Success. Success? Success.

Global Voices reached a totally arbitrary milestone recently – we broke into the top 100 blogs listed by Technorati. It’s very hard to tell what methodology Technorati uses to make this top 100 list – search for “globalvoicesonline.org” or “www.globalvoicesonline.org” and you’ll find a profile page giving us a rank of 202… which is lots lower than it’s been past months, generally hovering around 130 or so. Perhaps the top 100 page is an aggregate rank, combining the links we get to our various language sites and to sites like Rising Voices and Global Voices Advocacy – it’s hard to know.

Given that I recognize that this ranking is arbitrary, you’d think I’d be able to take our appearance as good news and then go about my business. Nope. I’ve probably checked it half a dozen times so far this week. It may be arbitrary, but it’s one of the goals I’ve told supporters and funders we were trying to reach with Global Voices, and I feel really good about reaching it.

Rebecca and I started GV because we saw very little attention being paid to blogs from the developing world, and we felt that some of the stories being told in those blogs would be interesting to readers and journalists around the world. That’s proved to be true… at least, it’s true when the stories we’re covering are also getting attention in mainstream media. When there’s a sudden focus on Pakistan due to the Bhutto assasination or Burma due to the Saffron “revolution”, we see American and European media leaning heavily on our blogs for voices from the affected regions.

The rest of the time? Not so much. According to Alexa, we get surprisingly little traffic from the US and Europe. 22.4% of our visitors come from the US, 3.6% from the UK, and the other 74% are spread around the world, including substantial userbases in China, India, the Phillipines, Brazil, and Qatar. Compare that to the New York Times, with over 50% of users in the US, or BBC, with over 30% in the UK, and it’s clear that we’ve got something of an unusual audience pattern. (Actually, it’s one quite similar to that of our friends at OneWorld, who also produce media from the developing world and have a strong developing world audience.)

Rebecca and I thought that we’d found an interesting way to hack the media by leveraging our connects with the growing blog community, and working through those top bloggers to get mainstream media attention. In truth, it hasn’t really worked out that way. Some mainstream news sources have gotten into the habit of looking at our coverage. And we don’t get a ton of traffic from English-language bloggers.

Looking at sites linking to us on Technorati, I see a few English-language sites… but I also see sites in Argentina, Denmark, Iran, Brazil and Taiwan, just in the first twenty links. I’d always assumed that reaching the top 100 on Technorati would mean that we’d be regularly and extensively linked by top American and European blogs. Instead, it’s possible that there are simply so many international bloggers linking to our work that it’s possible to break into the top ranks from their collective influence, much as Beppe Grillo has achieved his status primarily from links by Italian bloggers.

(This isn’t black or white, of course. We get a lot of love from top blogs, including BoingBoing, Huffington Post, GoogleBlog, O’Reilly Radar and Scoble. It’s my sense, from watching incoming links to the site, that the vast majority of our traffic comes from Google and from non-“A-list” blogs from North America and Europe.)

If this is true – that we’ve been less successful at capturing the attention of mainstream media and western bloggers, and more successful at winning the respect of new bloggers in developing nations – does this milestone constitute success? I’m conflicted on this point, in part because I have a hard time evaluating success of projects I’ve worked on.

Since 1994, I’ve helped launch four major projects – one for-profit, three non-profit. All continue to exist in one form or another. One had its heyday around around 1997 and has been on the decline ever since; one is largely dormant since my successor moved on to another job. A third continues to be a prominent web presence, but I had a person falling-out with the founder and no longer work on the project. It’s hard for me to bask in the success of any of these projects. Even before Geekcorps went dormant, it wasn’t working the way I wanted it to. And for me, the success of Tripod was less about hosting web pages than it was about running a world-class internet company in Western Mass… and Tripod hasn’t been based out here since 1999.

I spent a good part of my college years working for a local nonprofit organization, Center for Common Security. I watched the organization crumble when its visionary founders left to pursue another project. Since then, a criterion for success in my book has been an organization’s survivability – if the founders walk away from the project, will it continue to thrive?

More than anything else I’ve worked on, I think Global Voices will achieve this metric of success. I still work – a lot – on Global Voices, but I have absolutely nothing to do with the content that ends up on the website, nothing to do with our translations, and almost nothing to do with the Rising Voices and Advocacy sites. We’re near the end of a hiring process for an executive director, and I have the fond hope that I won’t be working (so hard) on fundraising, organizational structure and strategy at some point in the future.

Succeeding on this metric involves finding people who share your vision, then getting the heck out of the way. I’ve been watching David Sasaki throw himself into the Rising Voices project with a passion that makes me slightly jealous. He’s currently in Medellín, Colombia, working with HiperBarrio, one of the recipients of Rising Voices funding, which is teaching blogging in working-class neighborhoods, helping bring online some voices that are rarely heard from in global media. He’s on the ground, working with bloggers, seeing new places and making new friends, which is one of the more rewarding things you can do with your life. (I, on the other hand, am filing paperwork in the Netherlands, which is not.) And near as I can tell, he’s loving it, and is justifiably proud of the work he and his teams are doing.

There’s no possible way I could be doing what David is doing, even if I had the language skills and the time to travel. Nor could I be translating our words into Malagasy or interviewing dissidents in Saudi Arabia. If you’re lucky, you reach a point in an organization where folks who’ve joined the project after you did are smarter, more passionate and more skilled than you are, and your job is to get out of their way. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting close.

In one of my darkest moments after leaving Geekcorps, I remember telling Rachel, “I’m not going to start any new projects. Either they fail, or you hand them off to people who don’t understand them, or you end up doing them for the rest of your life.” There’s another option – handing them off to people better and smarter than you are, and letting them build something more audacious than you ever would have imagined. That’s success.

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12 Responses to Success. Success? Success.

  1. One challenge I find with Global Voices is that it’s like drinking from a fire hose. If you add even one RSS feed, there are dozens of new posts a day. It looks so intimidating in my reader I don’t even try most days (and the titles are not so descriptive that it’s easy to skim). It would be wonderful if there were a “best of” RSS feed with just four or five links a day, so that we busier folk could still keep track of interesting blogs outside the West.

  2. Ethan says:

    Chris – digest.globalvoicesonline.org . The best stories every day, put together by David Sasaki. available either as rss or as an email.
    (We need to promote it better.)

  3. Henok says:

    congrats to Global-voices. I was so thankful for coverage of the Kenyan election.

  4. Wayan says:

    Funny you posted this today. I just realized that my own site, OLPC News is now in the Technorati Top 5K (just a smidgen ahead of you). While I was pleased, I wondered the relevance of Technorati. Does anyone really use it past egosurfing?

    I say that as I ping Technorati with tags on every post, but don’t see so much readership coming back from it. It’s down at #30 of referring sites over the past month, tied with Japanese CNet. Which hints that even though OLPC News focuses on educational technology for the developing world, our readership is very much geeky North Americans.

  5. Frankenstein says:

    I think, Ethan, that you’re really talking about creating an institution. It is a management truism that any institution is only as good as the people running it; however, there’s some mysterious tipping point in every organization’s growth–let’s call this point X–when, prior to X, removing the critical individual causes critical damage, but after X, removing that critical individual may slow the organization, but the organization will survive.

    (And, in fact, in many cases, there’s a point Y where removing the critical individual ends up being beneficial to the organization, but that’s another story altogether.)

    For example–there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Dean Kagen has done some amazing things for Harvard Law School. However, if the dean should suddenly leave, HLS will soldier on. On the other hand, can you imagine what would have happened to, say, Microsoft if Bill Gates had decided in 1979 that what he really wanted to do was go back to school and become a lawyer, like his father?

    Anyway, this is a really long and roundabout way of saying that I’m really impressed by what GV has become, and that I’m proud to have contributed my very tiny little bit of work to the project.

  6. Chris Blow says:

    Congrats to everyone at GV! I am certainly impressed to have watched GV go from concept to the top 100 with such clear intention and determination. The recent redesign is a great bonus.

    PS: I almost spilled coffee in my keyboard at this line “criterion for success in my book …”

    I was about to place a special order at my local bookstore! *curses

  7. BRE says:

    I’m one of those English language bloggers not based in the U.S. who regularly directs tons of people to Global Voices Online. Since my discovery of GVO back in 2004 I have been a strong advocate for what you, Rebecca, the GVO staff, and your worldwide community of content contributors and readers are trying to accomplish with this “project”. It is no longer a project but a valuable resource to obtain and share information for zillions of people worldwide.

    If you want to measure the success of GVO then don’t just look at Technorati rankings and other web metrics, listen to your audience and watch how they use the information resources at GVO and interact with one another. It’s nice to make it into the Technorati Top 100 but it is infinately more important to impact the lives of people around the globe everyday. If there were a way to accurately measure GVO’s impact on people’s lives, you guys would go down in history as one of the Top 10 new media/communication pioneers of the (early) 21st Century.

    Time to move on to the next level of this global communication experiment if you ask me. Where we going Ethan, and who is going to take the lead?

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  9. quinn says:

    I’m going to argue with you. I’ll try and be short.

    Why do we have this arbitrary time measure to judge success? We seem to look back on things as failed when all they’ve done is ended. It’s taking what happened, and pulling it out of context. How many Tripod users do you suppose just signed off and left the web? You’ll never know how many websites, blogs, memoirs, tutorials, and on and on wouldn’t exist if their makers hadn’t gotten started on Tripod. The internet left Tripod behind, but that’s what the internet does when it’s going strong.

    Geekcorp was wonderful- the idea that you could give geeks a role in humanitarian work that wasn’t giving money or leaving what they loved. No one I know had ever thought of what they did as valuable in that way.

    I don’t know that much about Worldchanging, I’m going to have to let that one go.

    Global Voices has continually surprised me. I had no idea what it was going to be in the beginning. How it’s developed, what it’s accomplished- that there are stories there that would have faded without it, people that wouldn’t have had a platform to speak. The very idea that it needs western attention feeds into the preconception you’re trying to break. GV is the only thing that keeps me liking blogs.

    But GV is a blogging site on the internet. You’re going to outlive it. It’s going to die or become something completely unrecognizable. What GV is right now is a powerful good. As it changes and grows or is (hopefully) superseded by something better it doesn’t become less good right now. It doesn’t stop having done what it’s done.

    Hemingway said something I’m butchering to be all happy endings are lies. All sad ones are lies too. Where we end the story is always going to our editorial framing. So… I guess I want you to admit the others were successful, because if I hear you going hard on GV in five or ten years, I’m going to bitch slap you. Um, lovingly. A… bitch slap of friendship. Anyway.

  10. eszter says:

    Ethan, this is really wonderful news, congratulations! There’s no doubt that there is significant success here, but I appreciate that it’s hard for you to judge from where you’re sitting. Seriously, congrats!!

  11. Luke Razzell says:

    Ethan,

    Congratulations to you and everyone involved in GV, and thanks for the fascinating analysis.

    At i-together, we are passionate about faciliating the emergence of true voices from amongst the loud ones, so it’s heartening to see that GV is becoming a shining example in this regard.

    BTW, found your post on Blog Friends. : )

    Cheers,

    Luke

  12. Congrats Ethan. I’m a huge GV fan and you guys are doing a superb job. I’m proud to be associated with you. :)

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