Critics who worried that the Digital Citizen Indaba would be South Africa-centric, light on blogger speakers and have more white than black speakers were correct on all three counts. Organizers acknowledged all these shortcomings at one point or another during the event, and I suspect the next iteration of the conference – whether in Grahamstown or somewhere else on the continent – will be a hell of a lot more representative.
And they apologized for several logistical flails – a lunch few participants got to eat, no connectivity in the main hall (inspiring one of the presenters to scrap his original speech and give a rant about the lack of connectivity) and buildings that locked participants in or out by 5pm, leading to the strange sight of geeks huddling against the spring wind and falling temperatures as they tried to download their email or prepare their presentations.
And yet, it was a really enjoyable and useful conference.
One of the reasons the conference was so confusing was that there were at least three conferences going on. One was an academic conference on the phenomenon of blogging – this had the requisite bloggers versus journalists discussion, the pretty slideshows from the designers and vague speculation about the thin slicing of attention and whether the web is driving us all mad.
There was also a “business meets blogs” conference, the sort of thing we saw throughout the states about 18 months ago, with smart folks from the local technology scene looking at how web2.0 would transform how they do business – or not.
And then there was the pan-African activist blogging conference that many bloggers thought was being held. By the standards of that sort of conference, the Indaba was very white, very ZA-centric, excluded a lot of great bloggers and was probably held in the wrong location.
(Mike Stopforth has a nice analysis of the situation as well. He’s nicer than I am.)
But the intersection of these different groups in the same place made for some very interesting moments. The intersection of the “We Media”/grumpy white guys talk with the blog activism talk was a great one-two. When you start talking about defending the blogosphere from manipulation and misinformation created by “bad elements”, how do you create a definition that doesn’t turn activists like Alaa and Ory into people who would be banned?
Getting to spend time with old friends like Ory, Alaa, Emeka and Andrew, meeting bloggers I’ve long admired like Bankelele and Daudi made me realize how much I want someone – perhaps the DCI folks, but maybe Global Voices, maybe the Kenyan bloggers, maybe the World Social Forum in Nairobi – to organize a real continent-wide blogger gathering, focused on ways the different blogospheres can learn from one another. But I think it’s really important that the activist bloggers make their voices heard at conferences like DCI, complicating the conversation and making it clear that this isn’t just a space of academic interest or profitability – it’s the new frontier of free speech. Alaa and Ory’s speeches in particular have stuck with me. What’s most important for the Internet in Africa, in my opinion, is that it helps empower smart young activists to organize projects they’d have a tough time building offline. I hope they’re able to share their experiences and ideas at many other venues in the immediate future.