Are you listening? A decade of Global Voices

For a decade, the international citizen media project Global Voices has helped break through online barriers of country, culture, censorship, and language — and the Caribbean has played a key role almost from the start. Philip Sander finds out more

Global Voices volunteers at the 2012 summit in Nairobi. Photograph courtesy Global Voices

In late January this year, a group of several hundred self-described netizens — loyal “citizens” of the Internet — will assemble in Cebu City, in the Philippines. They will come from dozens of countries, speak even more languages, and hold a vast range of opinions about the online world’s burning questions, like digital privacy, censorship, and the responsibilities of governments and Internet service providers. Over the course of five days, those opinions will be thoroughly thrashed out. And although you couldn’t expect such a brainy, diverse bunch to agree on everything, they have this in common: a fervent belief that that Internet is a powerful force for promoting understanding, justice, and equality across international borders — if only we all really listened to each other. If only we could.

A decade ago, Global Voices began with the insight that although digital tools permit global communication at a rate and volume unprecedented in history, the Internet is no “flatter” than the planet under our feet. Online access is unequal, fissured by legal factors like censorship, social factors like income, and physical factors like infrastructure. Even for those of us with unimpeded Internet connections, immense quantities of information are locked behind doors of language and culture.

It’s currently estimated that just about half the websites on the Internet are in English, the online lingua franca. But that leaves the other half of the web, written in dozens of languages, inaccessible to Anglophone readers. And then there are the hurdles of culture, local contexts and histories, dialects and slang.

Caribbean people understand this perfectly well. Though much of our regional history and culture is shared, there are four “international” languages spoken around the Caribbean Sea — Spanish, French, English, and Dutch — plus numerous creoles and patois, and indigenous languages like Lokono (Arawak) and Papiamento. Even within the Anglophone Caribbean — linked by a shared history of British colonisation, by systems of politics and education, by institutions like the University of the West Indies — local particularities as much as geographical distance are barriers to the long-held ideal of regional unity. Imagine this situation blown up to continental scale, and the inevitable misunderstandings and lost nuances.

These issues came to the fore at a December 2004 conference at Harvard University, hosted by the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society. The gathering included many then-members of the Internet elite, but also an assortment of online activists and proponents of what was just starting to be called “citizen media” — tools like weblogs, used by ordinary people to share alternative views, tell unknown stories, bypass censorship, and generally broaden the range of information available online.

Two Berkman Centre fellows — Rebecca McKinnon, a former CNN journalist, and Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of the online community Tripod — had a particular interest in “the under-covered parts of the world,” the many countries (like the Caribbean’s) that only appear in “international” news during disasters and wars. They convened a meeting of globe-trotting bloggers to discuss their common aims, and how to make the world’s citizen media more accessible to a broad audience. This was where the phrase “Global Voices” made its debut, at the end of a manifesto drafted by the participants. “We believe in the power of direct connection,” they said. “We believe conversation across boundaries is essential to a future that is free, fair, prosperous and sustainable — for all citizens of this planet.”

More practically, the Berkman Centre group started an index of what they called “bridge-bloggers”: people using online tools to share information and ideas, and who have the knowledge and experience to explain local backgrounds and contexts, creating bridges between communities. That index quickly evolved into a sort of blog of blogs: a roundup of highlights curated to demonstrate the breadth and depth of the international conversation going on between people with access to online tools.

The scale of the project’s ambition soon required more hands. Global Voices began recruiting volunteer editors, assigning them geographical areas of coverage. The project’s website had to evolve quickly too, to catalogue and categorise all this incoming information. Volunteers found more volunteers. Bloggers around the world noticed that, thanks to GV links, their words and ideas were being shared by an international audience. Traditional news outlets began to pay attention too. By December 2005, when the first Global Voices summit was held in London — at the headquarters of the news agency Reuters, an early supporter — GV was both a recognised clearinghouse for international news and a leading advocate for a free and open Internet.

 

The Caribbean was part of this global conversation early on. In mid-2005, GV’s Latin America editor, officially responsible for curating Caribbean content and overwhelmed by the scale of the task, got in touch with Trinidadian Georgia Popplewell. A media producer and writer — and longtime Caribbean Beat contributor — Popplewell then ran a website called Caribbean Free Radio, one of the region’s first podcasting projects. Having lived and worked across the region, and fluent in French, Popplewell was a classic example of a bridge-blogger. Invited to join GV as a Caribbean correspondent, she quickly became one of the project’s key members.

“Blogs and bloggers in the Caribbean were few and far between” in those days, Popplewell recalls. About a dozen energetic individuals provided most of the regional content for GV, and Popplewell spent considerable time trying to unearth new voices and build a comprehensive database of Caribbean citizen media. Meanwhile, her editorial and organisational skills were proving useful. Barely a year after signing up as a GV volunteer, she was asked to take on the role of co-managing editor, overseeing a growing brigade of volunteer editors and correspondents around the world — today numbering over 1,200.

Working remotely and virtually at desks and Internet cafés, the GV community met face to face at roughly biennial summits, debating all kinds of practical and philosophical questions. The scale of the project soon demanded a professional core team responsible for administration and fundraising. In 2008, Popplewell was appointed to the new position of managing director of what was now a substantial international NGO.

GV’s mission was also expanding. An outreach programme called Rising Voices began promoting online tools to remote communities — such as Aymara-speaking indigenous Andeans — whose voices are otherwise absent from the Internet. An advocacy wing took up the cause of online freedom of speech, working on behalf of persecuted bloggers. And when a GV volunteer in Taiwan began translating English-language content from the main website into Chinese, other language groups quickly wanted to do the same. GV’s Project Lingua was born: an army of volunteer translators, currently working in forty-one languages, tearing down the Internet’s linguistic barriers.

Lingua has been especially relevant in the Caribbean, where GV content is now routinely translated into Spanish and French, tackling the problem Popplewell faced in the early days, of finding accessible citizen media coverage from countries like Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. GV’s current Caribbean editor, Trinidadian Janine Mendes-Franco, faces a different challenge: covering online conversations that have mostly moved from open forums like blogs to the “silos” of social media, where content sits uneasily on a public-private divide.

“There may have been fewer people writing and expounding online” ten years ago, Popplewell says, “but the content was at least publicly accessible. Unlike in some countries, in the Caribbean blogging barely had time to gain traction before it was eclipsed by social networking services, especially Facebook.”

Still, GV’s Caribbean coverage — which nowadays takes the form of articles covering key topics of contemporary concern, summarising the most trenchant online conversation — reaches an increasingly broad audience, both at home and internationally. In GV’s readership numbers by country, Trinidad and Tobago is ranked twenty-first and Jamaica fiftieth — remarkable, considering the size of both countries’ actual populations. The Caribbean is also where GV pioneered original reporting, now an important part of its work. In the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, concerned that the voices of ordinary Haitians weren’t being heard in the scrum of international media, GV sent a team of two into Port-au-Prince to expose stories that were otherwise being overlooked.

“Considering its size, the Caribbean looms larger on GV than it probably should,” says Popplewell. That’s partly due to her own role at the centre of the organisation, ensuring that the Caribbean is central to the global conversation GV monitors and curates. It’s surely also due to the outspokenness and curiosity of the Caribbean’s own netizen cohort. “The world is talking,” said GV’s onetime tagline. “Are you listening?” More of us are.