Mark Hopkins wrote a provocative post on Mashable, a prominent social networking technology blog, last week. Titled, “Forget Kenya, Let’s Talk Scoble-gate!“, the post berates the tech community for their overfocus on Robert Scoble’s battle over terms of service on Facebook versus their complete lack of focus on breaking news in Kenya.
As he points out, there’s a good technology angle to the Kenya story – blogs have served a critical media function during the crisis, and there’s legitimate concern that net access might be constrained by the government. But this story got very little play within the tech blogosphere:
I was immediately struck by the dichotomy here of our two worlds, and I was a little bit ashamed that the tech blogosphere was devoting so much digital ink to the trivial matter of a Facebook account getting closed. Here we are, faced with issues of privacy, network neutrality, government intervention, packet shaping, free speech, and citizen journalism; all the hot-button issues of the tech blogosphere, but this time with actual lives at stake.
danah boyd forwarded me the post with the subject line, “you have an ally”. It was great to see an author on a blog with a vastly larger audience than mine make the case for the need for more attention to an important and breaking news story. But I’m interested in Hopkins’ post for reasons beyond the fact that he’s providing reinforcement of an idea that I think is really important – that tech people need to be aware of stories outside their usual orbit. His post is an elegant illustration of why people grasp onto some stories and miss others.
Hopkins tuned into the story about Kenya because of a post from a high school friend, Rob Rooker, who is based in Kenya as an aid worker. This sort of personal connection is a pretty common way for people to encounter stories they might otherwise have missed. If my best friend is Vietnamese, I’m more likely to track newspaper stories on Vietnam; if I’ve travelled to Jordan, I’m more likely to follow stories on Jordan. This phenomenon was one of the motivations behind both Geekcorps and Global Voices – having relationships with people in the developing world, either through real or virtual contact, is a major motivator in making people better globalists.
This same phenomenon helps explain why a story about Robert Scoble’s tussles with Facebook is so easy for tech bloggers to amplify. Tech bloggers know who Scoble is, so he feels like a friend, a virtual celebrity friend. Most of us use Facebook, so we have immediate context for his situation. It’s an extremely easy story to relate to and to blog about.
(Scoble is, in fact, a friend. And he’s a good guy who’s been very generous in trying to draw blogger attention to Global Voices and to voices from the developing world. So there’s a bit of irony in a Scoble versus Kenya battle, as Scoble’s someone I know is interested in the sorts of tech issues surrounding bloggers in the developing world and in challenging situations…)
The truth is, bloggers as a whole are much more likely to amplify stories they can find personal connections to than stories that are completely novel to them. I’ve got a crufty old set of scripts that grab every story from the New York Times and the BBC and check against Technorati to see whether bloggers amplify the stories. Looking through today’s results (which are ugly, and incomplete, as Technorati evidently had some API trouble over the weekend), I find that the twenty most blogged stories on the New York Times include nine stories on US politics, seven stories that talk about technology or the IT industry, and four stories with a focus on science or health. The Times reported quite extensively on situations in Kenya and Pakistan during those days, but those stories weren’t amplified as often. The most blogged story on the Benazir Bhutto assassination ranks #25th in the most blogged stories, and a story on the Kenyan crisis appears at #31.
(The top 20 stories from the BBC, during the same period, have quite a different pattern. While the most blogged story is about US politics, there’s a larger set of science and health stories, as well as some international sports stories and some pure international news.)
In my experience collecting this sort of data from the New York Times and the BBC, the following factors make it much more likely that a story will be amplified by bloggers:
- A focus on the technology industry, which is where many bloggers work
- A focus on US politics, as many bloggers are closely engaged in US politics
- A focus on terrorism anywhere in the world, but especially affecting US forces
- New developments in science (we’re geeks)
- Stories about health that include prescriptive information (drink red wine, work less, exercise – “news you can use”)
In other words, a story about a prominent blogger experiencing health problems due to the stress of blogging should be a knockout. (If the stress had come from a terrorist attack, that would truly put the story over the top.)
My point in this post isn’t to nag bloggers for putting too much attention on tech and the US presidential elections – Hopkins has already done that well. It’s to mention that this is a known bug. If you’re an activist concerned with getting bloggers to pay attention to Kenya, play up the tech angle. It’s worked for us. Ndesanjo Macha has a great piece on the power of the Internet in the wake of the Kenyan crisis, and it’s been amplified by 15 bloggers, which is HUGE for a Global Voices story.
If you’re a tech blogger who suspects that this bug is affecting your view of the world, then it’s a good time to fight homophily. Like Hopkins, you can find an old friend who’s got connections to another part of the world and start paying attention to where he or she is from. Or you can get really brave and simply start deciding to read one of the hundreds of thousands of non-US, non-European bloggers who write in English – we feature a couple hundred of them every week.
When I started working on Global Voices a few years ago, I thought this was a repairable bug. First, I assumed that there was simply a paucity of news coming from the developing world. While that’s sometimes true – it’s hard to get accurate news from Darfur or Somalia – it’s less true than you’d think. There’s a lot of good journalists – still, even despite massive cuts and layoffs at good newspapers – in far-flung corners of the world, and even more bloggers.
Now I think it’s a demand problem, not a supply problem. People are reporting about Kenya. Most bloggers aren’t blogging about it. It’s not that they’re bad people – it’s that they feel disconnected from the story, that they’ve got nothing invested in it and nothing to add to it. Solving that problem of disconnection likely goes way beyond more reporting or better systems to produce serendipity in newspapers – it’s a fundamental problem of living in a global society and interacting primarily with your own tribe.
If you need a connection to the Kenya story, start reading Daudi. He’s a prominent Kenyan geek who’s put his ass on the line this week, going to the front lines of protests to document people’s anger over the disputed election and the government reaction. He rocks. You’d like him. Consider him your friend, and use him as a way into a story that might otherwise be closed to you. Tell him Ethan sent you.