Monday, March 15th
9am: Iâ€™m currently on a trip to the US this week, both to Washington DC and to San Francisco that is geared towards journalists and citizen journalists. The â€œsocial media tourâ€ is essentially a schedule of meetings with the US State Department and the White House, being exposed to how the Obama administration is using social media for public policy. The second half of the trip takes place in San Francisco, where we get to tour the offices of Google, Twitter, Facebook and Apple â€“ getting to see how they work and what they have planned.
For full disclosure, this trip is arranged by the US State Department, and is part of an exchange program that has been running for decades, and actually â€“ just a bit of history – Abdul Salam Majali was the first Jordanian to go on such a trip in his early days. The program has obviously evolved over time, to where it is today. In any case, the point of this trip is to get a sense of best practices when it comes to social media and public policy. As someone who is heavily involved in social media and is academically involved in public policy, I thought this would be a great opportunity to see how those two world collide. During trainings we often conduct with 7iber, Obamaâ€™s use of social media during his campaign has become a classic example of how these tools have been used to mobilize and spread information. Suffice to say, it will be interesting to see the architects of that social media strategy.
This post will be an online diary of the trip where I’ll just express various observations.
9:30am: Getting in to the State Department is like walking in to an American airport.
10am: Just met Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton in the Treaty Room at the State Department, but unfortunately she only had time for three questions. Fadi from the Palestinian News Network fortunately got to ask her about the recent situation that unfolded last week when Vice President Biden visited Israel on a peacekeeping mission only to be informed by the Israeli government that they were planning on building 1,600 illegal settlements in Jerusalem. Her response, while a bit lengthy, essentially boiled down to the USâ€™s â€œcommitmentâ€ to establishing a two-state solution and â€œwhenever the Palestinians do something wrong, we will speak up, and whenever the Israelis do something wrong we will speak up.â€ Diplomatic answers for a diplomatic job. For a moment, I was reminded how close she was to getting the democratic nomination last year; a hair away from the presidency.
Her appearance was unscheduled so there was no time to really prepare for questions, but had I the chance, my question would have likely been about recent moves by the Jordanian government to censor the web. As she was speaking I remembered her speech back in January regarding free Internet. And while that speech was likely targeting China over Googleâ€™s decision to disband from the country and escape its Great Firewall â€“ it also took place around the same time Jordanâ€™s Supreme Court ruled on a case, opening the door for prosecution of what is said online. A draft of a Cyber Law by the government was also leaked online causing even greater worry, especially by local electronic newspapers who felt targeted. I mention Clintonâ€™s speech because there is a belief in some circles, by some people working in this sector, that it was that speech that inspired the Jordanian government to put any moves towards web censorship on the back burner. I am not one of those people.
10:40am: Gathered in a room full of journalists who are all in the middle of doing write ups. Itâ€™s always interesting to distinguish between those who are working in mainstream journalism and those involved in social media; the latter always have nothing to do when there are no wireless connections around. For some odd reason, the State Department gets â€œnervousâ€ with wireless connections and so there are none inside the actual main building. They also get â€œnervousâ€ with cell phones, laptops, recorders and any other kind of electronic device â€“ all of which are banned from important rooms like the Treaty Room.
12pm: Met Alec Ross, who is Clinton’s senior advisory of innovation. People in my line of work are pretty familiar with his name, as Ross was one of the architects of Obama’s social media strategy during the campaign, and was one of the co-founders of One Economy, the non-profit that a did a lot of great work in the 2000’s regarding bridging the digital divide (the bee hive, for those of you more familiar with that website, was one of their offspring). Ross talked a great deal about social media and how the state department has been using it. That ongoing experiment is something that’s pretty exciting to watch; the ways in which it evolves naturally. Ross mentioned the recent earthquake in Haiti and how, via the state department, they were able to create the messaging system that allowed Americans to donate $10 with an SMS the day after the news, raising millions in the process.
Tuesday, March 16th
9am: At the Newseum. Probably one of the most interesting museums Iâ€™ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. In a modernist design it blends the archives of history well with modern happenings. At its heart is a 4D theater that hosts the story of some major developments in American media and journalism history, including Nelly Bly and Edward R. Murrow. The museum is an archive of media history including a section dedicated to Berlin wall, and includes several slabs of the actual wall, as well as a section dedicated to 9/11, creatively displaying an endless series of front pages from around the world covering the next dayâ€™s news. The museum opened in 2007, but it is an ongoing evolution it seems. The blending of digital technology with a medium as old as newsprint is simply fantastic. One wall displays the front pages of newspapers from around the world, of that very day. The nerve center of the museum, filled with a team of people running the technology that fuels the place, is actually a transparent room that resembles a control room at a typical news station â€“ so you get to see people at work, running the museum.
11:30: Off to the Democratic National Convention.
12pm: Today is an interesting day simply because Obamaâ€™s controversial health care bill is being debated in Congress, so everyone in government seems to be busy, including those meeting with us at the DNC.
12:15pm: At the DNC, meeting with two interesting individuals who worked on Obamaâ€™s campaign (I’ll update their names later on), specifically developing the social media strategy. These guys were at the forefront of the political campaign and were leaders in a story that is told and retold in social media circles. It is one thing to be an architect of such a strategy and be involved in the macro-planning of it, and it is another thing to be on the ground and getting to see what works and what doesnâ€™t. Their experience, regardless of what politics, is priceless.
What is perhaps interesting to note is that social media for them may be better defined as digital media. In other words, what was used in the campaign was well tailored to areas and states where Internet access is low (reminding me Jordan). There was an enormous reliance on the use of mobile phones, which again reminds me of Jordan. The fact that mobile penetration is so much higher than that of the Internet is a major variable. Messages have to be tailored for that specific technology.
Fortunately, they stuck around long enough to take a great deal of questions. Again, itâ€™s a busy day, even at the DNC.
Itâ€™s interesting to note that most of the group accompanying me, while young and willing to recognize the power of social media, are still mainstream journalists who do not quite connect with it on a human level. Having studied the Obama campaignâ€™s social media strategy quite well over the past year, I managed to ask one question that I always wondered about. Having moved from campaigning to governing, how has the strategy changed with regards to that one fluctuating variable: passionâ€¦? During a campaign, people are hyped. The atmosphere is energetic, be it those people working on the campaign or those people who are being mobilized or those audiences being addressed. People are generally hyped and passionate about whatâ€™s going on. But what happens when the campaign is over and the passion shift, and gets divided in to small bits? When itâ€™s no longer about choosing a presidency, but choosing a health care plan, or even smaller policy issues on a very local or state level. What impact does social media have then? Is it directly proportionate to the level of available passion on-the-ground?
1:30pm: Leaving the DNC only to find that the circus is in town. No, I mean literally. The circus is in town. Two dozen elephants marched right past the DNC prompting its employees to take a break from a very busy day to watch the march from the buildingâ€™s terrace. If the Democrats lose the vote, let it be known that their employees were distracted by a circus outside their windows when they should have been manning the phones! Sounds like a Karl Rove tactic.
2pm: Unfortunately, the meeting at the White House was canceled and instead we are skipping forward to the Capitol Building to take a tour and meet with congressmen.
2:25pm: You can hear protesters outside the Capitol building. Some calling Obama a savior – others calling him a socialist. Socialism in the US is of course equivalent with Satanism, mainly due to Cold War era Hollywood produced anti-communist propaganda.
2:40pm: Getting in to the Capitol Building is a hassle. Itâ€™s exactly like security clearances at the airport except the security guards are almost always commanding and aggressive with people. This is perhaps a universal truth it seems. Empower the most blue-collar of workers with some authority and they will almost always use wield it in the most aggressive manner, and at the end of the day theyâ€™re â€œjust doing their jobâ€. Shoes off, jackets off, laptops out, bags scanned.
4:00pm: Tour is never-ending. Having just read Dan Brownâ€™s The Symbol, my mind is constantly looking for all the Masonic symbology in the building including getting a first hand look at the image lining the ceiling of the rotunda, the apotheosis of George Washington. All history aside, I am simply dead tired of walking at this point, as is everyone else it seems.
4:10pm Gathered in a room where congressmen usually get sworn in, we await congressmen Byrd, a republican from Utah. He makes an appearance and takes some questions. His answers are of the conservative variety, including the typical â€œbombing Iran should always be an option on the tableâ€ response. Inspired by a commenter on this blog, I ask about the house bill that targeted arab media. He doesnâ€™t remember the bill or the vote on it.
9pm: The day is long over but I decided to go for a walk, aiming to see the White House before I leave. Lost somewhere near the Washington Monument and George Washington University, I finally find my way. Itâ€™s much smaller than I imagined. Iâ€™ve seen villas in Abdoun that are bigger.
Interestingly, some protesters still linger outside. I arrive at the moment when they are clashing with just an ordinary Washington resident whose passing by and is probably an Obama supporter â€“ at least from what I gathered from their rantings back-and-forth. The police are there, and trying to keep both people calm and far apart. The Obama supporter screams at the protesters â€œIf you donâ€™t like America, you can leave!â€, which is usually what gets screamed at other groups who are demanding their rights and in the process deemed un-American (i.e. immigrants). It was hilarious to see it being thrown at a bunch of out-of-state conservatives.
Wednesday, March 17th
10am: Off to San Fransisco for a series of meetings with Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter. Or, in other words, the coolest part of this trip.
11am: The whole team is divided in to groups, with each group consisting of a small number of journalists who are lead by one person from the state department team. The idea is that this will help us get through the airport quicker. A paper with the names and groups is passed around the bus. My name appears at the top of group 1. Everyone in group 1 is Arab. This is no coincidence.
1pm: Upon getting our border passes and checking our bags, we head down to the security clearance area. We have been warned beforehand not to take offense of their security measures. We have been warned several times. What is interesting is that none of these warnings make things any less offensive. Approaching two security guards whose job is to look at our passports, visas and boarding passes before letting us go through security clearance, every Arab is told to step aside while others are allowed through. Slowly, one by one, group 1 reunites miraculously. At this point we are laughing at our predicament. The last person in our group is Moroccan and as he steps up to the TSA employee, I tell the other group that he might be the only one to get through. My theory is that Morocco is a fantasy like country with romantic notions that have been long embedded in American culture, specifically Hollywood movies. In other words, it isnâ€™t necessarily deemed to be an Arab country. My whispered theory is a half joke but the Moroccan is allowed through, so I donâ€™t know, I could be right.
We are then escorted by a TSA officer to a â€œspecialâ€ line at the security clearance. Typical procedures take place. No shoes, no jackets, no belts, laptops out, bags separately, and then through the metal detector. Right after we pass the metal detector weâ€™re put in this transparent quarantine box that probably has the dimensions of an elevator. Whatâ€™s hilarious about the situation (and at this point Iâ€™m laughing a great deal) is that other people in the security lines next to us, pass us by casually, with everyone trying not to stare at the Arabs in the box.
One by one we are taken out and patted down. And I mean patted down. I mean every inch of us. In detail. Like, one of those 5 minute pat downs where it wouldâ€™ve been just easier to undress completely. The funniest part is that the security officer is informing you out loud that he is patting you down, and that at this point, he is going to touch your sensitive areas with the back of his hand. To be fair, the officer assigned to me was fairly respectful, in contrast to the guy next to him. He uses the word â€œsirâ€ after every sentence, and for some reason we all found this to be funny. Itâ€™s the equivalent of someone telling you not to take offense. â€œSir, please spread your arms and legs while we violate you, sir. Thank you sir.â€
Then our feet are checked. Then our palms are swabbed for chemical traces. Then our carry on bag is completely emptied. Every thing is checked. Every electronic device is swabbed and run through a machine. Every paper is looked at. Laptop is turned on and off. Swabbed. Scanned.
Eventually this entire process, which for an ordinary person would probably take 10-15 minutes, is over for us in over twice that time. We then proceed to have lunch at Wendys.
5pm: Arrive in San Francisco. Finally, a city that is bright, sunny, green and alive.
9pm: Walk along the Wharf down to Pier 39. Itâ€™s St. Patrickâ€™s Day so people, the overwhelming majority are white and probably not Irish, are dressed in green and heading out to bars to drink the night away. Itâ€™s a tradition. No one knows why.
Thursday, March 18th
8am: Off to Facebook.
10:19am: Speaking to Barry Schnitt, Director of Policy Communications at Facebook. The place is actually pretty small, right off Stanford University. I don’t think Schnitt even got through his presentation before being bombarded by questions. It’s fascinating to hear questions from people who are from all over the world, and thus, ask questions that are more geared toward their locality. Most of the questions are laced with underlying notions of privacy. Obviously, in the Web industry, Facebook and Google are the two main entities that the world looks to when it comes to the question of online privacy. While Google has traditionally taken the lead here, Facebook is quickly becoming the principle actor in the spotlight for obvious reasons: it’s a world based on the notion that people are creating profiles of themselves, loaded with information about themselves.
On a side note, it’s actually great to be in a room where you can actually sit at a table and blog, take photos, record with a flip, and when your laptop runs low on power, charge it with the dozen Apple adapters at the table. And more importantly, there’s a stellar fast Internet connection, which helps you stay connected to news about Facebook – in case one runs dry on questions.
10:31am: An interesting question asked is about Facebook’s categorization of disputed and/or controversial territories, like Palestine, specifically Jerusalem. The answer was that their mission is to let the user choose instead of choosing for them. However, what they’ve done is (supposedly) programmed this choice according to language. So, hypothetically, if you have Facebook in Arabic, Jerusalem will be categorized as, well, not Israel. Don’t know if that’s accurate or not.
11:15am: The next two people speaking are off the record. For a company like Facebook, which is typically known as being the young, hip and cool organization – they’re really pretty uptight about information and giving out information.
1pm: Overall Facebook wasn’t the greatest of experiences. There was just too much information dealt out that was off the record. We were essentially stuck in a room and movement outside was limited to the bathroom. You couldn’t even linger in the hall. Generally, there was a bit of paranoia that made getting answers difficult. Even on the coolness factor that one would expect from a youthful company like Facebook failed. More later.
3pm: At the Twitter office listening to Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter. The place makes up for the Facebook failure. An ultra-cool office, and a great presentation by Stone, who instead of boring us with a million slides, gave us the story of how Twitter started strictly from his perspective; depicting the moment “they” knew they were “on to something”.
3:17pm: Highlight of my day: got to name-drop Jordan’s WatWet as the Arab equivelent of Twitter. Don’t believe they knew about it, but awareness is a good first step.
Friday, March 19th
9:43am: Up at Google’s offices. Spanning across a huge corporate-like neighborhood, they’ve built a cool bubble for themselves. From colorful chairs to colorful walls, ping pong tables, indoor bike racks, neon signs in offices, arcades, and colorful sofas to work on. Seems a bit much for a company like Google, but then again, they are the fastest growing company in human history.
9:50am: Listening to Krishna Bharat, head of the Google News, explaining how the system actually works, and the amount of work the Google News team puts in to it on a daily basis. It’s not easy to rank stories in real time, according to their importance, sources, quality, freshness, and much much more. Krishna opened my eyes to one Google app I had never heard of: flipshare.googlelabs.com – an interesting way to views news without having to load the actual news site and wait for each page to load individually. Worth checking out.
11:25am: Just went through three different presentations by the Google team, including News, Wave and Buzz. Once again, getting to hear various questions by journalists from all over the world is interesting, as many questions are geared to a person’s own country and region. With that in mind, it is even more interesting to note the extent to which privacy seems to be a universal issue and/or concern. Google is undeniably at the forefront of that privacy arena, and everything they develop tends to receive some criticism regarding privacy settings.
When it comes to Buzz, it’s interesting to note that many see this as a similar product to Twitter, and to add to the confusion, Google is one of Twitter’s partners. The two products/platforms are like two bumper cars trying not collide with each other and probably trying to find ways to collaborate.
12pm: Going on a tour of the Google Campus
12:30pm: There is little that can be said, which has not already been said about the Google Campus. For the web enthusiasts, it is a fantasy land that has been described endlessly in books and magazine features for about a decade. And yet, none of that can truly do it justice. I’m not sure I should even try.
First off, there’s no photography or filming allowed so it’s tough to actually describe this creative heaven just with mere words. Better writers have tried. Yes, there are miniature swimming pools where you can swim endless laps without moving an inch – talk about the utilization of space! Yes, there are billiard tables and ping pong tables pretty much everywhere, as is a kitchenette area every 150 meters. The idea is to “force” employees to see, talk and collaborate with each other – even if it’s over a game of pool. And idea that would probably be scoffed at by every CEO in the Arab world, but according to our guide, Cliff, it was over a game of pool that someone thought it would be a good idea to put related advertisements on the pages of the Internet, and idea that gave way to Google AdSense and turned the tech-company in to the largest advertising company on planet Earth. Food, is free. Except for the vending machines, which contain snacks that vary from healthy to junk – there’s also a price discrimination strategy in place to encourage employees to purchase the cheaper and healthier healthy snacks. But, food is free. And the food court serves everything from pizzas, burgers and fries, to sushi and various Indian dishes.
12,000 employees live here – out of 22,000 worldwide. And by “live here” I mean they might as well. A shuttle service takes them to and from the campus and their homes. An on-campus service allows them to drop their laundry off, their shoes for cleaning, or film for processing; even an immunization shot at the doctor’s office should they happen to be traveling to, say, India. The idea is to compensate the employees for lost time. The strictness of a 9 to 5 work shift seems fairly absent – another idea that would send shivers down the spines of Arab CEOs who feel that roll calls are better indicators of efficiency than simply allowing the employees the freedom to just get their work done.
When you enter one of the main doors you’ll see a large screen TV that looks like a computer running code, when its really a list of search terms being searched right now from around the world (the “potty mouth” system filters the bad stuff out for friendly public-viewing purposes). Then a lobby appears and it’s dominated by two main things. The first is an exact model of the X-Prize winning “Space Ship One”, designed by Paul Allen (Google co-founder Sergey is a space enthusiast) – the second are the various projects worked on by Google engineers; prototypes that are a result of their 20% time – the time that Google allows them to dedicate toward developing pet projects of their own. One such project sits right by the door. Picture a circular enclosure that is built to house one or two people at a time. Inside are tall flat screens lined up next to each other, each connected to a linux machine. Each connected to Google Earth. In the middle a circular joystick-like Google mouse that allows the user to quickly navigate through a city using Google Earth. Say the name of a city in the world and from outer space, Google Earth zooms in to the city. The mouse let’s you travel through the city, even in Google Street View. Practical uses? Not quite known yet, but initial thinking is geared towards using it for first-response systems.
Google employees don’t seem to keep to their offices. You can see them in shorts and flip flops, stretched out on couches or in quieter half-glass meeting rooms, all named after cities around the world, including Casablanca, Tangier and Fez (tuning in to the Google Maps mindset). They are usually found talking with each other, or in complete solitude. Walking down a hallway you see people scribbling on giant mobile whiteboards, others tapping away on their macbooks, and others getting massages, while others running on a treadmill in the Google gym. A nod to all things Google, everything appears to be in Beta mode – even the gift store. Conversations are happening everywhere. Every square inch and every facility is being utilized at some point. Shirtless employees play volleyball outside near other employees behind their screens. Colorful walls everywhere. Open spaces, everywhere.
1:00pm: The Google Store has everything from google t-shirts and sweat pants, to google pedometers, frisbees, yo-yos and lava lamps. Google employees can even buy massively discounted cinema tickets here. They also serve free freshly-baked cookies. Felt that was worth sharing.
1:30pm: Had lunch in the midst of about a billion Google employees, and a few interesting people joined us for lunch. Luckily, I got to sit next to Scott Rudin who is the head of planning for public policy and communications, who knows everything there is to know about google policy. Much of the lunch conversation centered around China and Google’s shift in policy there recently. I have to admit, at this point, I was tired from hearing questions about the China situation, regardless of its importance (there are other places in the world). We shot some questions at Scott regarding the Middle East, specifically the filtering of results.
Here’s an interesting piece of information: according to Scott, when it comes to hate speech, Google only considers comments or videos (via YouTube) inciting hate or violence towards a person or a group of people who follow a set of beliefs as hate speech. But attacking and/or insulting a religious object is not categorized as such. So, if someone makes a video calling on the death of Muslims, it will be taken down. If someone burns a Quran, Google won’t touch it. This distinction is, according to Rudin, something that Google has had trouble explaining to its Muslim users – no doubt. What was interesting is that when a particular instance took place awhile back, with a video featuring the Quran being desecrated, Google contacted its Muslim employees to give feedback – asking them what they think Google should do. Google then made an executive decision based on this feedback, which wasn’t all favorable.
Google relies heavily on users to make the choice. Whether it is offensive content or comments, people get to flag and the number of flags that gather around a particular video, for instance, will push it up Google’s priority list – requiring the team to investigate it quickly. The average time it takes for the process of review and action to take place over, say, the review of an objectionable video – one hour.
2:00pm: Departing the Google Campus.
Please note that there are a great deal of typos and grammatical errors as the main aim for this post is to be updated quickly and on the road. I will review the language later.
More photos and videos to be added.