Somalia Speaks SMS?

There is a slight inaccuracy in the name "Somalia Speaks" given to the Al-Jazeera initiative that is collecting and publishing unheard "voices" from inside Somalia. Mainly, that there is nothing "spoken" about it. In other words, the project is unilaterally dependant on respondents sending SMS text messages.

Somalia Speaks is a joint initiative between Al-Jazeera in collaboration with Ushahidi, Souktel and Crowdflower who are using SMS to crowdsource and map opinions on the conflict from inside Somalia and the diaspora. Patrick Meier of Ushahidi summarises:

"...the purpose of this project is to catalyze global media attention on Somalia by letting Somali voices take center stage—voices that are otherwise not heard in the international, mainstream media. If journalists are not going to speak about Somalia, then this project invites Somalis speak to the world themselves..."

The emphasis on "aggregating unheard voices," or Somali "voices take centre stage," or "speaking to the world," seems to allude to "voice" as a means of expressing an opinion any old how and totally ignores the original meaning of the word. That is, the act of producing sound in the form of speech or song.

Although the project has received deserved attention for bringing the Somalia crisis back into the media spotlight, I would like to question the authenticity of "voice" in this whole initiative.

New Technologies & Oral Cultures

The use of new mobile technologies and croudsourcing platforms as citizen media tools are indeed revolutionising the way we understand communication, especially in crisis situations where correct and timely information is often scarce. SMS text messaging has become somewhat ubiquitous because of the widespread use of mobile phones, but it also has a number of limitations that are often overlooked.

Somalia is a largely oral society, even though literacy has been around for centuries and the Somali language was standardised to a Latin alphabet in 1972. Somali language has a complex orthography that doesn't translate easily to text and 20 or more years of civil conflict has caused one of the largest diasporas of the last half century, leaving the country bereft of what was once a sophisticated, literate and educated middle class.

Without making baseless assumptions about the demographics in Somalia more receptive to SMS, it is worth pointing out that text messaging often excludes sectors of society who are still primarily oral (even if they can read and write) and who are less technologically adept using mobile phones to communicate via text. Even in other contexts in Africa, there tends to be an urban bias towards a younger, more exposed generation who are more savvy in the use of SMS.

Bringing Back Voice

Voice and text are two very distinct mediums although both are not mutually exclusive and are used interchangeably on all mobile phones. Once upon a time, land-line telephones were primarily a voice-only technology, in which two or more people were able "speak" across any distance in real time. Only with the advent of mobile phones has SMS (short messaging service) come to define a mobile language in its own right. 

The use of SMS as a medium of voice empowerment is misrepresentative and until "voice" is fully incorporated in the range of interactive reporting and croudsourcing technologies, we will always be getting a partial picture. At the moment this is available in the form of Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technologies that are becoming more available as communication solutions in the development and crisis sectors because of projects like Freedom Fone.

But until we overcome what Walter J. Ong calls our ideological bias towards literacy and text as mediums representative of 'truth' there can be no novel journalism that claims to represent "unheard voices." 

So for the time being, wouldn't it be more accurate to call the project Somalia SMS?