Teach me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand. -- Chinese proverb
Four years ago, after observing that the Web had evolved from version 1.0 (which allowed physicists to share research papers) to version 2.0 (which allowed people to share pictures of their cats), Ethan Zuckerman put forth a hypothesis: that sufficiently usable read/write platforms will attract both porn and activists. If there’s no porn, he continued, the tool doesn’t work, and if there are no activists, it doesn’t work well.
In 2011, we began to see just how well the Internet and its subsidiary read/write platforms work. The Arab Spring that started just before the new year, when Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in Tunisia, saw Facebook, Twitter and YouTube seconded from their daily broadcasts of LOLCats and put to use instead supporting uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and more. User-generated content was, in fact, so effective at sourcing and disseminating information about what was happening on the streets that new tools sprang up just to curate it. Esra’a Al Shafei, for example, realized that when you’re an activist you don’t have time to check Twitter AND Facebook AND YouTube AND CNN.com, so she created Crowdvoice.org to track voices of protest and consolidate them by the cause to which they relate.
The 2011 frenzy, though, was merely the first wave of Zuckerman Activists. It involved those people who are already involved, who already care, who are already familiar with the issues or who, at a minimum, are already inclined to put their hands up. This week, the USC Shoah Foundation launched IWitness, an educational tool for secondary school teachers and students. The Foundation, which was started by Steven Spielberg after he made “Schindler’s List,” has witness testimonies from 52,000 survivors of the Holocaust; it is the largest video archive of its kind in the world. Its 107,000 hours of testimony are indexed down to the minute; if you search for “breakfast Dachau” you will find not only those testimonies that discuss that topic but also the exact minute within the testimony where the topic is discussed.
The Foundation’s video archive is an extraordinary resource in and of itself. But with IWitness, it becomes a tool of the digital age, a means of showing young people that their job in this world is no longer to be passive content consumers but to be involved participants. The system gives kids access to more than 1,000 eyewitness testimonies, to an online editing tool, to education on filmmaking, and to material on the ethics of documentaries. It makes history personal and immediate.
At the launch of IWitness, 350 high school students sat before Holocaust survivor Roman Kent and asked him questions about his experience, questions they formed while interacting with his testimony: what was the most difficult moment for him during the Holocaust? After experiencing the Holocaust, is he a man of faith? Was he able to forgive the Nazis?
Physicists made the Internet smart, and porn and cute cats made it ubiquitous. As Zuckerman predicted, the Arab Spring clearly showed the Web’s ability to attract activists. But the new generation of tools shows that the platform is even more powerful than Zuckerman thought. It doesn’t just attract activists; it creates them.
It involves them. And they understand.