Surprise guest at Netroots

Al Gore made a surprise appearance at the progressive bloggers Netroots Nation meeting in Austin, Texas this week.

Maybe we should think up a surprise guest for next year’s Global Voices Summit… But who? I can’t imagine there would be many global establishment figures people would be happy to see at our gathering.

But maybe we could persuade Ethan and Rebecca to wear dinosaur costumes or jump out of a cake. That would be surprising.

Gore announced a new social media website, called It’s a super slick website, with friendly people in ironed shirts, explaining how “we” can make a difference.

The site is great, with lots of tips for local activism. I just always feel the warnings of impending doom ring so hollow, when the of the first pieces of “take action” advice for minimizing your own impact is, “Turn down the heat and air conditioning when you aren’t home.”

I thought we needed leaders like Al Gore to guide us through some of the more radical changes needed in the United States to avert climate disaster?

At least I wish his group would raise the stakes. I realize it’s easier to get “10 million citizens” to sign up for “Bla, bla, bla,” but it would be nice if they were signing up for something that was really new and different.

I added my name to the list, because I know a big list of names can be a useful tool in advocacy work. I am just impatient.

Dreams of Global Voices

Photo by Neha Viswanathan

I have finally stopped dreaming about the Global Voices Summit. Every night my mind was filled with images of the people I spent the day with, probably mostly spurred by the pressures of keeping things running smoothly. They weren’t unpleasant dreams, but it’s really nice to have my brain to myself again.

This year’s Summit was actually three meetings in one.

There was a closed meeting for human rights activists and bloggers convened by our Advocacy arm; two public days that mostly resembled a conference of 200 people; and two closed days of meeting for Global Voices authors, editors, and translators. That’s five days for everyone who was there from beginning to end.

We started planning the Summit exactly one year ago, when I had just begun working at Global Voices. I was still so amazed by the way my new colleagues ran the whole project virtually and full of trust. I’d never been to a Global Voices Summit before, and didn’t quite know what to expect.

Step by step, we came closer to day, but even with the program in front of me, I still couldn’t imagine what it would be like.

Now that’s it’s over, I’m still struggling to find a good way to describe what I think is happening in this super cool movement (Ethan charmingly compares it to dancing with friends in the middle of the street). Rezwan has a great roundup of what other bloggers have been saying. And David lays out the challenges ahead.

Some amazing activists were there from more countries than anyone bothered to count. They were extremely practical, very brave and largely working in small online networks (connected to larger international ones). They were young, old, male, female, professional, or students, and extremely modest and friendly people. A number of participants had never been on an airplane before, while others have lived in at least a half a dozen different countries.

It’s a brand new field of global activism, and it feels like we are just beginning to map out the possibilities and bring it up to scale. For this group, there’s no real mention of ideology or party politics. They are for informed debate and freedom of expression, and they seem quite critical and suspicious of all authority. Most seemed to be there representing themselves as individuals as opposed to an organization or publication.

Operating largely in a framework of censorship makes it a different playing field than for most online activists in the US or Europe, but the lessons of their experiences are universal. In the session I moderated on citizen media and elections, Daudi Were from Kenya said something about the “Obamafication” of web politics after Kenyan politicians saw how much money Obama was raising online, but otherwise no one seemed to be looking to the United States for ideas on web activism.

I am sure some people will be surprised to hear the US is not regarded as a leader by this community (although many live and/or have worked there). I asked an Iranian activist, Hamid Tehrani, who was also on the election panel about it, and he even seemed to think the question was strange. The tools are global. Their application is locally informed. Luis Carlos Diaz joked that he had re-written the entire Venezuelan constitution on Twitter.

The Global Voices website is like a permanent infrastructure citizen media activists can use when really important stories break. Like when Burmese bloggers need to communicate with the world, or someone gets arrested for making a Facebook profile impersonating a prince. The news media know to come to us for more information. But the effect of the things we do day to day are more subtle. It’s about increasing dialogue and understanding between different people. Joi Ito calls it a solution to the “caring problem”.

And then he took a lot of pictures of everyone.

Joi's photoset from the Summit

Oh, Global Voices

Rebecca starts her post-Summit reflections with an anecdote about a blogger at the Summit who was so moved he said, “Nationalism is dead for me now.” I still think the majority of volunteers with Global Voices are motivated by putting their native or adoptive country, language, or region on the map, but it’s true: extreme positions make less sense once you begin to listen openly to other points of view.

Here’s the first question she asks:

As this article that I wrote jointly with Ethan Zuckerman back in 2006 tries to explain, GV arose as an attempt to address badly skewed global information flows in which the voices of people from North America and Western Europe are disproportionately amplified in the global media. But now here’s the problem: the skewed flows aren’t just happening on a global scale, there are imbalances within countries, regions, and communities. So the question is: what is the best way to achieve a global media environment where everybody has the ability to speak and be heard? And is there also a way for people to find authenticity, relevance, and quality amidst the cacophony of cat-blogging and hidden agendas?

In our internal meetings it was pretty cool to hear developing world bloggers defend the idea of representing marginalized voices in the United States and Europe on Global Voices (we tend not to cover these regions). We are trying in so many different simultaneous way to create change through communication. We sometimes struggle to define regions and coverage areas on Global Voices.

Rebecca then asks:

Can GV come up with an innovative and equitable way to organize a global citizen media website without using the nation-state as its organizing principle?

(head spins)

I think this question is more narrow (and difficult to answer) than the ultimate question she asks at the end of her post, which is whether Global Voices will remain open and decentralized enough to enable people to keep changing things as we go along (more like Wikipedia; less like CNN). How can we make sure that Global Voices continues to serve the community as a springboard for innovation?

One of the major outcomes of the internal meeting was a decision to begin working together more across regions, and bring in bloggers from different backgrounds to discuss political, social, and cultural issues online and in real life. The number of bloggers is increasing everywhere, but they are still mostly not communicating with people from other countries. How do we build more bridges between more people? There are lots of topics were open dialogue is possible.

I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of this.

We also talked about making it easier to contribute to Global Voices in any language. Our community favors translating from other languages into English as well as the other way around.

There were many other ideas and reflections. What I drew from our conversations is that we need to be light on our feet, and allow ourselves to change quickly enough to do what make sense in each particular situation. Are we too set in our ways? Are we enabling enough new ideas to surface? What is a lowly managing editor to do?

I don’t think we’re anywhere near irrelevant yet (!) but I do wonder as we grow bigger, what it will take for us to keep doing things as energetically and decentralized as we do. Global Voices is not just a website. Or a thing. But more like an experience, a community, and source of inspiration. One of the wonderful things about being involved, is that it really feels like the world is listening. We’ve already established that they are talking. Mainstream media definitely treats us a bit like an exotic laboratory that enables them to gaze into a future where the world is smaller, and more voices are heard. I think one of our proudest accomplishments is that we have become an incubator for these types of dreams.

Six new Rising Voices projects

Rising Voices is one the most fabulous aspects of the work we do at Global Voices. Citizen media activists in remote corners of the world are awarded micro-grants of up to $5000 to get members of their community to start blogging. I never imagined indigenous communities in Bolivia, or prison inmates in Jamaica would respond with such gusto. The whole project is so fun, and life-affirming. Enabling people to speak for themselves in a public space is so simple and yet so meaningful.

We have just announced 6 new Rising Voices projects that are all centered on public health (thanks to OSI funding). There were over 100 applications. What really struck me reading through the them, was how many people who had never worked with computers or citizen media, simply assumed they would be able to pick up blogging, podcasting, or online video with only little assistance. Attitudes to citizen media are changing rapidly, even where there are power shortages, or long distances to the nearest internet café.

Check out the Rising Voices trailer by David Sasaki. Keep in mind, it documents only one year of activity!

Zero Tolerance Fridays

My friend X used to hold a lot of barbecues on the street in front of his ground floor apartment, but this summer he’s thinking it might not be such a good idea. Police patrols have increased in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and he’s worried his guest might get in trouble with the police.

Paranoid perhaps, but it’s only a couple of weeks ago that his roommate was fined $25 dollars for walking quietly from the Chinese restaurant across the street to his home with a beer in his hand. X is an ordinarily upstanding citizen (with a beard), but instead of feeling protected by the police, he feels on edge, supervised, and at risk of being prosecuted for everyday behavior.

Earlier this month, when one of his roommates jumped a Subway turnstile late at night (he was 5 cents short on his Metro card), he was seized by plain clothes police officers and incarcerated for nearly 24 hours with nothing to eat but a cheese sandwich and a carton of milk. It was “zero tolerance Friday” the officers said (whatever that means), and apparently that warranted keeping him in a cell until 11pm the next day.

X himself received the same treatment for another silly misdemeanor about six months ago, and it will probably be on his record for ages. Granted, its illegal to jump turnstiles and drink booze on the street, but I’ve been hearing so many stories lately of authorities in New York taking disciplinary measures that are totally out of proportion with the crime. Being free of crime is nice, but so is being free of unnecessary prosecution.

At my local post office, I was chatting with the attendant and a couple of people in line, who said they had gone for a walk in Prospect Park after hours (not knowing it was illegal to walk in there after dark) and had ended up with a court summons. Same for two women who had sat on a bench in an empty playground, and got in trouble because apparently adults are required to have children with them in playgrounds at all times. All this nit-picking about the rules is one thing, but harassing people who aren’t hurting or disturbing others is just ridiculous.

My own neighborhood has gone through quite a transformation lately. Boutiques and bike lanes have been introduced on Vanderbilt Ave, and they are planting greenery in the middle of what previously seemed like an SUV race course. I spoke to a shop-owner on Vanderbilt on Saturday, who said she almost never used the lock and buzzer on her door that felt like a necessity only a couple of years ago. We chatted a while, and she asked me whether I was a bike-rider. I confirmed, and she surreptitiously passed me four bright red stickers, saying I should be “very careful” when I used them. The stickers are for a campaign which promotes zero tolerance for cars parked in bike lanes. When you see one, you’re supposed to glue a sticker on the car with the web address of I don’t think I would ever risk getting beaten up by an SUV owner in order to make a point about how dangerous it is for bikes to loop around a parked car in the middle of the street, but as far as vigilante activism goes, it is pretty creative. I wonder how many hours in jail the police would determine this sort of illicit behavior is worth?

Cyclone, what cyclone?

We’ve been getting tons of news on Global Voices about how activists and bloggers are using the web to distribute information from Myanmar after the cyclone, including numerous citizens videos of the devastation. The situation is obviously incredibly serious, although you wouldn’t know it from reading the state-run newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar.

Only one week after the cyclone, you had to leaf ahead to page 4 before it was even mentioned. What was on the front page instead? “The dictator, and his wife, casting their votes in the constitutional referendum that he didn’t see fit to postpone,” writes the New Mandala blog. Check out the pictures.

Thank you internet, for these simple illustrations of reality.

Ouch. Hillary portrayed as “sore loser” with “racist voters”

Okay, the Saturday Night Live video below is sort of funny as satire, but ends on a pretty serious note. Up until recently, everyone seemed to be patting each other on the back congratulating America for not playing up Obama’s race or Hillary’s gender as an issue. I think Hillary’s campaign has helped change this. If he talked about “male” voters, as much as she talks about “white working class voters”, I think it would become more apparent to us.

Two articles this week help illustrate, what I unfortunately think we may see more of in the near future. One, is from the Washington Post talking about different racist comments encountered by Obama campaign staffers. And the other is from Clint Hendler at the Columbia Journalism Review, explaining how many journalists don’t provide the necessary framing to stop people from getting away with “para-racism”. It’s a constructive argument and a critical reminder of how important the press is in setting the tone of the debate.

The conclusion goes:

The para-racial attacks on Obama won’t stop as he turns towards the general. When they happen, reporting on them is a good thing. When they are false, debunking them is vital. But explaining them is right.

Love the content, love the ads?

Paying for content on the web is pretty unpopular these days. Luckily for free content providers, ad sales online seem to be picking up. Lots of bloggers, non-profit websites and others, put free Google Ads or similar money-earning services on their sites. The user agreement for Google Ads (and probably others too) stipulates you aren’t allowed to ask people to click on them. That makes sense to avoid cheating. But isn’t it funny how no one seems to think of clicking on ads as a free form of charity?

In the past weeks, I have very unscientifically been asking friends who work in media and on the web, whether they ever consciously click on ads of the websites they like to read in order to help support them. So far everyone has said no. I don’t actually do it myself either.

Years ago, the Hunger Site (a website of GreaterGood) started getting people to click on ads, by promising to sponsor “a cup of rice” to the UN world food program. It was a runaway success, and they have since expanded to other issues like breast cancer, child health, literacy, the environment and animal rescue. The principle is simple, everybody gets it.

There is so much impetus on the side of the media companies and advertisers to lure people to click on their ads. Services like Revver (for profit sharing on online video) have built whole businesses around it. But so far, I haven’t heard of any reader’s movement to help fund their favorite websites by purposefully clicking on and looking at automatically generated ads. Why not? If people genuinely look at the ads it seems to work to everyone’s best interest.