Global Voices Online

The world is talking. WE is listening!

Interview with Ethan Zuckerman

we: I told you about our new magazine, the we_magazine. Has your understanding of “We” changed since the digital media arised?

Ethan: Well, I guess I would say that there is both the potential and the real change. I think one of the things that’s most exciting about the Internet revolution is this idea that we might be connected to people all over the world. And that we might expand to include the one billion people who are online now, the two billion people who’ll be online in about five years and eventually the 6+ billion people all over the world. The truth is that it’s much harder than that; and that actually we haven’t done very well at connecting. The fact that we have digital networks that tie us all together doesn’t mean that we actually pay attention to one another and it doesn’t mean that we actually have dialogue with one another. And the truth is, I think if you look at the last 10 – 15 years of development of the commercial Internet, we’ve actually done a very very poor job of finding people who come from very different backgrounds than we do. I think in many ways, what the Internet has helped us is to find people who you have got a great deal of common ground with. The Internet has been very very powerful for people who have esoteric interests, specialized interests, who find friends in other parts of the world who have that common ground with them. Where we’ve had much less success is using the Internet as a place of dialogue between people who are coming from very very different background and who might have very different opinions.

we: What do we need to do to get this conversation started?

Ethan: Well, I think the first thing we have to do is recognize that the conversation has to happen. I think one of the problems we have is a lot of the tools that we are building on the Internet are very good at similarity. So for instance, what has become very popular in recent years are sort of recommendation engines that try to find content based on other content that you’ve liked. So you can think about something like Reddit or Digg as engines that are very powerful for this. But these engines, if you are not careful, end up giving you recommendations from the same group of people all the time. I think once you’ve recognized that one of the dangers of the Internet is that you keep hearing from similar people over and over and over again, then you can try to take steps to change who you are listening to and paying attention to. Projects like the one that I have been running for the last three years or so, Global Voices, try to give you access to voices that you unlikely hear. Most people in North America don’t hear many voices coming out of China. We hear a lot about China. But we don’t hear a lot of Chinese voices. So by taking people in China who are writing online, translating that content into English and putting in online, we are giving you an opportunity to hear some different voices. But there is a real problem here. Less and less it’s not a supply problem anymore, it’s a demand problem. Historically, content from people in other countries was in very short supply. You had to get it through television news. You had to wait for the local newspaper to publish it. Now we have more than a hundred million people publishing online on a daily basis. The question is: Do you pay attention to it? And it becomes a very personal challenge. Who do you want to be part of that ”We“ that you’re talking about? If you want ”We“ to be people who share the same sentiments as you, share the same background as you, the Internet makes that very easy right now. If you want that ”We” to be broader, the Internet makes that possible but you have to take the effort to broaden the ”We“.

we: Global Voices – what do you think was the main driver that it became such a success..

Ethan: Well, I wish I’d shared your sentiment that Global Voices was a big success. I think at this point, it’s a very modest success. I think the ways in which it’s been successful largely have to do with people in different parts of the world feeling frustrated that they aren’t heard by a global audience. And one of the best ways to respond to this frustration is to say: Well, I’m sorry that people are not paying enough attention to my issues, let me pay attention to their issues. And I think there are a lot of people within the Global Voices community who realize this is interesting, here is a chance for people to find out about Madagascar. And now they from Madagascar get interest in finding out about China, in finding out about Columbia. And I think we’re having some success with that. What I think we really need to do to have more success with that is to figure out how to get this conversation beyond just the Internet and get it into mainstream media, get it into newspapers, get it into television. I think that it’s important to recognize that Internet media are still hitting a small population in most countries. In the North, we’re used to the Internet essentially replacing all the rest of our media. But even when we say that we’re forgetting that for, you know, a generation older that isn’t the case. And we are certainly forgetting that in developing nations that’s certainly not the case. The people who are getting the majority of their news from the Internet are a very small group. So we might win this battle of sort of broadening the media world online. But we have to win it offline as well. We have to get a greater population of people paying attention to news from different parts of the world and perspectives from different parts of the world.

we: Why don’t they do it yet? What do you think?

Ethan: I think it’s a very basic human tendency. I think we all tend to find ourselves as members of one tribe or another. And I think we tend to look for that news and information. There’s a term from social science called homophily, which basically means that birds of a feather flock together. If you put people in a room, people will tend to naturally gravitate towards people who have a similar religious, ethnic, economic background with them. I think that it’s ok to acknowledge that this is a very basic human tendency, but I think we also have to acknowledge that it could be very dangerous in a globalized world. If in a globalized world all I know is the opinions of highly educated Americans, I am not getting a very accurate view of the world. And in a world where economics is global, where politics is global, where security issues are global, it’s very important that I understand what people in China are thinking, what people in the Middle East are thinking, what people in Africa are thinking. But it’s a challenge. And right now our media world is not very well configured to let us hear these opinions. We have to fight against those structures and find a way to take advantage of technologies like the Internet to see these different opinions.

we: You are also working on a project which is called ”digital democracy“. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?

Ethan: Digital Democracy is a research interest at Berkman. And one of the things that we are concerned about is asking question: How is the Internet effecting politics? And we know that there are some very basic answers. In US politics you see people using the Internet to raise quite a bit of money. It’s been quite revolutionary this year to watch Barack Obama from the left raise quite a bit of money, much more than anyone had expected, largely from small donations, largely done online. And this is sort of changing the landscape a little bit of American politics. But we’re interested in much broader issues as well. We’re interested in questions like: Will the existence of communication networks like the Internet change authoritarian societies like Birma or like China or even sort of softer authoritarian societies like Vietnam or like Tunesia? To what extent is adding information and the ability to broadcast information to these societies, to what extent is it going to change how government works in these societies. Again, I think we are probably overly optimistic. There were a lot of people three or four years ago arguing that it simply wouldn’t be possible to have the Internet in China without having democracy inevitably result from it. That turns out just to be not only false but also foolish. What we are really seeing coming out of the Internet in China is a great deal of homegrown nationalism. And this idea that democracy is somehow inevitable and is somehow tied to communication systems, I think one of the things we’re finding out is that that’s farcical.

we: Do you see the same problems in this context than you just have mentioned in the Global Voices context?

Ethan: I think they are intimately tied together. If you are studying Internet and democracy you have to be very cognisant of the fact that the Internet is still on a very early stage in most countries. I think you have to be very conscious of the fact that people are always looking for local voices and local opinions more than they are looking for those international voices and opinions. So I do think the two are very tightly tied together.

we: So is We on a local basis different from We on a global basis?

Ethan: I think there is ”We“ on so many different bases. I think one of the interesting things that’s happening at this moment in time is that we have the ability to be part of many different tribes at the same time. I live in a town of 2,000 people. And that’s one ”We“. And when I go to the university town where I check my mail and I get my coffee, that’s another ”We“. When I come here onto the Harvard campus, I have a very different tribe of people associated with the Berkman Center. At a conference like the one that we are at today, there is a lot of people that I know from doing a lot of work on the African Internet. And that’s another ”We“ that we are associated with. This is a really novel moment in time. Kwame Appiah, who is a Ghanaian philosopher based at Princeton, observes that it’s really only in the last couple of hundred years that people have had that opportunity to know people from that many different and diverse backgrounds. Before that, we would have known the people in our tribe and we might have known one or two other tribes that we encountered. But that idea that you could be part of a dozen, a hundred different groups where you could say ”We“ is a very new and novel concept. Frankly, as human beings we’re just figuring out how to navigate it, and we are not very good at it yet.

we: Let’s look from the government point of view, you see already any impacts on these different kind of ”We’s“ you just described?

Ethan: I am not sure I see a huge amount of that on the government level. Certainly, there’s been a government tendency to try to get people to expand that definition of ”We“. Certainly a very powerful force in the United States over the last 30 or 40 years has been this idea of affirmative action and trying to make sure that we don’t end up with involuntary segregation in schools and other public services. So we’ve had a great deal of government attempt to get people to blend. I think it’s been a limited success. I think it’s very important that people encounter at the elementary school level, at the high school level, at the university level people from different backgrounds. But I also think that you see a good deal of self-segregation where people choose to live and choose to work. And you see perhaps less integration than you might expect. I think that this tendency for people to align themselves in tribes of one fashion or another is a very very powerful force and I think we underestimate how difficult it is to change that. I also think we underestimate how important it is. And I think one of the things that’s enormously important right now is having much better understanding of people from different countries and cultures. Unfortunately, the US is still sort of reacting to the tragic events of 09/11 in a xenophobic fashion and trying to find ways to build bigger barriers to restrict who’s coming into the country. That is a politically suicidal framework to take in a globalized society. The people who are the most open, who are the most global, who are the most integrated are going to be the most successful societies going forward. And we’re still sort of dealing with this psychic wound of that attack. And I think we are still reacting to it by putting walls up, very much on a political level. And I think in the long term, that’s probably a very dangerous tactic to take.

we: Could you see institutions like for example the United Nations to take an important role in this process?

Ethan: Well, look, I think that multilateral institutions have always been trying to find a way to expand this global sense of a world community. I think at the same time, in the US, there’s a lot of scepticism of these institutions. I think some of that is played up for political gain, I think it’s very hard to find American politicians who will positive things to say about the UN. It’s been a real cultural trend here to pick on those multilateral institutions. It’s important to acknowledge that these institutions have done a great deal very well, particularly peace- keeping, which is a function we don’t hear very much about here. But I also think it’s probably asking too much from the UN to suddenly create the sort of global community that we are all hoping for. We’ve got to look at other forces. We particulary have to look at media. Media is how we understand the world. Most of us don’t have the opportunity to get in an airplane and visit another 190 nations around the world. So what we know about those nations is from media, whether it’s from journalistic media telling us the news of what happens there, whether it’s entertainment media which gives us pictures which are sometimes very unfair of what life is like in other countries. We are a mediated people. And so we can only ask a certain amount from these multilateral institutions. We also have to ask a lot from these institutions that we are surrounded by.

we: Regarding media: How do we achieve transparancy? How do we filter all this information?

Ethan: I think we have to be a little careful when we talk about these questions of quality in media. This is an old conversation that hasn’t gone very well in the past. If you roll back through history, there was that sort of amazing movement in the late 1970s and 1980s within UNESCO called NWICO, the New World Information and Communication Order. And that’s what a lot of developing nations are saying: We demand better representation in global media. Look, we’ve seen that you can broadcast realtime imagery from the Vietnam war into American households. Let’s broadcast from Sub-Saharan Africa as well. We demand a certain amount of media equity. It’s a really interesting question. You know, do nations have a right to be represented in another nation’s media? It was such a provocative question that the US and the UK left UNESCO over the issue. The US only rejoined UNESCO a couple of years back. So it’s an incredibly sensitive subject this question of quality. I think what’s interesting is that the landscape has shifted, that was a conversation that had a lot to do with restrictions of supply and demand. At that point, you had a very limited number of media outlets that could reach a global audience. Now we have literally millions of … And the question is: What do people pay attention to? And here we’ve got to ask questions about market forces. It’s very very hard to compel a million people to look at a particular piece of media. Instead, you have to find a way to sell that media to a particular audience. And there are also questions about who’s actually going to pay attention to that media. So I think we need to change the way we look at these things. We need to figure out: How do you build media, inclusive media, that’s going go reach the sort of global audience that we care about.

we: But we do need a different education system for this, don’t we? A different media literacy.

Ethan: I think media literacy is part of it, I think education is part of it. But I also think economics is going to have a huge thing to do with this. I don’t know how this is playing out in Germany, but in the US, there are a lot of innovative new schools starting up that are trying to teach grammar school kids Chinese or Arabic. And this is a very smart recognition on the part of parents who realize that just having English isn’t going to be sufficient for a global society. That sort of awareness of global issues and how that changes education could be very very powerful. But I do think we have enormous changes that we probably need to make within our media system as well. Because again, I think that for the most part, that’s where we get this information and that’s where we get these perspectives. It’s got to be some sort of a recognition that just having a one-country view of the world isn’t sufficient for the future. And it’s going to put people on an economic disadvantage.

we: My last question would be: If you would have three wishes free for a new We, what would they be?

Ethan: I think my first wish would be that everyone got to travel to a country radically different from their own and actually spend a lot of time. For me the reason that I mention these issues is that when I was 20 years old, I moved to Ghana, West Africa, which is about as far conceptually as you can get from New England. And it really changed how I view the world in a very positive way. So I think my first wish is that everybody would have an opportunity like that. I think maybe my second wish was that everyone had someone who was emotionally relevant to them who lived in a very different place. Having that connection to someone who you love, whether you’re married to that person or whether that person is just a close friend, forces you to change your focus in a big way. And then I think the third would be that we find some way to rebuild newspapers and television in this world that do a much better job of paying attention to stories around the world because right now, frankly, we do a very very poor job a lot of the time. And it’s a situation that’s heading towards crisis. So I use a wish for that.


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Thomas Vehmeier
Aug 28, 2008 15:49

I truely agree with Ethan Zuckerman. The internet does not connect people, it gives the option to connect. Within my blog post “Is the blogosphere a parallel society?” (German, sorry) I put quite the same question.

Oct 5, 2016 23:58

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