Mobiles that mobilised thousands of students

Pocket studios key in #FeesMustFall protests

This month we carry the second article on the subject of mobile journalism and its implications. Last month, Yusuf Omar, who reported from the beaches of Durban shortly before #PennySparrow lit up social media. In part two of the MOJO series this month, Chelsea Geach talks about #FeesMustFall in the virtual world – from selfie-sticks and social media savvy, to racking up millions of views through careful curation and placement.

It was the biggest news event and political moment of 2015… and it’s a hashtag. Probably the first hashtag ever to have a court interdict against it.

The movement’s hashtag identity speaks volumes about its participants: they were social media savvy, they were out on the streets but glued to their phones, they were seamlessly protesting in both the real and the virtual world.

They were mobilised, in every sense of the word.

For journalists to really capture and cover the essence of #FeesMustFall, they needed to be there: on the ground, and simultaneously, embedded in the online conversation. It was no time for sluggish print deadlines. It was no time for bulky broadcast equipment.

It was time for the rise of the multi-media production studio most of us carry in our pockets: time for the smartphone to shine.

Journalists no longer had exclusive rights to the action. We were no longer the sole storytellers, and we didn’t have dibs on the “truth”. Every protester whose smartphone still had battery and airtime was telling the story: in tweets, Facebook posts, photographs, videos, whatsapps to their friends.

They used social media to augment reality.

As tyres burnt at Fort Hare, protesters could scroll down their Twitter feed and see fellow students lighting their own fires at the entrances to UCT. Students facing police in riot gear outside CPUT’s Bellville campus could check their phones and read about the #Brixton163.

Social media allowed #FeesMustFall to be a coherent national movement with consistent demands, by hosting a conversation that leapfrogged provincial boundaries in a matter of seconds and kilobytes.

At Independent’s MOJO studio, we used a free online platform called Storify to select Tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram pics and curate them into powerful stories and listicles.

We found the 10 most powerful placards of the protest from across the country. We found the 10 most shocking photographs of police violence. We found groups of South Africans living all over the world, organising protests in solidarity.

Our audience gobbled up the content. It wasn’t hard news, but it offered bite-sized insights into a massive online conversation that is hard to navigate – especially for readers who aren’t completely at home in the virtual world. Some of our Storifies were racking up 20 000 views apiece!

But the biggest content lesson #FeesMustFall taught us was the overwhelming potential of Facebook native video. We’d been publishing videos to YouTube then furiously sharing the links across the IOL website and social media, but with only a handful of views to show for it.

No matter how good the content is, if you put it in the wrong place, nobody will see it.

Then, on the second day of the UCT protests, I filmed a small group of students breaking into Rochester dining hall and stealing the food that was laid out for residents to eat for lunch. I uploaded it native to Facebook, and within a few days, it had been shared 8 600 times, reached 2,3 million people and had 618 000 views.

We got the hint!

With my phone mounted on my selfie stick, I filmed Mmusi Maimane being booed and chased away when he came to speak to UCT students. The seven second clip reached 93 400 people on Facebook alone. I filmed a student confronting a protester about white privilege, and it reached 815 900 people.

When I followed the crowds through the breached gates of Parliament, neither police nor protesters paid any mind to my smartphone (although an opportunistic thief did try to pinch it out my pocket!) Sometimes, the biggest advantage when shooting video comes in the smallest packages.

My camera was rolling when the students trapped inside Parliament and surrounded by police began to sing the National Anthem. It was rolling when police fired stun grenades, and the students screamed and scattered. It was still rolling when a few seconds later, the students stopped running, faced their attackers, and continued to sing Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica.

It captured a moment that I still cannot think back on without a lump in my throat at the bravery, unity and youthful idealism that characterised #FeesMustFall. The video reached 222 500 people on Facebook, a further 7 000 on YouTube after the Washington Post published a link to it.

The first phase of #FeesMustFall is over. Fees did not rise, but neither did they fall. 2016 is upon us, and if the first weeks are anything to go by, it’s going to be a rough ride through the racism and inequality which define so much of our society.

The Indy MOJO team is armed with smartphones, selfie sticks and social media savvy, ready to dash out and live-video-tweet the story as it unfolds.

If you’d like to do the same, you probably won’t have to reach much further than your pocket.

WHAT YOU’LL NEED:

  • a smartphone with a decent camera and storage space
  • a frightening amount of airtime (data prices must fall!)
  • a powerbank to keep your phone battery juiced up

WHAT YOU’LL WANT:

  • a selfie stick to get your camera above the crowd
  • a decent microphone for doing interviews in noisy spaces
  • an editing app to piece together bits of footage and interviews into a more “produced” package before releasing it into the wild
  • a streaming app like Periscope
  • a tripod for longer, steadier shots or interviews (if you can be bothered to carry it).

These are optional extras, but you’ll find they can add miles to your mojo quality if used well

Check out our work! We tweet from @mojoIOL, publish video to the Independent Online YouTube channel and contribute our MOJO skillz to www.iol.co.za.

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