I did a phone interview earlier this week with a reporter from Deutsche Welle about Global Voices and the ways that our project is encouraging people from around the world to talk to one another. As I spoke with him about the aims and goals of our project, I realized that I’ve wanted to write an extended piece about the reasoning behind Global Voices and have, thus far, held off.
It’s hard for me to write about the rationale of Global Voices because the project isn’t my project alone. It began as a partnership and rapidly turned into a vast international collaboration. I know that Rebecca and I have different reasons for our involvement with the project, and I strongly suspect that my reasons are different from David’s, Amira’s, Ndesanjo’s, or those of any of the dozens of people who actually build the site every day. This post offers some of my reasons for being involved with Global Voices; my reasons may be close to, or far from, everyone else’s.
In 1984, a remarkable post caught the attention of users of Usenet, the distributed bulletin board system that served as a public square for the early Internet. Posted to net.general and to a small number of politics-focused newsgroups, it began, “Well, today, 840401, this is at last the Socialist Union of Soviet Republics joining the Usenet network and saying hallo to everybody.” The post was signed by “K. Chernenko” of Moscow Institute for International Affairs and came from a machine called “kremvax”.
It was a hoax – the fact that it was posted on April Fools Day should have given readers a clue. Piet Beertema, the perpetrator of the hoax, reports that a huge number of readers didn’t get the joke and reacted either with enthusiastic welcome or with alarm at the idea that a network with its origins in US defense research labs now connected the US and its archenemy.
There was a good reason to take the hoax seriously: it could very well have been true. Connecting to the net then – as now – didn’t require the permission of any central authority, just the connection from another connected computer. It was certainly within the realm of possibility that a sysadmin in Finland had connected to Kremvax and ushered in the age of internet detente.
After all, the internet in the 1980s seemed like a place where anything could happen. I got online five years after the Kremvax hoax, logging on from a VT-220 terminal connected to a creaky old VAX at Williams College. I’d gotten an account so I could flirt with a girl at Berkeley, but it wasn’t long before I’d found my way onto Usenet.
It’s hard to explain Usenet to someone who wasn’t there. It was a little like stumbling into a vast cocktail party where cliques of people around the room talked passionately about all sorts of obscure topics, the putative subjects of their conversations floating over their heads. In one corner, people talked about politics in parts of the world I’d never heard of; in another, they argued the heresies of obscure religions. (And in a darkly lit corner, people were sharing stories and photos of sexual practices that left me reaching for a dictionary to figure out what they were talking about.) For a small-town kid far away from home, reading Usenet was far more mind-blowing than going off to college. Compared to the people around the world I met on Usenet, many of my classmates were predictable and boring.
If you used the Internet in those pre-web days, learning obscure command-line syntax rewarded you with admission to an apparently global club of thinkers, writers and dreamers. In this club what you said and what you could do with a computer were far more important than what you looked like or where you were from. And your fellow correspondents might be anywhere in the world. When I received a grant to study in Ghana in 1993, I went straight to Usenet and posted on soc.culture.african to see if I could meet someone who lived in Ghana. While the only response I received was from another American college student – who I met up with in Accra a few months later – the ability to connect to Africa online only confirmed my suspicions that the Internet was a magical place beyond the rules of ordinary, physical reality.
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
It’s worth noting that Barlow was in Davos at the meeting of the World Economic Forum when he wrote those words. Surrounded by the wealthy and powerful of the physical world, Barlow asserted that there was something unique and new in this online space beyond their jurisdiction. His experience of this new world was shaped in large part by his time on the WELL – the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link – a pioneering online community organized around “conferences” that functioned much like a more exclusive (and less anonymous) version of Usenet.
Howard Rheingold, a WELL dweller, drew on his online experiences to publish a seminal 1993 book, “The Virtual Community“. With chapter titles like “Real-time Tribes” and “Japan and the Net”, it’s a celebration of the post-national Internet. His chapter about IRC – internet relay chat – begins: “Thousands of people in Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States are joined together at this moment in a cross-cultural grab bag of written conversations known as Internet Relay Chat (IRC).” Rheingold asks, “What kinds of cultures emerge when you remove from human discourse all cultural artifacts except written words?”
I had a first-hand chance to see the answers to that question for last half of the 1990s. I joined an early net startup – Tripod.com – which was in the business of trying to provide online tools for recent college graduates. We hoped that recent grads wanted information on jobs and mutual funds because, well, that’s what our sponsors wanted to sell them. As it turned out, what they wanted was free homepages where they could talk about whatever topics interested them. Had we been a little smarter, we’d have called it MySpace and sold it to Rupert Murdoch.
One of my jobs with Tripod was to try to figure out what our users were actually doing with the tools we provided them. One long-term mystery we faced was “the Malaysian question”. In 1996, the majority of our members were from the US and the UK – not a surprise, as we were a US company and all our content was in English. But our third-largest market was Malaysia and we couldn’t figure out why.
Reading the Malaysian homepages wasn’t much help. They were in Malay, and they were about Malaysian politics, rarely referring to the pop culture topics that were the bread and butter of most Tripod homepages. I gradually assembled enough key phrases – “Anwar Ibrahim”, “Reformasi”, “Mahathir Mohamed” – to do some library research and discover that my company was hosting the online newspapers of Malaysian opposition activists who wanted to see Prime Minister Mahathir unseated and replaced by reformist Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim. (Some of these sites still exist.)
We didn’t know what to do with this information – it’s hard to target ads to political dissidents. (Gas masks? Spray paint? Air tickets out of Malaysia?) We decided to spend $1000 of our scant marketing budget to sponsor the Malaysian Olympic Team’s presence at the Summer Games in Atlanta, a gesture which probably did little to ingratiate ourselves to our anti-government activist users. (The Malaysians won a silver in badminton, I believe.)
Discovering Reformasi on Tripod was hugely educational for me. On some level, I’d believed the gospel of the cyberutopians – the net would erase all barriers and lead us into conversations with people from all nations on all topics. But here was a pretty clear example of a conversation I couldn’t participate in, neither linguistically nor culturally. Even as Malaysian authors started writing in English as well as Malay, their conversation wasn’t one I could usefully contribute to, not having context to understand the issues at stake.
I’d assumed that users of the Internet would want to participate in global conversations, not just local ones, as my Usenet compatriots had done. But the Malaysian Reformasi activists were using Tripod not because they wanted dialog with Unix hackers in western Massachusetts, but because the tools were the best ones they could access to communicate with each other. That this conversation was visible to the entire world was an accident – the audience for the conversation was Malaysian activists, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to join the discussion even though the medium made it possible.
In retrospect, I think that the post-national nature of early 1990s Usenet and IRC had more to do with the small size of the userbase and the common ground of net culture than with any pervasive desire to cross cultural barriers. Posting on Usenet, you could make certain assumptions about anyone reading your words: they understood English (perhaps as a second language, but with some fluency); they knew a lot about computers (you wouldn’t be online if you didn’t); they had a university education (as most Internet-connected computers were accessible via universities.) In other words, there was something of a common culture to participants in these conversations, even participants on different sides of the world.
The Internet of 2004 was a very different place than the network I fell in love with in 1989. When I first logged on, there were roughly 130,000 computers connected to the Internet. By 2004, there were more than 200 million machines connected, and commentators were talking about the billionth internet user joining the network. But I still managed to have my own cyberutopian moment while exploring the emerging world of weblogs.
Rebecca MacKinnon and I were both at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School on research fellowships, and we were both obsessed with news. Specifically, we were obsessed with how narrow and parochial American media was, and how little coverage of international news we found in most papers. I’d taken a quantitative pass at the subject, writing a paper that argued that American newspapers and broadcast networks were far more likely to report on wealthy nations than on poor ones. Rebecca had good qualitative insights on the topic from years as a bureau chief for CNN in Beijing and Tokyo, fighting to get important stories in front of American audiences… with decreasing returns.
Also at Berkman that year was weblog pioneer Dave Winer, who’d set the Center up with a weblog server and was gradually convincing his fellow fellows that there was something important going on in this new space. Rebecca and I started wondering whether bloggers in developing nations could help give readers a richer picture of what was going on in their countries than what one could get from newspapers alone.
There were good reasons to be excited about blogs as tools for intercultural communication. Salam Pax’s blog, “Dear Raed“, gave readers around the world insights on the situation inside Baghdad before, during and after the American invasion. Bloggers in Iran and China expressed opinions and wrote on topics most Americans would never encounter in the nightly news or newspapers. Xiao Qiang at UC Berkeley and Iranian blogger Hossein Derakshan started talking about “bridge bloggers”, authors who use this medium to build connections between people in different nations with different cultures.
A number of bridge bloggers were explicit about their desire to cross cultural barriers with their writing. Mahmood Al-Youssif, Bahrani blogger and free speech activist, declared on the “about” page of 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. I am no missionary and don’t want to be. I run several internet websites that are geared to do just that, create a better understanding that we’re not all nuts hell-bent on world destruction.” Mahmood was speaking to the wider world, hoping to give people a more nuanced understanding of his nation and his religion. Rebecca and I started building a website and a community determined to bring voices like his to a wider audience.
Two and a half years into that project, I now find myself wondering if bridgeblogging was a phenomenon for a specific moment in time. In a podcast I did with my friend Ahmad Humeid in Jordan in 2005, he pointed out that Jordanian bloggers were writing in English so they could reach a wider audience, because the domestic was so small.
My friend Marc Lynch makes the point that this is no longer true – hundreds of thousands of Arabic-speaking readers have come online and the culture of blogging in countries like Egypt now centers on highly politicized Arabic blogs. Like the Reformasi pages I was fascinated by a decade ago, these conversations are taking place in a public medium, but I’m not part of their intended audience. Instead, they’re an effective way for Egyptian activists to reach out to the likeminded, argue with the unconvinced and plan and report on actions in the real world. In that sense, they’re far more politically relavent than the first generation of Egyptian blogs, which were read mostly by non-Egyptians. These new blogs can bring people into the streets, perhaps threatening the Mubarak regime, or perhaps just the liberty of the blog authors.
The relationship between the intended audience and the outside audience is more complicated than the relationship I found myself in with the Reformasi authors. As bloggers like Kareem Amer and Abdel Monem Mohammed find themselves in prison for their online activities, bloggers around the world are lobbying for their release. Many of the bloggers lobbying for Kareem and Monem don’t speak Arabic and haven’t read their work – they are seeking their release out of solidarity and in support for freedom of speech online.
Their efforts may be counterproductive. Blogger Alaa Abdel Fateh, held for 45 days in Egyptian prison for participating in a protest for independent Egyptian judiciary, was grateful for the international movement that supported his release, but believes the attention paid to his case kept him in detention for significantly longer than his less-famous fellow detainees. (He gratefully acknowledges that international attention to his case probably prevented him from being tortured while in custody.)
I am not arguing that bridge blogs are dying out – though there’s evidence that some, like Sandmonkey in Egypt, are – or that they’ve lost importance. My point is that when you’re one of the few people in your real world community who is online, the tendency is for you to address your thoughts to a global audience. When a larger segment of your real-world community comes online, there’s good reasons for you to start talking to that audience using the Internet, a global medium used for a local purpose.
Soon after starting Global Voices, Rebecca and I realized that we needed to work with bloggers from different parts of the world who could provide context for blog posts from their parts of the world. We didn’t recruit translators because so many of the blogs we were interested in were in English. A year into the project, it became clear that we were missing many of the most interesting online authors, and we’ve brought on translators to help navigate blogs in Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Korean, Japanese, Swahili, Hindi, Bengali. This December, meeting with our contributors around the world in Delhi, it became abundantly clear that we couldn’t deliver the site exclusively in English. Now there are volunteer efforts to translate the site into Chinese, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and Bengali, with more to come as we figure who might be able to financially support these efforts.
I miss the days when you could fool yourself into thinking that a knowledge of English and a little curiosity was all you needed to explore the world of blogs. It wasn’t true then, and it certainly isn’t true now. There are more blog posts every day in Japanese than in English, and almost as many as in Chinese. With over a billion people online and tens of millions using blogs and other tools to express themselves, it’s not realistic to think of the cacophony that results as a conversation. There are conversations, millions of of them. Some conversations you might care about, some you almost certainly don’t. Some you might participate in; most you can’t, or won’t.
It’s not that Barlow, Rheingold and other cyberutopians were wrong. But like many prophets, they should be read prescriptively, not descriptively. The Internet can bring us all together into global conversation, but only if we work to make it so.
And that work is hard to do. The window we’re providing into global conversations requires the work of over a hundred people and hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to produce. More importantly, it requires people who are passionately committed to the idea that we benefit from listening to voices from other parts of the world: xenophiles.
Some of the xenophiles involved with Global Voices are people who live far away from their homelands and write about the countries they’ve left for audiences where they live now. Others have married people from other cultures, or fell in love with other nations when they travelled or studied abroad. Ask anyone involved with the project for their story, and in short order you’ll hear about an American Afrophile living in China, or an Indian teacher in Singapore who’s passionate about Southeast Asia.
It’s been surprisingly easy to find xenophiles who want to work on Global Voices. What’s harder is finding people interested in reading what they have to say. This is the same problem that newspapers have in maintaining international coverage. If readers in the Boston area were demanding more coverage of Haiti or Russia, the Globe would likely still have foreign correspondents. If bloggers were as interested in Tunisian internet censorship as they are in cracking AACS, we’d support Global Voices on t-shirt sales alone.
The dreams articulated by pioneers like Barlow, Rheingold and others are a proud legacy of the Internet. But we need to ask whether they saw the Internet bringing people together into a single, unitary net culture, or whether they saw that the Internet could be a space that allowed people from all different cultures to meet on common ground. The former is a fun club to belong to, where we can trade All Your Base jokes and cat macros. But the latter is powerful, political, and potentially transformative. It’s something worth fighting for.