Who hasn’t dreamed of TED conferences for the poor, for activists, for people who want to change the world but don’t have the means to travel to Long Beach in California, US, or the connections needed to participate in global TEDx conferences?. Something like this exists in Serbia: SHARE conferences. The first two took place in Belgrade, and the third will be held in Beirut, Lebanon, this December.
For 48 hours, the 2,000 attendees discuss everything important to social activists: from the importance of free speech with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, protecting yourself from censorship, the best ways to encrypt messages – there’s even a workshop to teach kids how to keep their secrets safe from parents – and music sharing with Peter Sunde, co-founder of the BitTorrent search engine, The Pirate Bay.
It’s a serious event that doesn’t forget the entertainment aspect – that’s the “E”in TED. How could they? SHARE spun out of EXIT, one of the largest music festivals in Europe, which has been held since 2000 in Novi Sad, north of Belgrade. Vladan Joler (@TheCreaturesLab), SHARE’s founder, was EXIT’s creative director.
It’s a world birthed from student opposition to Slobodan Milosevic, the former President of Serbia, created by people who used new forms of peaceful protest filled with humor and an art savvy in using media and communication, and whose influence we see in some of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutionaries, as well as Spanish protesters.
The first EXIT festival lasted three months: a hundred days of street music leading up to the elections. I met with Joler accompanied by the Huffington Posts’ Marc Botte, who helps manage my web content. The idea for EXIT, Joler says, was to “have a party and then transform it into civil disobedience – a strange way to motivate young people and drive them to protest. And it was the only place where youth from Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and other former Yugoslavian countries could meet each other after the war.”
The event was a huge success, but it didn’t satisfy its creators. “It became sort of an industry of culture,” Joler says. “We thought its size prevented it from addressing certain problems. We also noticed a classic non-governmental organization (NGO) problem: old-school ones become a sort of industry where the goal is just to make donors happy. We wanted to turn towards new forms of activism, towards the desire for grassroots rebellion that all young people have.”
The group decided to create a festival for social activists. They chose to hold it in April because in Belgrade that’s the best month for a party.
They were starting at zero, so the first thing they did was reach out to everyone they knew and ask for help. “Why not?” most said. To launch the idea they all tweeted the word “SHARE” at the same time so it would trend. The rest was up to the passion and organization of 400 people. The innovation is that everything – organization, marketing, communications – was peer to peer (P2P). “We even crowdsourced the logo and posters,” says Filip Milosevic (no relation), one of the event’s creators.
“We had no idea what it would look like,” Milosevic says. “It’s not easy to get young people interested in things like sustainable development.”
One of SHARE’s secrets seems to be the fact that it has as many events at night as it does during the day. And by that I mean parties. You talk all day and dance all night. Even during the day, the energy carries over into the question and answer (Q&A) sessions and dynamic dialogues.
More than 2,000 people attended the events for free. There’s no easy answer to financing: “The more you ask for money, the more you depend on someone else,” Joler says. They take care to maintain a balance between foundations, governments and sponsors, but also know that the best way to stay independent is to sell tickets. But they didn’t want to do this, so they DIY’d [DIY means Do It Yourself] it: “It’s important that people understand how complex organizing something like this is,” Joler and Milosevic say. “Next year we’re going to publish all the costs involved. We’ll try to crowdfund it.”
It feels weird to write about an event like this without having gone to it, but Joler and Milosevic’s enthusiasm is contagious. So, October in Beirut… why not?
The science -fiction writer Bruce Sterling, who is also an astute analyst of IT’s impact on our world, summed up that impact in two things he said in Belgrade (and that you can see in this fantastic video). First, a simple fact: “There are more mobile phones in the world than there are people who own toothbrushes.” The other comment tells a bigger story: “It’s an industry for young people; it’s an industry for the poor. It empowers the young and the poor, and it’s because of this that our decade looks so different than any other.”
The question – raised by an off-screen voice in the video – is “how we achieve the social change we want?.” Sam Graham-Felsen, the former blogger-in-chief of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, sums up SHARE’s response: “I don’t want a revolution if I can’t dance. [...] If everyone is serious you wear yourselves out, you burn out and don’t create change. Change should be fun.”
The Founder of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, said that “Revolution is not a dinner party.” And Bob Dylan sang, The times they are a-changing…