July 20, 2012

Have you heard of "Serious Games"?

There is a recent trend towards the gamification of real-world social issues.

The basic idea is that by playing certain games, you can transform lives in the real-world. An example is Raise the Village, where users create and develop a virtual African village on their mobile phones. For every real purchase of goods like mosquito nets, food, soap and so on within the game, the developers send a real-world version of those goods to a real-village in Uganda


I came acoss the above example and a few others recently in a book titled, Global Civil Society 2012: Ten Years of Critical Reflection (edited by Mary Kaldor, Henrietta L. Moore and Sabine Selchow)

Other SERIOUS GAMES include:

3rd World Farmer. Confront the frustrations of poverty, trade and conflict as an African farmer in this 'classic' serious game. www.3rdworldfarmer.com (free)

Against All Odds. The UNHCR- sponsored simulation that let's you experience life as a refugee. www.playagainstallodds.com

Darfur is Dying. Experience a 'faint glimpse' of the dangers of life as a displaced person in Darfur through your cartoon avatar; engage in real-world activist challenges. www.dafurisdying.com (free)

Evoke. 'An urgent call to innovation.' Funded by the World Bank, Evoke helps players around the globe become 'social innovators' and share their world changing ideas through the online community. www.urgentevoke.com (free)

FreeRice. A quiz game that rewards correct answers with real-world donations to the United Nations World Food Programme. http://freerice.com (free)

PeaceMaker. Solve the Middle East conflict as either the Israeli Prime Minister or the Palestinian President. www.peacemakergame.com (free demo)


Now, what about SERIOUS GAMES indegenous to Africa (Nigeria being my case in point)?

During a chat with a boss at the Co-Creation hub, a social innovation centre, I discovered some related on-going projects which are aimed at stimulating social change and development.

An example is "Efiko" - an interactive cheap quiz system developed locally with the collaboration of school teachers, given to students at the beginning or end of term.

iWatch is another application designed for citizens, where crowdsourced information about developments in governments are used to promote transperency and accountability, among others. This is not a serious game per se, yet relevant.


I am currently brainstorming the possiblity of using Serious Games to transform the culture of deliberation among citizens - thus improving the practice of democracy. However, this raises a lot of theoretical questions.

Some consider it utopian to attempt to link activities online (or using any technology) to impact on non-digital (or real) life (see Slacktivism and Clicktivism). I particularly like Evegeny Morozov's example in the Net Delusion where he said, "If a tree falls in the forest and everyone tweets about it, it may not be the tweets that moved it." (The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World).

"The serious games industry is young, and the jury is still out on the degree to which games will, in fact, 'transform lives' in the real world" (Global Civil Society, 2012). I however, still consider this idea seriously worth critically thinking through, albeit not as a stand-alone strategy to get the citizens talking. This is why I have logged it on this weblog.

June 28, 2012

The Public Sphere in a Networked Society

Writing about web page http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1280/1200

Public sphere is a discursive space in which individuals and groups associate to discuss matters of mutual interest, and where possible, to reach a common judgement about them... (Hauser, 1998:21)

The public sphere is "not a marketplace, nor is it a coffeehouse, a salon, an organisation or a newspaper" (Hinton, 1998). Rather, the public sphere transcends these physical appearances as an abstract forum for dialogue and ideology–free public opinion, a lively debate on multiple levels within society (culled from Boeder)

Peter Boeder has written an interesting article that points out why Habermas's public sphere theory remains relevant in this networked age.

He recognises the challenges posed against the idea of the Internet as a potential public sphere due to factors such as media ownership and commodification; yet he defends the notion that Habermas's key concept is still valuable to media theory today.

Some of his key points include the following:

  • The emergence and convergence of electronic mass media have radically changed the notion of the public sphere
  • The strength of the public sphere concept to survive critiques from postmodernists lies in its presumption of reason - the human ability to define and solve problems
  • The future of the public sphere resides with digital media, which offers a variety of possibilities, as networks enhance and change social structures.

Certain key questions Boeder raises in his piece are also worth investigating:

  • Do the new media like the Internet, offer a shallow authentic discourse, or do they contribute a new quality to the public sphere?
  • Can virtual communities contribute to the revival of public debate, or are they mere distracting simulation?

It would be interesting to have a look at Jodi Dean's Why the Net is Not a Public Sphere, and investigate her side of the argument.

Mark Poster also has an opinion on the NET as a PUBLIC SPHERE


Hauser, G. A. (1998) ‘Civil Society and the Principle of the Public Sphere’. Philosophy and Rhetoric, Vol. 31:1

June 18, 2012

ICT, New Media and Social Change in Africa – CAMRI

Writing about web page http://www.westminster.ac.uk/research/a-z/africa-media-centre/events/events-calendar/2012/icts-new-media-and-social-change-in-africa

On Friday, 15th June, 2012, the Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) at the University of Westminster organised a conference addressing information communication technology, new media and social change in Africa.

Presentations spanned a variety of issues such as youth mobile phone usage and political participation in South Africa, Ethiopia's approach to Internet governancce, exisitng imperatives to alter old theories of mass communication due to changes in ICT and the positioning of citizen journalism in relation to traditional media in Nigeria - threat or complement.

Others discussions explored ICT and social change regarding HIV and AIDS in Namibia and the impact of mobile technolgoy on financial services in South Africa.

The hashtag for this event on Twitter was #CAMRI12

I found the follwing presentations useful to my study on the digital public sphere and democratic culture:

Nathalie Hyde-Clark, University of Johannesburg - Youth Mobile Phone Usage and Political Participation in South Africa

Terje S. Skjerdal, Gimlekollen School of Journalism and Communication, Norway - Casual Regulation: An Ethiopian Approach to Internet Governance

Ralph Akinfeleye et al, University of Lagos, Nigeria - Citizen Journalism: Threat or Complement to Traditional Journalism?

The first study on mobile phone usage among South African youths found that the use of SMS was somewhat successful as a democratic tool and facilitator of the electoral process. Based on interviews with the target group, Hyde-Clark discovered that the youths liked the personal touch of signed SMS from Helen Zille on their mobiles, even when they knew it wasn't personally signed.

However, reactions to the use of SMS revealed that the youths would rather be talked with than talked to - that is, interactivity is a key factor when employing digital tools in facilitating democracy. Interestingly, some public officials are not quite ready to make themselves that accessible, especially in the online public sphere.

Helen Zille tried to go on Twitter - She talks about her not-too-pleasant experience in this Q&A session on Mail and Guardian Online(her reaction to Twitter starts from 6:45") - "Twitter is rife with dangers for any politician"

I raised a question asking what model for interactivity between the government and the governed (using digital tools) could fit Africa's democratic peculiarity?

Hyde-Clark responded that we all still have to keep trying and getting burnt till we get it right - what has been established however is that INTERACTIVITY is needed. She also hinted at the fact that Africa needs to understand that America's model for digiital democracy does not necessarily have to fit in Africa - we need to keep testing and assessing other methods.

On Internet Regulation in ETHIOPIA, Skjerdal proposes a model he called Casual Regulation, as Internet repression in Africa is tough to measure since it hardly fits into any of the existing models. In this proposed model. regulation is highly informal, disorganised and arbitrary. He found in his study of Ethiopia that there were cases of IP filtering, albeit less systematic. There were also individual cases of intimidation of journalists and bloggers and government officials participating in online debates through unsigned articles.

It is worthy of note that Ethiopia is currently one of the least-connected societies in terms of Internet penetration in the world - yet it still has impact on the spread of information (journalism) in the society.

The last presentation by Akinfeleye addresses the concepts of citizen journalism (CJ) versus traditional journalism in Nigeria, through a comparative analysis between a popular CJ site, Sahara Reporters and an established news organisation, ThisDay Online.

Akinfeleye submits that Citizen Journalism is a welcome development to Nigeria, as it advocates democratic-participant theory through providing alternative channels from traditional media for a plethora of voices. However, he recommends that citizen journalism must be viewed as complementary to mainstream media, not as a substitute source of information. The reasons being that reports from citizen journalists in Nigeria are rife with inaccuracies and generally do not subscribe to professional journalism ethics.

In Akinfeleye's opinion, this could consequentially lead to citizen journalism becoming the "4th Estate of the Wreck" - wrecking the socio-political structures of the state, given the pivotal role the mass media play in the society.

Key Points:

Interactivity is key in democracy, both among citizens and within citizens and public officials

New digital tools (and the web) are not free of state control in Africa. In addition, the kind of control is not well defined yet

Citizen Journalism is a key aspect of democracy, because it promotes a plurality of voices. However, caution should be exercised in seeking citizen journalists as sole information sources in Africa

June 05, 2012

Introduction to Digital Public Sphere blog

Welcome to my research blog on the Digital Public Sphere and democratic culture.

As the first academic year comes to an end, I am increasingly realising the importance of having a platform like this to journal my research journey.

Research blogs are progressively being perceived as the new CV, and your Twitter account, the new business card (according to Patrick Meier).

In addition, another benefit of having a research blog is the ability to map and organise one's thought-process on the research project into a coherent whole that is easily accessible by the researcher and anyone else interested in the area.

This blog would feature conference write-ups, book reviews, summaries of chapters and papers and general thoughts about the research.

The working title for my thesis is "Developing a culture of democracy through the digital public sphere - a case of Nigeria".

The idea is to investigate how digital media are enabling a new platform for people to interact and deliberate on matters of common concern - precisely, how the digital media facilitates a new global public sphere. Even more, how a culture of democracy may be fostered in developing societies using new ICT tools today, backed by appropriate policies and frameworks.

Digital Public Sphere is a concept that is still emerging, but its foundation is located in Jurgen Habermas's conception of the Public Sphere found in his thesis, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. To Habermas, "the Public Sphere may be conceived above all else as the sphere of private people come together as a public..."

The institutional criteria to qualify as a public sphere (according to Habermas's account) are:

  • A kind of social intercourse that disregards status among people altogether
  • Issues discussed had to be areas of common concern
  • In accessibility, everyone had to be able to participate

It is thus being widely debated that digital media such as web 2.0, social network sites, blogging mechanisms, mobile technology are offering up a sphere that meets the above-mentioned criteria. This is evident for instance, in the nascent Arab Spring where social media networks like Twitter played significant roles in toppling the leadership of Mubarak at the time.

However, it is important to critically investigate trends and explore how digital media may be utilised in fostering democratic culture as a whole among people in a society, rather than solely focusing on democratic revolutions, a path many research articles seem to take.

This research project is taking a different route by asking the following questions: in what ways has digital media been used to facilitate democracy, what new cultural, social and political changes have been affected by this new digital public sphere, what existing societal forces are disadvantageous to its development and lastly, what strategies can be found to be instrumental in developing a fully effective digital public sphere in Nigeria?

This is generally what my research and this blog is going to be about. Key literary thinkers to be explored as part of the background of my study are Jurgen Habermas (already mentioned), Craig Calhoun and Nancy Fraser - among other thinkers.

Welcome to the Digital Public Sphere blog.

Your comments are most welcome.

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  • Participation is basically about getting one's voice heard, recognised and taken into consideration … by Noel Ihebuzor on this entry
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