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Global voices: blogging the world

About the author
Becky Hogge is a freelance writer and broadcaster. She is the former executive director of the Open Rights Group, a London-based campaigning organisation that fights for civil and consumer rights in the digital age. She was previously the managing editor, and then technology director, of openDemocracy.net. She blogs here, and co-presents acclaimed London radio show Little Atoms. Her first book, Barefoot into Cyberspace, was published in summer 2011

Christmas came early for Joshua Schachter this year. On Friday 9 December his web-based social bookmarking tool, del.icio.us, which lets users share their favourite links with each other using a tag-based system, “joined the Yahoo! family” for an undisclosed sum.

The deal closes a good year for the internet. In March, Yahoo! purchased Flickr, a photo-sharing website also based on tags; in September, eBay bought Skype, the internet telephony company. With web giants Google and Amazon also continuing to pour money into research and development, it’s clear that the second dotcom boom is upon us.

There have been ripples in the corporate world on the east side of the pond too. Wanadoo, Europe’s most successful internet service provider, is preparing to align its brand with its sister mobile telephone company Orange in 2006. British Telecom, mindful of the disruption on the horizon represented by internet telephony, has been busily developing its media and tech development arms, hiring whole office-fulls of ex-television executives and hackers at one time. British television company ITV has bought Friends Reunited (no, I don’t know why, either) and the British Broadcasting Corporation continues to prepare for the eventual demise of television with its interactive media player, the IMP.

Also by Becky Hogge, managing editor of openDemocracy:

“Patents for profit: dystopian visions of the new economy” (March 2005)

“Democracy and dissent at the World Intellectual Property Organisation” (April 2005)

“The great firewall of China” (May 2005)

“Mozilla’s ‘magic pixie dust’” (with Hamza Khan-Cheema, September 2005)

“Open source nation” (interview with Geoff Mulgan, September 2005)

“Why the WSIS? Democracy and cyberspace” (November 2005)

“The online public finds its voice” (November 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

The listening art

With all this cash slushing about it seems only fitting that the Global Voices conference on 10 December 2005 should have been held in London’s Canary Wharf. A swooping gesture towards corporate aspiration, the twenty-year-old business district contains the UK’s tallest building, 1 Canada Square, whose straight tower and glass pyramid roof has more than a whiff of the Franco about it. Walking through it (or indeed, taking the DLR monorail) is like being transported into a world where global free-market capitalism got to paint on a blank canvas.

The Global Voices project, started a year ago on modest seed capital by Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, couldn’t be more of a contrast. In late 2004, MacKinnon and Zuckerman realised that although American weblogs were talking to one another and gaining lots of exposure in the mainstream press, blogs from the rest of the world needed a bigger audience. Their central mission, beyond supporting the right of people to speak and speak freely, became promoting the importance of listening.

The result is a website which aggregates posts from weblogs around the world. The homepage of the Global Voices site is dominated by a cloud of tags listing countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Clicking on each one brings you the news from the blogosphere, with options to visit other blog summaries in the region. The site, originally maintained by Zuckerman and MacKinnon, now has a team of six regional editors. It is supplemented by a wiki running through the centre of the page, where readers can suggest other regional blogs worth monitoring.

The project has grown at an enormous pace. The site received a total of 800 visits in its first four weeks. Now 300,000 individual people check the site each month. On an average day, Global Voices gets 12,000 readers, many from the mainstream press, which uses the stories as its own personal and international news desk.

The modest origins and bottom-up character of the project make it revealing that the London conference is being hosted in the vast white marble Reuters building on the edge of Canada Square. Many of the bloggers have been flown from their respective parts of the world at Reuters’ expense, thanks to a new partnership between the grassroots blogging tool and the world’s most recognisable newswire. The result is vibrancy tempered by doubt: as bloggers from Kuala Lumpur, Tel Aviv, Amman, Beijing and Kingston sit down to coffee and cakes together, a series of questions pops up – now we’ve got so big, will we screw it up? Do we need to start behaving like journalists? Where do we go next?

On hand to help are professional journalists, not only from Reuters, but also from the BBC, as well as “citizen media” expert Dan Gillmor. Ethan and Rebecca act as conference Oprahs, weaving their way through the audience, mic in hand, picking out contributors and reinforcing contributions with their own thoughts on the way between one speaker and the next.

The information being generated from the conference is immense. An audio stream is beamed out to those who could not make the show in person. They in turn populate an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel, monitored by one of the conference attendees, who gives a periodic summary of the remote debate taking place. The meeting is both transcribed and compressed, live on screen, into a set of notes. Meanwhile bloggers weave through the audience taking snapshots, which are immediately uploaded onto a Flickr photo pool to share with the group. On more than one occasion the wireless network cracks under the strain of all the information flowing through it.

The format reflects perfectly why Global Voices has been such a success. These people clearly know how to handle data, and have harnessed the wealth of information generated by weblogs around the world to great effect, much like del.icio.us harnessed the wealth of people bookmarking links on the net, and Flickr captured the trend for sharing photos online.

The personal and the political

But opinions (as expressed in blogs) are not links or photos, and one gets the impression that the friendly, armchair style employed by the hosts has enabled the project to cope with such diversity for this long. One session asks how to nurture the blogospheres of countries that have come late to the web. The answer? Be encouraging; be nice.

What doesn’t get discussed is also revealing. On a weekend when the World Trade Organisation is preparing to meet in Hong Kong, the United Nations is hosting a conference on climate change in Montreal, and the “war on terror” is blowing up in the face of the United States and British administrations, political issues seem to be off-topic. When Robert Scobles, the Microsoft blogger, starts talking, a ripple of what feels like outrage drifts over the audience, but the discussion is quickly brought on to friendlier terms by a few words from MacKinnon.

One question from the floor is still resonating in my head: is Global Voices personal or political? For me, the answer has to be the former. Weblogs are the ultimate personal communication medium, and the decisions of what to feature on a digest of personal weblogs made every day by MacKinnon, Zuckerman and their regional editors are also personal, in the sense that they are made by a person and not a machine. Diversity and transparency are the watchwords of all the Global Voices editors – the more voices they feature, the more likely the site is to offer a full picture of events and aspirations around the world. But as the project begins to be taken seriously as a global news source, will this be enough?

There is a cautionary tale for Global Voices in Wikipedia’s recent travails (Jimmy Wales, founder of the online, open-access encyclopaedia, has announced that contributors are now required to register before they can create articles, after John Seigenthaler, former journalist and founding editorial director of USA Today, accused it of being host to “volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects”.) Once your profile as a source of information grows to a certain level, more than diversity and transparency alone are needed to secure your reputation. It became clear meeting people around the conference that the Global Voices community are well aware of the pitfalls they face. How they chose to steer around them in the coming year will have something to teach us all.


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