I just returned from the boiling vegetable oil and grit of Washington D.C. where I attended a conference on democracy and blogging.
I’ll describe the conference in fuller detail when I’m not insane with plane filth and 2 hours of sleep. At that point I will tell you about the 12 year old girl with blond ringlets and giant lollipop who has killed 12 men with a sharpened Popsicle stick, about the vampires and zombies, the femmes fatales, sexpots and sexy senior citizens, the careerists, the military fetishists, fatuous academics, etiolated grubs, dope-addled goofballs, girls gone wild and chronic maturbators I ran into there. Top notch individuals every one.
The conference was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, so I will only be able to give you street addresses, not direct attributions.
In the meantime, here are my notes for my section of the conference, which was devoted to prognosticating the future of blogging. I wrapped a newpaper round my head to look like I was deep.
Demo Blog Conference notes
1. Absolutely no idea what, if anything, will supplant blogging.
2. However, we seem to be entering a leveling-off period where people are starting to sort through the offerings and not just adopt them wholesale. For instance, the early-adopter crowd is arguing about whether video blogging is really very useful and whether social networks (like LinkedIn) aren’t more trouble than they’re worth. This will be interesting, seeing what people pick and what they discard. My feeling: Fully engage your critical faculties and use those technologies that are useful to you.
3. Blogging, and other such technologies, are, in an international view, mostly the domain of North American/Western European users and the middle class (where it exists) and rich of other countries. You can learn a lot about what’s going on in Egypt, for instance, via Sandmonkey and Amr Gharbeia and Manal and Alaa, but not by any stretch everything. Why? Because the older, the poorer and the more rural generally speaking aren’t blogging and won’t be blogging. This is an element of the so-called ‘digital divide.’
Because blogging is in the hands of certain groups of people (not a representative sampling across a whole society) no one will be able to take an accurate, complete picture of any ‘democratic movement’ or feeling in any given country or region.
There are a number of reasons for the elitism of the blogosphere. One is simple economics. Those with more money, or in richer countries, have much more access to the expensive hardware, software and connectivity necessary to access the Internet. Another is the fact that blogging has opened up the world from what it was in the wake of media consolidation and the closing of foreign bureau. So it seems like the whole world must be involved, though as we see it is not. But another reason this is not addressed very much is the sometimes very self-congratulatory nature of the blogospheres; it sometimes seems like nothing so much as a gigantic high school whose members spend tremendous energy praising the others in their clique and cultivating links and therefore visitors from the more ‘important’ bloggers. Internal criticism is considered to be in bad taste.
4. So, if #3 is true (I’m open to the possibility it isn’t as true as I think, but I think it’s in the ballpark), what then? Well, if things are so, then any desire on your part to understand the political feelings in a country, to take a society’s temperature on an issue and to share your arguments for democracy are not possible because you are only reaching a minority, albeit an important one, in that society.
Anyone interested in encouraging democracy must, in addition to helping those who are using and developing this technology, in addition to building a bridge across this ‘digital divide,’ a very long-term project, in my opinion and frankly I’m not sanguine about it, must encourage the more creative use of available technologies in conjunction with good old fashioned elbow grease.
I propose that blogging-for-others can be a model for a more buildable bridge. One that can be thrown up in a hurry and with a minimum of expense and because it leverages local input and action, it is more likely to be sustainable in the long run.
5. Examples of the blogging-for-others model includes Farid Pouya’s Bloglogue project, within his Webgardian blog. Here he asks bloggers and non-bloggers to comment on international issues. The one I took part in was ‘the image of Iran in the media.’
Another example is the Indian AIDS blog, Lives in Focus. This one is devoted to gathering the stories of India’s HIV-infected, who have no time or resources usually to blog.
The third example is naked self-promotion. It’s a project called Blogswana, that I’ve begun with a friend of mine to train bloggers in Botswana to blog for others who’ve, as a frame, been effected by HIV/AIDS.
(I later found out that Ammar Abudulhamid’s Tharwa Project is yet another example. The Tharwa people blog for a set group of others on topics of current interest.)
6. My source of irritation, for lack of a better term, is this almost millennial belief in the salvational power of mere blogging. There’s nothing inherent in blogging that makes it the solution to the world’s problems. It is easier, cheaper and more dialogic than a traditional web site and that’s a HUGE benefit. But I’ve noticed a tendency among those involved in blogging and nonprofits/NGOs to lean back, sigh, dust off their hands and say, “mission accomplished” when really, the tool box for dealing in a new way with problems like democracy, voices for the voiceless, etc. has barely been put together, and in fact is no doubt incomplete.
7. Additional thoughts regarding the promotion of democracy through social software:
A) The ‘blogosphere’ is not a delivery system for democracy (or anything else). It’s a system that has, metaphorically speaking, a mind of its own, somewhat like language itself.
B) I can’t count the number of people I’ve dealt with who sincerely believe that free speech is only a virtue when they are using it.
C) Yes, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia (and keep an eye on Zimbabwe) have proven that, while they cannot censor free speech wholesale, they can compromise it substantially, especially with the help of powerful companies like Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Cisco and Secure Computing.
D) If the U.S. wants to use blogging to encourage democracy it should consider the creation of blogs in English, Chinese, Arabic and Persian, among others, written by native speakers of those languages, and be 100% open about it being a U.S. State Department or C.I.A. blog and engage people in open dialogue. (By the way, it was frequently implied that while running the Committee to Protect Bloggers that I was, among other things, a tool of the C.I.A. Please tell the General I am still waiting for my check.)
Technology is not the end-all. Intellect, passion, communication and sweat equity are never going to be replaced by technology, no matter how exceptional. But they may be amplified if used correctly.