‘Harnessing the internet to create unprecedented global connection’: an interview with Ethan Zuckerman

Ethan Zuckerman. Photo free to use via Wikimedia Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Ethan Zuckerman, technologist, Professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Global Voices co-founder, and a prominent figure in the internet world with a long history dating back to 1989, sparked an important discussion in 2014 with a heartfelt apology titled “A Public Apology on Screwing Up by Not Questioning Assumptions.” Ethan reflected on his role in inventing the widely disliked pop-up ads used to generate revenue as a former employee of Tripod.com, the most popular web destination in the early 1990s.

Born out of this experience and the belief that people should have the right to speak freely and be heard, Global Voices has been recording global news, geopolitical dynamics, and human stories for nearly 20 years. Today, the media platform has become a hub for news, research, and human interest stories from countless global communities and languages, often marginalized or overlooked by mainstream media. Ethan talked to Juke Carolina about how this nonprofit media outlet was conceptualized and why.

Juke Carolina (JC): Can you walk us through how GV came to life from its conception to its launch?

Ethan Zuckerman (EZ): This was in the early 2000s, 2003, I think, or maybe 2004. Rebecca (MacKinnon) and I were both fellows at the Berkman Center. The Berkman Center was probably, at that point, the leading center in studying the internet and society. And Rebecca and I both were very interested in how the internet builds bridges between the Global North and the Global South. Or really between the US, Europe, and other nations. How could we use the internet, the possibility that people could speak and listen to each other in a new and in sort of unprecedented way, and actually use it for global connection?

Rebecca is fluent in Mandarin and speaks some Cantonese, and has lived in China for a lot of her life. She lived there as a very young girl, so her Chinese (language) is excellent. She lived there as a reporter for CNN. So she was really interested in using the internet to understand what's happening in China, North Korea, and some other countries that we don't really learn a lot about. I spent my 20s and 30s in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). I went to Ghana as a Fullbright Scholar when I was 20 years old. I ran an NGO called Geek Corps, which did work on technology volunteering, all throughout SSA. And I was interested in (the question) “could the internet build bridges between the people in SSA and the rest of the world?”

A big thing that was going on in the early 2000s was the rise of weblogs. So you had lots of writers, maintaining their own websites, writing a couple of times per week/ a couple of times per month about what was going on in local politics, and local society, and Rebecca and I started compiling lists of blogs we thought were terrific. There was a bloggers conference hosted at Harvard University, and Rebecca mostly, it was mostly her work, organized an international track to that conference. And we invited friends from all over the world to come to be part of it. And we had people from the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, lots of bloggers who we’ve had read but we had never met in person. And we had so much fun hanging out together at Harvard,  that we concluded that we had to do something. And what we ended up doing was building a blog that was going to keep track of what was going on in all of these different conversations. So, we wrote a manifesto about the right to listen and to hear each other, and Rebecca and I started the work of maintaining a blog, a global voices blog that was trying to amplify voices from all over the world. What we realized very quickly was that it (keeping track of these different conversations) was way too big for two people and particularly too big for two Americans, it needed people in all parts of the world we were working with to be part of it.

JC: How did you and Rebecca — two very different people with different backgrounds — connect and decided to work together?

EZ: It’s a very good question. I think a big piece of it is that many Americans believe that what’s going on in our own country is the most interesting thing in the world. And that the rest of the world isn’t very interesting. Rebecca and I both thought differently. We’re much more interested in what’s going on in different parts of the world than what’s going on in the US.

At this particular point in blogging (history), the biggest thing was leftwing politics. And Rebecca and I weren’t interested in it. I think finding someone else who’s interested in technology but was not super interested in what the Americans were doing with it but rather interested in what's happening in other parts of the world, was a really interesting connection for both of us.

So I think we just very quickly saw in each other, someone who had a different view of what technology could do and what we might do with it. And that was a real transformative moment for both of us. So I think we just saw in each other, someone who wants to know more broadly about the world.

To date, many of the people who had the most success on Global Voices were what we called “Bridge Figures.” And there are, sort of, two traits of a Bridge Figure: First, a person who knows two cultures quite well. That’s the first qualification; you have to know at least two cultures well. Second, someone who is passionate about advocating your home culture. Global Voices embraced people who understand a country and culture from the inside and out, who are excited, proud, and willing to involve in thinking about it from outside of the country.

Juke: In 2014, you wrote a blog post called “A Public Apology on Screwing Up by Not Questioning Assumptions.” I must ask, why do questioning assumptions matter?

EZ: Let’s start by saying what that post was about. My history with the internet goes back quite far. I go on the internet in 1989, I was very active on the internet before the web. It was internet based on text based bulletin boards called UseNet. I started working on the web very early 1993, when it was just becoming a new standard. And by 1994, I was working for a company called Tripod.com, which was one big social media company on the web. And social media at that time was not Facebook or LinkedIn it was personal web pages. You can have your own personal homepage. And we hosted personal homepages of 18 million people. And that made it the most popular destination on the web. It was an expensive business. Paying for servers and disk spaces costs us hundreds of thousands of dollars monthly. And we needed to find a way to make money. The way to do that at that time was by advertising. But there was a problem with advertising which at that point, advertisers didn’t want to be on the same page with the user-generated content.

So they didn’t want to be on the same page as my home page. They worried that I might post controversial content. So I found a solution that involved associating an ad with a homepage but not putting it actually on the same page.  I put it in a separate pop-up window. What this means is that I invented pop-up ads, which is something that’s really hated — I think justifiably hated. Like I think it is not a very good solution to the problem and a pretty miserable thing to encounter. But what I wrote about was this idea that I think these days we’ve discovered that the ad-supported internet is not very good for us if you support content through advertising, the temptation is to build content that’s more and more controversial, that works very hard to get clicks and page views, and that has unhealthy associations with it.

Ethan's candid admission of his mistake in not advocating for alternative business models earlier and pushing against unhealthy practices in online advertising is a wake-up call for the evolving landscape of the internet. As a professor and author, Ethan's insights shed light on the need for change in the contemporary Internet business model.

EZ: If you’re trying to get as many page views as possible, you’re likely to favor highly controversial content, highly emotional content, content that make people angry, and so I wrote this confession because I think my mistakes all those years ago was not advocating for different business models. I should have pushed against targeted advertising and against this whole model that governs the contemporary internet. I just don’t think it’s very healthy.

Find part two of this interview here.

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