Monday, October 3, 2011

How frequent flyer miles led me to Twitter

Posted by Linda Raftree - Senior Advisor, ICT4D
I joined Twitter because of frequent flyer miles.

No really. It's true.

I kept trying to use my miles and failing, due to blackout dates or not having enough points to go where I needed to. The use-em-or-lose-em deadline came up on one particular airline, so I accepted an offer to sign up for some magazines. In addition to a hefty increase in junk mail, I began receiving Wired Magazine – and my synapses started firing at a million miles per hour.

This was around 2006. I'd find myself suddenly having breathless conversations with the few people around who would listen about technology and the science of networks and other similarly nerdy stuff. This really wasn't like me, but then, I was late to the game for a couple of reasons: for one, I spent the 1990's in El Salvador and there was not much Internet or Wired magazine available there at the time. Secondly, I'd always been much more of an alternative music/ development/ social sciences geek than a computer / video game geek.


But something had changed since high school and college. There was Radiohead for starters… but on top of that, it became striking clear to me that things were aligning in a way I hadn't seen before. Tech could really have a social purpose.

In Wired, I started reading about the idea that the Internet was horizontal, that things could be free, that people could collaborate in self-organized nodes, that social media could bypass 'official' pronouncements and allow alternative voices and 'citizen journalists' to be heard. I started thinking about how many of the principles and philosophies behind social media networks were closely aligned with those underpinning participatory approaches to development: self-organizing, community-led processes and self-management, accountability and transparency, ownership, learning by doing, building on local knowledge and localized expertise. I got hooked on trying to link some of the ideas that were fueling social media and online networking with the work that the organization that had been employing me for several years (Plan) was facilitating with young people and communities. I started reading blogs about technology and aid, and I began writing one too.

Over time, my initial interest broadened to how new technologies -- not only social media networks, but also new tools like mobile phones and GPS units and digital maps and all kinds of other new tools and platforms -- could be put at the service of community development.

In large part, the reason for the branching out and wider perspective was that in December 2008, a couple of development and technology leaders/ bloggers/ mentors (Ken Banks and Erik Hersman) gave me a suggestion. "Get on Twitter," they said," if you really want to keep up with what is happening." I was wary of the platform, so instead of my real name, I used the name of a kitten we used to have - @meowtree - also a bit of a play on my last name.

Quickly I realized there was nothing to fear. Twitter opened up a whole world at the professional and personal level. I found all kinds of people from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds who were discussing, debating, trying, failing, learning, blogging, and collaborating on a variety of projects related to technology, human rights, global development, community work and other fields I am very interested in.

Joining Twitter was like signing up to get an online degree in a very specialized field, where everyone was both teacher and learner. The quantity of information and knowledge shared among practitioners and theoreticians in my field and related areas were infinite, as were the ranges of opinions.

Through Twitter I've had the opportunity to work on voluntary side projects and connect with experts and practitioners for research and professional or personal advice. Sometimes a number of us join together to get across a certain point that we feel strongly about, and it ends up getting to the ears of someone who's making major decisions or it gets brought up by individuals in personal conversation, spreading the ideas offline. A group of Twitter folks who are part of the 'Smart Aid' collaborative recently conducted a survey to find out more about who reads aid and development blogs, for example, and what they do with the information there, for example.

Not just a news and professional education platform, Twitter is also a friend and colleague network. Over the past 3 years, I've met a few hundred new people in real life that I initially connected with on Twitter.

It's a great feeling when you are chatting with someone at a conference, and they look down at your nametag (where you've penned in your Twitter handle with a Sharpie) and exclaim "Wait! You're @meowtree!? I'm @so-and-so!" You've only just met, but because you've connected on Twitter, you already feel like old friends. You can immediately jump into a conversation and continue on with a topic you'd been batting around on Twitter or make plans to partner up on a work-related initiative or simply discuss the fact that you both like the same kind of beer.

Last week a colleague alerted me (via Twitter, naturally) that I'd been named by the Guardian as one of the "20 Global Development Twitterati" to follow. It was unexpected, and I'm hugely honored. The Guardian's Global Development team does fantastic and highly credible work facilitating forward-thinking debates and discussions around development. Being listed alongside the 19 other "Twitterati" is indeed a privilege, as they are some of leading voices in the aid and development debate.

So if you have an interest in development and/or new technology, you can either accumulate a ton of unusable frequent flyer miles and follow my convoluted path, or you can skip all that in between and simply "Get on Twitter!" Once you do, be sure to follow the Guardian's list of 20 Global Development Twitterati. But don't stop there – the Twitterverse is full of brilliant minds and voices that you won't want to miss if you are serious about engaging in a stimulating global development conversation.


Linda Raftree
Senior Advisor, ICT4D

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