Rising Voices Director David Sasaki has written a lovely retrospective for Global Voices' fifth birthday. Five years ago this month, David traveled across the United States from California to Harvard for a day-long workshop on global blogging. The workshop - little more than a structured brainstorming session - was called "Global Voices Online." The website you are reading today started out as a blog that Ethan Zuckerman and I set up to organize that workshop. Our aim, put very simply, was to discuss how "to use blogging and blog tools to help people in different countries hold more meaningful and direct conversations with each other." The day's discussion was part of a larger Internet and Society conference put on by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The Open Society Institute generously granted us some funds to fly in bloggers from various parts of the world. We publicized the event on the web, and many others - like David - just showed up. Thank goodness.
Here is an article I wrote soon after the meeting. Here is Ethan's "day after" blog post. We did not emerge with a concrete plan for world domination - or even for a coherent project. Participants agreed to set up a wiki to share information, an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) for further on-line meetings, and an aggregator of blogs by conference participants and others like them who we began to call "bridge bloggers." We weren't sure where we would go from there.
One thing, however, was clear: a critical mass of bloggers with similar values was emerging around the globe. It seemed like a good idea to "connect the dots" (as Jeff Ooi put it) amongst these people and create a platform for this emergent community. In the weeks following the conference, a number of participants used a wiki to articulate this community's shared values. The Global Voices Manifesto was the result. It's worth reproducing in full here because everything Global Voices does today continues to be driven by these fundamental values:
We believe in free speech: in protecting the right to speak — and the right to listen. We believe in universal access to the tools of speech.
To that end, we seek to enable everyone who wants to speak to have the means to speak — and everyone who wants to hear that speech, the means to listen to it.
Thanks to new tools, speech need no longer be controlled by those who own the means of publishing and distribution, or by governments that would restrict thought and communication.
Now, anyone can wield the power of the press. Everyone can tell their stories to the world. We seek to build bridges across the gulfs that divide people, so as to understand each other more fully. We seek to work together more effectively, and act more powerfully.
We believe in the power of direct connection. The bond between individuals from different worlds is personal, political and powerful. We believe conversation across boundaries is essential to a future that is free, fair, prosperous and sustainable - for all citizens of this planet.
While we continue to work and speak as individuals, we also seek to identify and promote our shared interests and goals. We pledge to respect, assist, teach, learn from, and listen to one other.
We are Global Voices.
We now have an amazing multinational team who act as stewards for various parts of Global Voices. But the soul of GV are the hundreds of volunteers who take time out from their jobs, studies, and and family obligations to help build a more open and participatory global public discourse.
The detailed story of how Global Voices evolved and how its various branches operate - including Rising Voices, Global Voices Advocacy, and Global Voices Lingua - can be found in many places, including this website's About section and FAQ. News stories about the project are here. Since 2004 we've had physical gatherings in London (2005), Delhi2006), and Budapest (2008). We are looking forward to another gathering in 2010 (location and date to be announced soon).
In 2006 Ethan and I wrote an article for the Nieman Reports magazine in which we sought to explain the relationship between Global Voices and journalism. David has another excellent post about why outreach, advocacy and translation are necessary to help people overcome the obstacles to speaking, being heard, and listening to others.
Many people around the world are frustrated that the global English-language mainstream media ignores their country much of the time, or only covers the bad things about their country, or tends to stereotype them. They see GV as a valuable platform through which to get their stories and viewpoints amplified to a broader global audience. Others are frustrated that their own domestic news media fail to report on much of the world, do it badly, or do it in a slanted manner that supports their government's worldview, and thus believe that by translating GV content into their local language they can improve their community's understanding of the world. Others focus on helping communities who are not yet taking advantage of new technologies to get their story out. Others have joined in common cause against censorship and repression of those who are merely exercising their universal right to free expression according to Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The GV community has not let itself get bogged down in endless debates about whether bloggers are or aren't journalists, or what the Internet means for the news business. Nor does GV get tangled up in arguments about whether the Internet is or is not going to be a force for global democratization. As a community we're more interested in rolling up our sleeves and getting to work addressing a more tangeable problem: filling a few of the gaping holes in the global public discourse, and doing what we can about the huge imbalances, inequities, and injustices in global media. However you define this work, we believe that what we're doing has value and makes a difference.
We are grateful that a range of organizations have deemed our work to be worthy of their financial support. We have developed relationships with news organizations who follow our work and seek us out because - however you define what we do - our community is a valuable source of global information and fresh perspectives. This is why Reuters provided critical core support in our first three years, and why a many news organizations continue to work with our editors and to contact our volunteers for interviews. While we can't say we've completely transformed global media, we do believe that we've brought global media attention to a range of stories that might otherwise not have been reported, and provided fresh perspectives on numerous other major international news stories. That in itself has made the entire enterprise worthwhile.
What's even more exciting is the way in which Global Voices has impacted the lives of our editors, volunteers, and broader community members. We have become a hub through which an amazing group of talented, articulate, and caring people can find fulfillment, global recognition, and community support. Click here to read about how Rising Voices has brought more diverse voices into national and global conversations, and what that has meant for the individuals and communities involved. To get a sense of how amazing our volunteers are, read and listen to some of the blogger profiles posted here.
GV has also had an impact on various blogging communities around the world with whom we have no formal relationship - other than linking to and translating some of their blog posts from time to time. Just one example: Ethan recently described an eye-opening conversation with a young Kyrgyz blogger, Bektour Iskender about the impact some of our work has had in Central Asia.
What might result from a slightly more democratic, open, and participatory global media environment is not clear. At the 2004 meeting, Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan expressed the hope that the spread of online citizen media would make societies more democratic and war more difficult for governments to justify. "Hoder," as he's known on the Internet, has been imprisoned by Ahmedinejad's regime for over a year now, and it's not clear whether expanded contacts between Iranians and Westerners would be a deciding factor in a U.S. decision about whether or not to attack Iran. Writers like Evgeny Morozov argue that contrary to early optimism about the Internet as a democratizing force, dictatorships are figuring out how to use the Internet to solidify their power and suppress dissent - and that the Internet in many countries is dominated by manipulated spin, disinformation and hate. Others like Clay Shirky and Patrick Meier argue that there is still reason for optimism. Still others point out that most of the world's people have more pressing problems - like physical survival - and all of the above including Global Voices' work is irrelevant to them anyway.
Five years ago Ory Okolloh - who went on to found the wildly successful citizen reporting platform Ushahidi - made some comments that are worth revisiting in the context of those debates. Here's how I reported her words at the time:
Kenyan blogger Ory Okolloh doesn't expect Africa to be transformed by blogging any time soon. Bridging the digital divide is perhaps the least of Africa's many problems. Nonetheless, she thinks blogging is important – if not transformative – for the small number of Africans who do blog. "For young people, we have not been heard, we don't have a space in Africa within politics or in other arenas to express ourselves," Okolloh says. "I think it could provide a forum for young people to create their own space. I don't think it will change politics per se or determine an election but I think it can breed community in ways that have not been able to take place before."
Online citizen media is breeding new forms of community at the local, national, and global level. GV has become a loose connective tissue between Ory's Kenyan blogging community and other bloggers around the world who share similar values.
While Global Voices seeks to influence the stories reported by traditional news media - most of which serve specific nations or regions - we are also building a platform for global discourse, and a community of global citizens around that discourse. We use the Internet not to escape from our humanity, but to assert it. We believe individual choices and actions make a difference. Whether the Internet will ultimately empower more than it enslaves depends on whether we take responsibility for our future and act. Building a multi-cultural, multi-lingual community focused on specific projects underpinned by a core set of humanistic values is just one small effort in that direction.