I had a fabulous time this weekend with my new friends from the Taiwanese blogosphere. Special thanks to Ching Chiao (seated far right in the picture above), the main instigator-organizer who invited me, and to the China Times which sponsored my plane ticket and hotel. (One of their blogging journalists has already written me up in Chinese here.) I was especially excited to meet Portnoy Zheng, who has been faithfully posting Chinese translations of Global Voices posts on his blog since last summer. Portnoy you are awesome. It was great to meet many of the other major Taiwanese A-listers, as well as the people who run Taiwan's major blog-hosting services like Wretch.cc and Yam.com. It was also fabulous to finally meet Gen Kanai, formerly of Technorati in Japan, now representing the Mozilla Corporation. We had some interesting conversations about the need for regional ping-servers and other ways for members of the Chinese blogosphere to find each other better, as I discussed in this post on Saturday.
I gave a talk about why I left CNN to blog, about Global Voices Online and the global blogging phenomenon, about the growing but fairly separate Chinese language blogospheres (Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), censorship next door the People's Republic, etc.
A major emphasis of my talk was that when blogospheres grow organically, most of them tend to be fairly inward looking (with the Middle East as the major exception, and Africa to some extent also). As Hoder likes to say, blogs can be cafes, they can be windows, and they can be bridges. By my observation, most blogospheres fairly naturally develop into cafes, in which community members who know each other talk amongst themselves. To blog in a way that opens a "window" into your country/region for outsiders to understand takes more effort. "Bridges" rarely ever grow organically - they have to be built through concerted, usually difficult effort. Just like bridges in real life, you rarely make money off them - at least not directly - even though they provide an important service to society by which everybody's life is improved.
(photo courtesy Vista)
Right now, Taiwan's blogosphere is mainly a cafe. Given how little media attention Taiwan tends to get in the international press (and what they do get is either economic news or about Taiwan's relationship with mainland China), Taiwanese bloggers can potentially play an important role in opening a window for outsiders to understand the island better. So far they have not really played this role. Likewise, Taiwanese blogs have for the most part not made much effort to form conversational bridges with bloggers elsewhere. There is very little linking even to the other Chinese language blogospheres - Hong Kong and mainland China - and very little conversation taking place between Taiwanese and mainland Chinese bloggers. Of course, a major barrier to conversation is the Great Firewall of China: Chinese users are blocked from accessing Taiwanese blogs unless they are geeky enough to know how to use proxy servers. But I strongly urged Taiwan's bloggers to link to mainland bloggers anyway. In my experience, if you link to a Chinese bloggers they will go to a great deal more effort to access your site and engage with you - even if your site is blocked on Chinese ISP's. If you aren't paying them any attention or making any effort to engage with them, they're not going to go to the considerable effort to engage with you either.
The Internet was supposed to be borderless, but when it comes to mainland China and Taiwan, people here admit that the gulf in cyberspace feels nearly as great as the physical gulf across the Taiwan Straits. The situation is only going to get worse unless people make concerted efforts... efforts which may or may not be helpful when it comes to things like trying to make money with your blog or achieving local fame. But I argued that people in Taiwan have a major security interest in engaging mainland Chinese online, despite the difficulties. Right now Chinese internet users have very little exposure to the views of ordinary Taiwanese - many of whom aren't exactly in agreement with Taiwan's current President, the man that China's leadership loves to hate. Lack of nuanced understanding of human beings on the other side of the Taiwan straits will make it easier for the Chinese government to manipulate the Chinese public in the event that military tensions were to escalate. With some effort, Taiwan's bloggers could do more to improve that understanding. It won't be easy at all, but given the stakes, it might be worth trying a little harder.
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