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Viral Justice and Frozen Yougurt: Redefining Social Media at a Summit in Afghanistan

Keep your virtual eyes toward and ears perked for news from Afghanistan today. This news, however, won't be about inordinate levels of poverty, the Taliban or government corruption, but about Paiwand, billed as the nation's first ever social media summit, on September 22 and 23.

Though the summit will demonstrate social media's capacity to address these aforementioned pernicious problems, it makes no pretensions of offering 180-degree change through some Internet magic. Rather, Paiwand will act as a forum for stakeholders to look at the state of social media in Afghanistan today, what it can do for the nation's immediate future and how that may lay the building blocks for long-term progress while articulating what social media means to Afghans.

For building blocks, however, Paiwand is providing enormous ones that could have major implications for the future. The event director, Impassion's Eileen Guo says, "Paiwand's mission is to help build a strong social media community in Afghanistan, as well as to get Afghanistan some recognition for the innovations that are happening in tech here."

"For a long time now I was hoping for something like this. Some sort of an event where all the bloggers, geeks, photographers... gets together to have awesome time and to build something new. Something that makes differences," says Esmat Zeerak in his blog "A Kid With Great Ambition."

The current percentage of Afghans with access to Internet, or lack thereof, is startling. It is a country of more than 31 million but Guo explains that "According to Facebook ad insights, there are 700,000 registered users in Afghanistan, and 10 percent are women." That number, in fact, seems high to her. "But I personally know of a lot of men that have numerous accounts, the location could include expats like myself that say we live in Afghanistan and the militaries that are here," she added.

Luisa Walmsley, a Kabul-based independent independent ICT sector and business development consultant who will be a panelist at Paiwand, explains that though only a small percentage of the population has access to it "young educated Afghans see the Internet as a really powerful way to solve those problems poverty, illiteracy, lack of quality education, and more, and social media as a tool for discussing the solutions."

Walmsley will be running a panel with Fatima Popal, the director of Roshan M-Paisa. Roshan is Afghanistan's leading telecommunications provider and its initiative M-Paisa is a mobile financial services tool. Popal, an Afghan American who was born in Kabul, says, "I was one of the lucky ones who was fortunate enough to leave in the beginning of the Soviet war -- so I had a lot of opportunity to educate myself outside the country." Fatima has been back and forth via Afghanistan since 2009 saying, "I believe that it was my duty to come back and give back to my people."

In regard to social media's capacity, Popal explains,

"Afghanistan is a unique country in that the largest demographic segment is the youth. The youth of Afghanistan aspire to be educated, live safely, utilize technologies to better their lives and live healthy. These youth are the future of this country. They will be a vital part to bridge the gap in Afghanistan's political, social and economic turmoil and contribute to the economic development of the country and using social media will only empower them more."

Guo echoes these sentiments saying that right now much of social media's potential in Afghanistan comes in the form of engagement in the nation's political process, community engagement and development initiatives. The power of visual media also addresses how the digital revolution can impact a place with a literacy rate of 28 percent.

"I think social media needs to be redefined in the Afghan context. There's a phenomenon here of viral videos that are shared by Bluetooth, and those wouldn't count as social media in other contexts, but it's definitely social media here. It's how Taliban gets out messaging and propaganda, for example, but it's also just the source of some hilarious YouTube-worthy videos of rural life in Afghanistan, for example, or other topics."

"Every week now it seems, I see on my Facebook news feed that some poor Afghan cop has been beat up. It's a sign of progress," begins the New York Times blog post, "Viral Justice" by Matthieu Aikins. Photos and videos of such injustices, especially those demonstrating the current cultural state of impunity for Afghanistan's most powerful, have been increasing in circulation. "Once the news attracts a critical mass of viewers on Facebook, private channels can no longer ignore it, and they no longer fear that they'd be sticking their necks out by reporting it alone," the post explains.

This viral cycle has can impact the entirety of the country, even those without Internet and electricity or those who are illiterate may eventually hear of this news through word of mouth. (Aikins, an award-winning Afghanistan based writer and photographer whose work has appeared in international publications like Newsweek, Harper's magazine and the Guardian, will also be a panelist at Paiwand.)

Such is Paiwand's approach. Walmsley says:

"The youth at university and who are getting an education do, unfortunately, tend to be the wealthier segment that is easier to reach, but you have to start somewhere. Unlike the US where kids want to go to school for an MBA to be finance majors and get rich on Wall Street Afghan kids want an MBA to be a social entrepreneur."

"That is obviously a bit of a generalization," she acknowledges, "but talking about solving social problems with business is definitely more mainstream here."

Popal cautions by saying that though "wealthy does not exist in Afghanistan," all 34 provinces in the country have functional universities and the ones in the south all offer resources and internet services. "It's not as much as a second- or first world country, but enough to start an evolution." There also don't seem to be concerns about government crackdown on citizen engagement.

This is not to say this evolution won't come with obstacles that often seem insurmountable. One of the biggest challenges any project in Afghanistan faces, beyond connectivity and access to affordable and reliable technology, is language-related. "Reliable Internet will do wonders for Afghanistan. There are so many awesome free online educational programs. The problem is, most of these resources aren't available in the local languages," Walmsley says. Guo also added that she encountered a number of unexpected problems, for example, a lot of the popular platforms enjoyed in the West aren't built for right to left text.

Another difficulty is security. "It is really challenging to get out there and find out what people want and need," Walmsley says. She posits that this is why a lot of development agencies and private industries are working with those who have higher income, education and the cultural attitudes often associated with them.

Women are subject to the control of men, in many parts of Afghanistan, especially in rural areas.

"Many women are still very heavily restricted by their families. It is hard to see them, spend time with them, get enough time to really delve deep and get their thoughts and perspectives. One of my best friends, I rarely get to see socially, because her family doesn't let her go out, even when it's just women. I have to go into the office to see her. This makes it really hard to support her -- I have been wanting to tutor her in English for a long time, we can't meet regularly outside work to have lessons," Walmsley says.

This is where connectivity to other countries (even if it has to start with the urban youth with higher incomes) can come into play. Social media can link Afghans to neighboring countries like Pakistan and India, which have more developed media and more women who dare to make an online presence. Paiwand's organizers want to encourage this among women here.

It's worth adding that social media can offer women a way to express themselves to change the one dimensional traditional Western narrative through which South Asian and Muslim women are portrayed.

When asked about resistance to the Paiwand summit itself, however, Guo says, "There have been people that haven't wanted to support it, and of ways that we have implemented it, but no, not of the summit itself. Which is actually pretty cool -- everyone thinks it's a great idea."

Even though it seems social media in Afghanistan will, as it should, be operating on its own terms, Cherry Berry, a frozen yogurt store in Kabul, launched its Facebook page months before they opened their store, to build up buzz, and now has more than 27,000 Facebook likes.

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