A Social Media Case Study: Where Did the Apathy Go?
The young Romanian guy looks at the camera and straight facedly enumerates the three contributions of his new website and specifically how it will benefit Romanian "regular Joes." The first contribution is,
"Regular Joe will learn from the website where bribe prices are lower and will use free market principles to get the price of bribery down, down, down."
Codru Vrabie is one of the winners of the Restart Romania challenge, organized by TechSoup Romania and supported by The United States Embassy in Romania, the Erste Foundation, Microsoft, Cisco, Google, the Romanian National History Museum, Romanian National Television, Decat o Revista (and the German, British, Canadian, Austrian, Spanish embassies and other non-financial sponsors here). All of these sponsors, 200 other attendees and people watching a live stream have just done a crowd-sourced vote to anoint the challenge winners.
And there is a metaphorical smell of garbage in the air, in the best possible way.
Really, you can't understand Codru and his Bursa Spagilor ("Bribe Market") project unless you understand about the garbage. But you can't understand about the garbage unless you understand a little bit about Romania.
Romania, like all of the countries of the former Soviet bloc, has had a difficult time engaging its citizens in what might broadly be called civil society activism. The reasons usually cited are a combination of disillusion with the results of overthrowing the Communist regime, pervasive corruption, and the lack of a tradition of either effective citizen activism or of a dynamic NGO sector.
Romania is the 7th most populous country in Europe, with a population of 22 million. On September 23 of 2010, 1.4 million Romanians had Facebook accounts. And on that chilly Saturday morning, in the country whose unofficial national slogan is‘asta e’ or ‘that’s just life’ 200,000 Romanians crawled out of warm beds and started picking up garbage, all across the country.
They were participating in a campaign called Let's Do It Romania-- affectionately known to many as the big Romanian garbage pickup campaign. The campaign had been publicized almost exclusively over Facebook and other social media. Its simple premise was: "We love our country. Our country has crap lying around everywhere. Our government institutions are too corrupt and/or inefficient to pick up the crap... Let's Do It ourselves, Romania.”
That was then. Note the date—Sept. 23, 2010. Three months later, on December 17, 2010, an impoverished and humiliated Tunisian vegetable vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself, the flames spread through social media, and the Arab Spring was sprung. (Yes, less than a year ago; seems longer, doesn't it?)
And now? Now, Romanian Facebook use has gone from 1.4 to 5M, and Codru is deliciously applying a consumer ethos to rampant corruption, and receiving applause and prize money.
If you don't think these events are related, you might as well stop reading now. If you do agree, we have done some reporting you will find of interest.
One framing observation: The high drama of the Arab Spring derives from the high stakes of regime change. And, in a way, this drama obscures something much more important—the dramatic surge in technology-enabled citizen engagement and empowerment across the range of issues that mold life on a daily basis globally.
Chris Worman is a former U.S. Peace Corps Romania volunteer who fell in love with the region and ended up starting Romania's first community foundation in the city of Odorheiu Secuiesc in 2007 to explore citizen engagement through local philanthropy. In 2009, whenTechSoup Global was seeking to affiliate with likeminded organizations in Romania, we found the Odorheiu Secuiesc Community Foundation and started working with Chris. Our concern, to be honest, was that Chris was an American; did we have an 'authentic' partner? But watching him in action over two years and talking to people in Romania and throughout the region has made clear that he has figured out how to be effective in Eastern Europe.
Now back to the garbage.
Chris witnessed the garbage campaign with amazement and admiration. He saw social media being used at a very high level and he saw that with the right messages, context and tools, it was possible to clear away the smog of apathy and get to a remarkable amount of human energy for making Romania better.
He knew that TechSoup Global had developed a challenge platform and thus was born the idea for Restart Romania with the goal both of engaging citizens online and offline to discuss 'open society solutions' and of directly challenging activists and technologists to actually create such solutions. The 10 winners of the challenge would receive support—cash and in-kind -- to build web-based platforms for their ideas.
There were 144 entries, 2000+ unique profiles created on the Restart Romania site and 200K+ hits on the site.
Here is a link to background stories we're run on Restart Romania on the Netsquared Blog. And in this excellent post, “The Social Life of a Revolution”, Alicja Peszkowska closely examines the relationship of social media to the #occupy movement.
Starting on Wednesday November 16, we will be running posts by Chris Worman going into detail on the Restart Romania project. It’s an unusual read from an organizer’s perspective.
We'll use this hashtag #RestartRomania.