Day two of the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit (together with the “Disruptive Publics” academic summit”) got off to a bit of slow start, as some of us waited at a hotel for a late shuttle. We finally decided simply to hike over ourselves (probably only 4 km or so but over rough road terrain that makes Cairo look like a pedestrian paradise). On the way we passed the road to the Ministry of Roads; the road was closed. It was not, however, a harbinger of the day to come, as the academics spoke productively and had a number of meaningful interactions with the Global Voices community, most poignantly at the end – more on that later.
I’m not sure the academics have quite as diverse a group as the larger GV community, but we still have a geographic and field mix that is much more diverse than most such gatherings. The 30-person “disruptive publics” group includes scholars from Ethiopia, Kenya, New Zealand, Australia, the U.K., Germany, Slovenia, Turkey, Morocco, the Netherlands, Denmark. In the morning we went around the room to say one thing we think we know about digital media, which was a question that was interpreted somewhat differently depending on where you sat. I can’t recap them all but wanted to offer a smattering of ideas — Rob Faris of the Berkman Center (no relation, as we discussed in the hotel lobby on the first night) said that we should be focusing more on incremental changes rather than the big events that seem to constantly draw media attention. Tessa Houghtondrew our attention to the possibility that “chains of publics” may be created a “network of publics.” Nina Grønlykke Mollerup argued that “mediated & face to face communication are part of the same complex media sphere.” Marcus Michaelson argues that the Internet has allowed “new layers” of activists to get involved in politics. Tanya Notley pointed us to the increasing opacity of devices and platforms, and of the ways in which our data is being used. Melissa Tully argues that there is no such thing as a direct network effect, but we keep acting as if there are.
The academic round-table continued with some brief research presentations, of which I’d like to highlight a few (and let me say that I’ve got hours and hours of work to do updating our resources page after this conference). Enrique Armijo presented a disturbing picture of recent digital/mobile free speech issues in the United States, including the shutdown of the BART subway mobile network in advance of a planned protest (sound familiar, Egyptians?). Rob Faris detailed a number of Berkman projects, including one that uses word similarity analysis to map framing in the American and Russian blogospheres and traditional media. Interestingly, he concludes that in the U.S., broadcast media and the digital public sphere are largely talking about the same issues (if not always using precisely the same terminology) while in Russia the two spheres are engaged in entirely different issues and agendas. Christopher Wilson of the Engine Room laid out his organization’s plan to study how civil society organizations in 7 countries “relate to and use technology.” Again, I wish I could do this for everyone.
We also held a number of “breakout” sessions, including ones on censorship, online-offline interaction, generalizing from case studies and more. The notes on those are a bit spottier but I can get them to you if you’re interested. At the end of the day, the GV folks were kind enough to bring us together with the community and to allow us to introduce ourselves and our work. We then asked members of the Global Voices community to tell us the kinds of research questions they’d like to see taken up by academics. Nathan Mathias of the MIT Citizen Media Lab has actually put together a comprehensive list of those questions, and we’re working on crowdsourcing answers in the form of some of the research that does exist. A reporter for Central America pleaded with the crowd for more research on the region and decried the kind of work that goes on there. “People go and don’t speak the language and just read the other gringos in the country.” Another asked for an academic database that analyzes Global Voices content. There was a invitation for research about how authoritarian countries learn from one another about best censorship and filtering practices. Rebecca MacKinnon asked for comparative research about how states deal with hate speech – what works and what doesn’t. One participant wanted to know if there is research about how violent videos affect us. We were asked for information about how companies violate privacy and about particular data mining practices and their consequences. Jillian York asked if there is empirical research to support the common contention that bloggers are safer if they write in English rather than local languages. And one participant wondered if there is comparative research about the impact of digital diaspora communities. We were really overwhelmed (in a good way!) by the sheer volume, thoughtfulness and importance of these questions, again not all of which I can reproduce in this short post. Nathan Mathias (who has done amazing work taking notes on our sessions and who is also doing fascinating work as a grad student at MIT with Ethan Zuckerman) has taken the liberty of setting up an Etherpad page where we have all committed to linking to relevant research which answers some of these questions.
The Global Voices folks also let us sit in on some of their internal meetings, and since I only was able to get to one of them, I’m hoping some other academics might add comments about what went on in the comments here. One pertinent question pertained to transparency within the organization, with participants in one session pushing for GV to release an annual report. Other participants discussed issues of language, which have seemed to come up a lot – should authors write in local languages, and if so what should be the status of those posts, and how should they be handled in Lingua? The sense I get from these internal meetings is that GV has grown so fast and become so vital to so many people that folks are struggling with how to make sure that the organization remains as participatory, transparent and open as is possible given the magnitude and difficulty of the work they are doing. Also: they need more authors.
That’s all for today – Day 3 was kind of an off-day before the public summit, so I’ll try to update after the first day of that tomorrow.