The cute cat theory of digital activism and eluding the cat

2 minute read

From Ethan Zuckerman’s My Heart’s in Accra blog from a talk he did at ETech:

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.

It goes on to suggest that any sufficiently useful tool will be used by activists (and that that is an excellent gauge of how well your tool works for all you startup moguls out there). It’s also got some fantastic sorts of examples of people using tools in repressive regimes that I have to admit I wasn’t aware of (my favourite being Tunisia and airliners.net which is a site my father uses), so there are some great examples here if you want to see how activists are doing it for themselves when they don’t have a top 10 advertising (or now, “digital”) agency at their disposal.

Totally loved this idea :

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.

As an eerie and disturbing counterpoint, I’d also suggest reading David Bandurski’s… How Control 2.0 found its poster boy in Yunnan, on the case of “netizen” involvement in the investigation of the Yunnan prison death. It concludes :

In the government handling of the ‘eluding the cat’ case we can glimpse an eerie phenomenon emerging in China: the rise of virtual political participation as a proxy and foil for real political empowerment. Notice, political rights are not on offer to China’s citizens.

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