THE CARIBBEAN STUDIES ASSOCIATION (CSA), one of the major assemblies of scholars of the history, culture, and society of the Caribbean region, held its annual conference in Port of Spain, Trinidad, last week, with the theme “The Caribbean in the Age of Modernity: the Role of the Academy in Responding to the Challenges of the Region”. A few months ago, Global Voices Francophonia editor Alice Backer suggested to Caribbean editor Georgia Popplewell and myself (a sometime Global Voices author) that we organise a panel on Caribbean blogging and other participatory web media as part of the CSA programme. We duly submitted an “abstract” for a “roundtable” discussion called “Global Voices, Caribbean Accents”, with the idea that Alice would talk about online manifestations of “Haitianity”, Georgia would advocate for “a Caribbean multimedia Internet” which harnessed the potential of audio and video, and I would muse over the role of the Internet in defining “Caribbeanness”. In the event, another commitment prevented Alice from making it to Trinidad for the conference, and Trinidadian journalist, blogger, and activist Attillah Springer agreed, at very short notice, to take her place. (Alice did, however, write a blog post titled “Four reasons Caribbean scholars could benefit from blogging”, directly addressed to CSA conference attendees, thereby participating in the discussion despite her physical absence.) The roundtable took place at 11.30 on the morning of Wednesday 31 May, at the National Library in downtown Port of Spain.
Though most other events on the CSA programme were aimed at specialist audiences, we decided early on that our “roundtable” would be distinctly unacademic in format. After brief introductions by Dr. Bruce Paddington of the University of the West Indies, our nominal moderator (who came armed with newspaper and magazine clippings demonstrating the ascendancy of citizen media, including one from a Trinidad and Tobago daily on the Alaa detention), we opened by playing a podcast recorded the previous day, in which Georgia and I asked a series of CSA delegates a not-so-straightforward question: “What does ‘Caribbean’ mean to you?” You can listen to the resulting presentation here:
Next we examined, via a Google wildcard search, some of the stereotypes of “Caribbeanness” that flourish on the Web. (Thanks to the diligent IT technicians of the National Library, we had Georgia's PowerBook plugged into an overhead projector, and were able to show the audience live webpages on a big screen.) We contrasted these sun-sand-sea clichés with examples of the real issues and questions on the minds of a cross-section of Caribbean bloggers, including Geoffrey Philp, Francomenz, Francis Wade, Taran Rampersad, Elspeth Duncan, Matthew Hunte, Guyana Gyal, and Karen Walrond.
We quickly decided to deviate from the rough “script” we'd prepared, to allow the dialogue to range freely and encourage the small audience to interrupt with questions. The result was highly interactive, to say the least. The mostly non-Caribbean audience seemed aware that blogs existed but, with the exception of one university professor who herself was a blogger, they had little idea how to go about setting one up. The solution: create a blog right there and then, using Blogger. Named on a whim by an audience member, and still boasting the single post written to demonstrate the facility of the interface, Virtual Drumming was up and running in three or four minutes. Georgia spoke in some detail about Internet audio and the use of RSS feeds, and Attillah gave an impassioned presentation on the blog maintained by the Rights Action Group, which is at the forefront of the protest against the development of an aluminium smelter in south Trinidad.
We also discussed, among many other topics, access to the Internet in the Caribbean; the demographics of the Caribbean blogosphere; phenomena like Flickr, Technorati, the Wikipedia, and Google; the possibilities for citizen journalism in the region, and for using blogs as political tools; ways that Caribbean studies scholars can use blogs to share their research with audiences outside the academy; and the relevance of Caribbean blogs as objects of scholarly study. One audience member, a historian, excitedly compared blogs to sources of oral history as media for documenting diverse experiences and points of view. As we wrapped up, we looked at a blog post by Jamaican Geoffrey Philp, written as a virtual contribution to the roundtable, in which he argued that blogging “challenges the elitism that pervades the Caribbean and is a great experiment in the democratization of data”, and suggested that, by making national boundaries and geographical barriers irrelevant, blogging could serve as a means of fostering a sense of transnational Caribbean identity.
In the audience were academics from Trinidad, Jamaica, the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Netherlands, as well as Trinidadian bloggers Jonathan Ali and Tracy Assing of the Caribbean Beat blog. The roundtable was competing with six or seven other CSA events (including a no-doubt sold-out panel called “How to complete your PhD and get tenure”), and the venue was three blocks from the conference headquarters on a blisteringly hot day, which perhaps accounted for the small turnout, but several members of the audience expressed interest in setting up blogs of their own, and we were invited to stage a similar event for staff and students at the Centre for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies. Most important, we had a lively, fun discussion with an eager and talkative audience, and at least a handful of Caribbean studies scholars left with a clearer idea of the potential value of blogging and other participatory web media to people in the Caribbean.