Global Voices: From Blogger Meetup to Editorial Hierarchy
David Sasaki[1]

Gathering in person to agree on founding principles

Global Voices, an online network and aggregator of bloggers from around the world, took shape in the same manner as most other online communities: a group of like-minded individuals were seeking out their peers. In this case, they were the early adopters of weblogs, and they were especially interested in using their digital printing presses to share the culture, traditions, and political developments of their countries with an audience based around the world.

Over thirty of these leading bloggers from places like Malaysia, China, Iraq, Iran, and Kenya gathered at Harvard Law School in December 2004, for the Berkman Center's Conference on Internet and Society. Iranian blogger Hossein Derakshan came up with a term for the movement, bridge blogging, to describe the use of weblogs as a medium of direct and instant one-to-many communication across borders. The notion that a weblog was more than a medium of self-expression but also a bridge between groups of people that had previously been informed of each other by the editorial judgment of just a few major news organizations seemed revolutionary. It seemed worthy of a manifesto.

And so they drafted one, and it came to be called the Global Voices Manifesto. Part of the manifesto reads as follows:

We believe in free speech: in protecting the right to speak - and the right to listen. We believe in universal access to the tools of speech.

To that end, we seek to enable everyone who wants to speak to have the means to speak - and everyone who wants to hear that speech, the means to listen to it.

Thanks to new tools, speech need no longer be controlled by those who own the means of publishing and distribution, or by governments that would restrict thought and communication. Now, anyone can wield the power of the press. Everyone can tell his or her stories to the world...

From volunteer experiment to virtual newsroom

It was clear from the manifesto that these pioneering bridge-bloggers were interested in both spreading and protecting their newfound ability to communicate globally without restriction. But six months after the first gathering, there was little to show for their initial enthusiasm.

Each continued to write daily on his or her own blog, but the posts and the conversations each inspired weren't being collected or tied together. Frequently, the bloggers became so comfortable with their readership that they stopped providing context to situations and events that might be unfamiliar to a typical international audience. There was an outpouring of compelling content from regions often ignored by mainstream media, but those individual expressions weren't collected into a global conversation of varied perspectives.

In the beginning of 2005 (when the blogosphere still felt like a tangible community mostly focused on issues of technology), conference organizers Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon started writing daily summaries of what English-speaking bridge-bloggers around the world were discussing. Soon, blogging services began offering their tools in a variety of languages and what was once the blogosphere turned into a myriad of overlapping blogospheres - communities of bloggers typically defined by language and nationality - held together by blogrolls and hyperlinks.

Was it possible, Zuckerman and MacKinnon wondered, to bring all of those various blogospheres together on a single site by recruiting representatives from each? They secured a small amount of funding from the MacArthur Foundation and hired regional editors from Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Western Europe and North America were excluded because bloggers from both regions were already well represented online and in the mainstream media.

At the time I was living in Mexico, where I became the first Regional Editor for the site in May 2005. Everything was an experiment; there were no editorial restrictions or even guidelines. As editors we followed, translated, and summarized what our respective regional blogospheres were discussing. But more importantly, we began recruiting volunteer contributing authors who were willing to write weekly summaries of their national blogospheres. Today, we have over one hundred volunteer authors covering the blogging communities of nearly as many countries. Some countries, like Colombia, India, and China, have more than one author.

Editorial policy has been shaped as doubts came up. Authors should not insert their own opinions, we agreed, but rather convey the opinions of the bloggers they are citing. Acronyms should be written out. Background information should be given to events and individuals that are not internationally renowned. When translating from another language, both the original text and the translated text should be included so that readers can correct mistakes or suggest alternative translations. To improve readability, regional editors began copyediting the posts of contributing authors. And, soon, we found ourselves running a virtual newsroom with correspondents based around the world.

Some lessons stand out. First, leadership is important, but good ideas are more important. Zuckerman and MacKinnon have the ability to attract funders and media attention, which has been instrumental to the growth and influence of Global Voices. They also have the experience in technology and journalism to advise on what is effective and what is not. But when it comes to editorial and administrative decisions, those policies are always reached via consensus on our mailing list. Second, technology is important, but content is more important. Compared to sites like Digg, the tools we use are fairly primitive and old school by Web 2.0 standards. We essentially rely on a group blog, a mailing list, and an IRC chat room for our editorial meetings. But while feature-rich sites like Digg and YouTube tend to focus on Apple's latest and greatest product or a thirty second video clip of a skateboarding dog, Global Voices highlights powerful narratives and thought-provoking content from around the world on a daily basis. Our readers come not for thirty seconds of infotainment but to connect directly with their fellow world citizens.

A global blogosphere with more local content

The exponential growth of blogs and bloggers over the past two years has been staggering. Whereas most Latin American nations only had a handful of bloggers in 2005, your average South American metropolitan city now has hundreds if not thousands. But as the space becomes more crowded, conversation tends to point inward. The communities become more insular and content becomes more local and specialized. In 2005, it seemed as though every blogger was writing to the rest of the world. To be a Tanzanian blogger at the beginning of 2005 meant that you were one of a handful of early adopters, and so it seemed natural to write for an international audience. These days there are hundreds of Tanzanian bloggers, and their discussions focus on local issues: education reform, local corruption, traffic, and the Taifa Stars football team. Making traffic in Dar es Salaam compelling for a Global Voices reader in Moldova becomes a difficult task.

At the beginning of 2005, many bloggers in the developing world also wrote in English simply because it guaranteed a readership. There were millions of English-speaking internet users seeking out weblogs, but only a few Swahili speakers had ever heard the term. That has all changed, and these days bilingual bloggers are more likely to write in their native language and interact with local bloggers.

New tools, same mission

The dawn of online cross-border communication didn't begin with the birth of the weblog. Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, internet users around the world used bulletin board services, newsgroups, chatrooms, mailing lists, and rudimentary HTML pages to communicate with one another. But the weblog made it easier than ever to create content, link to what others were saying, and allow readers to comment. In other words: to have a conversation. While the popularity of blogging continues to grow, it is no longer the ubiquitous medium of content distribution and online interaction that it once was. Frequently, internet users now document their lives via images and captions on photo-sharing sites like Flickr. As digital video cameras become more affordable, we see a rise in vlogging and personal YouTube channels. Many veteran bloggers who feel that they no longer have anything left unsaid are taking to sites like Twitter and Jaiku, where post length tends to be a single sentence, not an entire page. Younger people especially seem to feel more comfortable expressing themselves on social networking sites like MySpace and Flickr than starting up their own weblog.

What does this all mean for the future of Global Voices? It means that we must continue to adapt in order to act as a bridge not just between the ever-expanding and increasingly numerous blogospheres of the world, but also the various formats in which individuals choose to express themselves online. The mission laid out in Global Voices' founding manifesto remains the same, but the methods employed to facilitate dialogue between regions, languages, and generations will forever be in flux.

[1] See also