Photo by Neha Viswanathan: A small subset of the Global Voices bloggers who met in Budapest.
(Apologies in advance for the length of this post. I've decided to subject my readers to this even-longer-than-usual "brain dump" because at least a few people out there are interested in some of the ideas related to global participatory media, and I'd like feed back on some of the outstanding questions faced by Global Voices.)
At the end of last week's Global Voices Summit, one of our Middle Eastern bloggers came up to me and said: "nationalism is dead for me now." He said that ten years ago he was a strong nationalist. Being a blogger and debating issues with other people online over the past few years has greatly weakened that feeling. Now after four days hanging out with bloggers from all over the world, nationalism makes no sense to him any more.
(For full accounts of the summit, see David Sasaki's excellent overview, Ethan Z's great series of posts, our media digest, the summit blog, technorati, google blog search, Rezwan's excellent roundup of summit bloggers, etc.)
The blogger's rejection of nationalism (I'm not going to name him because he is sensitive about how he has been portrayed in the past), and the role GV seems to have played in his change of thinking, brings me to Joi Ito's post-summit blog post. Joi is now on the GV Board and has been involved since the very beginning - when it was just a meeting of bloggers. He writes:
Global Voices is a super-important part in fixing what I call the "caring problem". There is a systemic bias against reporting international news in most developed nations. When pressed, many editors will say that people just don't want to read articles about other parts of the world. This is because most people don't care. They don't care because they don't hear the voices or know people in other countries. I think that by providing voices to all over the world, we have the ability to connect people and get people to care more.
I also believe that voice is probably more important than votes or guns. I believe that combating extremism is most effectively done by winning the argument in public, not by censorship, elections or destruction. I believe that providing everyone with a voice to participate in the global dialog is key. The ability to communication and connect without permission or fear of retribution is a pillar of open society in the 21st Century. Global Voices is the best example of this that I know of.
...The Internet, and the information society, the global network of social nodes and connections, is becoming more complex. This complexity adds to diversity and balance. Most people, most of the time, in most places are nonviolent. Social extremes are by definition minorities. Global Voices are more informed and moderate. Giving a voice to these Global Voices online is likely to diminish the impact of extremists. How do we find these voices in the symphony of the superhighway? We need to make quanta of information more indexable and more searchable. Tag, tag, tag away. Only then will locality, diversity, opportunity be made more visible....
So how did we get to the point that people are saying such things about GV - things we never imagined when we started the project - and where might we go from here? As this article that I wrote jointly with Ethan Zuckerman back in 2006 tries to explain, GV arose as an attempt to address badly skewed global information flows in which the voices of people from North America and Western Europe are disproportionately amplified in the global media. But now here's the problem: the skewed flows aren't just happening on a global scale, there are imbalances within countries, regions, and communities. So the question is: what is the best way to achieve a global media environment where everybody has the ability to speak and be heard? And is there also a way for people to find authenticity, relevance, and quality amidst the cacophony of cat-blogging and hidden agendas?
By having a tiered system of expert blogger-editors and translators who curate what they find to be globally relevant and authentic from their regions, we've made a decent but imperfect stab at the second question, although I think we need to revisit our systems in the future and find ways to improve them, funds and people permitting. This year's discussions in Budapest focused largely on the first question: equity of "voice" within national borders as well as across borders. At several points during both the public conference and the internal community meetings, people talked about the importance of amplifying minority, non-elite, disadvantaged and dissenting voices alongside "representative" or "typical" voices from various countries. Simultaneously, there's also the problem of "silent majorities" who tend to spend less time seeking media interviews, demonstrating in public, and doing things that headlines than people who tend to be on the more atypical extremes of any given country's political spectrum. These attention deficits lead not only to imbalance in media coverage, but also create social pressures that lead to self-censorship: people think, think "why should I stick my neck out and risk getting in trouble for an issue few people in my country really care about or agree with?"
It's not just mainstream media that presents a skewed and un-representative picture to the world; it turns out that blogospheres, at least as they have naturally evolved so far, are amplifiers for the voices and views of educated, wired elites. As David Sasaki, who runs Rising Voices, Global Voices' outreach arm, writes: "As incredibly diverse as the global blogosphere is, the 'blogger demographic' tends to [be] very homogenous. From Tanzania to Tasmania, most bloggers live in the wealthy neighborhoods of urban centers, most are well educated, and most belong to the majority groups of their countries."
Whose voice - and whose life - gets to represent a particular nationality, ethnic group, or community, is a problem that both Ethan Z, who co-founded GV with me, and web philosopher David Weinberger have been writing about over the past few days. Media reporting about any given issue tends to rely on a few colorful examples, chosen for their interestingness, the willingness of the subjects to talk to the media, and their ability to speak articulately Weinberger points out that extrapolating reality from a few examples results in what he calls "The Fallacy of Examples."
As Ethan points out, "it’s lots easier to write about extreme examples rather than median ones." He cites Clay Shirky's excellent new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations - which I happened to read on the plane en route to Budapest. Shirky analyzes the way in which online communities tend to follow a "power law." Ethan describes the phenomenon: "If you attempt to generalize about the group as a whole from the most prolific participants, you’re going to misunderstand what’s going on."
There are many factors contributing to who gets to the top of the power curve, starting with who even tries to speak, who succeeds in speaking, and who is silenced. The digital divide - access to affordable internet and mobile communications - is only one small part of it. Many people are so accustomed to being ignored, it doesn't occur to them that creating their own media would produce any useful result. They worry about bringing trouble on their families by calling socially unacceptable attention to themselves. In Budapest, we agreed that Global Voices has an important role to play - and some believe a responsibility - in supporting people who have stories to tell but who are isolated for various reasons. When local authority figures (or their parents and spouses) discourage them from speaking, they can be encouraged by the fact that people around the world are indeed linking to them - and that if something happens to them, questions will be asked.
Censorship and threat of imprisonment also skew the conversation: if certain kinds of views are silenced - or driven to quiet largely-unnoticed pockets of their online communities - then it becomes hard to tell whether the loudest and most predominant voices really represent the majority view of a particular community if the censorship and threat of retribution had not been imposed on its people. There was some discussion in Budapest about to what extent our regional editors and bloggers who represent certain countries have an obligation to amplify "representative" or "mainstream" views and to what extent they should be amplifying minority and "dissident" voices. It's a tough balancing act, and no matter what you do, you get criticized by people who think you're misrepresenting their country or community.
Perhaps the biggest unresolved problem on Global Voices is how to be truly fair to everybody - to minorities as well as majorities, while not appearing to take sides in various people's independence struggles. Now here's the background: Our editorial structure is based Wikipedia's list of countries - a list maintained by a very active community who fight fiercely about any addition or subtraction. It generally serves us well - or better than any of the alternatives seemed likely to do - but it's impossible to please everybody, and there are people who regularly trash GV for this choice. Our ideal goal (far from being realized) is to have a contributor from all of those countries except North America and Western Europe. This stems from a decision at the beginning that if we started out including those two regions, GV could get dominated by those bloggers who have other global platforms anyway. Our priority was to create a platform for people who have a harder time getting their voices heard. At any rate, the countries that we do cover are then divided up into regions, each managed by a "regional editor". We also have a number of language editors who post summaries and excerpts of translated content from non-English blogs into English on the main site. What languages we translate onto the main site is primarily a function of funding and volunteer interest. (Meanwhile, as Ethan described in this post, a family of websites have sprung up on which volunteers translate GV's English content into various languages.)
One of the questions debated most heatedly in Budapest (though politely and respectfully after several days of eating and drinking together and sharing hotel rooms) was this: Should GV include blogs from North America and Western Europe, especially those from minority communities whose voices are not well heard in their own national medias let alone the global media? Does it make sense to be covering Macedonia but not Greece? And the corollaries: Does our system of organizing the world - and thus people's identities - largely according to their U.N.-recognized nationality help or hinder the idea that people from anywhere on the planet should be able to have a voice and be heard? But if we don't organize ourselves according to the nation-state framework, and on top of that a regional hierarchy of editors, how do we organize our website without descending into chaos - or turning into a platform for the world's independence groups? On the other hand, there have been strong disagreements in the past year or so amongst contributors and editors over whether we should have separate categories and/or contributors for "Tibet" and "Chechnya" (to give just two examples of many others) - and if by failing to do so we are failing to adequately represent online voices from those places, and thus in effect discriminating against those minorities? It was fascinating to see who came down on what side of these questions - and it was not split along regional, ethnic, or socio-economic lines at all, people from all continents came down on both sides of these questions, to varying degrees. One observer of our community who I spoke to after the meeting suggested creating a "shadow" or "parallel" website in which we try organizing ourselves according to some other criteria than nation-state and see what happens. It's an interesting idea. I'd be interested in hearing more ideas and opinions from readers of GV as well as contributors and community members. Can GV come up with an innovative and equitable way to organize a global citizen media website without using the nation-state as its organizing principle?
...which brings me back to Shirky's book. Another point he makes which I agree with is that "communications tools don't get socially interesting until they get technologically boring." Activities like blogging, podcasting, and uploading videos to YouTube-like websites are no longer considered technically innovative by the Silicon Valley set. But these tools are only just starting to be used by indigenous Bolivians, barrio kids in Medelin, Colombia, young people in Madagascar, kids in Kolkata's red light district, etc. Only after digital citizen media tools become commonplace in such communities will the most interesting social innovation really start to happen on a global scale. What excites me is that people who work on Global Voices are perhaps uniquely positioned to understand what's going on - as well as play a part in it. One thing that's clear from the GV experience so far is that people have multiple identities: many bloggers chafe at being pigeonholed in accordance with one accident of birth above all others. At the same time, others - especially bloggers from countries that gained independence in the past decade or so - are extremely proud of their national identity and proud to have the opportunity to promote that identity on a site like GV. Others come from minority groups seeking independence. How best to build a collaborative citizen media community among people who define their identities - and identities of others - very differently? What - beyond an interesting website - might result from such an attempt? Is it possible to build a global citizen media community with a post-nationalist identity?
Shirky also talks about how systems of collaborative production - like Wikipedia, for example - are not organizationally flat. A very small percentage of Wikipedians do the bulk of the work. There are also community "enforcement" systems in place in order to prevent this open platform from being completely destroyed and overrun by a few ill-intentioned individuals. At the same time, these systems and structures - "rules" if you like - were not driven by a central management team in the way that the president and publisher of a news organization would decide (largely top-down, in my experience) and enforce (journalists' fear of being fired or laid off in the next round of cutbacks) how things should be run and what the editorial policies should be. If you ask Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales whether he had a plan for "solving" the many problems of vandalism and self-promotion Wikipedia faces, he says he didn't - the core community of Wikipedia's most passionate and active volunteers came up with solutions and developed the "management" and "enforcement" structures around them. Likewise, I'm quite positive that Ethan, myself, and GV's core management team are not going to come up with answers and solutions to the questions and problems I brought up in the previous paragraph. The solutions are going to have to be generated by the community, somehow, if enough of them even want to solve these problems or can achieve some sort of consensus. Who knows if that will ever be possible.
...which brings me to another book: Jonathan Zittrain's The Future of the Internet, And How to Stop It. JZ (as he is known at the Berkman Center) is concerned about the Internet's potential loss of "generativity:" the ability of PC users at the edges of the Internet to innovate - develop software applications and all kinds of media platforms - without coordinating with some central authority, whether it be a computer or device manufacturer or whoever controls the Internet connections between devices. Increasingly, people are connecting to the Internet with what he calls "tethered devices" that are not generative: they don't allow the user to create new applications or media without working directly with the manufacturer, or at very least using the manufacturers designated and/or proprietary systems. A PC is generative while iPods, TiVo's, Wii's, etc., are not. There are some good reasons - security and user simplicity primarily - why these devices are tethered, not generative. But Zittrain warns that as the Internet becomes less and less generative, innovation and freedom of speech will suffer.
Reading the book on my way back from the GV summit I wondered: if the Internet becomes less generative just as growing numbers of people in the developing world are connecting to it, what does that mean? Will indigenous people in Bolivia and teenagers in Malawi be deprived of the chance to shape the future of global communications to the same extent that college kids in California and Finland were able to do? If this is a real concern (which I think it is, the more I think about it), what do we do to make sure that generativity is preserved in the next generation of Internet-connected devices (largely mobile phones and set-top boxes, most likely)? At least for enough of those devices that people in the developing world will have the chance to innovate and shape communications technologies to their own community needs to the extent that Westerners have shaped technology to theirs?
Zittrain also talked a bit about generativity as an organizing principle, with Wikipedia once again as the prime example. This got me thinking about Global Voices and the extent to which GV is also a generative organization. Traditional news organizations are non-generative for the most part: changes in the way things are done generally are not due to initiative taken by reporters in far-flung bureaus: you can suggest changes but the policy decisions have to be made at the center then implemented downward - and substantial reforms happen very slowly, usually with great organizational resistance. GV is I think probably less generative than Wikipedia the way it's currently run, but still a lot more generative than a traditional news organization. Rising Voices, Global Voices Advocacy, and especially Lingua all arose from activities that bloggers in our networks saw the need for and were taking it upon themselves to do, long before GV created formal platforms for these activities. Since we are a largely volunteer-driven organization with only a couple full-time staffers, a couple dozen part-timers who are really working for love more than money and a couple hundred volunteers, we can't make any major policy decision about structure or funding without first gaining consensus from the community. One might argue that this slows down executive decision-making, but on the other hand, if our community doesn't agree with a decision they'll stop contributing and GV will cease to exist anyway - like Wikipedia our volunteers are not tied to us by salary and employment contracts. But is GV generative enough? Are we enabling enough innovation at the edges and are we enabling new ideas that come from far-flung volunteers to get support and be implemented if the community agrees that they're worth implementing? I don't know the answer. I hope some of our editors and volunteers will let me know what they think.
Footnote: To be clear, I take zero credit for the success of the Budapest summit, as I had very little to do with the planning other than a bit of fundraising and a bit of brainstorming early on. Most of the credit goes to Georgia Popplewell, Sami Ben Gharbia, Solana Larsen, and David Sasaki, not only for the awe-inspiring public program, and an advocacy workshop before the public summit, but also for two days of "internal" brainstorming meetings for people who contribute directly to the various GV projects. The meetings were so energetic that even cynics lost some of their cynicism. But the real magic came from all of our community members, just by being there and being themselves. It's not hard to have a great meeting when you bring together some of the most articulate people from around the planet who are generally not on the conference circuit, and thus have new things to say and brand new perspectives that you've never heard before!