Friday, December 29, 2006

The world is listening. Are you talking? Global: Now Spelt Blogal

The world is listening. Are you talking?

Global: Now Spelt Blogal

There’s a radical shift underway in how information is exchanged, says Shivam Vij after a recent international blogger summit

Something really big is starting to happen,” geek extraordinaire Ethan Zuckerman told a meeting of international bloggers at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society in 2004. “What I’m really curious about is whether we’ll find ourselves becoming a movement.” Two years later, that was no longer in question, as Zuckerman’s Global Voices (GV) — co-founded with former cnn correspondent Rebecca McKinnon — held its second annual summit at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre last week. The issue now, as participants agreed, was not whether blogging is a movement, but how they are to take the blogosphere’s trans-continental conversations forward, far enough to dent the mainstream media’s predominantly Western coverage of events. At one point during the conference, Bala Pitchandi from New Jersey asked via webcast what GV’s long-term goals were. “Total world domination,” replied Zuckerman, as laughter lit up the room.

The important role that bloggers could play within and without the newsroom became clear for the first time in 2003, when an architect in Iraq who called himself Salam Pax started blogging the Second Gulf War. Ever since, the international media has often turned to bloggers in conflict zones to bring local perspective to their coverage. For GV, this has been central to its project — prominent bloggers from around the globe are roped in as regional editors who would write posts linking to blogs, explaining the context they were written in, thus making local issues accessible to a global audience. “The nature of conversation in the blogosphere tends to be insular,” says Neha Viswanathan, GV’s South Asia editor. “Bloggers in a country tend to speak only to each other. We add the context to posts and offer them to a global audience.”

The aim is to provide media spaces that bypass State controls to get citizens across the world to speak for themselves
However, GV is more than a bloggers’ community. With free speech at the core of its manifesto, it aims to provide media alternatives that bypass government controls to get citizens across the world to speak for themselves. Contrasted with mainstream media practice, GV’s approach to information sharing, for instance, encourages people to ask why a particular story is not picked up by its editors. When questions were raised, at the summit in Delhi, about biases and information imbalances within GV’s coverage, Trinidadian blogger Georgia Popplewell, a GV co-managing editor, gave the example of a Cuban who wrote in to say GV wasn’t covering his country well. To correct the shortcoming, Popplewell hired that blogger as Cuba editor.

The stories GV covers come overwhelmingly from the developing world, ignoring almost all of Western Europe and North America. (GV has been anxious to not be seen as an American site — which is partly the reason for its registering in the Netherlands.) For journalists, it is a mine of contacts and story ideas; mainstream media too often turns to it for help with on-the-ground reportage. During April’s revolution in Nepal, bbc World picked up GV’s Nepal contributor, Parmendra, for a chat. Israel’s bombing of Lebanon and the Mumbai train blasts were two big events on which GV provided dedicated feeds to Reuters, one of its sponsors. Along with foundations like MacArthur and the Dutch NGO Hivos, Reuters also funds GV because it realises that the proliferation of individual voices on the Internet has influenced the way information is exchanged.

However, despite its democratic emphasis, issues of access persist — in every country, computer usage remains confined to the elite. How do we hear what farmers in India or street kids in Vietnam have to say? Further, while English is the dominant medium on the Web, it is not what most of the world talks in. GV is trying to expand its linguistic frontiers — it already has a Chinese version, and there are a handful of editors who read posts in other languages and discuss them in English. Oddly, however, when the issue came up at the conference, of all the Indians in the room, not one was willing to be a GV Hindi editor.

There was also some brainstorming during the summit on using software like tor to bypass Internet censorship and what GV could do for bloggers who find themselves under government suppression. “In Arabian blogospheres, human rights, free speech and democracy are topics of constant discussion,” says Amira Al Hussaini, Middle East and North Africa editor. “With strong media censorship, online self-publishing becomes an important outlet”.

“The world is talking,” goes GV’s tagline, “Are you listening?” For the innumerable conversations that GV fosters every day, Zuckerman could as well say: the world is listening, are you talking?


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