Five years ago I boarded a flight from San Diego to Boston to attend the 2004 Internet & Society conference at the Berkman Center. This was just a month after George Bush won the 2004 election and so there was an element of group therapy to many of the panel discussions. 2004 was the year when, according to Wired Magazine, the Internet invented Howard Dean. Dean’s campaign was supposed to be the harbinger of a new era of net politics where the progressive grassroots took advantage of online tools like blogs and Meetup.com (this was before YouTube even existed) to bring about more enlightened, representative governance. Instead, according to the ever-snarky Register, “organized religion, not net religion, won it for Bush.”
While the majority of the 2004 Internet & Society conference was focused on deconstructing the US election, two of the fellows at the Berkman Center, Rebecca MacKinnon and Ethan Zuckerman, wanted to widen the scope of the discussions to look at how the internet was affecting society and politics worldwide. Disillusioned by the arrogance and frequent incompetence of big media, Rebecca had just left CNN where she was working as the Beijing Bureau Chief. She came to the Shorenstein Center to study the relationship between blogs and international news coverage, with a specific focus on the coverage of North Korea.
Ethan meanwhile had recently published Making Room for the Third World in the Second Superpower, which served as a foundation for much of his later thinking and research about 1) the role that bloggers play in filling voids of information from “under-covered parts of the world” and 2) the role that “bridge-builders” play in amplifying their voices across cultural, national, and linguistic divides.
Even when we do have some information about under-covered parts of the world, we have another problem, what Ito terms “the caring problem”. People pay attention to subjects they care about. They tend to ignore subjects they know little about. Media, trying to serve its customers in a free market, responds by giving them more information on subjects they’ve demonstrated an interest in and ignoring other subjects. As a result, consumers don’t get interested in new topics, as they’re not exposed to them. So even if people blog or report about situations in the Congo, readers don’t pay attention to these reports and the noosphere, the realm of thought and culture, remains weak in those areas.
To solve the caring problem, Ethan continues, “will require a focus on bridge builders,” people who are able to contextualize conversations, issues, and debates from one community and introduce them to another. Some of the greatest examples of online bridge-builders at the time were Hossein Derakhshan from Iran, Joi Ito from Japan, Xiao Qiang from China, Ory Okolloh from Kenya, Salam Pax from Iraq, and Jeff Ooi from Malaysia.
Rebecca and Ethan wanted to bring some of these bridge-builders (later dubbed “bridge bloggers“) together to discuss, debate, and shape a shared vision for an inclusive, unmediated, global, grassroots conversation. About forty of us gathered in a medium-sized classroom at Harvard’s law school to discuss how “the use of weblogs and other new technologies enhance online global dialogue and political advocacy.” At the end of the day Joi Ito and Jim Moore led a session with the objective of drafting a manifesto, which is just as applicable today as it was then.
Two of the most outspoken participants throughout the day’s discussions were Hossein Derakhshan and Jeff Ooi, who are now in prison and parliament respectively. Reflecting on just how much can change in five short years, I decided to make a list of some of the international participants from that first Global Voices meeting and look at where they are now.
Ory Okolloh (Kenyan Pundit): At the time of the first Global Voices meeting Ory Okolloh was a student at Harvard Law School and an enthusiastic blogger known as “Kenyan Pundit.” Like other bridge bloggers, she frequently wrote about Kenya for a mostly Western audience and wrote about the West for Kenyans. Throughout 2005 she wrote seven posts on Global Voices introducing some of the pioneers from the African blogosphere. Today Ory continues to blog at Kenyan Pundit. She has spoken at both TED and Pop!Tech. And she has left the legal world to focus on the use of technology in activism with Ushahidi and Mzalendo.
Omar and Mohammed Fadhil (Iraq the Model): A mild controversy surrounded the participation of Iraqi brothers Omar and Mohammed Fadhil in the first Global Voices meeting. First of all, their trip was financed by Spirit of America, a patriotic US non-profit which supports the work of the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan. (At the meeting Jim Hake announced that Spirit of America had developed the first blogging platform to support Arabic text.
As far as I’m aware the platform was never actually launched. Jim says the platform was used for three and a half years by “Friends of Democracy“.) Second, when Omar and Mohammed arrived to the US to attend the conference they received an unexpected invitation to visit President George Bush in the White House. A couple years later Bush even cited an Iraq the Model blog post in his address to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (seriously):
The Iraqi people are beginning to say — see positive changes. I want to share with you how two Iraqi bloggers — they have bloggers in Baghdad, just like we’ve got here — (laughter) — “Displaced families are returning home, marketplaces are seeing more activity, stores that were long shuttered are now reopening. We feel safer about moving in the city now. Our people want to see this effort succeed. We hope the governments in Baghdad and America do not lose their resolve.”
There were even rumors that Omar and Mohammed were receiving funding from the CIA, an allegation that New York Times reporter Sarah Boxer found no evidence for. Today both Omar and Mohammed are based in the US where they are the Middle East Editors for the conservative online media network Pajamas Media. Mohammed is now studying programming at Open Source University while Omar is a graduate student in International Affairs at Columbia University. Omar still writes at Iraq the Model and published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal in September.
Isaac Mao: Isaac is the co-founder of the first Chinese blogging platform CNBlog.org. As he wrote last year in The Guardian, his first post was published on August 5, 2002, and his infectious enthusiasm for blogging and sharing information quickly spread across China. If anything, Isaac’s enthusiasm about the positive social impact of blogging has only grown. He was a fellow earlier this year at the Berkman Center where he continued his research on “Sharism.” In June Isaac and I co-curated the Cloud Intelligence Symposium at the Ars Electronica festival. He remains active in organizing barcamps and conferences in China, and is an advocate of online free speech.
Joi Ito: At the time of the first Global Voices meeting Joi introduced himself as the Vice President of International and Mobility for Technorati and his blog was called “Joi Ito’s conversation with the living web.” He was at the time the ultimate internet geek, a clear writer with an international outlook and strong technical fluency. His personal IRC channel was a meeting place in 2004 and 2005 for everyone interested in blogs, wikis, and the social web. Even today you’ll regularly find 50 – 100 people connected and just hanging out. Back in 2004 Joi focused much of his writing on “the caring problem” (and, to a lesser degree, getting Angelina Jolie to blog). He was also active with Isaac Mao back in 2005 trying to promote dialogue between Japanese and Chinese bloggers during a period of escalated antagonism between the two countries. Today Joi is the CEO of Creative Commons and a legal resident of Dubai. Earlier this year he led a workshop on Creative Commons and digital media with the Royal Film Commission of Jordan.
Jeff Ooi: Back in 2004 Jeff was blogging at Screenshots, which was hosted at Blogger. He also had launched USJ-Subyang Jaya, an English-language online news portal, ran a podcast called SuiteTalker, and managed a community of Malaysian photographers. Later he blogged for CNET Asia, and in 2007 he and Ahiruddin Attan were sued by the New Straits Times Press for 10 blog posts which they alleged were libelous. Last year he ran for office as a DAP candidate in the 2008 general election and won a seat in Malaysian parliament. He continues to blog regularly for Asian Correspondent.
Rashmi Sinha: We all went out to dinner at some Cambridge restaurant after that first GV meeting and I remember how everyone was circling around Jay Rosen, Hoder, and Joi Ito like they were celebrities. Such fawning always – especially among bloggers – drives me crazy. So I took a seat in the corner of the restaurant with a soft-spoken woman who said she was from India and that she recently finished her Ph.D. in neuroscience. (I had recently been in India and studied neuroscience for a couple years in college.) In January 2002 Rashmi founded Dialog Now, a blog which encouraged dialog between Indians and Pakistanis during the 2001–2002 India–Pakistan standoff. You can read her post from December 2004 about Global Voices here. Five years after the Global Voices meeting and she was voted by Playboy magazine as one of the ten sexiest CEO’s in the world. Rashmi founded SlideShare in 2007 with her husband Jonathan Boutelle.
Hoder: At the first Global Voices meeting Hoder led a session titled “How to build a blogosphere.” The title is a somewhat pompous allusion to his claim that he is personally responsible for the tremendous growth of Persian-language blogs in Iran. In November, 2001 he created a step-by-step guide on how to set up a blog in Persian and in the next couple years the Iranian blogosphere grew to become one of the most vibrant and politically active around the world. At the second Global Voices summit in London Hoder met our then-contributor from Israel, Lisa Goldman, and decided to visit her a month later. It is so interesting to look back at the New York Times op-ed he published during his visit, and also at Lisa Goldman’s account of their time together. Hoder was arrested in Tehran on November 1, 2008. He is allegedly being held in Evin Prison and there has lately been a lot of talk about his role in the Iranian show trials following the Green Revolution. Hoder is an extremely complicated guy. I’m pretty sure he’s managed to piss off every single person who has ever considered him a friend. Of course, we all want him out of prison. But it is difficult to know the best way to advocate for that to happen; especially when we don’t even really know why he’s in prison in the first place. Cyrus has been following the story closely and I assume that he will continue to do so until Hoder is released. You can get more context about Hoder and all the controversies surrounding him on his Wikipedia page.
Yvonne T. Chua: Yvonne is an investigative journalist and journalism trainer for the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. In 1999 she wrote “Robbed: An Investigation of Corruption in Philippine Education” and at the time of the Global Voices meeting she was interested (way ahead of her time) in how new media would change journalism training. Today PCIJ is one of the leading centers in teaching digital media for investigative reporting in South East Asia. Their 20th anniversary conference in September was focused on new media and democratization.
Akwe Amosu: She joined allAfrica.com as its founding executive editor in 2000 and at the time of the first GV meeting she was working on Peace Africa, an aggregator of news and information related to peacekeeping missions in Sub-Saharan Africa. At our third Global Voices Summit in Delhi, India she organized a small meeting of African and Chinese bloggers to encourage more open discussion about the impact of Chinese presence in Africa and African presence in China. She is now the Africa Advocacy Director for Open Society Institute and the Senior Policy Analyst for Africa at the OSI Policy Center. She is also a member of Global Voices’ board of directors.
Other participants of that first Global Voices meeting include Krista Baumane, Alex Steffen, Dan Gilmor, Darius Cuplinskas, David Weinberger, Debra Bowen, Ejovi Nuwere, Janet Haven, Jeff Jarvis, Jeremy Drucker, Jerzy Celichowski, Jim Moore, Jonathan Peizer, Kwindla Kramer, Marc Danziger, Matt Burden, Michelle Levesque, Oh Yeonho, Philip Carter, Ramu Dhara, Rodger Desai, and Terry Fisher.
The most important outcome of the meeting, however, was an agreement to develop an index of bridge blogs from around the world. Hoder began the process by listing the blogs of all the participants at the meeting on his own personal wiki. That list was later transferred to the Global Voices wiki. (Here is what the wiki looked like back in 2005.) We soon realized that a static wiki-based list of blogs wasn’t interactive enough. Rebecca proposed using Bloglines as an aggregator of “bridge blogs” from around the world. (Very interesting to look back and see which bloggers from early 2005 are still blogging today and which countries – like Madagascar – aren’t even listed.) Ethan suggested that we use the tag “globalvoices” on Delicious to track bridge blog posts. But it wasn’t until Paul Frankenstein – then a summer intern at the Berkman Center – began posting daily roundups of the global blogosphere that Global Voices began to take its present form.
My first post on Global Voices was exactly five years ago to the day. I suggested that BloggerCon IV be held outside of North America and Western Europe. (It seems that the 2010 Global Voices Summit will be our first south of the equator.) In June 2005 I was hired as the first Global Voices regional editor and began posting daily roundups of what bloggers throughout Latin America were writing about. My first roundup post summarized reactions by Mexican bloggers to a 2005 communique posted by the Zapatistas (shortly after I had traveled to Chiapas). Throughout 2005 I recruited as many authors to write about Latin America on Global Voices as possible. Iria Puyosa, Eduardo Ávila, Georgia Popplewell, Roy Rojas, and Alán Flores were among the first contributing authors.
I could spend hours reminiscing about those first months of Global Voices. It was such an exciting time. We really believed that we were on the cutting edge of a sea change in how citizens around the world would communicate and find out about one another. And we were. That’s not to say that our mission was complete. Even now, we’re still only about 10% there. But what an amazing 10% it has been. Over the next few years following that first meeting we would discover three major obstacles to our mission and we would develop new projects to meet those challenges.
Today I am sitting at De Prague Cafe in Beirut, a meeting place of poets, intellectuals, and bloggers. I hear Arabic, English, French, and Italian. Sami just stopped by. Then Noha, Donatella, and Ayesha. We hadn’t planned on meeting up here, but bloggers find fast wi-fi like camels find water.
I am reading a post that Rebecca published on December 3, 2004. It is about what an ideal world news service would look like. And I am realizing that we did it. We built that. We worked our asses off to do something that we should all really be proud of.
Yes, we still have a long, long way to go. I am more cognizant of that than ever after attending last week’s Arab Bloggers Meeting. Evgeny’s latest article in the Prospect does a pretty good job listing just a few of the challenges.
But the point is, we’re not just making lists of what is wrong. We are making lists of what needs to be done to make it right. And, month by month, year by year, we’re slowly checking those items off.