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.