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Global Voices at age 5 – #GV5

My Global Voices colleagues have been taking time at the end this year to reflect on the past five years of our joint project. I’ve been rather busy with another joint project, my new son Drew, who is a month old today, and haven’t been particularly reflective. (Moments for reflection are generally spent asleep these days.)

Talking with an old friend today gave me the opportunity to step back and reflect a bit. My friend works for a foundation that supports social entrepreneurs and he’s interested in ways that the projects he’s supporting could work together. How could a set of cool, worthwhile organizations supported financially by the same funder somehow become a coherent movement, working together and learning from each other?

It took me a couple of moments to realize that my friend was turning to me for an answer to this question: how do you build a movement? (I’m sleep-deprived, remember?) He’s right – five years in, Global Voices isn’t just a website, a project, or a community. It’s a movement. Reading reflections from GV folks from around the world, it’s clear that Global Voices is a very different thing to different people – a window into other corners of the world, an alternative to despair, an antidote to stereotypes, a technologically-enhanced pilgrimage, a defender of language and culture, and of Article 19 rights, and an odd sort of family. The people who participate in Global Voices do very different things – mapping online censorship, translating texts, collecting links and offering original reporting – for very different reasons.

Believe it or not, this is by design. But it’s taken five years to get there.

Many nonprofit projects are the manifestation of the vision of one or more dedicated founders. That’s not the story behind Global Voices. Yes, Rebecca and I set the ball rolling five years ago with a meeting at Harvard. And we’ve both done what we can to move the work forward, Rebecca using her unparalleled journalistic skills, me leveraging my hard-earned talent for begging.

But the parts of Global Voices we’re proudest of are the results of other people’s passions and energies. Without Sami ben Gharbia, we’d be on the sidelines of the freedom of expression debate in cyberspace, rather than on the frontlines. Had Portnoy Zheng not started translating Global Voices into Chinese, we’d be a monolingual project, working to bring the world to an English-speaking audience, rather than the complex polyglotism we are today. Without Georgia Popplewell and Solana Larsen, we’d be writing just for blog readers, not reaching out to audiences through partnerships with newspapers, television and radio broadcasters. Had David Sasaki not challenged us to demonstrate that citizen media wasn’t just the province of the wealthy and well-connected, we’d not know about remarkable efforts in Colombia, Madagascar and Cote d’Ivoire and dozens of other parts of the world.

When Rebecca and I invited some dozen bloggers from around the world into a conference room at Harvard in late 2004, our goals were pretty simple – we wanted to see if there was common ground between people from different circumstances and cultures, united by a single, simple practice: writing about their thoughts and lives online. By the end of the day, I was so excited and energized that I wanted our group to produce a detailed plan for world domination, complete with marching orders. I was furious at my friends Jim Moore and Joi Ito, who moderated our closing session, because we came out of it not with a concrete plan, but with a general sense that we had some common values that we could build on.

They were right. I was wrong.

Global Voices – the people, the projects – hold together not through a grand, structured design, but because we share some very simple principles: people have a right to speak and an obligation to listen. (That’s my Twitter-sized summary of the Global Voices manifesto, itself a compact little document.) The people and projects who’ve chosen to flock under the GV banner tend to share a fondness for late-night parties in global cities, a strange sense of humor and a fondness for open source software… but the core values that allow us to work together are extremely simple. More complicated, more tactical and less vague and we’d find ourselves excluding some of the remarkable people and the creative ideas they’ve brought to the table. Had we a plan, an agenda, a schedule, we would have said no to ideas that have shaped us, making us what we are today.

Here’s the thing about a movement as inchoate as ours – there’s no way to know what’s coming next. That’s the challenge for Ivan Sigal – who ably took the reins from Rebecca and me eighteen months ago, and who’s kept our project thriving through the toughest of financial times. I don’t think a project like Global Voices can be steered. I think a leader needs to listen, to discover where the community is going and figure out how to smooth the path ahead. It’s the opposite of what a management textbook might tell you to do, a form of leading by following.

So what’s next for Global Voices? I don’t think anyone can tell you. Not just because we can’t predict the Green revolution, the Fijian Coup or the Malagasy crisis. Not just because we don’t know what comes next after Facebook and Twitter. We can’t predict because a movement isn’t predictable – it’s the product of the passions and energies of the people who’ll stay with us, the new ones who’ll find us, and the continuing influence of those who choose to leave us. Global Voices has never stopped surprising me: what’s worked, what hasn’t, what we’ve done and left undone. Here’s hoping for an unpredictable, chaotic, participatory, passionate future built on the simple foundations of speaking and listening.

Many of my colleagues have featured a favorite recent GV post in their meditations. I wanted to do the same, but couldn’t fit the post I’d chosen into the thoughts above. So here it is as a bonus.

In early December of 2008, Mark Dummett of the BBC reported a wonderful “news of the weird” story from Dhaka, Bangladesh – a life-scale replica of the Taj Mahal, built at enormous expense. Global journalists sprang into action, documenting a diplomatic spat between Bangladesh and India over ownership of this cultural treasure, talking about the shocking idea of “pirating” another nation’s national symbols.

None of these intrepid reporters actually visited the Bengali Taj, though. Bloggers did, and they weren’t impressed. Aparna Ray translated their posts for Global Voices and explained that it was a poorly-made tourist trap clad in bathroom tiles, not the diamond-studded wonder those hardbitten AFP journalists credulously reported on.

A critical underreported story? An important victory for intercultural understanding? Nope. But as someone who spent far too much time the past five years answering journalistic questions about the credibility of bloggers, I can’t but help celebrating this inversion.

5 thoughts on “Global Voices at age 5 – #GV5”

  1. “Global Voices has never stopped surprising me: what’s worked, what hasn’t, what we’ve done and left undone. Here’s hoping for an unpredictable, chaotic, participatory, passionate future built on the simple foundations of speaking and listening.” —

    I suspect you will find life with Drew will prove much like this too….happy New Year!

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  5. nice reflections and great cues for the next 5 years, ethan, i especially like the listening part – thanks & ‘buon anno’ to y/our personal and larger families ;)

    “..an unpredictable, chaotic, participatory, passionate future built on the simple foundations of speaking and listening.”

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