The lessons of Basetrack: A conversation with Teru Kuwayama

2010 Knight Fellow Teru Kuwayama’s Basetrack project set out to experiment with new models for covering war, with collaborations among journalists, soldiers and their families and use of Facebook and Twitter as primary publishing and distribution platforms. Kuwayama developed the concept during his fellowship, was awarded a $202,000 Knight News Challenge to pursue it and launched last fall as team members began a long-term embed with the 1st Battalion, Eighth Marines, in southern Afghanistan. In this conversation, Kuwayama discusses lessons learned and what’s next for Basetrack, which abruptly lost its embedded status last month. Military officials subsequently determined that Kuwayama’s team did not violate security rules as was initially suggested.

What were your primary goals in developing and launching Basetrack? Did they change once you got into the field?

The goals have been pretty consistent — to report on the war in Afghanistan, to connect with a specific, underserved audience and to see if that audience could also serve as a transmission vehicle to connect with a broader public. There were other goals as well, like training and enabling “outsiders” to the established media, and injecting “alternate” perspectives to the conversation about the war. On a tactical level, almost everything changed as soon as we were in the field, but on a strategic level, things played out almost exactly as envisioned.

Basetrack involves a unique collaboration between photojournalists and soldiers and Marines who contribute to it. Has that played out as you had hoped?

Some things played out very differently than I expected. I’d built the project around the concept of 20-year-old Marines and their social networks in the United States, and I had imagined that the core community would be drawn from their peer groups. As it turned out, the deployed Marines had almost no Internet access, and even my own team had very little connectivity when we were in Afghanistan. Ultimately, the core audience wasn’t 20-year-old Marines — it was their mothers, and their wives.

This underscored an obvious concept that’s gotten a lot of traction recently with the counter-insurgency set -– that women of a society, even in very patriarchal societies, are a cornerstone, and a driving force. You can see that in the USMC “Female Engagement Teams” that target Afghan women. I saw that in the years I worked with Greg Mortenson and his NGO that builds schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not only do his schools specifically target female students, as a means of impacting rural societies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they’re also fueled by the support of a very “mom-based” grassroots American constituency.

Basetrack has developed and morphed substantially since your original concept won a Knight News Challenge grant almost a year ago. Can you describe the biggest changes, either in your general approach and conception or in specific features and tools that you’ve used to operate?

My project was fairly unique among News Challenge grantees in that there weren’t any plans to develop software or business models — it was a totally non-business oriented, non-developer-centric approach, and I’d gone into it with the intention of relying on ubiquitous, off-the-shelf platforms. I was thinking of using a Tumblr or Posterous blog, rather than writing code, or building something from scratch on Drupal or Ruby on Rails, etc. So maybe one of the biggest changes in plan was that we actually did develop original software, in our WordPress-based mapping/timeline blog platform, and in the “Denial of Information” redaction system, which I’m pretty sure is totally unique, and is a long story in itself.

One of the key pieces of technology that emerged from the off-the-shelf realm was the iPhone, which rapidly replaced an entire spectrum of “professional” cameras and recording gear that we started off with. There’s also original hardware that emerged from the project. We actually McGyver’d up rugged casings and stabilizing systems. We’re also working on a couple of spin-off projects that might actually be quite commercially viable – although we’d have to clone ourselves to find the time to work on those.

The project has developed in so many different directions, and essentially, the project, which is based on human networks, is also a network of projects in itself.

You seem to have found a wide variety of collaborators – beyond the Marines themselves. How did you go about finding them and persuading them to help? Can you name some and how they’ve helped?

That would be a really long list -– but I’ve collected a lot of interesting friends over the years. Among the many contributors to Basetrack are people I met at Stanford – including then-students like Sadika Hamed and Knight Fellows like Gabriel Sama. There’s David Gurman, who I met through the TED fellowship -– he led the web development team and brought on his rock climbing partner, Sundev Lohr, and Josh Levy, whose main qualification, as far as I’m concerned is that he’s a fellow recovering punk rock kid. There’s Matt Farwell. In 2006, he was Sgt Farwell, an infantry grunt whose unit I was embedded with, just off the Pakistani border. He didn’t have much in the way of “professional” journalism credentials when I signed him on as a writer, but he turned out to be our star writer. Monica Campbell was a Nieman fellow at the same time that I was a Knight Fellow and Rita Leistner is a photographer that I first met in Baghdad in 2003. There’s Omar Mullick, a photographer and writer who lives upstairs from me in New York, and Habib Zahori, who was a medical student when I first met him in Kabul. Now he’s the go-to fixer/reporter/assistant in Afghanistan people like Steve Coll, Dexter Filkins, Jon Lee Anderson, and the news organizations like the Wall Street Journal.

There’s a lot of other people and organizations that helped out, like the Dart Fellowship and the Knight Digital Media Center at UC Berkeley, but probably the single most important human resource is Balazs Gardi. He’s a Hungarian photographer I met a decade ago, and who I’ve worked and traveled with in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Basetrack is literally designed to be carried forward by Balazs on his personal project about water resources and water-related conflicts around the world. You could say we’re “tactically” focused on combat operations is southern Afghanistan at the moment, but the broader ambitions are “geo-strategic.”

It isn’t a coincidence that there are three other Hungarians on the team. Laszlo Malahovszky, Tivadar Domaniczky, and Peter Gardi are all essential “operators” that he brought on. This approach isn’t original at all, it’s straight off the shelf, from the U.S. military’s own counterinsurgency playbook, which is hardly original itself.

There are no commanding officers in this network — it’s a confederation of “strategic corporals,” conducting localized operations, with guidance and support, empowered to make their own decisions, and trusted to support the team, and the broader effort.

What have been the biggest surprises you’ve encountered since starting Basetrack?

I don’t know if it counts as a surprise, because it’s almost a guiding principle with me, but this project really did demonstrate a concept articulated by Lt. Col. David Kilcullen one of the counterinsurgency theorists I was tracking during my Knight Fellowship. As he put it: “Rank is nothing, talent is everything”.

Again, he was speaking of the concept of the “strategic corporal” in modern warfare, and the importance of the low-level fighter/leader, operating with unusual levels of autonomy, initiative, and improvisation –- and I found that exactly the same principles apply in guerilla media, as do in insurgent or counterinsurgent warfare.

The least “qualified” on the team have been the most effective –- one of our writers is self-described “crazy combat vet” who was in jail at the beginning of the project. At one point, Sgt. Farwell was blogging for us from inside a psychiatric ward -– and I could not possibly ask for a more authentic, credible and lucid voice for the project. Balazs didn’t even go to college. He isn’t American, and his English isn’t perfect, but even the handful of wing-nut Basetrack haters seem to be in awe of his work.

You’ve said that you envisioned this as a pilot that could be replicated and used by others. Do you still think that is possible? What do you think needs to happen in order to make that possible?

I thought this was possible before. Now I know it is.

Consider what we did in five months. We turned one thousand Marines into one million page views – and that’s just on Facebook. We built a relationship with a network of military families that was so strong that the Pentagon couldn’t break it.

And it’s not like the military doesn’t like us — the same public affairs office that ejected us from the embed is now asking me to brief senior military leaders about social media.

We introduced some extremely “disruptive” ideas to an audience that many people would have written off as close-minded, and I think we dispelled some stereotypes about them, and about us.

We landed in Afghanistan, hit the ground running, and we built this system as we went along, before we’d even gotten any of the funding. Imagine redesigning and rebuilding the engine of a car, as you’re driving it along a dirt road full of IEDs. That was our workplace.

We took the concept and road tested it in the most ruthless environment we could find. It’s a miracle this thing worked at all.

We had the least permissive environment you could possibly imagine. We barely had any money. We’re working with a budget that’s probably about a tenth of the amount that a sane person would ask for. We had almost no Internet access, and we were working in the crossfire of two of them most lethal combatant forces on Earth, with equipment just barely out of R&D. We literally had people trying to kill us while we were in Afghanistan, and we’ve actually had a small hostile contingent in the US that’s been trying to shut us down, conducting what are effectively amateur cyber attacks on our Facebook page.

In the past year or two, I’ve had a lot of support from institutions like the Knight Fellowship, the TED fellowship, the Dart Fellowship, KDMC’s Independent Journalists fellowship and the News Challenge grant, but the goal of this project was always to crank up a system that would work for those who didn’t have all those resources.

I could still use money, gear, and code — all that good stuff — but I already have the stuff that can’t be bought, and I think we demonstrated how much can be done, with almost no financial resources.

Ultimately, the real resources aren’t money, gear, or code – it’s belief, commitment, and cooperation. The real resources are all human, and those resources are growing, as new people join, and as the original members grow more experienced and find their footing.

Look what’s happening around us, right now. Entire governments are being dismantled – -not by military forces, but by networks, networks that were inspired, empowered, and cross-pollinated by other networks.

So yes, on our much smaller scale, I feel confident that our model can be replicated, because Basetrack isn’t a software, it isn’t an organization, it isn’t even a “system.” It’s just an idea -– and ideas can’t be stopped -– especially disruptive ones.

The military had pledged tour-long embeds for the Basetrack team. Did you have any hint or warning that they’d changed their minds and were terminating the embeds?

The understanding was that we would be embedded with the battalion for the duration of the tour, which for Marines is at least seven months. “Cradle to grave” was the term that the battalion’s executive officer used. As the project developed and the social media audience grew, there were increasing tensions about the project, and the battalion commanders talked about disembedding us fairly often. The complaints, however, were always about Basetrack’s Facebook page, not about the Basetrack.org website, or the reporting done by the Basetrack embeds. There were a lot of complaints that the conversations amongst the family members were unregulated, and the news articles that were being posted (from other news organizations) were too “negative,” or that the audience was starting “question why we’re here.”

Have you been able to find out any more details about why Basetrack’s embeds are being canceled?

I haven’t gotten a straight answer about it, and I honestly don’t know if there is one. I think it’s quite likely that there were a number of people who were just generally uncomfortable with the project, but might not be very clear on why themselves.

People in general are uncomfortable with the inherently chaotic nature of social media – that includes many journalists, but it definitely includes an older generation in the military. I’ve been told that the battalion commanders were feeling “overwhelmed” by the attention that the project received, and probably frustrated by their inability to control it. I think that’s why the whole movement against Basetrack is so confused. Basetrack hasn’t actually broken any rules, or done anything wrong that anyone can actually articulate, but we’re dealing with an extremely regimented society that has an almost obsessive focus on “discipline” – so on some deep-seated psychological level that Basetrack’s critics might not even fully grasp, the totally open, flat, and unregulated nature of Basetrack probably felt like a breakdown of “good order and discipline”.

What’s next for Basetrack?

I don’t see us re-embedding with another unit. (I’ve heard rumors to the effect that we were looking for another battalion to embed with, but they’re very misinformed). As it is, the deployment of 1/8 was in its last weeks anyway – and the center of gravity on the project has always been the families of the Marines. The crucial, human terrain has always been on the web – not in Afghanistan.

Being ejected from the embed just accelerates the evolution of the project, where the “captured” audience is made portable, and taken outside the battalion’s area of operations. Basetrack’s team members are still on the ground in Afghanistan, outside “the bubble”, and the Basetrack audience is still following their reporting, still tuning into the stream of information and the conversation around it. Over the past several months, as the project rolled out, the Basetrack team embedded, not just with the Marines in southern Afghanistan, but with their families, their networks – and now those networks are embedded in ours.

Basetrack, as a “system” will continue – and not necessarily operated by me, or the current team. The One-Eight project is a prototype, with a finite lifespan – but Basetrack will re-iterate in other instances, and the ones we’re thinking about now aren’t military. The system will be reborn as a project about water issues, as an “Afpak” website, and perhaps as projects about the Gaza strip, Canada, or Islam in America. We’re still developing, and upgrading the software piece, but the basic framework is meant to be usable for any kind of blog or media project.

The greater challenge will be to network these channels, and channel these networks. What evolves out this probably won’t be called Basetrack and it may not have a name at all – it may not be immediately discernable as an organization or a systematic approach, and as I’ve said before, it’s just an idea.

In the immediate, we’re working on a book, to be released in the coming weeks. That’s when the Marines get home to the United States, and for many of them, it’ll be the first time they’ll have real Internet access — and we’ll be waiting to reconnect with them in the digital terrain.