Gathering Voices to Share With a Worldwide Online Audience
‘Global Voices pulls together interesting threads of conversation and reporting from the global cacophony of blogging voices.’
On Thursday, September 21st, "gnarlykitty" wrote on her blog from Bangkok: "Looks like things are getting back to normal, despite the country being under Martial Law. One new little change that this law brought us is the whole new level of censorship. No political gathering, no discussing politics, and of course no voicing your opinions whatsoever about the whole mumbo jumbo coup. (Oops did I just do that?)"
The next day gnarlykitty decided to check out an anticoup protest she had learned about from another blog—"Just to observe, I swear." Upon returning she posted photos of a mob of what seemed to be several dozen journalists "all over the Guy With Mask and his crew," and she linked to an Associated Press story on the International Herald Tribune Web site with the headline, "More than 100 people in Thai capital protest coup as undemocratic." That story made no mention of there being many times more members of the news media present than protesters. Gnarlykitty let readers draw their conclusions from what she showed them.
This 20-year-old college student describes herself as being a "shopaholic, mobile phone dependent," among other things. Her audience usually consists of people who know her—though not all live in Thailand—and she tends to write about gadgets she covets, videos of bands she likes, accounts of nights out clubbing in Bangkok, and complaints about school. But on September 19th, 2006, when the Thai military staged a coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, gnarlykitty became one of several English-language blogs providing firsthand accounts—in nearly real time—of what it feels like to live through a military coup.
Bloggers throughout the world discovered gnarlykitty's words through blogs linked to friends, who linked to others, and who linked to her in a viral spread of links. Those who wanted to learn more about Bangkok's situation that day found her blog through search engines. Soon journalists were quoting her posts and asking her to get more information.
Being an Eyewitness Blogger
Contrary to the fears of some news editors, most bloggers don't set out to challenge news organizations for mass audiences. Most are like gnarlykitty: people who write (or post photos, video or audio) online to share their lives and interests with friends and family. Many others, including us, use personal blogs to share ideas and brainstorm with circles of colleagues and peers who are interested in similar subjects or issues—topics that tend not to be a focus of mainstream media stories.
Bloggers with small readerships occasionally find themselves in the midst of an event of great interest to millions—a tsunami, hurricane, coup or war. Or "niche bloggers," who are experts on topics such as constitutional law, computer typeface (as happened during the CBS "Rathergate" blog storm), seismology or avian flu that suddenly emerge as being important to large numbers of people, might start reaching an international audience of hundreds of thousands. What happens next can be interesting to observe.
With gnarlykitty's blog, her site's sudden spike in traffic brought her many new readers who held different expectations than her usual audience. Yet she refused to change her chatty style or her pink-themed background. Feeling pressure to be something she didn't want to be, five days after writing her first words about the coup, she found it necessary to "clarify some stuff":
"... I am no expert at the subject (Coup, or politics in general). I don't even know how to use some of the terms to identify those 'officials' in Thai or even in English. But the reason why I am blogging about this is that it is the least I can do to help report what is really going on while other channels of communications are altered, tampered, or even stopped. Over here in Thailand, to tell you the truth, there really isn't much going around because all sources are monitored, some censored, by this new Martial Law.
"So I apologise [sic] if I cannot fully answer your questions about the Coup, or have a more 'professional' looking blog. I know people are coming here from all sorts of directions and I thank you all so much for linking but I'm just a girl who's trying to graduate so she can get out of this big mess of a country, or at least get out there to help try to improve it."
Apart from these accidental mass-audience bloggers, there are now tens of thousands of "bridge bloggers," who blog routinely about events happening around them for a broad global audience. Perhaps the first bridge blogger discovered by the news media was a young Iraqi architect using the pen name "Salam Pax," who offered powerful firsthand, "nonprofessional" accounts in English of living through the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Today, voices in the thriving blogospheres of Cambodia, Kenya, Jordan and China (to name just a few) engage with and, at times, challenge the reporting coming from wire services and foreign correspondents; these bloggers also serve as alternative voices to the customary news media coverage in these nations.
Mahmood Al-Yousif, an engineer living in Bahrain, wrote a biting (often bordering on sarcastic) analysis on his blog (Mahmood's Den) about his country's parliamentary elections in November. Details on his blog were not available in the English-language Western press, and the frankness of his analysis was in stark contrast to the tone of Bahrain's official English-language news sources. He earns no money from his blog, yet his words allow him to participate in his region's political discourse, and they create a necessary bridge between East and West. As he tells readers who come to his blog, "Now I try to dispel the image that Muslims and Arabs suffer from—mostly by our own doing I have to say—in the rest of the world."
The Role of Global Voices
For journalists, blogs are tempting sources of good information. But it can be challenging to try to find those with reliable information about news events, the political climate or social issues, especially when a story breaks. Even at less demanding moments, reporters wonder how to find time to track hundreds of relevant blogs.
Global Voices pulls together interesting threads of conversation and reporting from the global cacophony of blogging voices. It provides a handy daily guide to online words, images, video and audio selected from various "citizen media" (primarily blogs) whose home is outside of North America and Western Europe. Our nonprofit project is hosted by Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and this year won Knight-Batten's Innovations in Journalism award.
The Web site evolved organically in the wake of a modest gathering of bridge bloggers from various parts of the world—Kenya, China, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Malaysia, Latvia and elsewhere—in December 2004. Our team of 10 part-time blogger-editors—hired because each is a respected blogger in his/her regional "blogosphere"—selects interesting and pertinent blog posts. They also oversee the work of about 60 bloggers, all volunteers to this project, who contribute lengthier posts about what bloggers in their countries are buzzing about. Seven multilingual bloggers translate content from blogs written in Chinese, Arabic, Persian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian into English.
Every post published at Global Voices, an "edited aggregator" of blog content, is tagged with labels identifying the country and topic. This allows visitors to the site to easily locate what they are looking for. What bloggers post is published by us under a Creative Commons license, and we encourage other blogs and Web sites to republish it as long as they link back to Global Voices and also credit the original source. Sharing our content as widely as possible is consistent with our mission, which is to get developing world voices heard by as many in the developed world as possible.[See referred article for Global Voices Manifesto.]
We do this work because we don't believe enough people in the West—especially in the Western media—make enough effort to listen to or report on developing world perspectives. On a given day, CNN.com is 12 times as likely to have a story from Japan as it does from Nigeria, even though the countries have similar-sized populations. With the closure of overseas news bureaus, the vast majority of developing world coverage comes from nations where Western powers are militarily entangled. Developing nations not in conflict—specifically not in conflict with the U.S. or European countries—see little or no media attention unless they're affected by natural disaster.
While Global Voices aims to redress news media imbalances, our community of bloggers is not seeking to supplant the mainstream media. We think this site can help journalists to forge new synergies between their reporting of events and conversations taking place on the Web. It is with this intent that the global news agency, Reuters, has become a key Global Voices funder. Breaking news coverage on Reuters.com increasingly includes a special section on the Web page inviting readers to "see what bloggers are saying" about what Reuters journalists are covering.
As Global Voices evolves, we see in the global blogosphere the emergence of a new kind of media ecosystem, in which journalists, bloggers and creators of online citizen media increasingly coexist in beneficial and complementary ways. The Internet changed something fundamental about the way people can learn about events and people who live on the other side of the world. In the past, a businesswoman in Boise, Idaho depended on journalists to tell her what her counterparts in Kenya might be thinking about. So when reporters couldn't be bothered to interview professional Kenyan women, she might not ever discover that women white-collar professionals exist even in Kenya. Now a Kenyan lawyer, such as Ory Okolloh (a.k.a. the "Kenyan Pundit"), speaks directly via inexpensive, easy-to-use blogging software, as the Internet spreads rapidly into the developing world.
This should not be viewed as a bloggers vs. journalists' zero-sum game. Both can win when we keep the goal in mind—of increasing access to international journalism. When journalism, in whatever venue it is practiced, serves the public discourse well, it does so by offering people what they need to make informed choices. Bridge bloggers such as Okolloh, Al-Yousif, and gnarlykitty contribute by offering valuable perspectives of those who live in the midst of events that journalists tend to report about—or should be reporting about. An important question for journalists to consider in this new digital era is whether and how they can improve the job they do by listening more closely as people speak out of their experiences, with each other and to the global community. It just might be time for journalists to incorporate these new global voices into their storytelling.
Rebecca MacKinnon and Ethan Zuckerman are cofounders of Global Voices and are research fellows at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Zuckerman focuses on information technology in the developing world. He is cofounder of Geekcorps, a global technology volunteer corps. MacKinnon is a former CNN bureau chief in Beijing and Tokyo who has spent the past two years examining how blogs and citizen media are changing journalism. In January she will join the journalism faculty at the University of Hong Kong.