Revolutionology: observations by a sociologist in Libya is a blog by Ryan Calder, an Arabic-speaking American who has been travelling the country over recent weeks, talking to rebels and other “ordinary” Libyans. The account – much of which can also be read in a diary on the Foreign Policy website – is gripping, full of the kind of insights that make what’s going on there seem much more real and human than a conventional news report can achieve.
An example: “Spray paint is vital in revolutions. When you liberate a building, you spray-paint your slogans on it. When you come across a destroyed enemy tank, you spray-paint that too. Someone tagged this one “Athar Bu Shafshufah”: “Uncle Curly’s Ruins.” Uncle Curly, of course, is Muammar al-Qaddafi. The colonel’s hair gets a lot of attention in this country. Caricatures highlighting his famous ‘do now cover the walls of central Benghazi.”
His blog is full of surprises. One fighter explains to him that the fishing technique favoured in Benghazi is explosive. Literally. “They use TNT to blow fish out of the water.” Another proudly plays “Born in the USA” on his mobile phone – “Hey Ryan … You like Sabaringasteen?”
And this: “Libya is a great place to get an espresso. That’s one of the few good things that the Italian colonial government left behind here (though it doesn’t make up for the genocidal campaign of forced migration, starvation, and disease that killed half of Cyrenaica’s population in the 1930s). And when [it] comes from an espresso machine with a rebel flag pasted on it, it tastes better.”
Recommended. Read it before HBO turn it into a TV series.
For students of the revolutionary tide in north Africa, another important, and even less conventional, journalist is NPR’s Andy Carvin. He has become an indispensable writer, disseminator, fact-checker and mediator. His medium is Twitter.
As I write, Carvin’s latest tweet reads: “Uh, got any evidence a coup is taking place?” His question is for a couple of people who have been speculating on Twitter that a military coup might be under way in Egypt.
This is typical of Carvin, whose great value in a story as big and unwieldy, in a medium as big an unwieldy as Twitter, is to verify, seek corroboration, and so on. As Twitter users and followers will know, Twitter is almost always first, but too often for comfort it is wrong. From his office in Washington DC, Carvin sifts through the mass of tweets, interrogates them and their authors, and lets the rest of us know what looks reliable.
Here’s how Time magazine describes his work in its “140 Best Twitter Feeds” feature:
National Public Radio may be known for its sedate tone, but its head of social media has upended the concept of the journalistic front line during the 2011 Arab Spring. Operating out of the Washington area, Andy Carvin has pulled 16-hour days in the virtual trenches of the Arab revolutions. Following the Tunisian protests closely and leaning on his contacts from a 2010 trip to North Africa, Carvin began collecting lists of Egyptian handles early this year; his curated feed provides an unequalled content stream of analysis and on-the-ground reports.
If you doubt whether what Carvin is doing is Real Journalism, take note: the esteemed Columbia Journalism Review does. Its headline on an interview with Carvin reads: “Is this the world’s best Twitter account?”
The CJR piece sheds light on the methodology:
Carvin’s followers are the engine that drives his reporting. They help him translate, triangulate, and track down key information. They enable remarkable acts of crowdsourced verification, such as when they helped Carvin debunk reports about Israeli munitions in Libya. But they are by definition a slice of the population, an inexact (though curated) collection. They are people he has come to respect and admire; but he must always tell himself to check and challenge what he is told.
“On the one hand I’d love for these sources to be more accurate and to not have us wasting each other’s time,” he said. “But at the same time, am I aiding them in any way that is inappropriate to journalistic ethics? It’s the whole notion of, does teaching people to be better reporters cross the line? I’m not necessarily convinced that it does, but it’s a conversation worth having.
“Am I aiding them or am I making them better sources?” he asked. “It’s probably a bit of both.”
At times the volume of tweets from Carvin can become too much – I’ve followed and unfollowed him a number of times, much as I might tune in and out of news radio. But at the climactic moments in the Arab uprisings of recent months, he’s been essential. The rest is white noise.
Just quickly, if you haven’t yet, have a read of Hugh Grant’s “bugger bugged” piece in the New Statesman. In a special edition guest edited by Grant’s old pal Jemima Goldsmith, Grant has a long chat with a pub-owner and part-time papparazzo who used to work at the News of the World, a paper which, as no doubt you’ve heard, likes to listen.
The Grant interview has been a talking point in Britain for a week or so, since the print mag came out, but has, tellingly, Gone Huge since the online version was published on their site overnight.