When I first met Raull Santiago, 23, and Nathalia Menezes, 24, my initial charmed impression was that these were two young people who felt no shame of their penchant for playing on their cell phones. By the time we left our first meeting, they had friended me on Facebook, tweeted about our meeting and ‘checked in’ the time and place of our interview.
What made all of this more than just another day in the life of social-medialite is where the spirited pair live: The community of favelas called the Complexo do Alemão, for years the scene of intense trafficker-police confrontations. Residents long feared the police that forcefully entered “pé na porta” to inspect their homes with a blanket judicial order. Outsiders feared that area was “off limits,” controlled by armed traffickers who famously killed a journalist who went undercover to investigate child sexual abuse in baile funk parties. Now Nathália and Raull were cautiously hopeful. The military had invaded the favela after an intense week of urban mayhem, in which scores of vehicles were robbed and lit on fire across the city, in what the government billed as a proactive response to retake territory key to traffickers.
News watchers across Rio saw the site of dozens of traffickers in boardshorts fleeing with rifles on foot through the jungle and of tanks toppling the iron barricades once mounted to prevent police vehicles from entering.
But Nathalia and Raull took that attention in a different direction: Maybe the new order would give them a chance to organize better trash removals. To start walking tours for visitors to Alemão. To keep tabs on the military occupation. They gave their effort to change their community a broadly applicable title—”Descolando Idéias” (“Ungluing Ideas”)—which, essentially, was just the name of their Facebook group.
Alongside them, another unexpected icon was taking off. Rene Silva, a 17-year-old jokester who started a community paper and whose Twitter account became a closely watched insider source for outsiders watching the military invasion unfold. Now the highschooler is becoming a local sensation, with more than 30,000 Twitter followers, and is sending near constant messages about incidents from hearing shots behind his house to what he’s riding at a water park.
It’s more than just jazzed versions of string-and-cup chat systems among tight-knit neighbors; these young people are taking advantage of a uniquely Brazilian proclivity for social media. The price helps—while making a simple local phone call can easily cost $7, unlimited data is often available on cell phones for as little as 30 cents a day. That may be one reason why, as Time reported in 2010, Brazil had the highest percentage of Twitter users of any country. And like Rene told me, "If we know how to take advantage of these new forms, blogs, YouTube, Twitter ... we are going to be able to change Brazil, especially the favelas. Because the favelas use the Internet."
Here’s an example: Last week I again visited Raull and Nathalía, who are now on the inauguration of their first office space inside an established NGO called Afroreggae. It was the day in which Rio de Janeiro State Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame had come to announce that finally, after 14 months of extended and re-extended deadlines for the Army to leave the community, police would finally enter and “pacify” it with a new community policing outfit called a Unit of Pacifying Police (UPP). The team of Descolando Idéias put out on their networks that “revista geral” (“everyone can be frisked at police checkpoints”) was being put into action. They also sent individuals with cameraphones to watch police carry out the inspections. By the end of the day, Raull told me they hadn’t received complaints of abuse.
A police friend recently told me how his colleagues are less “ostentatious” than in the past, knowing that misuse of force will so easily end up on YouTube. “Anyone in the favela nowadays just grabs that telefonezinho (little phone) and records,” he said approvingly, after grabbing his grainy phone and asking this reporter to add him on Facebook.
In the U.S. people often associate being online as time spent as a hermit. But I realize more each day here how the opposite is true for cariocas (residents of Rio de Janeiro). If this city has been one known for its divide between the morro (“hillside,” where precarious favela homes are often constructed) and the asfalto, (“asphalt,” the wealthy neighborhoods below them), Nathália, Raull and Rene are showing that being online hardly means being away from the realities of Rio de Janeiro.
*Taylor Barnes is a guest blogger to AQ Online. She is a freelance journalist in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.