 times in the past week: here, here, here and here). But, as Gawker explains, it faces many hurdles in capturing that attention: mainly the horrible developments in Ukraine and the US’ troubled history with Latin America.

In the 16th day of protests between opposition and government forces, amidst tear-gas smoke and road blockades, few things are clear in Venezuela, except that whatever happens next they’re not waiting for it to be televised.

Update: While finishing this writing CNN, who had reported being victims of theft, have been threatened by Maduro of being removed from the country’s airwaves.

Update 2: Zello has denied, via Facebook, claims that the app can give GPS data on users and have tweeted getting reports of the app being blocked in Venezuela.


The Internet still thinks it can live without ads

The advertising industry has hit a bit of stride with online ads. Ad supported content has been, for the moment, the most used model for this, clearly ahead of freemiums and paywalls. (Though, the NYT’s paywall’s recent performance is worth noting).

Payment as pain, from a user’s perspective, isn’t the ideal experience. There are reports of slight shifts in attitudes on paywalls, but still far from mass acceptance. However, the number of paywall workarounds are only rivaled by the amount of ad filtering software. Both are an indication that maybe still need to think about a third way more in tune with the culture of the web.

“Altruistic” models have been in development for a while. I remember getting my Flattr account in 2010 thinking it was a great idea: a pay-what-you-can system to reward content creators for putting their work out there. Essentially it feels more like tipping than paying… though, in all honesty, I never used it.

Two developments to Flattr frame the promise and limits of this model in practical terms, though:
1. It was banned from being used on Twitter as it muddied the definition of what is an ad and what is a tweet, which is a key definition for Twitter’s own monetizing scheme.
2. It’s added Bitcoin funding to its deposit function (but critically not its withdrawal).

This last one is spurred on by the Bitcoin community’s campaign to spread integration of Bitcoin to as many services as possible in the search of becoming mainstream. It is safe to say this will be a boost to the usage rates of Flattr.

There are probably few communities more primed for micropayments than the ones actively supporting digital currencies, since they’ve instituted it as a low-risk/high-volume way of getting the currency moving like currency instead of a commodity. Bitcoin users have been tipping on Reddit since October 2012. Dogecoin users followed suit last December.

Dogecoin users have now embarked on a route that will test if another social giant’s ad model can coexist with social micropayments: Facebook tipping. Since last week, a Facebook application is being tested by the community that allows users to tip other users in Facebook in Dogecoins. While it will probably clash with promoted content guidelines, Facebook has other advertising options that can coexist peacefully with this feature.

And from the tipping system’s perspective, I’d argue that Facebook seems like has ideal conditions for this venture: it can display different types of content (better than Twitter), it broadcasts actions (making tipping activity noticeable) and it has the biggest user base.

Now comes the point in the text where I address the elephant in the room: digital currencies aren’t hype. Bitcoin, while still clearing a few hurdles, has had a relatively stable growth and continues to spread it’s use beyond the fringe (Google is reportedly testing Wallet support). Also, as Bill Gates pointed out in his recent Reddit AMA, digital currencies, like Vodafone’s M-Pesa, are thriving in Africa (and now moving into India).

And closer to home, Bitwall has shown that a hybrid model of “social payment” (pay-with-a-tweet) and micropaywall, where interactions are Bitcoin based, can have positive results.

Looking at these developments, there seem to be patterns emerging that offer a few takeaways:

  • Digital currencies and social tipping are successful practices as long as they target specific communities first. Trying to compare it to national currencies is seeing the forrest for the trees.
  • Supporting digital currencies gives access to passionate and savvy communities of users willing to promote and test. However, remember the savvy part before you peddle.
  • From users, there’s a need for alternatives to pay for content. You won’t make everyone happy, but you need to think about the best fit for your users/costumers and their mode of consumption.
  • Thinking outside online ads can be scary for ad agencies. The trend show that it’s not time to panic, but it’s probably best not to fire content creators yet.