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At the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit 2010

Eclectic is both a positive and critical appraisal. On the one hand the strength of Global Voices appears to be it’s ability to scale and build a large community and audience through a diverse set of approaches. On the other hand the level of eclecticism was at times confusing – product placements for Yahoo’s http://me.me service and only blunt criticism of the private companies that control many of the spaces that citizen journalists rely on meant it was hard to know where Global Voices stood on key questions of internet freedom.

First
the positives. The summit was impressive in demonstrating how
well Global Voices has been at building a large online community; the
5 or 6 core staff and dozen or so
regional coordinating editors are dwarfed by the hundreds of
volunteers. The Lingua project
for example has 120 active volunteer translators resulting in an
impressive multilingual site.
On the other hand I’m still learning how governance at Global Voices happens,
and would love to have been a fly on the wall at the 2 days of
internal meetings that happened after the conference. Many other
projects implode long before they build a community of this strength
and size and that must be applauded.

Whilst 2 days was too short for someone
not involved in the internal meetings (by day 2 I was only just
getting to know people and make solid connections).There was good
participation in the open sessions formats and the panel discussions
were lively, though not
always deeply engaging. This was reflected in the conference twittering that
frequently said no more than “session X starting in room B now”,
or “I’m in room C – XX is talking about X.” The tweets did
however improve over time as people felt more comfortable to be more
critical. These earlier tweets perhaps reflected the surface view of
issues that was often apparent in the sessions; things often didn’t
seem to get beyond presentations or fairly polite discussions. There
was a danger the event was becoming a Global Voices love-in.

The final session on internet freedom
with Global Voices co-founders Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca McKinnon was
more lively, passionate and critical. The question that interested me
most was raised in this discussion and was neatly summarised as
“we’re building public spaces on private infrastructure”. I found
Global Voices somewhat uncritical of
this problem and too close to the
companies who own and control the tools so many of us rely on. The plethora of sponsors such as
Yahoo, Google, the Gates Foundation and the session with YouTube
Senior Manager for Communications
discussing content take downs, was
indicative of this. At no point was the huge power of YouTube itself
questioned – only how we might petition
them more effectively. There seemed to be a certain politeness that
prevented asking some hard questions.
The free software culture and its critique of ownership and control
was certainly missing.

A key interest of
mine is video but it seems that the strength of the Global Voices project is
text, though I think there are a lot of opportunities for
video blogging, especially the aggregation of video content globally,
as EngageMedia is currently experimenting with through the
redevelopment of the http://transmission.cc
site. Given the discussions that occurred around access and literacy audio and video materials are key to engaging larger audiences.

Other concerns were the presence of the World Bank and the US State Department – this
really was a little too close for comfort regarding how blogging is being seen and what agendas it might serve, as well as how the independence of a space like Global Voices is perceived. The
internet freedom discussions heard some criticisms
regarding the US government’s
rather selective approach to pushing internet freedom – often
focussing on official enemies such as Iran and ignoring the censorship in allied states such as Tunisia and Egypt.

Here we
can see the danger of the middle ground that Global Voices occupies –
both right and left are for “internet freedoms” however advocacy
for such freedoms can be used rather selectively to promote larger
foreign policy goals with activists caught up in the middle. This middle ground does however
leave Global Voices in a very fundable position, but also amid many
contradictions and in danger of alienating some of its
base.

Finally, the thought that stuck with me
most through the event was a comment made by a Russian blogger
lamenting the lack of achieving real world gains from the
blogosphere. He felt there was a disconnect between “netizens and
citizens” that meant the online world could talk as much as it
liked but they were generally ignored. This highlighted for me the
need to get content off the net and link it with social movements to
ensure it achieves concrete changes.
There is a danger that the blogosphere is just a urban, middle class indulgence that talks to itself without making real world, offline changes.
Content needs to be linked to action and also “old media” such
as TV and radio which still provide the vast majority of people with
their daily information.

Conference Website: http://summit2010.globalvoicesonline.org/

Video: http://globalvoices.blip.tv/

Twitter: http://search.twitter.com/search?q=gv2010

Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/gv2010/