Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof

Global Voices Online 2005 London Summit—Another Voice

In Committee to Protect Bloggers, Social media on December 12, 2005 at 10:13 pm

I was unable to attend the London Summit for Global Voices on December 10, unfortunately. I was finishing up the SoA Anonymous Blogging Guides and shepherding the Committee to Protect Bloggers through the last hairpin turn of its tax-exempt nonprofit corporation status application.

Nevertheless, since I’ve been a longtime supporter and tangentially involved, I wanted to register my opinion on some of the issues addressed at the summit. For those who don’t know, Global Voices, a project out of Harvard University’s Berkman Center, is an interesting undertaking. It’s rather like an international blog aggregator with annotations; it’s something like an old-fashioned international news magazine. It has been around for a little better than a year now and in that time has had a profound influence on the notion of what a blog’s good for and who writes them. One of the founders described it as a “citizen media” site, making a distinction between it and “citizen journalism.” I think of it as an online magazine whose primary topic is the global conversation.

Best just to look at it, though.

I read the entirety of the sixty-page live blog from the summit. My comments are in order. (My quotations take the liberty of correcting what look to be typos and misspellings, and writing out abbreviations, but refer to the original if you have any doubt. I’ll quote them and then attribute where possible.)

One of the things we want to cover going forward is how we might expand the regional editors, if we want to do that; how bloggers might be different in editorial structure; how it might be different and how pro journalists work. (Rebecca MacKinnon, one of the founders and American blogger at Rconversation)

The editors are, I think, just that, editors. They are journalists, of a sort, whose beat is the conversation or conversations going on in their coverage area. To think of it like that it may provide a sense of orientation to the role.

Africa has been presented in such a negative way in the past 10 years; the blogosphere has presented a different side of Africa. There are Africans talking about positive things; about — even when you talk about crises; that it’s done in a positive way… us speaking for ourselves. Another positive thing: when I joined in October, I wasn’t aware of all the blogs out there; and there was one, an American’s blog, saying where are all the women bloggers? and I responded saying ‘where are all the African women? I went out looking for them… I was amazed at how many there were that I didn’t know about. That’s been an important opportunity. (Sokari Ekine, Kenyan blogger at Black Looks)

One thing that both journalism and history writings often lack is a sense of things on the ground: What’s it look like there? What’s it sound like? How do people think about what’s going on? To listen to the bureaucrats and rocks stars, Africa is one gigantic symptom in need of medicine that can only be provided by… well, bureaucrats and rock stars. Once of the benefits of reading blogs is to get a more accurate view of things apparently far removed from your immediate reality. The notion that the only resource available to Africans is rubber trees and diamonds is given the lie by African bloggers.

Global Voices Online (GVO) should encourage more conversations between groups that are not commonly seen as conversing. The Chileans and the Chinese, say. There is an implicit notion that a Chinese blogger involved with GVO and a Chilean who is involved may speak to one another via GVO. But what about encouraging direct, back-channel conversations, events, conferences, online actions? GVO is primarily a facilitator. It should attempt to facilitate these conversations overtly, then step out of the way. Or, on the other hand, to find them and point them out. That is another the regional editors could do.

Much is made of the “blogging vs. journalism” argument. We believe there can and must be room for both in this world, and that the world will be better for having both. (Intro)

I think the distinction of “citizen media” (which includes opinion, conversation and personal experience) from “citizen journalism” is important. However, I often find myself wishing a GVO blogger had gone out and interviewed a politician or public figure or people on the streets or had pulled documents. I don’t think GVO should try to force bloggers into a journalistic mold. However, some access to journalistic experience and tools would provide the means to make additional distinctions. According to Jeff Ooi, the Malaysian bloggers have had good success with simple fact checking. Perhaps regional editors in different areas who have come up with various solutions to some of these issues might write on them at length for the benefit of the other editors, and for bloggers all around.

I started with Reuters bringing global material to a consumer audience. This is an area where many networks in the US have dropped the ball on recently. There is a good fit with Global Voices, which has a similar interest to Reuters in bringing international news to a US audience. (Dean Wright, Reuters)

In an earlier post here, I mentioned that excessive pursuit of 80s junk bonds / 90s internet IPO style profits, occasioned by the corporate buy-up of individual media properties, has left us with a media incapable of good global news gathering, with very few exceptions, which may include Reuters. The urge to get something for nothing fires the boilers of much of the traditional media in terms of bloggers. As useful as bloggers are for both people staying informed and for the media keeping its head above water, I think GVO should be cool-headed about cooperation with the media. How many musicians in SROs wish they had been a little less grateful for the attentions of record companies?

We weren’t the [original sources] but we were trusted and could point them…if you want to call it activism, sort of like a movement – it could happen in next to no time at all. (Dina Mehta, Indian blogger at Conversations with Dina)

Here’s an interesting question: Does GVO consist of citizen media, activists, journalists, or all three? Do we need to make a distinction? Certainly activists and the traditional media have radically different agendas. Can you be part of the citizen media and be both? Is it simply a matter of making sure you “show your work”? There’s a lot of talk regarding citizen journalism about revealing one’s biases, something bloggers in the U.S. at least encourage traditional journalists to do. But how can we map every line of force that makes us who we are? Should we have to? I have no pat answers to these questions, but I think they need to be considered. In the meantime, would some sort of guideline be in order?

I’ve noticed since I started rounding up the Caribbean for Global Voices, that people start to change things; since they know that I’ll ink to them if they cover certain things that alone has shifted things. (Georgia Popplewell, blogger and podcaster from the Antilles, at Caribbean Free Radio)

In this respect, bloggers are journalists. Journalists are constantly on the sell, whether freelancers or staffers. They’re selling the story to their editor, their editors are selling it to their editors, those folks are selling it to the public. What winds up happening is that sometimes stories of marginal worth are filtered out. But what happens just as often is that stories get spiked in favor of the “top ten” or the more lurid. I think GVO editors have an obligation to make certain that the full range of stories from their areas are being told. This is no easy feat, but it’s integral.

If you have an agenda and strong opinion, you’ll just find something to confirm your opinion. I’m trying to get around that; it’s very hard. (Lisa Goldman, Israeli blogger at On The Face)

It’s great if you feel your opinions are being given no credence in the world at large to find people who think as you do. However as a GVO regional editor, I think Lisa has it spot on. You simply must include divergent opinions. That’s not to say you need to engage in the increasingly useless he said-she said that is one of the logical fallacies of the traditional press. I think you can include without endorsing or without implying that each opinion has the same weight of fact or common sense or adoption by people in the area. And I think there is a place for opinion in a GVO round-up. By opinion I mean a mediating voice saying, “All this notwithstanding, I (Lisa or Haitham or Sokari, etc.) believe X is most likely.” After all, there is a comment section, right?

“How do we make sure people trust what we’re doing? As we try to call attention… perhaps making sure we’re not calling attention to false voices/disinformation. Also, what is the responsibility of bloggers?” (RM)

Trust your readers. I cannot emphasize this enough. When people read John Burns, as an example, sure, they probably give him some credence because of his association with the New York Times (for those whom the NYT is considered credible, at any rate; probably a smaller number now than in previous years). But I think most do so because of the inherent believability of his reports. Reading him over time people build up a sense of trust. To me there is no real difference between “John Burns” (who, for all I know, is actually Ambrosia FitzSimmons-Smythe) and “Zimpundit” (who, for all I know, is actually John Burns).

My point is: Trust your readers. And to do that, of course, you have to listen to them. GVO is fast becoming a brand in much the same way (though hopefully with fewer instances of post-holing) that NYT is a brand. The GVO regional editors need to use the full arsenal of their brains, not least when listening to the reaction of their readers.

The blogosphere will arrive at the same time as traditional media. So we now have an opportunity to build completely fused media. (John West—sorry, don’t know who he is.)

This is intriguing. For some reason it worries me a bit. One of the reasons that traditional media has responded with some scrambling to blogging and other citizen media is that it provides a healthy threat to the same-old-same-old. I have a hard time believing that a for-profit organization, especially a media one, is going to do anything in this profit-driven era that is not directly traceable to an increase in profit (as illustrated on a spreadsheet somewhere, perhaps in Hell). Will it give the illusion of feedback without any of the messy top-of-the-lungs vitality of blogging? I don’t have the answer to that. (I know. I’m as shocked as you.)

We’re at a point where we can shape the future. One of the reasons I’m here instead of at my old job is I believe we [can do this]. (RM)

Can I get a amen?

You have to recognize that I’m learning, you’re learning. (David Sasaki, Americas editor for GVO, has the decency, self-respect and common sense to be from the Pacific Northwest, a blogger (residing in Mexico) at oso, moreno, abogado)

GVO can’t be afraid to take chances. Chances sometimes result in mistakes. People learn from mistakes. They’re embarrassing and sometimes damaging. They should be avoided when unnecessary and embraced when necessary. GVO is based at a large American educational establishment, a place where a drive for consensus can sometimes result in timiditiy. Most people out there blogging whom GVO rounds up are not in that place. They’re out in some pretty wild and wooly areas on the verges, margins and borders of communication. (That’s right. I got a thesaurus.) It’s important not to neglect to synch up with these people.

One thing we need as journalists, other than more hugs, is training. One of the question’s I always have, using a blog in the newsroom: how do I know I can trust that? Interesting b/c it’s something journalists learn in journalism school; you have to face this every day when standing in front of a person, to look at a thousand non-verbal cues; and those cues exist on blogs too. You live in the blogosphere, so you know these things…you know what [the cues] are… What would be a tremendous resource for journalists who are getting started…– it’s all in the journalists judgment on what they should rely and on what they shouldn’t — would be if you could put together an guide on all these things that you just know that we couldn’t be expected to. (Brendan Greeley, journalist, editor of the U.S. Public Radio Exchange blog)

Putting up an “approved by GVO” badge creates a whole slough of problems. I don’t think that’s a great idea, to do it officially. Guides are fine. I’ve written (or edited rather) my share. But I think primarily it’s going to be experience reading them that will do the trick for journalists; they’re readers too, after all. I wonder if a training session on how to read and use blogs as a journalist might be more useful than a guide. I mean, a guide’s fine, but I bet there are a lot of people who attended the London summit who learned as much about a person in an hour over dinner than 10 hours reading their blog.

What I ask my colleagues to do is, “take out ‘blogger’ and put in ‘first-person eyewitness’…”and they’re a lot more comfortable with that. (DW)

This is a very good point, and meshes well with the notion of citizen media.

Part of the problem we’re confronted with jointly, is how to build more really vibrant, dynamic blogospheres. If our whole job is to point to conversations, we need them to take place. (Ethan Zuckerman, cofounder of GVO and American blogger at My Heart’s in Accra)

Regarding this point, and several made later about blogging penetration, why not ask the regional editors to secure volunteers and arrange trips to the countryside, or wherever blogging has yet to catch on? These traveling bloggers could act as an ambassadorial deputation from the blogosphere? Each area they visit will have different concerns. Perhaps some funding could be found to provide traveling money and set up some of these areas with needed tech a la Geekcorps. (Blogcorps?)

There was this dinner I was at with Roba and Haitham in Amman; everyone was saying, this is great; we all know each other, we’re excited, but we’re all from West Amman. So how do we make this broader? (EZ)

I presume West Amman is the tony part of town. And that points out an interesting, and to some extent neglected question: How can GVO promote and involve not just “other cultures” (than North American and Western European) in blogging, but other cultures within those cultures, such as ethnic and religious minorities and the poor (sometimes one and the same). This is exceedingly important, I think. If you don’t see to these people, find some way to bring them aboard, it’s all well-heeled Americans talking to well-padded Jordanians talking to well-funded Malaysians. It’s better than nothing but it’s a far cry from good enough. GVO editors need to get out and get people other than their peers blogging. Perhaps in certain cases they can invite these computerless bloggers over to use their tech? Perhaps they can go out in the community and interview 10 people each, every week, for a year—people who are different from them in economic level, religion, ethnicity, gender, politics—and post each week to a blog designed for that purpose.

Sometimes I think there’s too much concern over how ‘transformative’ blogging can be for Kenya or for politics; I look at it on an individual basis – what does it mean for someone who didn’t have this space before to have this space suddenly? (Ory Okolloh, GVO regional editor and Kenyan blogger at Kenyan Pundit)

Should we try to be focusing on making people have political and social blogs, and less personal blogs? (EZ)

Hell no.

GVO needs to honor the different ways in which people use blogging and other elements of citizen media. There’s nothing dishonorable about kitty-blogging. (Personally, I think kitties are adorable and anyone who doesn’t is welcome to a taste of my Ham-Sized Whirling Fists of Kitten-Lovin’ Fury.™*) I would rather read an honest, creative, passionate blog about kitties than a clanking robot of a blog about a country’s politics written as though for penance.

Also, force-feeding “what’s good for you” to bloggers who love their kitties is like the kind of fantastically unsuccessful top-down “aid” that has been given in places like Africa. GVO has to balance a top-down approach (all the bloggers who’re very familiar with how to blog and what blogging can do sharing) with a bottoms-up approach (I love kitties, damn it and that’s what I want to blog about!).

(*I’m kidding. I love you all very much and I wouldn’t hurt a fly.)

“A surplus of bloggers and shortage of blogees.” How can we direct the national attention to blogs that are consistent, accurate, thoughtful, and useful? (GP)

Man this is a good question. You know what? I don’t have an answer. (Get used to it people!) But I’ll give it some thought.

There are very true life experiencs out there, waiting to be translated. (Shahram Kholdi, Iranian blogger, resident in U.K. who blogs at S’Can-Iranic)

A-freaking-men, brother. Let’s not ever forget our humanity in this discussion. (“Comfort the afflicted and keep them from harm / let the aged be protected and the infants be strong—Go for it!)

The blogosphere has more than just regional blogospheres. (D. ?)

I don’t necessarily think rotating regional bloggers around makes a lot of sense. However, the addition of subject editors might be very useful. The mere fact that there are only regional bloggers implies that GVO is built like the foreign bureau of a news organization. But like any good medium, the blogosphere has info on—say it with me—kitties, and wine and beer and the punky rocky music the kids go all gaga for, and gardening, international trade, transportation, cryptography, charismatic megafauna, meteorology, logistics and Andalucian agronomy. Why not assign editors to find that information and point to it?

There’s a really interesting idea that’s part of this – that a Chinese Global Voices might not just be translations of what’s on the English Global Voices, but also news and tools and discussions specific to the Chinese blogosphere. (EZ)

There is no substitute for figuring it out yourself, for being given the tools and translating something yourself. But people can’t do this for everything. I think a combination of some straight translations and some tools would be optimal. The idea that Pat Hall suggests for a “translate this” tab is great. Machine-translations are sucky, but sometimes you want to know at least the gist of something right now, something you might not take the trouble to come back to. So I’m not sure machine translations should be pitched out, as faulty as they are.

It seems it would make sense for a community to use the model and initiate it themselves and officiate it rather than being all under the Global Voices hosted site. (RM)

Whether it’s the dream of a translation service that works within it or a Global Voices Español; the weight is on your shoulders. We can find ways to collaborate, to cooperate, to give feedback. It’s also an invitation from everybody here to use this as a platform. (EZ)

I wonder how much would happen without the GVO imprimatur? And of those undertakings, how many would find fuel to continue on for an appreciable length? Something to consider. Part of the pay-off for some GVO-allied bloggers may be the international attention and the unspoken stamp of approval. On the other hand, I think you also need to be careful how much you agree to “collaborate, to cooperate.” It may imply a closer relationship than you can actually provide.

Also, b/c the Global Voices blog isn’t interesting to me, recently… it’s full of
reporting, regional reporting they’re important, but not interesting to read.
I’d suggest moving this kind of regular reporting to another part; not the main
part of the page; and only have interesting writing, posts on the page that
would be great. (Hossein Derakhshan, Iranian-Canadian blogger at Editor: Myself)

It seems to me that GVO has done a great job among bloggers. It seems that they are likely to continue to do that job, to add elements and experiments and personnel. But without readers who aren’t involved it will turn into poetry. I mean that it will only be read by the producers. It has to be relevant or useful to people outside the pale in order to truly be that something new we all want it to. An effort should be made to make GVO a part of every child’s healthy breakfast.

Take money from right-wingers provided that you pursue the transparency you’re talking about… I don’t see the problem there; if it’s visible, if it’s disclosed… let people make their own decisions. I don’t agree with them on much, but let’s hear what they want to say. (Dan Gillmor, American blogger at Bayosphere)

There’s a tipping point in an undertaking like this after which the “liberal” label is stuck on for good. I would probably be more likely called a liberal than anything else. But I’m not. I’m independent. If Global Voices condemns one political stripe as unworthy of being listened to, why wouldn’t it find another to dismiss? If the leadership changes will it be all Little Green Footballs all the time? The reductionism that’s plagued American political life for the last years should be denied entry. If that upsets some people, so be it. There are many citizen media organizations expressly designed for people who pop a gasket anytime they’re contradicted. Let people who refuse to dirty themselves with argument or who can’t do so while retaining an elemental human dignity and respect look elsewhere.

***

One thing I forgot to mention, until I was reminded by Rebecca’s post, is that there was relatively little mention made of the threats to bloggers working under repressive regimes. The dangers these bloggers struggle with are real and mounting. Just ask Mojtaba or Omid. As politically sensitive as these matters are, they should be part of the mix. If every blogger associated with GVO were to take an active interest in this aspect of international blogging, it could only help.

Here are a few really interesting ideas that I was turned on to by Rebecca’s and Ethan’s posts:

Lucy Hooberman’s pledge on Pledgebank to “mentor a minimum of two people in the developing world in the area of my skills base and expertise (media, communications, broadcasting, democratic media building, participatory media, community video). ” This is an excellent idea. Please consider signing on.

The Global Voices post-summit brainstorm wiki. For those who think I just made up that phrase, it’s a website we can all edit, about what international blogging should be about, specifically as it relates to the Global Voices experiment.

Farid Pouya’s Blogologue project. Blogologue is “a place where bloggers from different countries communicate and exchange ideas about one or several topics. Probably a first Bloglogue section will be launched on Globalvoices where American bloggers & Iranian bloggers share their ideas about hot topics: Iran nuclear crisis, Democracy in US and so on. If you know American bloggers who are interested about Iran please let me know: faridpouya(at)gmail(dot)com” My fellow Americans, do not quail before Farid, denizen of the axis of evil though he may be. For, lo!, thou shalt open up thy pie hole and let fly!

To quote from one of my favorite movies, “I, for one, am very interested… to see… what’s going to happen next.”

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