It’s rare to see Africa news getting widespread blogosphere attention, and rarer to see good news from Africa get major online attention. But the top headline from BBC currently amplified is an optimistic story about a discovery of water in Darfur and the possibility that this massive underground lake could lead towards a reduction of conflict in western Sudan.
I’ve been tracking what headlines the BBC and New York Times publish via RSS over the past two years and analysing the tendency of bloggers to amplify some stories and ignore others. In very general strokes, people are more likely to amplify:
– Stories about information technology and science (geek bias)
– Stories about health (information that may be personally applicable to the reader)
– Stories about US politics
– Stories about terrorism
(Talking with danah boyd this morning, I started wondering whether there was a bias towards stories about income and class – the explosive response to danah’s early research on Facebook, MySpace and class suggests that discussion of class is a hot topic. And a set of headlines at the top of amplified results from the New York Times echoes that observation, with a great deal of amplification of stories on great wealth, economic separation in US schools and taxation topping the current rankings.)
So why the enthusiasm for water in Darfur? Well, it’s a science story, and the Darfur conflict has gotten a tremendous amount of attention from activists around the world. But I wonder whether there’s an optimism to this story – a sense that scientific discovery can transform an otherwise intractable political conflict – that has a particular appeal for bloggers. It’s greatly appealing to conclude that there’s a deux ex machina solution to a conflict like Darfur – just add water (found through the miracle of science) and conflict disappears.
It’s not that scientific discovery can’t have dramatic, transformative impact on serious problems. To a certain extent, this is the organizing idea behind sites like Worldchanging, which look for environmental transformation through technological innovation. But historically, resource discovery can be damaging for nations under stress. While water is not oil, it’s still possible that conflict over this newly discovered resource might increase, not lessen, and that water might be subject to a resource curse. I wonder if there’s a form of technical utopianism we’re seeing in amplification of this story, a hope that science and technology – which we’re good at – can help address political problems – which we’re bad at. I hope this optimism is warranted, and I’m interested to see if it appears in the rest of my blog amplification data…