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Bridging the World, One Blog at a Time - A conversation with Berkman Center researcher Ethan Zuckerman

When disaster strikes-an earthquake, tsunami or political uprising-what can Web designers do? Researcher Ethan Zuckerman's advice is to take a breath and see what's out there already. Too often in a crises, he says, people who are good at building things online act too quickly. Instead, they should look to see if local bloggers, closer to the situation, are already speaking for themselves. If you find these "bridge blogs," as Zuckerman calls them, your best role may be in helping those bloggers find a wider audience.

Zuckerman is affiliated with Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which he calls "a think tank for folks who effect change as well as study phenomena." His online projects look at global awareness, and the lack of it, in an era when Internet access is available not just in Tokyo and New York, but Kabul and Bogot?. Zuckerman's Global Attention Profiles is a world map that shows, day by day, which countries are in the news and which are being ignored. Zuckerman and colleague Rebecca MacKinnon (a former CNN reporter now teaching in Hong Kong) created Global Voices , a daily summary of global blogs. The site's tagline: "The world is talking. Are you listening?"

Zuckerman's professional travels have taken him to Africa, Armenia, Mongolia and Jordan, among other places. I spoke with him by phone from his home in Lanesboro, Massachusetts, where he was trimming the berry bushes in his garden while speaking through a Jawbone Bluetooth headset linked to his iPhone.

Let's start with the big question. Can Web designers make the world a better place?
Sure, though it's often more complicated than people think. The impulse in any international crisis situation is to try to put something together quickly in order to raise money and awareness. But there can sometimes be a disconnect between the laudable impulse to do good and what is actually happening on the ground. The big thing I try to advise people nowadays is that before you do anything, try to find out what's already going on. Do some research. Is there someone in the country who is already running an effort? What groups are already on the ground helping out? What might you do to help them? Is there a campaign already started that you can get involved with? Maybe the goal should simply be to raise money for the Red Cross.
What you are trying to avoid is the hundred-and-one efforts all trying to do the same thing, and all competing with each other for people's time and attention. This gets particularly offensive when you've got industrial countries trying really hard to help people in the developing countries. There's a tendency to assume that there isn't anything going on on the ground-and that assumption is often wrong. The better approach is to reach out to an indigenous organization and ask how you can help.
It seems that a region will get plenty of attention just after a tsunami or earthquake strikes. But that the attention soon falls off.
This question of media attention has been the center of a lot of my writing and research lately. Global media cycles move so fast nowadays that even three days into a catastrophe like the Chinese earthquake, it's already old news. So part of the challenge is to figure out how to keep the event fresh in people's minds. At the same time, we tend to respond to the developing world only in terms of natural disasters and political crises. We all paid attention to Kenya when their disputed elections turned into violence. But in February, we suddenly stopped paying attention.
Five years ago, I put together a simple research project called Global Attention Profiles. The idea was to watch very closely some big media sources, including the New York Times, the BBC, Yahoo! News and Google News-and see what stories they featured every day and which countries they mentioned. Over time, which stories get a lot of attention? Which countries get overlooked? Those maps are pretty revealing. You discover that there are parts of the world, particularly the Middle East, Western Europe and North America, which always have a ton of media attention. You also find that there are parts of the world that consistently get almost no media attention. Most of Africa, a lot of Central America, a lot of Central Asia, and much of Eastern Europe almost never get attention.
After running these studies for a few months, my colleague Rebecca MacKinnon and I decided that we wanted to work on a project that might help correct these imbalances. We noticed that there were bloggers starting to write in parts of the world that didn't get much media attention. Global Voices began as a project to feature these bloggers, call attention to their work and make it easier for people in developed nations to hear voices from developing nations.
The venture capitalist Joi Ito has written about the difficulty of paying attention to news that you have no personal connection with.
Yes, and in 2003 I started writing angry papers saying that this is terrible-news happens everywhere in the world but we only seem to pay attention to rich countries and those that the U.S. has invaded. That's an oversimplification, but those really are the two biggest factors predicting whether something will get a lot of media attention. That was Rebecca's and my impetus for compiling blogs largely from the developing world and presenting them as news pieces. As we started the project, Joi, who is a dear friend, advised us that he didn't know if it was going to work. His said he knew that he wasn't getting a lot of news about Africa. He felt guilty that he wasn't getting news about Africa. And that he would go and try to read news about Africa-but he had a hard time making himself care about news from Africa.
The problem isn't Joi-he's being very honest, which I deeply appreciate. The problem is that human beings are tribal and that we inherently care more about our own than we do about people that we don't have much of a relationship with. That's not just Americans or Japanese. I think everybody is parochial and everybody pays closest attention to the countries that are most like theirs, and maybe as well to the countries we are in conflict with-or that we think we might be in conflict with.
For example, the U.S. and Japan now have a complicated relationship. It's not just about trade and politics, but cultural ties: American pop culture is deeply influenced by Japanese pop culture. So we care a lot about Japan. But Nigeria, which is an enormously strategic country for the U.S. because it's our fourth-largest supplier of oil, a country that we've got a very complicated relationship with, is still very hard for most Americans to relate to. We don't know many Nigerians. We don't have many cultural reference points for Nigeria other than the "419 spam" scam. So one of the things we've been trying to do with Global Voices is to humanize international news.
What have you learned?
That personal stories are important. For example, I just wrote a paper on how bloggers in Kenya responded to election violence in that country. There was a lot of reporting already: Kenya has a pretty good free press. But some of the most compelling stories come from citizen journalists, who wrote about their families and friends and their personal experience. Their accounts are especially easy to because the bloggers are website designers, young tech people, young professionals. They have a lot of overlap with the people who read blogs.
There's a better known example: the Iraqi blogger known as Salam Pax [who wrote about the 2003 U.S. invasion from Bagdad]. One of the reasons he was so successful was that he had a great deal in common with an English speaking audience. He was an architect, about age 30 when he started blogging. He spoke English and German as well as Arabic. He had traveled to Europe. He listened to the same bands that a lot of bloggers listen to, so that a reader would think, "okay, he's a Cure fan-I'm a Cure fan too." We call these kinds of blogs: "bridge blogs" because the bloggers are trying to bridge between cultures. So the most useful thing people can do in crises situations is try to figure out how to build bridges.
And let people speak for themselves.
There's a stock talk I often give to advocacy organizations. It's called "Don't Speak, Point." The theory is that advocacy groups often say: "No one is listening to the Tibetans, so I will stand up and speak on their behalf." But that attitude is dated because there now are plenty of Tibetans who can speak for themselves. And that's true for people all around the world. They not only speak on their own behalf, but may say something differently than you might. For example, the Kenyan bloggers I know were really upset that this was reported as another Rwanda-that is, another ethnic conflict. My Kenyan friends were worried about the violence and wanted to raise money to help displaced families-but they were also concerned with combating that story. So they looked for ways to document stories of people working together across ethnic groups. They were saying: yes, there are a lot of people in trouble, but let's make sure that we don't portray our nation in a way that simply isn't true.
Is the language of "bridging blogs" usually English?
When we started looking into this kind of work, that was absolutely the case. We found people who were in the Arab world or China writing in English. But the urge to bridge transcends language. At Global Voice, a huge chunk of our work is in translating from one language to another. For example, a couple of years back, our China editor got arrested in Beijing. We still don't know exactly why-it may have been because he's an independent film maker or because he was working with us. So with the permission of his family, we started writing to advocate for his release. But we were limited-all we knew was that he was a nice guy who was doing great work. Then his sister in Shanghai started blogging about his situation as well. So we would translate her posts from Mandarin to English, and that became the center of the website we were building for his release. She was able to argue much more effectively for this young man's release than we were because she'd known him all his life.
So my advice is this: find someone who is knowledgeable about the situation, who is on the ground and is affected by it. Then translate what they are saying, while providing enough context so that the world will understand it. Once you've found the voice, translated it, and contextualized it, then you can bring attention to it. But you've got to do that other hard work first. If you don't do that, you run all sort of risks of getting the story wrong, agitating in ways that aren't productive, and in some cases writing things that aren't true. Unfortunately, this happens more often that you might think.
Are most successful online efforts started from scratch? Or can this work be incorporated into an existing site-perhaps even a commercial website?
The history of most of these projects starts very informally because it's incredibly easy to build a simple website these days. Typically, these projects are initiated by small groups that can be incredibly agile and get things off the ground very quickly. But often, they can't scale for the long term. So I think there is a tremendous opportunity for socially responsible companies, particularly those who have a connection to the situation at hand, to get involved. I would have liked to see travel companies who specialize in Southeast Asia get involved in building sites about the tsunami and tsunami recovery. It would have been consistent with their brands. I didn't see a ton of it happening. Part of the problem is that events happen very quickly, and often, companies just aren't able to move fast enough.
Another example is a project started in reaction to Hurricane Katrina called Katrina People Finder. The idea was to put together the enormous number of sites that were listing missing people into a single, comprehensive database. Salesforce.com, to their great credit, decided that they wanted to help. The problem was that it took the company almost five days before they could get a project manager on it, and in those five days a whole lot of the work got done by ad hoc teams of individuals organizing their friends. I helped get a team of 1,000 virtual volunteers together, do a massive distribute data entry into a database before Salesforce was able to mobilize even a project manager on it.
So your advice to companies is to go after longer term projects.
Absolutely, and that's what happened here. The project got transitioned over to Salesforce, who gave it the needed long-term maintenance and involvement. After a long weekend's worth of work on that project, I didn't have a ton more time I could put into it. That was true of a lot of people who worked on Katrina People Finder-people who were very concerned and worked very hard for a short period of time were not in a position to work on it long term.
Volunteers may bring the agility, but a company can bring stability.
That's a great way to put it. One of the best things that big firms can do is look for grass roots efforts that are now starting to get into trouble or that now need some help in project management to get to the next level. Project managers are much more important than developers here. Coordination is phenomenally difficult to do. A project manager is someone who herds cats-that's what I always look for when I hire a project manager: experienced cat herders.
So technical ability doesn't hurt, but you'd better have people skills?
People skills, and if you've got cross-cultural people skills, that's even better. An example of an amazing effort that is going on right now: coming out of this election violence situation in Kenya, a bunch of Kenyan bloggers decided that they wanted to document what was going on on the ground, the good and the bad. They built a site called Ushahidi.com, which is a big database with a Google map mashed on top of it. It gives you a visualization of what's happened in Kenya over time. This thing was put together in three days by people in Kenya and Kenyans outside of the country, and has gone on from there. They are now trying to figure out how to develop the software so that it can be used for other crisis situations.
What do you think of the FreeRice.com site designed by John Breen, where 20 grains of rice are donated each time a visitor correctly answers a vocabulary question? Does the site represent a viable approach?
Breen has worked on a lot of these projects, all based around this idea that if you can get people to look at web ads, they'll generate money and that money can go towards charity. That's laudable and John has done it very well. Where I've had problems with John's work is that it hasn't necessarily done very much to raise awareness. I think this is still a missed opportunity with FreeRice. It would be great if John used more of that screen real estate to occasionally ask you a question about global hunger instead of about vocabulary. But the bottom line is that people really feel good about spending time on the site, and it does generate significant amounts of money that goes towards good charitable purposes.
Who contributes that money?
Advertisers through banner advertising. Green says that he is running the site with absolute minimum overhead and maximizing the amount of that money that goes to the food program. I have no reason to believe that this is anything but 100 percent accurate.
Does FreeRice suggest a viable revenue model for other causes?
FreeRice is two things that happen to be in the same place: a game that generates money and a charitable cause worthy of people's attention. Putting those two together is very clever, but I don't think it's the right answer for most projects, because most projects won't manage to get a compelling game that gets millions of people playing it.
For most other situations, if you can get people to pay attention to something, the money will follow. That's the case in Darfur, for example, where an enormous amount of attention has been directed, much of it beginning with Professor Eric Reeves of Smith College here in Massachusetts, who started writing about problems in Sudan even before the conflict hit Darfur. That level of attention makes it possible to raise political pressure and money. By contrast, there are also enormous problems in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But they don't get much attention or money.
So we're back to your basic premise: find a way to create a personal connection.
That is my argument: if you want to get people to pay attention in a responsible way, you can't just stand up and say "save the starving." It doesn't work. People want to have this human connection. Look at a site like Kiva.org. It's a micro lending site that invites people to loan small amounts of money to entrepreneurs in the developing world. It does it almost more or less through a social network. Every micro-lending project has a profile, photos, and a compelling presentation of what that person is doing, what their needs are, where the money is going to go, and more. People who donate get social profiles as well, so you can see who is donating to what projects. Kiva is the Facebook for micro-lending. It has been enormously successful. The problems have had to do with documentation. If you are lending someone $200 in Ghana to start a store, the amount of work that it takes to get an interview with that person, photos of her store, and a monthly update of how the project is going-the investment required can quickly outpace the amount of money that you're lending.
I've got mixed feelings about Kiva. I don't think it's the best model out there, but it is enormously compelling to people who work in the Web 2.0 space. This notion that they can see the people they are helping and have a limited interaction with them is incredibly powerful. It is much better than the older model in which you get a hand-written letter from a child in Sri Lanka.
Where do you there this is all headed?
I think we're reaching a crossroads. I've been talking a lot with the mainstream aid organizations, and they are in a real quandary. On the one hand, the reason people give to the Red Cross or Oxfam is that they have a great deal of trust in those organizations. Those organizations have built brand names. On the other hand, those organizations are slow-really slow. And they are very scared about Web 2.0. They are scared about giving voice to their staff, and even more scared about giving voice to their beneficiaries. They worry about what might happen if you put someone online in East Africa talking about food aid and they say: "You know, I think food aid is a bad idea. I think it's disruptive to African economy and that we'd all be better off if Uganda was trying assist with hunger in Tanzania rather than dealing with donated corn from the U.S." That prospect freaks them out. And that's what happens when you start interacting with people who are directly involved. It's the ability for these people, ideally, to challenge your preconception about the situation.
Do you predict there is going to be some melding?
Sure. The field that I work in now is the intersection of journalism and citizen journalism. What happens to journalism when Web 2.0 marches in? As it has turned out, everyone who thought that blogs were going to put newspapers out of business is wrong. Instead, it looks as if we will have some combination of citizen efforts, grass roots efforts, and the professional aid organizations that have worked in these fields for a long time. The Guardian is the absolute best at this: they now have a complicated network of professional and citizen journalists all sharing the same stage. I would argue that the aid organizations are even slower than the journalistic organizations, which are now realizing the changes taking place. The aid organizations are probably 5-7 years behind.