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Anatolian Dispatches

Turkey’s Social Mediators

The young men behind the Institute of Creative minds. Left to right: Cem Aydogdu, Engin Onder, Ogulcan Ekiz (Stephen Starr)
Left to right: Cem Aydoğdu, Engin Önder, and Oğulcan Ekiz.  (Stephen Starr)
Left to right: Cem Aydoğdu, Engin Önder and Oğulcan Ekiz. (Stephen Starr)

Last November, Cem Aydoğdu, Engin Önder, and Oğulcan Ekiz organized a US election night event at the Haydarpaşa train station in Istanbul. Why? Because polls show that Turkey has one of the most anti-American populations in the world. The three got the US Consulate in Istanbul on board with financial cover, while the joint online and in-house debate on America’s place in the world translated cold stats into lively, open discussion.

Amid, and perhaps because of, Turkey’s blockbuster modernization projects and growing public unrest, Istanbul has emerged as an international center for entrepreneurship and artistic creativity. And with a combined age of seventy, Aydoğdu, Önder, and Ekiz—the three men behind the Institute of Creative Minds (ICM) —are those among the city’s most driven college students. They were also responsible on World Social Media Day in June 2012 for projecting a Twitter timeline onto Istanbul’s iconic Galata Tower with an open debate about the merits of nuclear power. (Turkey is in the process of building its first nuclear power facility.)

What sets Aydoğdu, Önder and Ekiz apart, they say, is their impetus to seek out contacts and financial backing from governments and private organizations in order to place contemporary discussions in the public space. With Turkey having the fifth-largest online population in Europe, social media proved the default tool with which to do so.

Önder tells The Majalla that the group is “above politics,” but they regularly seek out government collaborations. They reject being labelled entrepreneurs or activists, though their work is equal parts both. They are a network of concerned citizens, he says, producing art, design and media projects for public consumption. Their goal is to open debate and ideas to Turkish people.

Founded in 2010, the ICM is best known for 140journos, a Twitter-based initiative that documents protests and anti-government activity across Turkey, and which rose to international prominence during the Gezi Park-centered protests last May and June.

“We were in Washington, DC, when the revolutions kicked off in Tunisia and elsewhere. We saw how people were using social media sites and from there our idea for 140journos grew,” Önder tells the The Majalla.

Before last summer’s protests, 140journos had co-opted support from the Turkish prime minister’s Office of Public Diplomacy. But as images of bloodied and beaten protesters filled their Twitter feed, a call soon came from the top. “Our contact there told us to tone down our Twitter activity. We politely declined,” says Önder.

The Twitter feed has been attacked by both the left and right in Turkey for their apparent support and criticism of the government. In Turkey’s cut-throat Twitterverse, it is regularly decried by supporters of the Justice and Development Party—which hired thousands of new social media experts in September—for depicting anti-government protests and little else. “140journos is not a leftist platform. We examine positive discrimination of leftist and right groups. We hear and use the criticism [we get] from the government and anyone else—that’s what makes us different,” Önder says.

The Institute is one of Istanbul’s most daring initiatives—more journalists are imprisoned in Turkey than anywhere else in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists—but is by no means its torch carrier. Silicon Valley’s Founder Institute has launched start-up programs in Istanbul while Amazon, Ebay and Intel have all pumped money into local e-commerce organizations, according to Forbes magazine. With Turkey’s mainstream media increasingly cowed and co-opted, groups mixing citizen journalism and new media, such as 140journos, are forging ahead.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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Stephen Starr
Stephen Starr is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising. Now based in Turkey, he lived in Syria for five years until 2012.

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