As the Global Voices team held our second annual summit in Delhi this weekend, TIME magazine dedicated its "person of the year" to YOU: people around the world who are taking media creation into their own hands.
(Photo by Jace. Click to enlarge.)
The TIME article praises the individual "for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game," etc. The article concludes: "This is an opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician, great man to great man, but citizen to citizen, person to person."
That, in a nutshell, is exactly what Global Voices is all about.
The problem is that the "new kind of international understanding" that TIME describes, a world of true "citizen to citizen" communication, remains a still-distant dream. The reality is that Web2.0 - and the potential for empowerment that it represents - remains largely inaccessible to large numbers of people on the planet, and is not being accessed by many more, for many reasons.
(Photo by Georgia. Click to enlarge.)
How do we help more people become creators of their own media? What kind of outreach can Web 2.0-savvy citizens provide to the still-uninitiated? How do we bridge massive and endless barriers of language and culture? Are the technical tools accessible enough to the next billion Internet users, or are we in need of new solutions better suited to the developing world? And how about people who are being prevented from speaking - or being heard - by governments, corporations, and other powerful entities? These were exactly the questions we tackled during our public meeting on Saturday.
My key takeaways from the day's discussion:
- Global Voices right now is in English (translating what content it can from blogs in Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Spanish, Portugese, French, and Russian) but it needs to be in many other languages. Right now there is a volunteer-driven effort to translate GV into Chinese. Many people in our community feel strongly that much more translation needs to happen, and it appears that at least for some of the languages there is a great deal of enthusiasm. The challenge now is for people to take the lead in building new translation teams to make this happen.
- Outreach can't be one-size-fits-all and must fit local needs. we had much to learn from some of the Indian attendees who described a number of very successful citizen media outreach projects in India. One in particular was Cybermohalla, in which slum dwellers reported on the demolition of their own community in order to make way for a public works project. There was some discussion about who ought to be doing outreach to whom - and much agreement that we are not talking about putting Western bloggers on planes to teach people in the Third World how to blog. Rather, in most cases it's about bloggers and media activists in the developing world reaching out to their less privileged countrymen. People agreed that outreach techniques and tactics will vary widely from country to country and community to community - and the more local the teachers, the more likely they will understand the needs of the people being taught. There was also a great deal of discussion about children as the focus of technology and citizen media outreach - the idea being that it is young people who will take most naturally to the idea of using technology for self-expression. (There was of course much interest in the One Laptop prototype that SJ Klein brought to the meeting.)
- Teaching people how to blog or create media isn't enough, as Salam Adil explained in the fourth technology session. People need to be able to speak and be heard without fear of reprisal if their thoughts aren't in line with their government's. They need tools to get around censorship - both in terms of expressing themselves and in accessing the works of others. There is also the issue that many people in many countries aren't aware of what their governments are actually doing to limit speech or access to information on the Internet, and thus even in many democracies, there isn't enough public pressure on governments to be as open as possible. Global Voices is about to launch an advocacy arm, thanks to some funding from the Dutch development organization, Hivos, which will enable members of our community to work directly on these issues.
Be sure to read Nathan Hamm's summary of our introductory Session 1, Ethan Zuckerman's account of Session 3 on translation, and Sameer Padania's summary of Session 4 on tools and technology. A summary of Session 2, focusing on outreach, should be coming soon. There is also a conference blog put together by Ange, one of our community members participating remotely from Dubai.
Sunday's meeting was a closed-door session for Global Voices editors and authors only. We rolled up our sleeves and discussed how Global Voices authors and editors can do an even better job at amplifying citizen voices from around the world. We are working on a major re-design of the site to make it more user-friendly (and less overwhelming); we are also developing a new public aggregator of all the blogs that our editors and authors watch in order to compile their daily links and features. As we realized last year, GV is not just a media site but a conversation community. Many of our authors and editors discussed strategies for community building: specifically, how to support communities in their own countries, regions, and language groupings comprised of people who want to communicate with a broader global community of conversation.
People are taking initiative to carry out ideas that we could never have imagined just a year ago. We've always known that the individuals who work on GV are talented, passionate, creative, and articulate, but spending two days with this diverse collection of characters was humbling. As co-founders, Ethan and I were excited to see that authors and editors have taken real ownership for the project, enabling the two of us to step aside when it comes to leading Global Voices and representing it to the public. We are very happily receding into backstage supporting roles: fundraising and doing the legal groundwork to transform Global Voices from a project under Harvard's Berkman Center to an independent non-profit organization.
This weekend's meeting also drove home the importance of face-to-face meetings even for a virtual organization like Global Voices. The Web has helped us find one another and has enabled us to work together in ways that would otherwise be completely impossible. But for the people who are devoting many hours every week to curating the global conversation on Global Voices, there is nothing like sitting down over curry and beers for building trust, camaraderie, commitment, and a feeling of shared ownership of the project.
People who are not very familiar with what we do often make snyde remarks about how strange it is that bloggers find it necessary to meet in physical space - as if the need for face-to-face meeting somehow proves the limitations or inadequacies of what we do. These remarks completely miss the point, of course. Global Voices may be a virtual organization with no physical headquarters (and no plans to create one), but what we do is ultimately about building understanding - and ideally dialogue - between real flesh-and-blood human beings and physical human communities.
We are not just generating chatter amongst avatars and usernames and online personas. We are not creating an alternative universe or online cyber-utopia into which our members escape from the realities of our daily lives and the problems within and between our countries. We are using the Internet's virtual space - and the creation of online citizens' media - as a means to a very physical end. The Web connects the physical human beings at the ends of it who are using it as a channel to express themselves and reach out to one another. When we as individuals can all create our own media, not only do we find each other and organize more easily around common causes. By taking control of our own narratives, our own stories, we gain greater control over how others perceive and define us. This in turn will make it more difficult (we believe) for outsiders to impose unwelcome, unsuitable, unjust or violent policies upon us - all of which are made much easier when mass media is used to stereotype, pigeonhole, and dehumanize us.
We use the Web not to escape our humanity, but to assert it.