We held a brainstorming session on Global Voices at the Berkman Center Tuesday lunch earlier this week. It was a good chance for Rebecca and me to present some of the thinking we've done about how Harvard can support Global Voices efforts and what our work at Berkman is likely to focus on for the next year. The end result of the brainstorm: a lot of hard questions we don't yet have good answers to, and a much more focused plan for what we'd like Harvard's contribution to Global Voices to be.
(An important reminder: Global Voices is a movement open to participation by anyone working on a project consonant with the manifesto we drafted last December. The project Rebecca and I are leading at Harvard is one of the many efforts in a larger Global Voices movement. When I talk about focus, I'm referring to constraints to the project Rebecca and I are working on, not the Global Voices movement as a whole.)
As for the plan we presented: We're planning on turning the Global Voices blog – including future audio and video blogs – into a hub for individual voices around the world. We're designing a system that uses a web-based, del.icio.us-like service to allow GV allies to identify great posts and feeds and tag them, which automatically adds them to the directory of bridge blogs we're building and to subject, country and language-focused aggregators. We're planning a system that allows users to request translations of documents and volunteers fulfill these requests. And we're planning on producing a rich media blog that individuals and news organizations can use to find creative voices around the world. Our recent efforts to feature international voices on the site are a preview of what we're hoping to do over the next several months.
Three useful clarifications that arose from the GV discussions:
- Our Global Voices work focuses on bridgeblogs – weblogs written to bridge a gap between cultures. Our aim is not to give comprehensive coverage to absolutely everything that comes out of the vast universe of existing weblogs around the world. Our goal is to foster a more democratic and balanced global conversation, and thus our priority emphasis is on blogs that specifically bring two cultures and countries closer together by explaining one culture to the other.
- Berkman's Global Voices project is focused on bridgeblogs that shed light on parts of the world that are poorly covered by mainstream media. Poor coverage refers to quality as well as quantity – we're looking for unheard voices from media dense countries like Iraq, as well as voices from undermediated countries, like Zimbabwe.
- An explicit objective of our GV efforts is to influence the mainstream media. In other words, we're not attempting to set up a rival news network so much as we are looking to “hack” mainstream media. We believe that present an excellent “backchannel” to get mainstream media to consider issues and stories they might otherwise ignore, and that it's easier to turn the blogosphere's attention to undercovered issues and countries than it is to influence mainstream media directly.
Of the many useful suggestions we got, two stood out. David Weinberger reminded us that we need to contextualize the stories we point to and explain “this is why you should care about this”. He observed that, when Rebecca and I talk about our favorite bloggers in other parts of the world, we tend to give a two sentence explanation of what's going on in that country and why we think this person's voice is important. Everyone contributing to Global Voices needs to think seriously about how to contextualize the voices we're introducing to a wider audience. Ejovi Nuwere suggested that we might try a variety of automatic techniques, linking to country profiles, media stories and past posts from the same region of the globe – I'm going to look seriously into a couple of strategies to do this.
Terry Fisher, the faculty director of the Berkman Center, advised us to take the issue of how we categorize blogs very seriously. He advocated the idea of allowing for regional or ethnic groupings – “Kurds”, for instance – as well as the nation-based hierarchy we've introduced to our directory so far. This led to a wide-ranging conversation about whether we create a hierarchy of categories and identities to classify blogs, or whether we attempt a “shared folksonomy”.It's safe to say that we a) realize that these are questions we need to address sooner rather than later and b) have absolutely no idea how to address!
Photo: Clark Boyd of WGBH in Boston interviews Atanu, Ory and Rebecca after the brainstorm.