Class Blog – April 8


1:00 Our guest today is Ethan Zuckerman. As is traditional when we have guests, we are going around to introduce ourselves. (But don’t think this means that I’m going to give you credit for any comments!) Andres is back again today as well. Ethan works at the Berkman Center on the Global Voices project. He is a “geek,” says JP.

1:10 JP wonders whether we are making a difference in the reshaping of the media environment. We want to take a skeptical look at whether the changes in media are also changing the world. Often we have a habit of saying there is a difference in the media, but not looking at whether this causes is a difference in the world. Perhaps the new media is just replacing the old media, with the outside world remaining the same. So how much of a difference is the Web and new media actually making?

1:15 Ethan shows us a video of Alisa Miller giving a talk on Global News. The video began with a graphic showing how US-centric the US media is (though there is a lot of news from Iraq, for obvious reasons). The video looked at why we don’t hear as much about the outside world. US media has cut back on its foreign bureaus – a factor of economics primarily. Alisa Miller works at PRI (public radio international). Like Miller, Ethan likes to map the content of information on the web – he looks at how many stories are about each country, and uses Google News to do this to get a rough count. Once he gets this rough counts, he considers other demographics about the countries. For example, he may compare how much trading we have with a country to how much media attention it receives. A nations income is the strongest indicator of how much media it will get, along with whether the US is militarily involved in that country.

1:20 Would we get the same distortion results from media outlets in other countries? We do see some distortions, everyone is parochial. A question arises though, what would news look like if it were fair? Do we need to know so much about Britney Spears? Is this helping us function in the global economy? This is the background of Ethan’s work: does the Web change this discussion? Does it change what newspapers do and don’t cover? Does it even matter?

1:25 This brings us to Global Voices. So many people put information on the Web. Does anyone bother reading it? We recall the Shirky graph, showing us that it is very few sites that get most of the attention. JP interrupts – are we just replacing an old hegemony with a new one? Answers seem to take the form of “it depends.” The turnover rate is higher, the number of alternate voices is higher, the information presented is broader but blending of soft and hard news – but with all of this information, does anyone even bother to find it? The barrier to entry is so low, but does anyone cross the line?

1:30 The question then goes to whether there is value is just knowing that the information is out there, even if we don’t read it. How do we get people to want to read the information that is out there? How to we get people to be engaged?

1:40 Global media has a collection layer and a distribution layer. The collection layer, made up partially by AP and Reuters, are very international in their design, but it is very difficult to get an organization to break away from the stories that these agencies deem to be the most important. Ethan’s point is that the blogosphere is essentially the same. They mirror the stories in mainstream media, with a few exceptions. Is there a possibility of changing the agenda through the internet as it relates to the mainstream media?

1:45 A point is made that we are trained early to be western centric – our history classes are taught with a US and Western Europe focus. Right now, in the blogosphere, the three big topics are technology, politics, and beautiful women. There is no problem in getting people to pay attention to this, but how do we get people to pay attention to other things?

1:50 JP wonders what the agenda of the blogosphere is. In the Iran paper, one thing that was clear was the clusters of people that talked about specific topics in Iran, and that they were different than what we expected. There were a large number dealing with high cultural things.

1:55 The interesting thing is that the secular/reformist voices became very popular within the right wing American blogosphere. This was because there is a belief that the opening of the Internet would bring a flourishing of democracy. The Iranian study kind of showed that that was wrong – and that we perhaps have that viewpoint because we have a distorted view (based on mainstream media) of the Iranian blogosphere. The other parts of the Iranian blogosphere are the more interesting parts.

2:00 Global Voices is designed to give a lot of information about parts of the world that don’t get a lot of attention in US mainstream media. However, it’s hard to get people to pay attention to it, and it’s even harder to get mainstream media to pay attention to it. People in our class who looked at different countries on the GV website were surprised by how little they knew about other countries.

2:10 How is GV doing with its mission? Its loved by journalists who want to change the media. Technologists have a problem with it because it is edited on so many levels – by choosing the people who report, by them choosing the blogs to report on, etc. They claim this isn’t “web 2.0.” But do things like Digg and Reddit make the problem of US-centric fluff news worse?

2:20 GV, though it doesn’t have a large audience, tends to reach more journalists and intelligence officials. Does quality matter more over quantity? Should GV be targeting the general public or a small segment of the world who can then reach more people? The press is given special protections because we recognize that they serve a specific function, and have a responsibility to serve us broccoli (the news we should want to get news about).

2:25 We see a video produced about the riots in Nepal, and the western media’s portrayal of the riots. Interesting to see the comments. Right now, the BBC is reporting on anti-BBC sentiment in China, saying they must be being directed by the Chinese government. But maybe there is legitimate anger at the BBC for the way they portray China and the Chinese people. Western media has a hard time picking up news that is contrary to the mainstream viewpoints. So a challenge exists to bring different stories and perspectives to western media.

2:30 JP’s last words – what’s the right question to be asking within the Internet democracy framework within our last few weeks of class? Ethan suggests we look at which Web we’re talking about when we discuss the changes its bringing, because there are other Webs beyond the western web.


  1. …My heart’s in Accra » links for 2008-04-10

    April 9, 2008 @ 11:30 pm


    […] The Web Difference ‽ Blog Archive ‽ Class Blog – April 8 Liveblog coverage of a talk I gave at a class – taught by John Palfrey and David Weinberger – at HLS on the successes, failures, frustrations and motivations behind Global Voices (tags: globalvoices harvard) […]

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