Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Don’t speak. Point. My talk about advocacy and citizen journalism at Netsquared

So… I’m getting on stage in about half an hour at the Netsquared conference. If you’re not here – or even if you are – you can read my slides and get a full preview of what I’m going to say… in fact, given that I may not get through this deck in the 20 minutes I’ve got allotted, you might have a better chance of following the talk from this post than from hearing me on stage…

My talk focuses on the future of advocacy in the age of citizen’s media, and I want to begin by talking about an advocacy effort I’m engaged in – the struggle to release my friend Hao Wu from detention in Beijing, China. Hao is a blogger and filmmaker, a Chinese citizen with a US greencard. He came to the US to do an MBA at the University of Michigan, stayed in the US to work in the dot.com industry to work with Earthlink.com. In 2004, he gave up his job with Earthlink and began making a documentary film, “Beijing or Bust” about the expatriate Chinese experience.

He returned to China in 2006 to work on a new documentary film, which focused on underground Christian churches. He was detained by Chinese police on February 22nd and has been held incommunicado, without access to a lawyer, ever since.

I’m aware of Hao’s situation because we work together. In early February, he joined the staff of Global Voices, a project I helped found in late 2004, which features weblogs written by people around the world. Hao signed on as our North Asia editor and began writing up great Chinese blogs, under the psuedonym Tian Yi. At the same time, he was blogging about his personal life and filmmaking on his own blog, giving a poignant sense of how difficult it was to resolve his global perspectives with the constraints of contemporary China. We traded a little email, and planned a China/Africa dialog project that we hoped to implement this fall. From what I could learn about him online, I really liked the guy.

When Hao got arrested, Rebecca and I did what we knew how to do. We put together a website, documenting his detention, explaining the situation and asking people to promote awareness of his case. We built a set of badges that said Free Hao Wu and asked people to put them on their websites. We talked with human rights organizations and the press.

We moved pretty slowly because we wanted to make sure everything we did was consistent with the family’s wishes – at first, his family was very resistant to have anyone talk about the case. As it became increasingly clear that Hao wasn’t going to be released any time soon, his family gave us more latitude in advancing his case.

Eventually, we posted a petition, designed to be delivered to president Hu Jintao. We called senators, congresspeople and the state department. Basically, to the best of our abilities, we represented Hao’s case to our audience of bloggers and journalists.

There’s a big challenge in doing this. We don’t really know Hao. Neither Rebecca nor I have ever spoken to the guy.

His sister, on the other hand, has known Hao all her life. Two months after his detention, Wu Na – Nina Wu – started blogging in Chinese on MSN Spaces. Nina has a good job in Shanghai in the financial sector, and is married with a young baby. She’s more or less living the Chinese dream… or was, until her brother was detained.

Nina was immediately able to share some sides of Hao we would never have seen – pictures of his time in the US, touring national parks; filming in China; and his lotus plant in his apartment in Beijing, beginning to die as Hao hasn’t been home to water it.

And she was able to tell us how she and her parents felt about Hao’s detention. Every time she writes, it’s a reminder that this isn’t an abstract issue about free speech, censorship and repressive governments – it’s a horrible situation that’s ripped apart the lives of everyone involved. When Hao is released, it probably won’t be possible for him to remain in China. Nina has discovered that she’s followed by security services as she goes about her daily routine.

Rebecca and I never asked Nina to blog. (We will the next time a situation like this arises.) Nina was inspired by Zeng Jinyan’s blog – Zeng is the wife of AIDS activist Hu Jia, who was detained for months by the authorities. She used her blog to promote his cause and share her feelings about his detention – when he was finally released, she published photos of him, emaciated, having lost 20kg while in custody. Lately she’s been posting in support of Nina and her work to promote Hao’s cause.

When we started working on Hao’s case, we were representing him, speaking on his behalf. There are situations where this is what advocates have to do – Nina can blog, while Darfuri refugees can’t. But the lesson we’ve taken from the situation is that advocacy is changing in the 21st century. It’s less about speaking on behalf of people and more about helping their voices to be heard. It’s less about speaking and more about pointing.

Not everyone gets that the playing field has changed.

In July of last year, Sir Bob Geldof launched the Live8 concert series. Unlike Live Aid, these concerts weren’t designed to raise money to address African issues – they were designed to “raise awareness”, in the hopes that this awareness would affect actions taken by G8 leaders on trade, debt reduction and aid. Awareness-raising largely involved filling stages with popular American and European musicians. One early crticism of Live8 was that involved so few Africans – eventually Peter Gabriel guilted Geldof into providing a second venue near London so that some Africans could be involved. The concert was scheduled at the same time as the “main”concert in London, basically guaranteeing that no one who came to hear Madonna would hear the African musicians.

One of many projects that sprang up around Live8 was an effort to get bloggers talking about Live8. There was a contest to give bloggers backstage access to the concerts so they could report to their readers and discuss both the concerts and the social implications. If you tagged your post “live8”, it would show up on Technorati’s Live8 aggregator, measuring the pulse of the blogosphere on the topic.

Some of the most enthusiastic users of the tag were African bloggers, who savaged the event, excoriated the organizers and generally made it clear that Geldof might be representing someone, but he sure as hell wasn’t speaking for them. Because these bloggers ended up aggregated on the same page as bloggers speculating about Madonna’s setlist and the unfair exclusion of the Spice Girls, this led to some pretty fascinating cross-cultural encounters. Bloggers like “M” of Thinker’s Room would argue that events like Live8 were useless at best, condescending and damaging to African economies at worst. European and American music fans would write back and say, “What’s your problem? We’re trying to do something good for you people!” And blogs like “African Bullets and Honey” would respond with thoughtful philosophical essays that argued that depriving Africans of ownership of their own problems was the worst possible form of colonialism.

In other words, even if very few Africans were invited on stage at Live8, they shared the stage in the blogosphere. And they offered a great reminder of the danger of speaking on behalf of someone – they may not want you to speak for them. And they may disagree with what you’re saying. Give them a chance to speak, and you may well discover that what they want is for you to shut the fuck up.

Technorati, to their credit, recognized what was going on and put together an aggregator of African blog posts, both to feature the fact that the conversation included African voices and to get rid of the confusion that came from juxtaposing reviews of Bono’s performance with critiques of the idea of development aid.

Here’s what Live8 organizers hadn’t counted on when they invited the blogosphere into the conversation: the makeup of the Internet changed radically over the past six years. As the internet grew from half a billion to a billion users, the European/North American/Japanese nature of the internet changed radically. Millions of Koreans, Chinese, Indians, Brazilians and, yes, Africans came online. In 1995, no one on the Internet knew you were a dog, but they generally knew you were white and were comfortable speaking English. That’s no longer a safe assumption.

As the next billion users come online, expect the net as we know it to change radically. English has already become a minority language in the blogosphere – that trend is going to increase as the next billion users join the net, coming largely from the global South.

There’s another revolution taking place at the same time that the Internet is diversifying. Most of the new users who are coming online don’t just “consume” content – they create it. They blog. They podcast. They post photos, or videos. This completely inverts the assumptions most of us who’ve worked on the Internet for the past two decades hold near and dear – we expected users to use email, then read the web, then maybe post to discussion groups or join an email list. Nope – the first things users do nowadays is take advantage of the read-write nature of the web.

All of which changes what our focus and priorities might be as advocates – people who want voices to be heard. Our job is no longer about representing the points of view we think are important – it’s about helping to people directly affected by problems and situations to represent themselves.

We started the Global Voices project in December 2004 – my cofounder, Rebecca MacKinnon, and I were increasingly fascinated by the voices we were hearing in the blogosphere. We wanted to find a way to feature these perspectives, in part because we both felt – and feel – like broadcast and print media do a poor job of sharing the perspectives and views of people who live in developing nations.

GVO is now a community of over 100 contributors, regional editors, translators and podcasters who cooperate to build a daily global newswire built from blogs. Most are volunteers – our regional editors and translators, who are asked to post every day, get a meagre salary. We’ve got one full time employee – a managing editor. The site is visited by over 600,000 unique visitors per month and is one of the top 150 most influential blogs in terms of incoming and outgoing links.

As we started working on the project, it quickly became apparent that, while there were problems accessing blogging tools, this was hardly a limiting factor. There’s work to be done – the tools need to be easier to use, need to be available in more languages, and we need internet connectivity in poor neighborhoods around the world. But we haven’t focused much on getting new tools built as part of GVO for the simple reason that new bloggers are coming online at a pace we can’t keep up with.

The fact that bloggers are adopting these tools doesn’t mean that there isn’t a need for training – it just means the need is a bit different than we might expect. We’ve found that it’s incredibly important to train people how to blog safely – that if they’re blogging about sensitive political issues in a country where speaking out might lead to their arrest, they need to take precautions and may want to blog anonymously. Producing guides like the book we produced with Reporters without Borders has become a major part of our work.

When we started this project 18 months ago, it was pretty uncommon to see blogposts in languages other than English. People understood that the audience reading blogs was an English-speaking audience and that is was tough to reach readers in another language. That’s changed very rapidly. English is a minority language in the blogopshere – it lags behind Japanese and, probably, Chinese as well. And we’re starting to see other languages – Arabic, Persian, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, French – develop large and thriving blogospheres. Being able to translate what’s being said in these blogospheres is a critical part of our work these days, and may become the majority of what we do as the project goes forward.

But it’s not just translation – there are a lot of blogposts out there that don’t make a lot of sense even if you speak the language they’re written in. In many cases, you need some history and context about what’s being talked about in a blogpost for it to make any sense to you. This is the main task our regional editors take on – trying to get a correspondent in Iran to explain not just what happens when an Iranian newspaper runs a cartoon of a Azeri portrayed as a cockroach, but why the reaction to the cartoon was so swift, fierce and angry.

At our best, we’re an amplifier for voices that might not otherwise be heard. Tunisian free speech activists start a site called Yezzi Fock – which means “We’ve had enough”, expressing their frustration with the Ben Ali government. We call attention to the site on Global Voices. Sometimes, we do a good enough job that other bloggers grab the story, like Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit. Other times, we help the mainstream media find stories they otherwise wouldn’t encounter.

To be very clear, we’re not the only folks doing this. Smart NGOs are discovering that blogging is a great solution to a wide variety of information problems. In Zimbabwe, civil rights Sokwanele is discovering that it’s almost impossible to publish in Zimbabwe through conventional means. But they’re able to publish online via a frequently-updated blog. It doesn’t reach as many Zimbabweans as they’d like, but people who are able to get online find themselves becoming “information brokers” and sharing information with other people throughout Zimbabwean society.

NGO Witness has been in the business of putting the tools of video publishing into the hands of activists for years. They give inexpensive video cameras and training to citizen groups and help them make video documentaries about problems in their own communities. Moving forward, Witness is trying to figure out how to deal with the reality that many cellphones now can make videos and that many people have access to the tools that Witness hands out.

But it’s not enough just to show video – here’s a screenshot of video from Minsk during pre-election protests in Belarus. By itself, the video isn’t very meaningful, unless you speak Belarussian. But with context and explanation, it’s a powerful document. The challenge for groups like Witness is translating and adding context to the documents they present.

Some organizations are discovering that they don’t want to use blogging themselves, but they want to give documents to bloggers for them to amplify. HRW decided that it was dangerous for them to blog given their reputation for publishing clearly thought out, well researched reports. But they’ve tried to make all their research highly accessible to bloggers and media, giving access to highly targetted RSS feeds.

4 Responses to “Don’t speak. Point. My talk about advocacy and citizen journalism at Netsquared”

  1. Kari Gray says:

    Your site is an important part of the current media landscape. The content and intent are vital. Yet, like our own Newsdesk.org, your site is managed and edited primarily by volunteers. Highly motivated, highly skilled volunteers, but still volunteers. Like our own staff, your staff does not enjoy the basic labor and employment rights of health care, liveable wages, maternity leave, reasonable working hours. We do not even enjoy the quality of life we advocate for others.

    Ironic, isn’t it?

  2. Jonathan Marks says:

    Great stuff. We met briefly in Paris. In the meantime, I am trying to set up http://www.broadcasterswithoutborders.org. I think a lot of your technology is also of use to broadcasters trying to report on emergencies. I’ll send e-mail.

  3. Adam says:

    Wow, really nice to read!

    I especially like your points on amplification and I was thinking the same things about Live 8, but no one would listen at the time.

  4. LucyH says:

    so, thanks for the nice remarks about the BBC! We are trying to think about editors as facilitators or moderators of the global conversation. That means editors have to work in two different modes all day long if they are going to do both news editing and pointing (moderating, facilitating). It’s going to be a challenge. They come from different mindsets and disciplines…but it can be done (I think:) great presentation, and good panel – shame there was not more time for povs from the floor and remote conference..not your call I know!

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