Trip to Tunisphere

July 13, 2008

The mere coincidence of the first letter of my name and Tunisia made this small North-African country a relevant pick for my class assignment this week to plunge into and explore the international bloggoshpere via Global Voices Online.

My perception of Tunsia has developed in three stages over the years. Stage number one – wishful thinking. Stage number two – the mediated reality check through the eyes of a friend. Stage number three – the virtual reality check.

During stage one Tunisia has always seemed to me like a very attractive travel destination. I remember seeing an article about some gorgeous Tunisian Mediterranean seaside resorts several years ago in a flight magazine. Then, last year one of my best friends made a trip there and provided an exciting account with plenty of photos, but emphasized that the place looks and feels far from the polished tourist magazine image.

Here I am concerned mainly with stage number three – expriencing Tunsia through its blogosphere or as they call it over there – the Tunisphere. This online trip proved to be the closest to reality from all my previous impressions. In my wanderings throughout Tunisian blogs I arrived at several observations. First, it is a vibrant community of bloggers, many of them rightfully concerned with the issues of political freedom, human rights, social justice and freedom of expression, which apparently are seriously threatened there. Second, Tunisian bloggers fill in a void space that official media do not reflect and the consequesnces of being a blogger and a journalist in Tunsia often include censorship, closing down of your blog or publication, job loss, personal freedom restrictions and even imprisonment. That was the case with Slim Boukhdhir, who remains in detainment since December, 2007, and has gone on numerous hunger strikes to protest the harrassment he experienced in jail by Tunisian authorities.

What is happening to blogger and journalist Slim Boukhdhir is terrible and at the same time not surprising in a country, where YouTube is banned. Yes it is, believe it or not! You can not access the biggest online video sharing service anywhere in Tunsia, because the government is affraid that you might stumble upon footage of police violence on Tunisian workers in the rich Phosphorous mines of Gafsa, Redyef and Oum el Arayess, who went on strike earlier this year to defend their right of employment. Many people were seriously injured. Official media remained silent, as if nothing was happening. This was the first case when Tunisian bloggers joined forces with human rights activitist in getting the story of repression out to the rest of the world. They even posted videos, showing wounded protestants.

The Tunisphere is a land of contrast. Just like Tunsia itself – it has both a serious and a casual face. Aside from the serious human rights and freedom of expression issues, there is obviously a young, hip, fashion and style-conscious generation in the country, which also contributes to the bloggosphere. A good example is one of the winners of the first ever Tunisia Blog Awards. Yosra World received the “Most Trendy Blog” award in 2007. Another top Tunisian blog is Subzero Blue, which is one of the few written in English.

A curious news that circulated in the Tunishere very recently is about Dahsha – the new online Arabic encyclopedia. Tunisian bloggers introduce and discuss how it is similar and different from Wikipedia. The principle of volunteer contributors is the same, but Dahsha publishes also video materials, studies and books, which are not supported by Wikipedia as types of content. It currently holds over 32,000 articles and is aiming to “enrich Arab content on the Internet”, according to blogger Mohammed Marwan Meddah. I wonder what are the chances of Dahsha joining Wikipedia one day? And I ask myslef – does it really have to? No doubt it is a different voice in the virtual conversation of knowledge and perhaps it is better for us to be able to draw on a multitude of authentic voices and viewpoints instead of trying to merge the sources.


Bellydance Blogging

July 8, 2008

I have not shared anything much about my personal interests so far, except my fascination with stand-up comedy. Well, belly dance also brings me real joy both as a spectator and as a dancer. It is definitely a more participatory and active hobby than comedy. I have seen tons of bellydance videos for learning purposes and enjoyment on YouTube.

Comedy and bellydance are my two richest collections of online videos. I have spent too many hours browsing and collecting bellydance videos, so, here are a couple of my most favourite. This is Sadie from Wisconsin and her performance is excellent.

Sadie has very precise movements and great execution, but compare her to the emotion that comes across from an actual Egyptian belly dancer – Dina, who is not that big on sophisticated movement isolation. Her technique is rather subtle.

I love both performances and, if I could merge them into one, that would be my ultimate belly-dance dream achievement! 

Belly dance is a celebration of feminity* and an incredible workout. The Western world has perceived belly dance as revealing and erotic for a long time before it became a popular activity for many women in the US and Europe. In the Middle East belly dance also has had a controversial image. The best description I’ve ever heard of it said: “Everyone loves it, dancers are the stars, but no one would like their son to marry a belly dancer or their daughter to become one.”

People in the Arab world dance belly dance with genuine enjoyment and emotion – both men and women. This is what you would rarely see in the West, which has taken belly dance and has placed it in the gym or dance studio and on the stage. It is not something they’d play at a wedding party here, for example. For one thing – we don’t get the lyrics of Arabic music. So, in this respect belly dance will never completely yield itself to western representation. Hm, when I think of it “raqs sharqi” (Arabic for “belly dance”) literally means “dance of the east”.

I find myself somewhere in the middle between these two ends, because music in Bulgaria (both traditional and popular) has taken its influences from the Middle-East and I can relate to bellydance rythm and melodies. I have been taking belly dance classes for over two years now. I have looked up plenty of web info about the origin and history of the dance, but was never able to find good blogs that are still “alive”. How difficult could it be to keep a blog, dedicated to dance, interesting and engaging? Today I found one – a pretty good blog with many links and resources, but also coming from a truly committed American belly dancer. Bellydance: Experinces is written by Natalia from St. Louis in Missouri and is interesting to like-minded readers. Perhaps I should consider setting up my own bellydance blog.

* Guess what – the best and most renowned belly-dance instructors in the world are… men.


Whole Foods Wikified: The Scanner Report

July 7, 2008

What do Bill Clinton, cannabis, right-wing politics and robber barrons have in common? Well, their Wikipedia pages have been subject to some interesting interventions by Whole Foods Market Inc. For this assignment I decided to apply my graduate-student curiosity to my own employer. I chose to report on the WikiScanner data for Whole Foods, provided that I have never been involved in any Wkipedia activity from within the company, and I discovered over 400 changes introduced to various Wikipedia pages from IP addresses associated with Whole Foods’ global headquarters in Austin, Texas.


It is not surprising that the most numerous changes made by the company on a single Wikipedia page are on the Whole Foods Market page . Those are total of 22 changes introduced from March 2005 to August 2007, when WikiScanner was last updated. It is reasonable for every organization to keep tack of the information describing it in the world’s largest free online encyclopedia and intervene with updates and/or corrections of factual errors when necessary. Let’s take a closer look at the online edits made by Whole Foods, which in some cases are  self-explanatory and in other leave us food for thought about the implications of the changes…

Labor Issues

In relation to common criticim received by Whole Foods about its lack of labor union structures, it is intersting to observe how one sentence was changed several times on the company’s Wikipedia page in October 2005. It started out as: “2004 Madison, Wisconsin Whole Foods Market elects to rid themselves of the union” and was finally left at: “2004: Whole Foods Market Madison no longer union after NLRB (National Labor Relations Boardruling.” The sentence is absent from the current page whatsoever.

The FTC & SEC Case

Another major page edit is in relation to the latest controversy surrounding the company in the summer of 2007 – the Federal Trade Commision‘s investigation challenging the aquisition of Wild Oats by Whole Foods Market. The edit of July 7, 2007, says: “… CEO John Mackey has taken the unusual step of initiating a blog on the subject to explain his opposition to the FTC’s stance.” In reallity the opposite happened – the CEO’s existing blog was suspended a week later, due to an informal inquiry by the Securities and Exchange Commission about the online annonymous postings of John Mackey in financial forums. The blog was relaunched in May 2008 after the end of the investigation.

Product Quality

Two more types of information were tweeked by Whole Foods in the company’s Wikipedia page. One of the changes shows how a quote by the Organic Consumers Association about the company’s product quality was shortened by removing the second sentence claiming that: “Supposedly, Whole Foods’ food is grown traditionally and sometimes genetically altered. ” Another correction under the Product Quality section made one statement about toxic substances sound more general – not necessarily associated with Whole Foods’ products, but with just products by and large.


The last of the curious self-edits on the page is a change in the order of listing between a 2003 PETA protest against Whole Foods’s purchasig duck from farms with animal-cruelty practices and the fact that in 2005 the company established its Animal Compassion Foundation to help producers raise farm animals humanely. The chronological order of the two facts is reversed to the advantage of the 2005 event.


Bill Clinton


John D. Rockefeller

John D. Rockefeller

So, what about Bill Clinton, cannabis, right-wing politics and robber barrons? Someone at Whole Foods likes Bill Clinton very much. To the point that they went into his Wikipedia page in March 2006 and declared that “… (Clinton) went on to become one of our nations greatest and most fair minded presidents in our nations history.” Another person at Whole Foods  must have decided that the ancient history of the drug cannabisand the way it was used in rituals by traditional cultures for centuries might be unnecessary or irrelevant to Wikpedia readers and with one stroke of the Del key ereased a huge chunk of comprehensive, referenced information. The same day Clinton’s page was edited, someone else from the same company set an alarm in the Right-wing politics page: “… the conservative mastermindes are plotting to overthrow us and send our great country into a whirlwind of economic depression…” Meant as joke or not, but the name of Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackay appeared at one point in June 2007 in the list of robber barrons in Wikpedia and… the entry was made from his own company’s IP address.


Some of the findings of this report are surprising, others – not. Has Whole Foods displayed the common kinds of disinformation bahavior listed by WikiScanner creator Virgil Griffith? Can we call the above examples “wholesale removal” of text paragraphs or “white-washing”? The answer to this is up to the reader.  After all, one of the reasons why Virgil gave WikiScaner to the world is for us “To see what “interesting organizations” are up to.” He has indeed succeeded to create a “fireworks display” of public relations bloopers and no single company is safe from them.


My Second Fat Li(f)e

June 30, 2008

I walked around exploring the town and within thirty minutes or so I managed to buy my own little home in a project in the outskirts. I found my fridge empty, but made a modest meal plan for breakfast, lunch and dinner, avoiding the Atkins BBQ Short Ribs and the Atkins Oriental Beef, listed in the menu options. I do not trust diets, especially when they are advertised. I found the nearest grocery store and bought some food. Then I started up a small business – I quickly became the owner of a coffee shop that costed me several hundred dollars. It did not make any money the first day, because while I was wondering what to serve my customers they kept disappearing within 7-10 seconds of waiting at their tables. Well, since business was not doing well, I decided to walk across town and take a look at the cemetery. After a short brisk walk halfway to the other side of town I started panting and had to stop… I guess my age, overweight situation and predisposition to hypertension, all of which I disclosed when signing in, were the reasons for that. Meanwhile, a pink-haired girl quickly passed me by jogging on the sidewalk. Welcome to Fatworld!

It was not me, but my character that was panting on the street and refused to move on for a while, even if I was pressing hard on the buttons that made it walk. Fatworld by Persuasive Games caught my attention and willingess to try it by its focus on nutrition and obesity. An intriguing topic for me! There is not much interaction between the characters in the game, but I came across some clear messages. The structure of the town was divided into poor and upscale communities. Fast food places and diners were to be found closer to the project housing and sit-in fine-dining restaurants were right next to the spacious mansions with back-yard swimming pools. One year in Fatworld is equl to one real-life day. I think I can afford spending more time there to further experience what will become of me in a accelerated mode – will I live or die – with the food/exercise activities I choose for my character.

My Second Life experience is still short-lived. I lingered around on the Orientation Island and the coolest thing were the supernatural abilities of my character – being able to fly or walk on the bottom of the sea. A wonderful feeling of freedom! I spent some time dressing and modeling my avatar and spoke to a couple of confused newcomers like myself. Second Life seems to require a lot of time from one’s Real Life. An amusing typo, applicable to both, made me think of which is more truthful – Second Lie or Real Lie?


Here Comes Wikipedia for Everybody

June 29, 2008

Wikipedia is the promise for a fast, easily acessible and free encyclopedia for everybody. This is a quick definition of it, were we to ask Clay Shirky. In his book “Here Comes Everybody” he reveals for us the holy trinity of an open-source project: “Promise. Tool. Bagain.” With his opening StolenSidekick story in the book Shirky illustrates how social media can change leverage opportunities and the way people get together and cooperate, regargless of the particular cause or purpose.

After delving into Wikpedia and its rules I came to the conclusion that we should trust it more than an expert-led encyclodedia. For one thing is it updated faster and represents considerable collective knowledge that is always richer than that of individual experts. The 5 percent false information in Wikipedia reminds me of the one spoonful of tar that can ruin a whole keg of honey. It is tricky, if we can never tell which piece of information in Wikipedia is the spoonful of tar, but I would disagree that in this case it may ruin it all.

I do not believe that the untrue information is dispersed evenly throughout Wkipedia. The existence of discussions about pages, rules and warning notes when an entry is incomplete or lacks citations is already a strong watchdog mechanism to guarantee the truthfulness (not truthiness) of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia’s honesty is present in the fact that it contains unsensored controvesial information about itself…  Here is an extract from the Wikipedia entry titled “Criticism of Wikipedia“:

Wikipedia, a free content encyclopedia project written by volunteers, has attracted criticism along with its size and popularity. Notable criticisms include that its open nature makes it unauthoritative and unreliable (see Reliability of Wikipedia), that it exhibits systemic bias, and that its group dynamics hinder its goals.”

Let’s pause for a moment and consider how many companies or organizations we can think of that have done that – on their own websites! Most of them would never (by corporate comunication rules) even iterate the name of their competitors in public, so as not to give them media exposure.


Google’s “Scary” Database of Intentions

June 28, 2008

John Batelle’s The Search” is all about how Google is changing the rules of business, the world and ourselves. Google’s Database of Intentions he writes about is a collective pool of information about what we want, where we live, what are we excited about, what do we care about most, what are we keenly interested in, etc. It does sound like Big Brother, but we do not really know whether “he” is watching? Each one of us experiences our identity give-away to Google piece by piece and only when we are confronted with the realization that somewhere (perhaps in Googleplex?) the pieces may come together, so that none of us remains a puzzle as an individual. It does sound unsettling, but should we be afraid of Google?

I can not be paranoid about it for the following reasons:

1. There is no evidence so far that my collective individual search data is being piled up and misused.

2. I can not participate and contribute to the Conversation without yielding information about who I am and what I am interested in. It does not work that way – a community of anonymous participants.

The reason for why we should be cautious though is that the potential damage of the misuse of all that collect information is critical. The risk is huge and by the time there is enough evidence that it is being misused, it may be too late to recover one’s own reputation, peace and privacy… Imagine you wake up one morning and you find 10 sales people at your door trying to sell you your most favorite things, because they know what you crave, why you want it and where to find you. That is disturbing.

Batelle’s logic in “The Search” goes in the following sequence, according to me: intent drives search, search drives clicksreams and clickstreams drive profits. Therefore, my intentions, wants and desires are somebody else’s profit. There is nothing wrong with that. The annoying part is why do they have to know all about I care for? Google, if used to this end, can give them a glimpse (or even a map 🙂 of my mind. It is all about control. The scary thing about all this so far for me is whether and to what end the government may get a hold of this powerful collection of knowledge. Let’s hope not.


The Long Tail Reaction

June 26, 2008

My reaction to Chris Anderson’s idea of The Long Tail is: I wish read it two years ago, when someone recommended it to me!!! I could be running a profitable business by now, had I the knowledge and insights that the book offers. Or at least I could have attempted to start a business, based on the model Anderson describes. I could have failed in my hypothetical business undertaking, but could still retain the learning that this experience could have given me. If only I had read it back then… Well, this reminds me of the retrospective French saying: With “if” we can fit Paris (not Hilton!) in a bottle. Avec si on peut metre Paris dans un bouteille… It is too late for regrets now.

The Long Tail is the ultimate revelation of how the market works now and how dramatically it has changed with the advent of the new web technologies. It describes how the hit-minded marketing has collapsed under the flood of availability (at low storage cost) of many more different products. Anderson reveals how market niches get narrower, but are still able to bring profit by virtue of their multiplicity. Or as Kevin Laws is quoted on page 23 of the book: “The biggest money is in the smallest sales.” The data about Rhapsody having 40 percent of their sales coming from products not available in traditional offline retail stores was striking to me. Same goes for Amazon’s 25 percent –  this is just brilliant! Who could have known?

The Long Tail gives us everything we may desire to find out there. My own discoveries along the Tail include for example finding new to me collections of short plays from David Ives – a playwright I adore since 1996 on the basis of one single book. The Long Tail gave me the chance to get many more of his brilliant works and want even more that he has not written yet! It helped me rekindle my college passion for theater and utter delight in play reading.

My introduction to podcasts came late. I guess I am not an early adopter, sorry. It was for Professor Mark Story’s class on the Intersection of Offline and Online Public Relations last fall semester. So, by assignment and later on by sheer interest I have chosen to listen to For Immediate Release: The Hobson & Holtz Report– a twice weekly wekly commentary on public relations and technology.