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Blogging Is Good News for Africa
Personal Web sites tap the wisdom of the crowd
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)     Print Article 
Published 2006-09-23 10:41 (KST)   
It's day one at the Digital Citizen Indaba blogging conference in South Africa and I find myself glancing away from the keynote speaker -- Ethan Zuckerman -- my gaze drifting to the delegates and speakers-in-waiting that fill the small amphitheatre-lectorium. Lots of squares of light fill the room, but not quite one for each delegate.

Bloggers and other attendees at the Digital Citizen Indaba
©2006 Nick van der Leek

One slide grabs my attention. It demonstrates the number of Internet users on the planet. Areas with high levels of Internet usage appear red, lower levels are white, and very low levels appear blue or purple. It's immediately obvious where the missing piece of the puzzle is. The U.S.A. is scarlet, so is Europe and large parts of Asia. Australia and New Zealand are also red. But the whole continental mass of Africa doesn't have a splodge of red anywhere. Not even South Africa.

This doesn't mean that nothing is happening in South Africa (and elsewhere in Africa), it just means not much is happening. There are small communities in Kenya, Egypt, Zambia and various other countries. In Ethiopia many blogs have already been blocked. In Kenya bloggers have set up a Web site to report on parliament, and their lawmaking.

But blogs represent a way for Africa -- this most misunderstood place -- to be heard directly. Now Africans can speak to the world directly and tell each other and outsiders what is happening, and how the world can assist or understand what is happening. For the first time we may see light coming to the dark continent -- through the Internet and blogs.

Bloggers can do a great deal to change traditional paradigms, and social mindsets.
©2006 Nick van der Leek

It's potentially the beginning of a new era in Africa. Blogs in Africa can play an important role in communicating corruption, incidence of disease (including H5N1), and investment opportunities. Poverty and human rights can also be addressed more directly.

And here I am, just one person, one blogger, in Africa. So what can I do?

I have my own microsquare -- a new Samsung phone capable of sending content from my hand direct to the Internet. We're armed, and our armoury consists of all this stuff: electronic gadgets capable of utilizing the massive software tools and the world wide reach of the Web.

Blogging is about having your own space on the Internet. It's about individuals expressing themselves, and in the end, it's fair to suggest that the unarticulated dream of blogging is for the world -- for each person in the world -- to have a voice.

Some voices, obviously, may not be as interesting as others, and that will be reflected in how much people visit their sites. But others really need to be heard: and they will be.

The great thing about blogging (and 2 new blogs come into existence every second -- the world now has over 50 million blogs) is that the crowd no longer just reads -- they can write as well. The spaces on the Internet are just like real world spaces (like living rooms, or bars). The vast majority of bloggers are talking about "what they had for lunch" or "what they thought of a football game."

Just as on OhmyNews and reporter.co.za (a South African citizen blog essentially), quality is an issue. I have to admit, if I know that some of my fairly uninformed articles are getting exposure, then just how valuable is the material on the Internet (particularly on blogs)? And especially, how relevant are blogs when compared to top notch stuff like The New York Times?

The power of the blog is that we can tap (and assess) the wisdom of the crowd. And contributors -- especially to citizen Web sites -- can also call out errors on articles, as frequently happens. Reporter.co.za encourages accuracy and I think most contributors are fairly rigorous about at least not having textual errors. Fact checking is less simple.

Interestingly, a lot of citizen media has come about because of blogging (not the other way round). I have found, for example, that much of the time I spent blogging is now being diverted to reporter.co.za. In some ways I think this is good and encouraging (I get more exposure), but in other ways, it's also not exactly what blogging is about. Blogging is sometimes being brutally honest and personal about issues personal to ourselves, and sometimes we have a specific (rather than mainstream) Joe Public in mind. The other issue is that blogging for money is different to blogging for the love of it (or out of brutal necessity, or even activism).

What we are seeing is radical changes going on in the Internet. And that's exciting.

Now we all have the ability -- as Dan Gillmor wrote -- to "commit acts of journalism." We can all be contributors on a level playing field, and that's something new and radical in world that has become increasingly flat.

All of this is good news for Africa.
Read more about the author on his blog.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nicolas van der Leek

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