#WCY2014: Day One – the opening ceremony

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can.

I can’t help but wonder if Tolkien ever made the journey from Colombo to Hambantota, because this is precisely what it feels like. Hambantota, for those who are unaware, is down at the southern end of Sri Lanka, quite near the edge of the island. It’s about 4 hours’ journey from Colombo, and it was where the WCY2014 Opening Ceremony was held.

On the road

On the road

It’s easy to diss the event. Popping up on my newsfeed are accusations that the whole event is a waste of taxpayers money. People have called it a marketing stunt. And I still have no idea what the heck that dance with the animals and the faux-Lion-King music was.

But whether anything quantifiable, implementable and worthwhile comes out of this or not, I can still appreciate the whole thing.  We’re presented on the world media as a third-world nation with a history of violence – pretty much the only real positive things about this country are on the tourism blogs. Regardless of our not-so-witty political satire, we’re still on a lot of bad lists.

WCY is changing this. You can see it happening, in the way people talk, the way they discuss being here. It’s a colossal engine for people from all over the world to actually connect with Sri Lanka on a personal level. There’s a huge amount of politics involved, as always, but this time it isn’t a couple of old dignitaries making the rounds – it’s a whole TON of young people from all over the world, people who will some day end up making or influencing the really big decisions.
Ever heard of the term “millenial?” If not, Google it. That’s what this conference is: a millenial forum. There’s a huge amount of people from all over tweeting, instagramming and sharing Sri Lanka all over the web – and in the process, kicking the world’s public opinion of us up a notch. Hey look: they’re actually NOT committing human rights violations. Phew. That’s epic.

So instead of dissing, let me sum it up (from a surface, attendee perspective): it was epic. 700-odd delegates. A massive, beautiful venue, crowned with a drummers, hornblowers, exquisite ladies in sarees, stilt-walkers – a greeting of such cultural splendour that a perehara would have been put to shame.  Indeed, as one Burmese delegate told me: “I’ve never seen such a rich culture: any country would be hard put to compete.”

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And that’s just the first few steps in the picture

Inside, we were given a splendid address by Dr John W Ashe, President of the UN General Assembly, which has already been covered extensively and will probably be blogged about much later. The President, Mahinda Rajapakse, strode down the aisle to the collective flashing of a thousand phone cameras and hammered out an excellent speech. No surprises there – he’s a brilliant orator. Namal Rajapakse wasn’t there – apparently he was off in Japan on a rugby jaunt. Duty, the compere called it. Surely there are others who can take his place in the rugby team: I doubt, however, that he can be replaced in something like this. Opportunity: missed.

Of course, it turned into an #iPhoneparty when the President walked in. Apparently instagram is not just an affliction of Sri Lankan smartphone users.

Of course, it turned into an #iPhoneparty when the President walked in. Apparently instagram is not just an affliction of Sri Lankan smartphone users.

The true highlight of the show, though, was the people in it. A vast sea of delegates stretching from one end of the auditorium to the other. People from every country, race, color, religion, clustered together, each, in their own way,  an avatar of the land they hailed from. That was an amazing sight, not one I’m likely to forget. And interspersed with them, the gray T-shirts of the 500-odd volunteers running hither and thither to make things work, doing their magic from the shadows. Bravo. Onwards to the next three days.

Thankfully, the rest of the event’s to be held at the BMICH, a saner location.

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Turkey and Twitter: the many-headed monster of social media

“Revolution will not be televised – it will be tweeted” (Graffiti seen on wall in Turkey)

Remember the countries where “media freedom” and “social media” were simply hazy concepts? Yes, North Korea and Iran come to mind. Well, you may now add Turkey to that list. Just hours after its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, promised to eradicate the social media network, Turkey blocked out Twitter and allegedly brought in a few users for questioning.

The reason behind the banhammer? Audio recordings, allegedly of Erdoğan in conversation, which seem to imply corruption. There’s also been word of related documents.

Interestingly, this ban was suggested two weeks ago by Erdoğan himself, and dismissed at the time by Abdullah Gul, the President of Turkey. While we’re not going to consider the political implications here, it is disturbing to note the Prime Minister’s words:

“We are determined on the issue, regardless of what the world may say. We won’t allow the people to be devoured by YouTube, Facebook or others. Whatever steps need to be taken we will take them without wavering.”

This is terrible news by any measure, and a stark reminder to us Sri Lankans that the social media situation could indeed be much worse (heck, we even have a memes page that pokes fun at leading politicians). At the same time, while it’s a reminder of just how much power the men and women we vote for wield over us, it’s also a revelation:

Social media has truly changed the game.

We thought it would be unbiased journalism, but it isn’t: any organization can be bought out, cut down or threatened (as our politicians have proven time and time again). But social media, that unstoppable surge of the crowd, is proving unstoppable. Like the legendary Hydra of Greek Mythology, it grows. As one head is cut off, another grows: as one website is blocked, another tweets.

Turkey’s situation – the government may have blocked Twitter, but is Twitter the only medium? Consider the thousands of forums, IRC chats, Reddits – each of which is a social network of its own.  Can it possibly tackle them all? Not without turning into another North Korea and violating a great deal of freedoms. In fact, people are protesting. They’re not likely to stop. Heck, Gadaffi, Hosni Mubarak, the Syran Electronic Army – none of them really succeeded. There is no Hercules to kill this monster.

And the overarching point: social media’s so strong that entire governments feel threatened by a network where users post 140 characters at a time – is that not a win, in every possible way, for the people?

Mind you, social media isn’t a golden sword. The hydra is a bit double-edged. We’ve seen social media being put to some pretty bad uses – for example, Buddhist militancy as of late. Tapping into the voice of the masses is a two-way line: you give some and you get some, and sometimes those giving aren’t good people. That’s a fact of life.

The question is, will our government follow in the footsteps of this seemingly despotic Prime Minister? Well, it’s already proved that it’s not above blocking websites – take the Colombo Telegraph, for example, which many people now read via proxies. Even so, CT is kept in the minds of its readers by its strong social media following.  It looks like social media, for now, is winning.

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