Utilizing popular web 2.0 platform Ning, an online social network quickly rose in popularity. Its emergence is a clear example of growing Internet usage in Fiji. Last weekend, it was taken offline by its owner the Fiji Times as part of public emergency regulations.

Public emergency regulations mean restricted access to a popular online social network owned by a local daily

Access to a newspaper-owned popular online social network has been restricted

shut-down

In its short life to date, Sotia Central (SC) amassed several key victories. Though difficult to prove and insiders will probably dispute, the explosive growth of the website provided the motivation for the first significant change to the layout of the print edition of the Fiji Times in years (if not decades). While they may seem unrelated, the emergence of SC has been an impetus for change on many fronts.  We can see just how web 2.0 media has the power to reach out from websites into the world of traditional media.

The story of Sotia Central is the story of a people demanding access to information.

Another such case where SC made an impact was at the end of the 3rd quarter of 2008, when the giant pharmaceuticals company Merck, donated a large batch of its HPV vaccine to Fiji. In conjunction with the Ministry of Health, AusAID would administer the vaccine to young school girls throughout the country.

Initially, the details provided by the national dailies consisted of little more than a regurgitation of the Ministry of Health press release. To counter this lack of information, users harnessed the power of the web to gather information from a variety of sources and began posting items to the SC forum. The online discussion created momentum that propelled the issue from the Internet onto national television and radio talk-back programs that began featuring in-depth discussions of the vaccination effort.

Sotia Central would have added its 20,000th user account this past weekend

Sotia Central, as it normally appeared to users. The site would have added its 20,000th user account this past weekend

The actions of last Friday force us to consider the climate of fear and intimidation now hovering over newsrooms in Fiji. The way the HPV vaccine incident played out shows us how we are quite capable of using fear and intimidation ourselves in stifling free and open debate.

As the HPV vaccine story generated buzz on SC, one brave young journalist took on the issue and published a substantive investigative piece calling into question the efficacy of the drug, raising doubts about the transparency of the donation process, and asked if Fiji was being pressured to administer an STD vaccine without properly informing citizens of the drug’s true impact. Instead of cheering this piece of investigative journalism as a sign of how public demand for information on medical practices was changing, the author was roundly criticized. She was singled out for abuse in a full page Ministry of Health newspaper advertisement and received scorn from other journalists and media establishment, in a glaring example of how self-censorship exerts control over our media’s ability to provide critical information.

The site did have considerable flaws but still represents a significant beta effort in the evolution of Fiji’s Internet usage. It was lamentable that ownership of the site fell into the hands of News Corporation and The Fiji Times.  While they were able to drive membership using a weekend newspaper supplement to generate interest in the site, they never actually went to any lengths to provide interesting site content. Left to their own devices, user forums quickly descended into vulgar discussions.

Web 2.0 represents a dramatic leap from older offerings

Web 2.0 puts control of news agenda-setting outside the reach of powerful interests

Still, the site was a dramatic shift in how users interacted on the web. Prior to SC, online discussions took place primarily through the Fiji Times comment feature. Discussion threads there were frequently bombarded with hate-speech of the most vile form. SC demonstrated the potential for web 2.0 to create online communities, where different norms and expectations of user behavior took root. Given an avatar and a profile page, users showed much less inclination for hate-speech.

By targeting Fijian servicemen and women overseas as the primary audience, the Fiji Times had laid the groundwork for an eventual confrontation with the interim administration and the sites eventual demise. Had it been set up as a site with appeal to a wider audience of overseas Fiji residents, the site might have had a different fate. As it is, no government in the world would allow for the existence of a website where foreign-based soldiers and mercenaries are urged to carry out acts of violence.

By interjecting on the site, the military did not give time for the self-regulatory power of online communities to take effect. Though there were calls for violence made on the site, deeper examination would have showed users making such comments were roundly criticized and ridiculed. Over the course of the months the site was active, users showed a keen ability to adapt to the latest trends in web usage, gradually becoming more confident in their abilities to navigate the different features of the website. Before its demise, the site was moving in a positive direction.

Being accessed mostly by users from slow Internet connections, most of the media features like uploading video and photos or even posting YouTube content was not possible—putting most taken-for-granted aspects of web 2.0 media out of reach.  The IM/chat-wall, was an early draw to the site. Allowing for instant messaging directly between users and the feature was surprisingly popular amongst users. Sadly, the removal of the third-party widget by site host Ning was a significant loss for the site—taking away the most accessible web 2.0 feature from users and dramatically limiting the site.

Still, the site grew, past many considerable markers all the way to just a few shy of 20,000 member accounts.  Remarkable, since official statistics put Internet usage at 25,000 households. The Coconut Wireless features information on the companies that are vying to change the picture of Internet service in Fiji. In talking to the many international and local operators, one rarely gets the sense that they know or care about the fundamental shifts in how people are accessing information impacts their business. Trends such as web 2.0 and VoIP have been critical in shaping user behavior online. The upward sloping graphs that they use to convince investors of the growth potential for Internet demand in Fiji are tied to individual efforts at fighting for a change in the culture of information.

As the HPV vaccine example illustrated, the people of Fiji will demand more and more information to make their decision. It is a tide that no one can control.  This is something the media companies were slow to understand. Sadly, the military in Fiji seems even slower in understanding.

An educated and well-informed citizenry is a key prerequisite for a functioning democracy. The Internet is here to stay. Sotia Central may or may not reemerge. Its emergence has been crucial for proving to international investors that considerable potential is present in Fiji and justifies spending on infrastructure. However, if it does not make a return, it will not be sad since a symbol for the unnecessary over-militarization of our country will have met an untimely demise. The future will hopefully bring forth better efforts, serving more of a purpose in educating of users and allowing us to harness the Internet for our country’s advancement.

Until further notice...

Until further notice...

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