It’s hard to know what to expect when you get an interview request from Pitchfork Media. After all, the Pitchfork folks are the cooler-than-thou indie music geeks who are embarrased for you that you don’t know your Boards of Canada from your Fountains of Wayne. I mostly listen to old vinyl records of electric kora music… what could I possibly say to these folks?
Turns out Chris Dahlen writes a regular column – “Get That Out of Your Mouth” – for Pitchfork which, based on past issues, seems to focus on pop culture and the political. Turns out it’s pretty good, which wasn’t much of a surprise for me, as my conversation with him a week or so ago was one of the best chats I’ve had with a journalist in the past year. That conversation makes up much of issue #32 of his column.
Chris asked an interesting question, the sort of thing I’m psyched to research when I’m not neck-deep in fundraising and legal structure questions for Global Voices: is there more information availble in the sexy, Web 2.0 corners of the web about virtual worlds than there is about corners of the real world? Specifically, he looks at the information he’s able to find on YouTube, blogs and wikipedia about Star Wars, versus the information he’s able to find about Africa.
I got myself in trouble with my Wikipedian friends when I asked this precise question a couple of years back. And this time around, I was careful to let Chris make the Tatooine/Tunisia comparisons. (SJ has pointed out that doing straight wordcounts on articles is a tricky business, as good Wikipedia articles have often been subdivided into sections… which raises the question of when we’ll see a page on the political economy of Tatooine…)
The conversation turned into a discussion about the importance and challenge of bridgeblogging, a subject I’m always happy to talk about. It touched on some of the main points I’m trying to make about bridgeblogging these days – that more mature blogospheres seem to bridge less than small ones, the difficulties of getting people to care about people they don’t have personal connections to.
The most interesting aspect of the discussion to me was the idea that Chris brought to the table – that we might pay more attention to imagined worlds than to the real one. First, this helped me understand precisely why I find the Second Life hype so disconcerting – I find it deeply odd that journalism is expanding into these illusory spaces while it’s shrinking in the real world. I think the answer may be that these new spaces – whether SecondLife, World of Warcraft, the culture of fanfiction or machinima – are far more coverable than many events in the real world. Chris uses an example I offered about the difficulty of finding out what’s what in Somalia – there are literally hundreds of situations in the globe where, despite political importance and the impact on human beings, we’ve got very little idea what’s actually going on. By contrast, virtual and pop-culture worlds are knowable in a deep, comprehensive, net-friendly and encyclopedic manner. That, plus fewer vaccinations, could make anyone want to be a virtual worlds correspondent rather than a real-world journalist.
Chris used a quote from Rebecca MacKinnon that’s stuck with me since she wrote it a few weeks back: “My last three years living back in the U.S. really brought home to me just how unreal the rest of the world seems to most Americans.” If there’s a single topic I’m most interested in, it’s trying to figure out how to break down that sense of unreality.
It’s not so good that the most powerful country on the planet doesn’t see much except itself.
But, possibly, this is precisely because of all that power, not in spite of it. I keep remembering a character in Dickens’ novel “Our Mutual Friend,” a gentelman named Podsnap. He appears periodically, giving lavish parties for The Right People, a rich, empire-building, true-blue nineteenth century Brit. Whenever any people are mentioned who get the short end of the empire-building stick, he waves the subject away, behind him, and right out of existence. He has no use for these misfits, they shouldn’t exist, so they don’t.
Now the US has the empire, and we have the Podsnaps.
Ethan, you’ve sounded this note before, and it always perplexes me why you seem to wish to find a facile relationship that artificially opposes people interested in new technology with people allegedly being indifferent to the plight of the developing world.
In fact, the Internet made it possible to cover conflict zones that would never have seen the light of day 20 years ago, like Chechnya or Northern Uganda.
Newspapers began shutting down their foreign news bureaus as you know about 15 years ago. I watched as all this happen overseas myself. That made the news peg for foreign news shrink to nothing. In part, it is compensated for by the Internet, as the intelligentsia, if you will, can go to foreign news sites and watch TV in other languages or correspond by email or read blogs or even other English-language sites in other countries. But the masses are then sheltered from foreign news except of the filtered kind of Fox News.
The reason that foreign news bureaus did this was twofold: a) the cost of video production and the demands of television viewers — it is ungodly expensive and can’t be justified because the advertising can’t pay for it; b) the shrinking of newspaper industry and ads in newspapers c) the lack of interest in the rest of the world — these trends mutually fuel each other.
What you could do, instead of fussing about Second Life supposedly fueling the obsession with morally-blind Northerners with games and technological toys, is to use Second Life, which is basically value neutral as a platform more or less, to try to address this very concern.
What could stop you or your colleagues from making your blog 3-D and have interactive dialogues within SL, perhaps with speakers from overseas, or installations, or art works, or any of the kinds of things people have tenatively begun to do. To be sure, audiences are still small; difficulties with griefers and lag and such are still real; but then, the early Internet wasn’t a rose garden, either.
Ultimately, I think independent journalism and blogging and such on the Internet is a victim of its own success. It has saturated a lot of people with images and stories. It has been a lot less competent on giving them meaningful and realistic ways to react and respond and become involved in those stories. In part, this is because the old guilt-tripping narrative of the evil North being responsible for all the ills of the South isn’t persuasive or compelling, even to those who actually live and work in the South. We need a new, more sophisticated narrative, Ethan, than this old stock footage from the 1930s from the Pop Front. That narrative will probably be less exciting than smashing the evil imperialists with the people’s will, and will be more about collaborative work with people across frontiers on smaller projects with more incremental steps toward more realistic goals.
I also posted a longer comment on 3pointD.
As I pointed out on my comment on 3pointD, my intention was not to argue for a causal relationship between interest in virtual spaces and decreased interest in real spaces. I’m fascinated by both phenomena, but I’m not trying to argue that one is causing the other.
Global Voices hasn’t embraced Second Life in a big way for a reason you allude to – there isn’t a huge audience yet. By working in text, we maximize our chances of reaching an online and offline audience. Our reach into other media largely has to do with potential viewerbase – we’ve made some steps into audio, fewer steps into video because of the smaller audiences for those technologies. When it becomes clear that Second Life is a good way to spread the viewpoints we’re arguing for – and when the tool is embraced by more than one or two people in our author community – we’ll move into that space as well.
My point – which I tried to raise in the 3pointD comment – was that I’d like to find a way to capture the endless enthusiasm journalists appear to have for virtual worlds and try to apply it to the real world. That, in turn, has to do with getting reader interest and attention in the real world, which is a problem I’ll happily admit I continue to be baffled by.
Sense of unreality, or sense of irrelevance? While Congress bickers over a nonbinding ‘tsk tsk’ resolution, a third Carrier Strike Group approaches Iran. The Decide-inator has declared the Constitution, “a goddamn piece of paper.” He has no plans to launch those nuclear missiles, and at the same time, defies anyone to try to stop him. He is correct, D.C. doesnt need my permission. Foreign affairs may impact my life, but i have no influence over them. So what use to read about them?
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Ethan, I’m wondering if in fact the issue lurking here could be that the point of view you are trying to put across isn’t compatible with Second Life, which doesn’t lend itself to that sort of push-media of “putting across views” — it democratizes a lot of discussions and levels the differences between professionals and amateurs in ways that often make professionals feel threatened and undermined. That is — on those islands or mainland sims that aren’t put on filtration and banning….
The footprint of the technology itself is too heavy to try to port it into places with fragile economies and conflict. Yet the list of countries from which LL draws its subscribers even includes North Korea and Iran. I would have thought it impossible for Russians who don’t have much access to DSL to manage to get into SL in any significant number, yet they have made their own Welcome Area in the Russian language. People log on from Zimbabwe or Kyrgyzstan. It procedes apace, whether you think it’s ready for your circle of friends or not.
Your question about the enthusiasm that journalists have for seeming to “retreat” to virtual worlds could, at one level, be explained by a larger question that of course people find it more interesting to do anything that is thrilling, cutting-edge, entertaining, and a new technological invention, and don’t find it interesting to go read text about how poor people live. This is just the natural human condition.
But the other way to understand it is just more pragmatically. How easy is it to go to Kabul or Darfur? Not easy at all. Just getting the visas, as you can see from Jody White’s experience, isn’t at all a given; then once there you can have all kinds of obstacles.
By contrast, to go to SL you just drop a software patch and click.
I’d put the question differently. How can you take the existing content of blogs like yours, and your networks, and all kinds of sites from other countries, and get them more attention. I remember what a hard job this was when I used to work at World Press Review, which just couldn’t go on sustaining the funding and subscriptions. Trying to get Americans educated about the rest of the world is basically a non-profit venture now, as there is no profit in it for most operations, and even foundations want the effort to immediately tie to their own popular themes like “energy security” or “gender” or “HIV/AIDS”.
So I guess I understand the possibilities for SL lie in trying to expand that 2-D Internet by harnessing the interest in the 3-D world. I think it won’t be an overnight success. But already there are steps being taken everywhere that when multiplied and taken over time will eventually yield results — everything from Thomas Barnett’s talk at the mock UN, to a talk by a Hungarian intellectual in Colonia Nova the World Vision build, amid the luxury private island lots of Dreamland, showing a typical village and linking users to a website to learn about supporting education.
If they don’t yield results, you will have at most lost only $25 US a month in tier for a 4096 m2, and hours spent online that you might have spent online anyway. Waiting in London to get the visa to Darfur could be just as pointless.