Imagine your own blogging community for just a second. Go ahead and put yourself at the center of your personal blogosphere – those you read and those who read you on a regular basis. What does it look like? Where do they live? What languages do they speak? What are their ethnicities, interests, political leanings, sexual orientations? What religions do they practice, or for that matter, not practice?

Now, imagine that community, that sphere of burning blogstars, expanding like the universe itself. Imagine that it encompasses your entire city, and keeps expanding to include every citizen of your country, and, eventually, each and every of the more than 6.5 billion human beings just like you and me.

From Twingly’s blogging visualization screensaver.

What is preventing this expansion from taking place?

Time, of course. Whoever cruelly restricted us to just 24 hours in a single day, with nearly a third of them spent with our eyes closed, did not want us in direct communication with the other 6.5 billion of us scattered around the planet. Then there is Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist who coined “Dunbar’s number“. That is, 150, roughly the maximum number of any community before it starts to lose its cohesiveness.

But there are other obstructions to a truly representative global conversation which are not imposed by the limits of physics or human cognition, but rather the censorship of authoritarian governments, the diversity of the languages we speak, and the lack of digital inclusion in rural and low income communities. This is what was discussed in detail by over 200 bloggers, podcasters, vloggers, and anti-censorship activists from all corners of the globe at this year’s Global Voices Summit.

Obstacle one: censorship

Day one of the two-day public meeting focused exclusively on the current state of online censorship around the world and what free speech activists are doing to combat the restrictions to online participation placed by authoritarian governments, often with the assistance of technology companies based in the United States and Europe. For an introduction to where censorship is taking place and where anti-censorship activists are creating tools and organizing campaigns to fight it, don’t miss Sami Ben Gharbia’s Access Denied Map.

Picture 1 1.png

Evgeny Morozov’s article, “Blog standard”, for the Economist is another useful introduction to the complex dynamic facing both sides of the censorship issue. He notes, for example, that authoritarian governments that block access to sites like YouTube and WordPress to silence domestic criticism of their regimes do so at the expense of harming their international reputation. Equally paradoxical, free speech activists who use the internet to spread awareness about the tools they develop to circumvent blocked access to websites, are offering tips to censors on how to stay one step ahead in the game of online cat and mouse.

The discussions throughout the day analyzed online censorship in all its various manifestations. Several speakers stressed that the anti-censorship movement is more than circumventing, for example, the block of WordPress.com in Turkey or campaigning against laws that aim to restrict free speech. The anti-censorship movement, they argue, also seeks to create a safe atmosphere where everyone around the world feels free to express themselves without reprisal. Alex Au, a Singaporean gay rights activist noted that while there was little official censorship in Singapore, almost all bloggers self-censored. That is, few bloggers are willing to criticize the government, national leaders, or major corporations in fear that it could hurt their standing in society or have a negative impact on future employment opportunities.

Another frequent lament throughout the day was the high level of apathy when it comes to issues of free speech and online activism. No matter how many bloggers around the world are sentenced to jail, most internet users still spend their online hours surfing entertainment sites. Several commenters in the audience argued that activism needs to be made fun or it won’t attract popular attention and support.

Obstacle two: lack of digital inclusion

If censorship did not exist, does this mean that the whole world would all of a sudden begin sharing stories and opinions online? After all, the tag line of Global Voices is “The world is talking. Are you listening?”

But just how much of the world is talking? Which neighborhoods do they live in? What is their income level? What is their education level? As incredibly diverse as the global blogosphere is, the ‘blogger demographic’ tends to very homogenous. From Tanzania to Tasmania, most bloggers live in the wealthy neighborhoods of urban centers, most are well educated, and most belong to the majority groups of their countries. In Venezuela this means that most bloggers will oppose Hugo Chavez, while in China you’re much likelier to read about a shopping mall in Shanghai than a mosque in the mostly Muslim region of Xinjiang.

Rising Voices, the outreach arm of Global Voices, was established just over a year ago with the mission of making the global conversation more representative of the global population. It has so far funded ten projects which teach blogging, podcasting, and vlogging to communities that just a year ago were not seen participating online. The first session of day two of the summit presented case studies from representatives of four of those projects: Collins Dennis Odour, from repacted.org, a project in Kenya; Catalina Restrepo, from Hiperbarrio, from Medellín, Colombia; Mialy Andriamananjara, from FOKO, in Madagascar; and Cristina Quisbert, from Voces Bolivianas, from El Alto, Bolivia. All of the speakers acknowledged difficulties in their outreach trainings such as electric and internet outages, as well as slow bandwidth speeds. But technical obstacles did not prevent their impressive achievements. As Spanish journalist Rosa Jiménez Cano notes in her article for El País [English translation], FOKO Madagascar has trained over 150 new bloggers in Madagascar, Bolivian Voices has given greater representation to indigenous voices which have been marginalized by mainstream media for centuries, and HiperBarrio is sharing the history of one of Medellín’s most peripheral communities from the perspective of its own young residents. A brief trailer about all ten of Rising Voices’ projects is available in over 15 different languages.

Obstacle three: language

OK, so let’s pretend that every single person on this planet has been trained how to blog and that none of them are censored. Finally, a truly global conversation, right?

Well, that depends how many languages you speak. Long gone are the days when the “international blogosphere” was a synonym for the English-speaking blogosphere. (In fact, according to Technorati, more bloggers write in Japanese than any other language, a fact which took Japanese bloggers by surprise.)

Machine translation sites like Google Translate have certainly improved over the years. This is largely thanks to the fact that Google scanned in 20 billion words’ worth of United Nations documents (which, by default, are translated by professionals into at least six different languages).

When it comes to translating blog posts, however, Google Translate leaves a lot to be desired. The reason? United Nations documents rarely contain any slang and are written for an international audience. Bloggers, on the other hand, love to fill their blog posts with local allusions, slang, subtle ironies, street idioms, and rich metaphors. Translation, furthermore, is more than just vocabulary, it’s also about conveying local context to a global scale. You will need more than Google Translate to understand why Chinese bloggers are discussing river crabs, for example.

What you will need is a committed team of volunteer translators who are willing to sit next to you at the online global dinner party and whisper in your ear whenever someone alludes to something you are not familiar with. This is where Global Voices’ Lingua project comes in. Lingua volunteer translators actively translate Global Voices content into 15 other languages. Working in tandem with a team of nine different language editors, Global Voices has become the meeting post of the multilingual web.

Session four of the second day took a look at the issues and best practices encountered by Lingua volunteers in their quest to bridge the crevasses of the online language divide. Rezwan, the editor of the Bengali version of Global Voices, for example, noted that Bengali is one of the least visible major languages online despite the fact that it is the sixth most spoken language in the world.

The achievements along the way

Censorship, translation, and outreach: the three obstacles/challenges currently preventing a global, inclusive conversation online. Obstacles aside, citizen media as matured at an incredible pace over the past year worldwide, a fact not lost on the attendees and speakers at the Global Voices Summit. Session two of the second day presented compelling case studies of how citizen media tools are being employed in emerging democracies like Kenya, Armenia, Iran, and Venezuela to promote more transparent and freer elections. The third session of the day examined the complexities of bias in both old and new media through the prism of this year’s Tibetan uprising and the anti-Chinese sentiment which subsequently followed the olympic torch around the world. The discussion largely focused on the importance of opening lines of proactive discussion rather than polemic exchanges during times of heated debate. Finally, the concluding session of the summit looked at four specific events in which the world spotlight was shone on bloggers of a particular region. Preetam Rai described how Burmese bloggers risked their lives to spread news about their government’s repressive reaction to protests led by Buddhist monks. Neha Viswanathan, who also played a central role in the South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog, describes how a group of Indian bloggers were able to successfully challenge the rhetoric of “eve teasing“ to deal more aggressively with the problem of sexual and street harassment routinely suffered by Indian women. Lova Rakotomalala’s presentation showed how Malagasy bloggers were able to attract mainstream media attention to the devastation wrought by Cyclone Ivan and Juliana Rotich explained how Ushahidi bridged the international internet with Kenya’s many cell phone users during the time of post-election crisis and violence.

What others say

The 2008 Global Voices Summit was covered by a number of bloggers and journalists, each adding their own observations and reflections. In openDemocracy Evgeny Morozov notes that Budapest’s mayor Gábor Demszky – a communist-era dissident – was one of the first people to welcome some Global Voices bloggers. Drawing a link between the anti-censorship blogs of today and the samizdat of the Soviet era. He wonders if a dissident blogger’s laptop might one day join the anti-Soviet stencils which are now housed at the Open Society archives in Budapest. Mary Joyce pointed to Egyptian netizen’s use of Facebook in organizing a general strike last month as “a vibrant example of the ability of the Internet to help citizens organize for collective action.” The Nyasa Times in Malawi noted the attendance of two Malawi bloggers, calling it a “promotion of the Malawian blogosphere. Chris Vallance of BBC’s pods & blogs radio program interviewed several attendees, with a special focus on the anti-censorship portion of the summit. For a more comprehensive list of various forms of coverage of the 2008 Global Voices Summit, check out Deborah Dilley’s compilation on the summit blog.

What would it look like if our own local and national blogospheres opened their arms to the rest of the world? For Heather Ford, writing in Tech Leader, a website of South Africa’s Mail and Guardian, there’s no better time to find out than now.

The Global Voices Summit ended two days ago, and I still have such a palpable sense of this great emerging, truly global community that is discovering for itself just what a special role it plays in the world. I think we South African bloggers have much to learn from them — seeing our own community as extending much further beyond those who we know and like and meet for beers every Friday, to a community of bloggers who don’t even know they’re bloggers yet.