Ethan Zuckerman, who founded Global Voices Online, has an excellent talk in which he explains how web 2.0 services (that allow people to socially network, share LOL cats, and organize politically) play a critical role in getting around government censorship.  You can read it here, with images he used at the talk.

One gem, which is helpful demonstrates how porn (and LOL cats) indicate efficient systems:

Based on my Tripod experience, I’d offer the hypothesis that any sufficiently advanced read/write technology will get used for two purposes: pornography and activism. Porn is a weak test for the success of participatory media – it’s like tapping a mike and asking, “Is it on?” If you’re not getting porn in your system, it doesn’t work. Activism is a stronger test – if activists are using your tools, it’s a pretty good indication that your tools are useful and usable.

The idea is: these platforms that allow the exchange of banal information also allow the exchange of important information. Take blogs and Twitter*:

… When Kefaya activist and open-source proponent Alaa Abdel Fateh was one of 700 activists arrested at a protest supporting the independence of the Egyptian judiciary, it was hard for government authorities to know that they were about to have a PR crisis on their hands. Alaa began blogging from prison, passing notes to his wife, Manal, who jointly maintains their blog. These blog posts helped attract international attention to the case, which meant that camera crews from Al Jazeera and CNN covered a situation they normally would have ignored. It probably meant that Alaa spent much more time in jail than he otherwise would have, but it also may have meant that he was safer than if he’d been anonymous in prison. …

Most activists discover they’re much more effective out of jail. It’s possible that bulk SMS tools – especially Twitter – might be useful in keeping activists out of jail. Alaa now uses Twitter to report on his political activities – this gives friends watching his feed the possibility of relauching the FreeAlaa site, should we see his note that he’s going in to talk to the police, and there’s no message letting us know he’s out of the police station afterwards. …

*our twitter is somewhere in between.