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Ethan Zuckerman on blogs and twitter enabling global attention for 'citizen media'

Global Voices was inspired by an incident in 2004, when a friend reading a New York Times article about Cameroon's elections posed the question: is there anyone in Cameroon blogging about this? Along with his colleague, former CNN Beijing journalist Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan convened a group of bloggers from the developing world at Harvard. What came out strongly from these discussions was a desire for participants to be able to read each others' blogs. What started as Rebecca and Ethan each summarizing a couple of hundred blogs daily has grown into the Global Voices website, which uses a network of 400 editors to filter, translate and provide context to global blogs, making them accessible to readers around the world.

Since 2004, there have been some major changes to the context in which Global Voices operates. The organization has tried to respond to each of these:

  • There has been massive expansion in internet access across the developing world, but rarely beyond the middle class and educated. Rising Voices allows media organizations from developing countries to apply for small grants to help them use digital media in their communities. A number of great success stories coming out of this initiative have demonstrated that it is possible to get traction for citizen media, even in very low resource communities.
  • The digital space has emerged as a political space. This has prompted far greater levels of censorship. Global Voices Advocacy works to highlight cases of individuals arrested for involvement in citizen journalism and attempts to keep these stories live. It also works to document censorship of publishing platforms and to provide spaces where people can blog anonymously.
  • In 2004, almost all blogging was in English. Now the majority of people are blogging in their own languages, about local issues. Translation therefore becomes a greater challenge. ProjectLinguauses volunteer translators to amplifyGlobal Voicesin many languages other than English.

Ethan suggested three possible theories about what we are seeing in the growth of social media:

  • Social media will be the natural organizing tool for a new generation.
  • Social media is an asymmetric tool - it is what you use when the tools of more effective mainstream media are not available to you.
  • Social media is a story in itself - it can draw attention to a story that might otherwise not be picked up.

Crisis situations such as the protests in Iran and the Haitian earthquake have started to legitimize the use of social media by mainstream media outlets, blurring the boundaries between professional and citizen reporting. And some of the key challenges associated with access and language barriers are beginning to be addressed. But the problem of global attention span will be hardest to solve. So many situations never receive coverage and for those that do, the media cycle rarely allows them to stay in the spotlight beyond a few weeks. We have developed long standing bad habits in our understanding of what constitutes news. Social media has dramatically changed who is able to speak; but will it change how we choose to listen? This remains a major challenge.