It’s not very hard to convince people – friends, family, strangers – that Global Voices is amazing and deserving of their support. In fact, not once have I described what I do for a living to anyone and heard the reaction, ‘well, that sounds kinda lame.’ No, it’s always met with boundless enthusiasm.
This is a good thing because part of my job, as Outreach Director, is to convince people that Global Voices is amazing and deserving of their support. But sometimes I am wary of the lack of criticism, or at least skepticism, of what Global Voices is trying to do and how we are trying to do it. Sure, we have our comment trolls who like to accuse us of being a propaganda tool of the CIA or US State Department, but their complaints are almost always more revealing of their agendas than their critical reasoning. (How dare you call Kosovo a country! Why do you link to so many Muslim bloggers! etc. etc.)
If you followed any of the reactions to the recent Global Voices Summit (more here), then you might just think that we are evangelists of some vogue new religious movement born out of a Hollywood dive bar. You might just think that the very fate of humanity is perched dangerously on the bits and bytes of a website called Global Voices. Even the most cynical of attendees were unable to hold grasp of their cynicism.
This, of course, as organizers of the event, is what Georgia, Solana, Sami, and I had hoped for. However, their are two valid exercises when it comes to blogging about Global Voices – first and foremost is pointing to those voices which are usually ignored by traditional media and spreading them among our personal networks (something most of us don’t do enough of) and second is to lend a critical eye to the site and think about how it can be improved as well as what are the unintended (and perhaps harmful) consequences of more inclusive communication. This post will be the second type of post – a summary of my criticisms of Global Voices.
Measuring “ignored voices” through a lens of nationalism
Global Voices’ one line descriptive blurb declares that it “aggregates, curates, and amplifies the global conversation online – shining light on places and people other media often ignore.” But how do we decide which places and people other media often ignore? So far, it means covering the blogospheres of every country outside of Western Europe and North America. Which, as Rebecca MacKinnon notes in a profound and eloquent piece, makes for some strange decisions to cover countries like Macedonia, but not Greece. It also means that we cover the blogs of elites in Tokyo, but not those of Navajo students in Northern Arizona. The nation state is clearly not an effective categorial lens to measure “ignored voices”. But then, what is?
In my opinion, Global Voices needs to work closer with media attention researchers to get a better idea of which communities are well-represented in the media and which are not. Fortunately, in the time since Global Voices first started, several new tools have appeared that can help give us a better idea of international media coverage. Google News is probably still the best metric of what stories are receiving the most coverage (currently that Alex Rodriguez is in love with “pop cougar” Madonna). In the future I can imagine us working more closely with Google News to discover which stories are receiving saturated attention and which are barely being talked about. There is also the handy News Archive Search to get a more historical view of what has received ample coverage and what has not.
But of course, Global Voices is much more than just the content of the stories we publish, it is also about the unique, under-represented perspectives of those we highlight. We have an entire website dedicated to a topic that receives no shortage of coverage – the US elections – but it features voices you’re not likely to see anywhere else; why is a South African for Chuck Baldwin? and why is a Palestinian against Obama? I don’t think that even Google has a handy algorithm to judge when a person does or does not come from a community that is “ignored”. That imperfect science will most likely always be decided by the imperfect consensus of our community of authors and editors.
Misrepresenting what is representative
My second critique of Global Voices has to do with its rhetoric. And I am more guilty of this than anyone else. During my long stint of writing the Global Voices Digest, I would routinely write “find out what Fijian bloggers have to say about X” or “what Chinese really think about Y”. It is a handy rhetorical device – it makes the readers of the digest feel that they are somehow getting the real story, that they’re getting the inside, grassroots scoop that no one else knows about. Which, it should be said, has a certain element of truth to it. But the problem is that a Global Voices post doesn’t reveal what, for example, Indians have to say about the India-US nuclear deal. Rather, it reveals what three Indian bloggers have to say about it. Are those three bloggers representative of the entire Indian blogosphere? Of the entire country?
Our authors try their best to represent as many opinions and perspectives as possible, but as Arianna Huffington likes to point out, giving equal weight to “both sides of the story” can end up painting a false portrait of how the public really feels.
In similar fashion, Global Voices team of 15 or so editors each publish five brief posts pointing to what some bloggers in their regions are talking about each day. If you follow each of editor’s posts on a daily basis, you will see that what they link to is revealing not only of the blogospheres they cover, but also their own personal interests. For example, Veronica likes to link to posts with subtle humor and witty satire. Neha likes to show the fun side of South Asian bloggers. There is a human rights and social justice focus to most of the posts linked to by Paula. The interests of editors influencing the content they publish is hardly unique to Global Voices. Nor do I think it’s negative – in fact, I like Veronica being my witty guide to Eastern Europe just as I like Paula showing me around the various social justice issues in the former Portuguese colonies.
What I think should change, however, is our rhetoric. We often portray Global Voices as the zeitgeist of what the ignored world is discussing when in fact we are an amazing international community of individuals with large online networks and particular interests.
The anti-censorship movement’s dependence on censorship
Over the past year Global Voices has become one of the leading communities in the anti-censorship movement. In fact, the entire first day of this year’s Global Voices summit was dedicated to issues of online censorship. Something that came up over and over again was what I often refer to as the “border patrol paradox”. The US Border Patrol, as we all know, is given lots of money by the US government to put a stop to illegal immigration to the United States. However, if they succeed and put a stop to illegal immigration, then they will surely be given less money in the future. The paradox is largely responsible for the strange positions of the National Border Patrol Council and for the US’s contradictory positions on immigration in general.
Similarly, throughout the day’s discussions about fighting online censorship, many of the activist speakers said they had hoped that they would be censored by their government because they knew that would immediately draw international attention to their cause. It’s true – anytime a website is blocked, it immediately becomes international news. Which begs the difficult question: If activists are hoping for their websites to be blocked, where does that place them in the movement to end all censorship?
Rising Voices and Global Voices spread cultural hegemony
The most common question I’m asked by journalists (and others with a natural affinity toward skepticism) is whether or not Rising Voices evangelizes a particularly Western notion of communication. Or, worse, if it accelerates the process of Westernization and global homogenization in communities that had previously been somewhat insulated.
My position, my response, has always been that Rising Voices trains people how to use tools, not what to do with those tools. Sometimes I would add that Rising Voices hopes to help build up the current against Westernization by amplifying the voices outside of the so-called global hegemony.
Now I’m not so sure. When I visit the Rising Voices projects it is true that they continue to write compelling narratives about their local communities. But the internet is send and receive. While they add their voices to the global chorus, they also discover the wealth of information online, most of which is written by North Americans and Europeans. They have a new desire to learn English, and to understand the many memes and ‘inside jokes’ that spread around like wildfire throughout the blogosphere.
One example of this accelerating homogenization can be found in April Fool’s Day. It has become very popular for bloggers to publish outrageous posts on their blogs on April 1 each year to commemorate April Fool’s Day. The origin of April Fool’s Day is unknown, but until just a few years ago, it was a decidedly Western tradition. Latin America, meanwhile, has its own similar custom, Dia de los Inocentes, which is celebrated in late December.
Because of the internet, however, Dia de los Inocentes probably won’t be celebrated for much longer. Latin American bloggers, wanting to play along with their peers around the world, have ditched Dia de los Inocentes for April Fool’s Day. This is hardly anything to sound the alarms about, but it is indicative of the wider trend in which the conversational web homogenizes our rituals as a way to bring us together. The basic and clichéd question, perhaps without an answer, is: How do we promote unity while preserving diversity?
To act, to discuss, or both?
My last critique is less of a criticism of Global Voices and more an opportunity for me to weigh in on an interesting debate taking place between Patrick Philippe Meier and Paul Currion. Both men seem to have the academic tendency to speak in aphorisms and then criticize one another for it, but their general debate about moderating extremity in news headlines on the one hand, and social action and humanitarian response on the other is interesting.
If I understand Paul correctly, his two main criticisms of Global Voices are that 1.) it doesn’t matter if you highlight moderate voices discussing the news of their countries because it is the extreme voices who will always make the headlines and 2.) during times of conflict and emergency, focusing on participatory websites rather than humanitarian institutions will lead to lots of conversation, but less action.
The first criticism seems a little silly to me. It is like saying, it doesn’t matter if you discuss international news because celebrity news will always attract more readers. To put it simply, Global Voices does attract many readers and they are all being exposed to a complex portrait of the world that doesn’t fit into the cut and dry headlines of major newspapers.
It is his second critique which I find (and have always found) much more interesting. Do participatory media tools inspire people to talk more or to act more? Or, put more clearly, does the time that people spend discussing an issue online lead to their active participation regarding that issue offline or does it take away from it? If I were to ever go to graduate school, that is probably the single question I would try to answer quantitatively.
If it turns out that blogging and other forms of citizen media lead communities to talk an issue to death without acting on it, then does Global Voices’ evangelism of citizen media promote more social inaction?
I don’t know what the answer is, but I do think there is room for us to work with organizations, institutions, and foundations focused on legislative change and social justice so that brilliant ideas don’t fade away in the archives of blogs. One possibility, for example, is to work with initiatives like Pop!Tech’s Accelerator so that online debate fuels real life problem solving.
There are a few other minor criticisms I have of Global Voices. I feel that we could be much more financially transparent and that our administrative decision-making process could be more egalitarian. But this post has become plenty long enough.
Which isn’t to say I’m highly critical of Global Voices. Just the opposite – the longer I work for GV, the more I believe in its mission, in our mission. Which is exactly why I think it’s important to point out everything that I believe we could be doing better.