A Social Media Summit Grows In Afghanistan

Women-in-tech, disaster relief, and service provisions for mobile tech all sound like typical topics for a social media conference. But in Afghanistan there's more at stake.

Social media summits are commonplace from New York to Berlin to Shanghai. Twitter lovers are obsessed with getting together to talk about brand recognition, sentiment tracking, and every type of case study under the sun.

There's a different set of stakes in a country ravaged by decades of war: Afghanistan. Paiwand (#پيوند) bills itself as "Afghanistan's first ever national social media summit, bringing together 200+ of Afghanistan's top social media influencers."

Like a lot of forward-looking tech conferences, there's a women's-only panel, but it deals with the unique challenges women face in the Afghan tech and IT worlds. Other panels discuss service provisions for mobile tech and using social media for swift disaster response--an all too frequent need here. While Afghanistan does have a robust community of social media users--which includes both readers and content creators--they have to deal with both unusual circumstances and logistical difficulties that most other regions don't have.

The two-day conference is also filled with English-language seminars, translated into Dari and Pashto, on topics ranging from mobile cashless payments to "Skype diplomacy" to connecting the Afghan street art scene with the wider world. According to Paiwand's Eileen Guo, the idea is to bring together Afghanistan's diverse community of social media users--who include both Afghanis and NGOs working in the country--with the wider world and to bring back ideas that are useful locally.

To give one example, the Skype diplomacy talk at the summit centers around the work of the Virtual Dinner Guest Project. Eric Maddox, the organization's founder, uses the popular video conferencing service to bring together strangers in different countries with similar backgrounds. Participants from two different countries, all with roots in academia, aid work, or journalism, are bought together over 90 minutes to eat (one table for each country) and "deconstruct how the media culture in (their) respective countries has taught (them) to perceive of one another, and start to break down the simplistic narratives that often lead to stereotypes and marginalization." Following the dinner, participants than videotape themselves doing man-in-the-street interviews where they ask their fellow citizens about stereotypes the other country has about them.

Guo, a former social media strategist for Gen. Stanley McChrystal, runs Afghanistan-based digital media firm Impassion. In a telephone interview with Fast Company, she emphasized the local hunger for an event of this sort and Afghanistan's active Facebook and Twitter communities. There are technical obstacles--when arranging an interview, spotty 3G service in Afghanistan made it a question of whether Skype or a telephone call would be a better method of contact between Los Angeles and Kabul--but the country's infrastructure is slowly recovering from more than 30 years of civil war, occupation, and Taliban rule. But still, less than 5% of the country has Internet access, mostly in the capital city Kabul.

Afghanistan's government, which is eager to attract foreign aid and investment, is also participating in the conference. A discussion on how Afghanistan's government uses social media is being held by a spokesperson to President Karzai, and officials from national and regional government are hosting other panels. Several panels, such as one on social media and Afghanistan's upcoming elections, will also be broadcast live on Afghan television.

[Image: Somaya Rezai via Paiwand]

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that only one panel from the conference will be broadcast on television.

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