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I remember the first time I found Global Voices. In 2004 I had been living in the former Soviet Union and was about to move to Bangkok. For the past few years I’d been working with local TV and radio stations in Central Asia and Afghanistan, and it was a big shift to focus on Southeast and East Asia. I needed a crash course in Asian current affairs. In the course of my research I came across a curious project called the North Korea Zone that aggregated and distilled information about North Korea, and functioned as a platform for conversation about that coverage. I was drawn to the site because it helped me to grasp a complicated international story quickly, and because it treated news coverage less as a product and more as a process.

Sadly, NKZone didn’t last long, but while it did, I was a fan. And when Rebecca MacKinnon, its author, helped launch Global Voices together with Ethan Zuckerman in the end of 2004, I followed from afar. At the time my work was all about helping local communities in Asia to gain access to media production, and to learn the skills necessary to build and run media outlets. As Global Voices emerged, I noticed that it had a similar ethos, but that it was able to link people without media institutions mediating their perspectives. As with NKZone, it became a go-to site to ground-truth my understanding of countries and news stories.

Afghan theatre returns after the Taliban, Kabul, 2002. © Ivan Sigal

As I followed GV in its first years, something else happened: blogs went from being a peripheral Internet phenomenon to key tools to democratize media production and distribution. Internet access in the developing world also expanded enough have a mass impact on information flows. If media development had been all about creating media institutions and training professional staff to run them, suddenly, it was also about encouraging mass use of simple, nearly free tools to increase conversation, and disseminate all kinds of perspectives.

Global Voices was uniquely situated to take advantage of that shift. As a community made up primarily of volunteers, it could tap into diverse enthusiasms and ideas. It didn’t need to be guided by a complicated strategy, but simply to set out a few basic principles for action, as captured in its manifesto, and allow people to experiment, and play, in its space.

After years of benefiting from the enthusiasms and writing of GVers, 18 months ago I had the pleasure to become part of the community. I joined just as GV began a new phase of existence, leaving its original home at the Berkman Center and becoming an independent nonprofit organization. It’s been my job in that time to help GV to continue, and to preserve the spirit and energy of the project even as we’re faced with the reality of funding needs, increasing global presence, and the pressure that funding brings to articulate both a vision and a strategy. I’ve quickly learned that at GV, leadership is primarily expressed by listening, and by ensuring that the way we work is indicative of the kind of media we’d like to have – transparent, enthusiastic, open, considerate, and joyful.

In the past five years, GV has grown tremendously. It’s now a community with some 350 authors, editors, and translators all working together to prove the premise of GV that we can write the media we want into existence. In the last year alone, we’ve produced unique and vital coverage on stories from Gaza, Madagascar, Fiji, Iran, Guinea, Honduras, and Cuba. We now translate GV into 18 active languages, with another 10 in beta. Collectively, the GV family of sites has an average of 500,000 unique visitors per month. This year, we’ve also launched innovative new projects that explore the boundaries of citizen media, such as our Translation Exchange research initiative, our online freedom of expression advocacy platform, Threatened Voices, our Russian blogosphere project, RuNet Echo, our new collaborative research project, the Transparency and Technology Network, and finally, our new online freedom of expression award, Breaking Borders, in collaboration with Google.

GV is strong on participation, community, and new ideas, but it needs your help to continue. With the marking of our 5th anniversary, we both celebrate our origins and look forward to a future of innovations, new initiatives, and a strong, vital community that continues to grow size and diversity.

Our future may include a user community, original content in multiple languages, and initiatives that take advantage of emerging tools of media production. We’re certain to continue to tell the story of citizen media, as it morphs from blogs, to micro-blogging, to social media, to mapping, to collaborative, multi-user production.

We’re excited by all the things we don’t know, and we’re looking forward to helping to create the future of citizen media. We also want you to join us, whether as an author or translator, collaborator, financial supporter, or active reader.

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Public diplomacy over the last decade has been dominated by strategic communications thinking with an emphasis on projecting messages about U.S. official viewpoints in a time of war. At the same time, media have undergone fundamental changes, both in the proliferation of satellite broadcasting, and in the advent of networked digital communications via internet and cell phone networks that allow mass participation in the creation of content. The new U.S. administration has promised a different approach – focused on listening over lecturing. What role should public diplomacy take in this context? Should it be redefined? Upgraded? Demoted? Should the U.S. government continue to support international broadcasting efforts, or disband much of that in favor of support for more participatory approaches? Is this a time when less might be better?

An event on Tuesday morning in Washington D.C. (Tuesday evening Asia time) called Media as Global Diplomat, organized by the U.S. Institute of Peace and ITVS, will explore “how the United States can best use media to reinvigorate its public diplomacy strategy and international influence in order to strengthen efforts to build a more peaceful world.

It will be interesting to see if the public diplomacy world begins to take on the lessons of participatory media – and focus less on messages and projecting an American viewpoint, and more on listening, and thinking creatively about how the voices and perspectives of others are treated as partners in conversation.

If you haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about public diplomacy – take a look at ProPublica’s investigative series into Alhurra TV – the BBG’s effort to reach the Middle East through a USG-funded “commercial” TV network. Alhurra and related radio project Radio Sawa might be the epitome of Bush-era thinking of how to mimic commercial mass media to project American messages and viewpoints to the world. Regardless of whether they were right for their time – and there are good arguments that they weren’t – it’s worthwhile asking how relevant such efforts will be in a time of abundant media – given hundreds of competing satellite broadcasters, and the paradigm changes to communications brought about by the networked public sphere.

Join me and my colleague Rebecca MacKinnon to find out. Watch the live webcast and join a live chat here or here. Twitter at #usip.  Facebook page here. Rebecca will be live-blogging the event here on her blog, with some backup from me. I’ll also repost that here on burning bridge.

I will be online to moderate and follow the live chat, bringing your views and questions from the live chatroom into the event. That way, we hope the conversation can be expanded beyond the room to include everybody watching and reacting remotely.

If you have views in advance that they’d like to express, please post them in the comments section of this post, or on Rebecca’s site.

Below is the full program and schedule, taken from here.

Challenge
We are in a disruptive period in media, the result of an explosion in digital distribution, social networking, and user generated content. And with disruption comes opportunity. This summit, moderated by Ted Koppel and entitled Media as Global Diplomat, is a forum to ask key public and private sector leaders how the United States can best use media to reinvigorate its public diplomacy strategy and international influence in order to strengthen efforts to build a more peaceful world.

Agenda [All times EST]

(9:00 a.m.) Welcome and Framing the Day
Sheldon Himelfarb, Associate Vice President, Center of Innovation for Media, Conflict, and Peacebuilding, U.S. Institute of Peace

Hosts Remarks
Ambassador Richard Solomon, President, U.S. Institute of Peace
Sally Jo Fifer, President and Chief Executive Officer, Independent Television Service

Media & Public Diplomacy: The Challenge at Hand
Ted Koppel will address the dramatically changing global media landscape and its implications for public diplomacy and peacebuilding.

(9:30 a.m.) Public Diplomacy 2.0: Rethinking Official Media

In this new era of digital distribution, social networking, and user generated content, what is the role of government-funded media in bolstering America’s global influence and ability to manage conflict? This panel will discuss where traditional strategies for media-based public diplomacy are effective and where they need to change.

Panelists:

  • Kathy Bushkin Calvin – Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, The United Nations Foundation; Former President, AOL Time Warner Foundation
  • Ambassador Edward Djerejian- Founding Director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy
  • Abderrahim Foukara- Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief, Al Jazeera International
  • Ambassador James Glassman – Former Under Secretary of State Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State
  • Andrew McLaughlin – Director of Global Public Policy and Government Affairs, Google
  • James Zogby – Founder and President, Arab American Institute

(11:15 a.m.) The Global Media Marketplace
What is the responsibility of free market commercial media to serve the greater public good in the global media age? This panel will consider the role of “unintended” stereotypes in shaping the image of the US abroad and the perils of uninformed citizens at home due to declining news coverage of international events.

Panelists:

  • Edward Borgerding – Chief Executive Officer, Abu Dhabi Media Company
  • Carol Giacomo –  Editorial Board Member, The New York Times
  • Mika Salmi –  President of Global Digital Media of MTV Networks
  • Smita Singh – Director, Global Development Program, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
  • Sydney Suissa – Executive Vice President of Content, National Geographic Channels International

(12:30 p.m.) Lunch

(1:15 p.m.) Special Screening: Waltz With Bashir
Ari Folman’s animated documentary on the horrors of the 1982 Lebanon War. Academy Award nominee and winner of 2009 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. Waltz With Bashir is part of the ITVS International initiative and will be introduced by introduced by Calvin Sims, Program Officer, Media Arts & Culture, Ford Foundation.

(2:45 p.m.) Independent Documentary and Participatory Media
In discussing the film, this panel will consider the potential of film and video to connect people around the world and transform conflict. How can this powerful content be deployed as part of a more effective US public diplomacy strategy?

Panelists:

  • Tamara Gould – Vice President of Distribution, Independent Television Service
  • Yvette Alberdingk Thijm – Executive Director, Witness

Since I joined Global Voices I’ve had little time to work on this blog. Sad, because there’s so much going on in the world. Georgia, Mumbai, Sri Lanka, and now Gaza. Fortunately, there’s a good number of writers around working on similar themes, so I feel somewhat more at ease not having to put the material together myself.  For today, just want to point to a couple of exceptional posts and sites on Gaza:

From Gaurav Mishra, a tight, comprehensive overview, complete with analysis of Israel’s use of digimedia applications as part of their public diplomacy. Gaurav sees through it, and makes me wonder – can governments successfully manipulate or influence audiences  on Twitter or Facebook? If the guiding ethos of global public spheres is (or should be) transparency, then such efforts are fraught from the start; even if governments represent their policies accurately, they are likely to come in for a beating from opponents. Note, Israel has also employed 20th century media strategies here: they hacked Hamas’ TV station Al-Aqsa in preparation for the ground war.

Ushahidi technology is now powering an Al Jazeera project, War on Gaza AJ clearly has a bias (the site’s not called War in Gaza, or Hamas/Israel conflict), but what’s interesting to me is the way a citizen media project started by bloggers has become featured in an MSM site. Innovation from the citmedia world is a driving force in innovation in MSM as well it seems.

Global Voices Special Coverage page on Gaza, of course! Some amazing posts by authors all over the world. I especially like the non-typical perspectives, such as the view from Latin America; the view from Indonesia. These posts expand our perception of global audiences and participants.

At Global Voices Online, we’ve been making a few changes.  This week,  we launched an updated HTML subscription option that allows readers to receive a daily or weekly digest of the best content on the site. We also still have RSS feeds that allow you to choose content by  Country, Region, Topic and Author.

Today, we’ve launched a donation page. Our friends at the Media Development Loan Fund, our fiscal sponsor in the US, have made a page for us on their Digital Kiosk. Georgia Popplewell, GV’s managing editor, has also written a post explaining the how’s and whys of donating. She says:

We’ve just launched our online donations page, and we’re hoping you’ll consider supporting Global Voices with a financial gift. For while our sponsors have helped us get this far, we need the additional support of individual donors in order to remain independent, free and sustainable, especially during these difficult times.

This month marks four years since a group of bloggers from around the world gathered at Harvard University to talk about how blogs and other then nascent technologies could enhance online global dialogue and political advocacy, resulting in the formation of Global Voices. Today, we’re a vibrant global community of more than 150 active volunteer authors and translators and more than 20 freelance part-time regional and language editors, and a leading participatory media news room for voices from the developing world.

donate lolcatYour donation will help sustain the efforts of our authors and translators who work around the clock to bring you updates from conflict areas, natural disasters, and from the frontline of battles for freedom of expression.

Even a small contribution will help pay for server expenses, monthly fees for editors, and a small team of staff.

Additional funding will help us keep actively translating our content into more than 15 languages, and add new languages to the mix, ensuring that individuals and media professionals around the world have access to the diverse voices coming from citizen media at a time when coverage of international news is under serious threat.

Donate now to Global Voices, and declare your commitment to helping amplify stories, images and videos from ordinary people across the globe who use the internet to communicate with their fellow world citizens.

Up to this point, burning bridge has been a very informal blog; a place for me to work through some ideas about digital media and conflict without thinking too much about presentation or form, or even whether I’ll have any readers. A lot of my time has been spent looking into participatory media projects, and throughout the last year I’ve been following the innovative and often compelling experiment that is Global Voices Online. GVO was started a few years back by Rebecca MacKinnon and Ethan Zuckerman while they were fellows at the Berkman Center. It’s blossomed into a diverse and energetic international community of writers and bloggers who together curate and aggregate blogs from around the world. The resulting stream of information and stories is a kind of alternative news feed that presents information from local perspectives, conversations, and debates. It not only fills gaps left behind by a shrinking international news media; it provides a completely different perspective, both local and global at the same time. It’s got a news frame that’s not dictated by commercial interests, or the national perspective of any particular country, but is itself the product of an ongoing discussion.

Starting in August, as I finish up my fellowship at USIP, I’m going to have the privilege of working with GVO, as their executive director. They’ve just written some incredibly flattering and kind things on their respective blogs. And flattery will get you everywhere. I’m feeling very lucky and a bit daunted to have the chance to work with such a great project, and with a really talented (and prolific) bunch of writers. One of the nicest things about having a fellowship is the chance to slow down and reflect a bit, and for the last year, I’ve had that with USIP. I’m clearly going to have to pick up the pace again to keep up with these guys. I’m looking forward to being schooled by Georgia, Solana, Sami, David, Jeremy, Portnoy, and Leonard – the core staff at GVO, as well as all the editors, translators and authors from around the world.

One of my favorite things about GVO is its dynamism. A look at all the energy and ideas created out of the GVO summit in Budapest in June ’08 is a window into that world. Links to liveblog and video archives as well as other coverage will give you a taste of this world, as will Joi Ito’s photostream.

I could spend the next day linking to everyone involved at GVO, but that’s what the site is for, right? And I’ve got a last few weeks of fellowship to savor (and a research paper to finish) before the GVO pace kicks in in earnest. But I’ll be working on turning this site into something a bit more active, and expanding beyond the fairly narrow focus of my research. Unless, of course, GVO takes all my time! Not the worst fate, I think.

I’ve been following debates on Global Voices Online and early warning systems, between Paul Currier and Patrick Meier. Some comments on that dialague.

Paul and Patrick,

Interesting dialogue you’ve got going. I’d like to throw in a few points. I watched Ushahidi’s work with a great deal of interest and considerable admiration throughout the post-election crisis. I was especially interested in their verification claims, and hence was a bit surprised, at the GV Summit, to hear Ory Okolloh and Daudi Ware acknowledge that their verification methods were almost entirely ad hoc. I wouldn’t, in this case, expect a project like Ushahidi to be able to create verification standards that could hold up in a courtroom, but I would have liked to see evidence of some system at work.

Ad hoc data collection, together with a lack of clarity on Ushahidi’s site about how they verify, shifts the project from a usable data set for researchers to a starting point requiring more evidence about how the conflict played out. It may turn out that their data are largely accurate – it would be a really interesting study for someone to do, to see what the ad hoc approach netted, what worked, and what didn’t.

This isn’t a reason to dismiss Ushahidi, but to acknowledge where they are. Even thinking of it as a pilot project, it teaches us a great deal about what can work at an entirely ad hoc level, and what it might become with a bit more preparation and experience. The key, I think, is that Ushahidi and similar projects have incredible potential, and should be evaluated from that perspective.

For a participatory media project focused on mob violence, it’s difficult to expect a citizen’s monitoring group to attain standards that could hold up in court – at least at this stage in Ushahidi’s development. It is reasonable, however, to shoot for the equivalent of journalistic standards of evidence. And journalism/media may be the more apt point of comparison in the early warning context.

I say equivalent, because participatory media attain verification through a different process than traditional journalism. Traditional journalism relies on trusted, known researchers working within a rigid, closed hierarchy, with verification of facts along each level of that chain. Its hallmark is a brand – a shortcut for the audience to know that there is an epistemology behind any given claim. At its best, traditional journalism’s authority can be very strong.

Participatory journalism uses a different set of values – values that are part of GVO, but extend well beyond that, because GVO is permeable and elastic. Participatory media values include: transparency, congruence, accuracy, passion, and community. Such values allow for vetting of data to the degree possible in any given situation, and a space for gray areas regarding verification. An epistemology based on them can handle multiple interpretations of events because of its transparency function.

That said, there is room for improvement. I’m very interested to see how Ushahidi and like-minded projects approach the following:

Anonymity v. transparency. In covering conflict, security should always be the first consideration. Both journalism and humanitarian early warning approaches have established methods for anonymous reporting – what’s the trusted equivalent in the participatory media context?

How to encourage learning with the journalism and humanitarian communities. In the Kenya example, both those communities were having similar challenges and discussions. From Ory’s and Daudi’s remarks, it became evident that they weren’t completely aware of them, and vice versa. For instance, the community radio community in Kenya was generally unaware of Ushahidi – see this post for details. Daudi likewise, in his comments at GV Summit, claimed the media failed to cover the conflict because of self-interest. But the media community has another interpretation: they pin their failure on lack of resources, lack of security, and lack of experience. See IMS and BBC reports for a window into that perspective.

How will participatory media projects approach different kinds of problems? It’s one thing to cover mob violence, another to monitor an election, a third to track disappeared people, etc. CMEV’s project in Sri Lanka, which Sanjana Hattottuwa was very involved with, recently tackled the election monitoring challenge using digital media tools; it would be interesting to hear what worked and what could be better, from their perspective.

Finally, a comment about mission creep and GVO. It seems to me that thinking about GVO as an organization with a set mission misconstrues how they work and grow. GVO is very driven by the interests and passions of its community. It hasn’t developed on the basis of a top-down, institutionally driven strategy. If its community members find citizen activism, early warning monitoring, and election monitoring compelling, then it will be up to them to define whether and how it’s part of GVO’s world.

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