Listening to Global Voices

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In this address to TEDGlobal 2010, blogger and technologist Ethan Zuckerman talks about clever strategies to open up your Twitter world and read the news in languages you do not even know.

I’m an American, which means, generally, I ignore football unless it involves guys my size or Bruno’s size running into each other at extremely high speeds. That said, it’s been really hard to ignore football for the last couple of weeks. I go onto Twitter, there are all these strange words that I’ve never heard before: FIFA, vuvuzela, weird jokes about octopi. But the one that’s really been sort of stressing me out, that I haven’t been able to figure out, is this phrase “Cala a boca, Galvao.” If you’ve gone onto Twitter in the last couple of weeks, you’ve probably seen this. It’s been a major trending topic.

Being a monolingual American, I obviously don’t know what the phrase means. So I went onto Twitter, and I asked some people if they could explain to me “Cala a boca, Galvao.” And fortunately, my Brazilian friends were more than ready to help. They explained that the Galvao bird is a rare and endangered parrot that’s in terrible, terrible danger. In fact, I’ll let them tell you a bit more about it. Narrator: A word about Galvao, a very rare kind of bird native to Brazil. Every year, more than 300,000 Galvan birds are killed during Carnival parades. Ethan Zuckerman: Obviously, this is a tragic situation, and it actually gets worse. It turns out that, not only is the Galvan parrot very attractive, useful for headdresses, it evidently has certain hallucinogenic properties, which means that there’s a terrible problem with Galvan abuse. Some sick and twisted people have found themselves snorting Galvan. And it’s terribly endangered. The good news about this is that the global community — again, my Brazilian friends tell me — is pitching in to help out. It turns out that Lady Gaga has released a new single — actually five or six new singles, as near as I can tell — titled “Cala a boca, Galvao.” And my Brazilian friends tell me that if I just tweet the phrase “Cala a boca, Galvao,” 10 cents will be given to a global campaign to save this rare and beautiful bird.

Now, most of you have figured out that this was a prank, and actually a very, very good one. “Cala a boca, Galvao” actually means something very different. In Portugese, it means “Shut your mouth, Galvao.” And it specifically refers to this guy, Galvao Bueno, who’s the lead soccer commentator for Rede Globo. And what I understand from my Brazilian friends is that this guy is just a cliche machine. He can ruin the most interesting match by just spouting cliche again and again and again. So Brazilians went to that first match against North Korea, put up this banner, started a Twitter campaign and tried to convince the rest of us to tweet the phrase: “Cala a boca, Galvao.” And in fact, were so successful at this that it topped Twitter for two weeks.

Now there’s a couple — there’s a couple of lessons that you can take from this. And the first lesson, which I think is a worthwhile one, is that you cannot go wrong asking people to be active online, so long as activism just means retweeting a phrase. So as long as activism is that simple, it’s pretty easy to get away with. The other thing you can take from this, by the way, is that there are a lot of Brazilians on Twitter. There’s more than five million of them. As far as national representation, 11 percent of Brazilian internet users are on Twitter. That’s a much higher number than in the U.S. or U.K. Next to Japan, it’s the second most represented by population.

Now if you’re using Twitter or other social networks, and you didn’t realize this was a space with a lot of Brazilians in it, you’re like most of us. Because what happens on a social network is you interact with the people that you have chosen to interact with. And if you are like me, a big, geeky, white, American guy, to tend to interact with a lot of other geeky, white, American guys. And you don’t necessarily have the sense that Twitter is in fact a very heavily Brazilian space. It’s also extremely surprising to many Americans, a heavily African-American space. Twitter recently did some research. They looked at their local population. They believe that 24 percent of American Twitter users are African-American. That’s about twice as high as African-Americans are represented in the population. And again, that was very shocking to many Twitter users, but it shouldn’t be. And the reason it shouldn’t be is that on any day you can go into Trending Topics. And you tend to find topics that are almost entirely African-American conversations.

This was a visualization done by Fernando Viegas and Martin Wattenberg, two amazing visualization designers, who looked at a weekend’s worth of Twitter traffic and essentially found that a lot of these trending topics were basically segregated conversations — and in ways that you wouldn’t expect. It turns out that oil spill is a mostly white conversation, that cookout is a mostly black conversation. And what’s crazy about this is that if you wanted to mix up who you were seeing on Twitter, it’s literally a quick click away. You click on that cookout tag, there an entirely different conversation with different people participating in it. But generally speaking, most of us don’t. We end up within these filter bubbles, as my friend Eli Pariser calls them, where we see the people we already know and the people who are similar to the people we already know. And we tend not to see that wider picture.

Now for me, I’m surprised by this, because this wasn’t how the internet was supposed to be. If you go back into the early days of the internet, when cyber-utopians like Nick Negroponte were writing big books like “Being Digital,” the prediction was that the internet was going to be an incredibly powerful force to smooth out cultural differences, to put us all on a common field of one fashion or another. Negroponte started his book with a story about how hard it is to build connections in the world of atoms. He’s at a technology conference in Florida. And he’s looking at something really, truly absurd, which is bottles of Evian water on the table. And Negroponte says this is crazy. This is the old economy. It’s the economy of moving these heavy, slow atoms over long distances that’s very difficult to do. We’re heading to the future of bits, where everything is speedy, it’s weightless. It can be anywhere in the world at any time. And it’s going to change the world as we know it.

Now, Negroponte has been right about a lot of things. He’s totally wrong about this one. It turns out that in many cases atoms are much more mobile than bits. If I walk into a store in the United States, it’s very, very easy for me to buy water that’s bottled in Fiji, shipped at great expense to the United States. It’s actually surprisingly hard for me to see a Fijian feature film. It’s really difficult for me to listen to Fijian music. It’s extremely difficult for me to get Fijian news, which is strange, because actually there’s an enormous amount going on in Fiji. There’s a coup government. There’s a military government. There’s crackdowns on the press. It’s actually a place that we probably should be paying attention to at the moment.

Here’s what I think is going on. I think that we tend to look a lot at the infrastructure of globalization. We look at the framework that makes it possible to live in this connected world. And that’s a framework that includes things like airline routes. It includes things like the internet cable. We look at a map like this one, and it looks like the entire world is flat because everything is a hop or two away. You can get on a flight in London, you can end up in Bangalore later today. Two hops, you’re in Suva, the capitol of Fiji. It’s all right there.

When you start looking at what actually flows on top of these networks, you get a very different picture. You start looking at how the global plane flights move, and you suddenly discover that the world isn’t even close to flat. It’s extremely lumpy. There are parts of the world that are very, very well connected. There’s basically a giant pathway in the sky between London and New York. but look at this map, and you can watch this for, you know, two or three minutes. You won’t see very many planes go from South America to Africa. And you’ll discover that there are parts of the globe that are systematically cut off. When we stop looking at the infrastructure that makes connection possible, and we look at what actually happens, we start realizing that the world doesn’t work quite the same way that we think it does.

So here’s the problem that I’ve been interested in in the last decade or so. The world is, in fact, getting more global. It’s getting more connected. More of problems are global in scale. More of our economics is global in scale. And our media is less global by the day. If you watched a television broadcast in the United States in the 1970s, 35 to 40 percent of it would have been international news on a nightly new broadcast. That’s down to about 12 to 15 percent. And this tends to give us a very distorted view of the world. Here’s a slide that Alisa Miller showed at a previous TED Talk. Alisa’s the president of Public Radio International. And she made a cartogram, which is basically a distorted map based on what American television news casts looked at for a month. And you see that when you distort a map based on attention, the world within American television news is basically reduced to this giant bloated U.S. and a couple of other countries which we’ve invaded. And that’s basically what our media is about. And before you conclude that this is just a function of American TV news — which is dreadful, and I agree that it’s dreadful — I’ve been mapping elite media like the New York Times, and I get the same thing. When you look at the New York Times, you look at other elite media, what you largely get are pictures of very wealthy nations and the nations we’ve invaded.

It turns out that new media isn’t necessarily helping us all that much. Here’s a map made by Mark Graham who’s down the street at the Oxford Internet Institute. A this is a map of articles in Wikipedia that have been geo-coded. And you’ll notice that there’s a very heavy bias towards North America and Western Europe. Even within Encyclopedias, where we’re creating their own content online, there’s a heavy bias towards the place where a lot of the Wikipedia authors are based, rather than to the rest of the world. In the U.K., we can get up. You can pick up your computer when you get out of this session. You could read a newspaper from India or from Australia, from Canada, God forbid from the U.S. You probably won’t. If you look at online media consumption — in this case, in the top 10 users of the internet — more than 95 percent of the news readership is on domestic news sites. It’s one of these rare cases where the U.S. is actually slightly better than Canada because we actually like reading your media, rather than vice versa.

So all of this starts leading me to think that we’re in a state that I refer to as imaginary cosmopolitanism. We look at the internet. We think we’re getting this wide view of the globe. We occasionally stumble onto a page in Chinese, and we decide that we do in fact have the greatest technology ever built to connect us to the rest of the world. And we forget that most of the time we’re checking Boston Red Sox scores. So this is a real problem — not just because the Red Sox are having a bad year — but it’s a real problem because, as we’re we’re discussing here at TED, the real problems in the world the interesting problems to solve are global in scale and scope, they require global conversations to get to global solutions. This is a problem we have to solve.

So here’s the good news. For six years, I’ve been hanging out with these guys. This is a group called Global Voices. This is a team of bloggers from around the world. Our mission was to fix the world’s media. We started in 2004. You might have noticed, we haven’t done all that well so far. Nor do I think we are by ourselves, actually going to solve the problem. But the more that I think about it, the more that I think that a few things that we have learned along the way are interesting lessons for how we would rewire if we we wanted to use the web to have a wider world. The first thing you have to consider is that there are parts of the world that are dark spots in terms of attention. In this case — the map of the world at night by NASA — their dark literally because of lack of electricity. And I used to think that a dark spot on this map basically meant you’re not going to get media from there because there are more basic needs.

What I’m starting to realize is that you can get media, it’s just an enormous amount of work, and you need an enormous amount of encouragement. One of those dark spots is Madagascar, a country which is generally better known for the Dreamworks film than it is actually known for the lovely people who live there. And so the people who founded Foko Club in Madagascar weren’t actually concerned with trying to change the image of their country. They were doing something much simpler. It was a club to learn English and to learn computers and the internet. but what happened was that Madagascar went through a violent coup. Most independent media was shut down. And the high school students who were learning to blog through Foko Club suddenly found themselves talking to an international audience about the demonstrations, the violence, everything that was going on within this country. So a very, very small program designed to get people in front of computers, publishing their own thoughts, publishing independent media, ended up having a huge impact on what we know about this country.

Now the trick with this is that I’m guessing most people here don’t speak Malagasy. I’m also guessing that most of you don’t even speak Chinese — which is sort of sad if you think about it, as it’s now the most represented language on the internet. Fortunately people are trying to figure out how to fix this. If you’re using Google Chrome and you go to a Chinese language site, you notice this really cute box at the top, which automatically detects that the page is in Chinese and very quickly at a mouse click will give you a translation of the page. Unfortunately, it’s a machine translation of the page. And while Google is very, very good with some languages, it’s actually pretty dreadful with Chinese. And the results can be pretty funny. What you really want — what I really want, is eventually the ability to push a button and have this queued so a human being can translate this.

And if you think this is absurd, it’s not. There’s a group right now in China called Yeeyan. And Yeeyan is a group of 150,000 volunteers who get online every day. They look for the most interesting content in the English language. They translate roughly 100 articles a day from major newspapers, major websites. They put it online for free. It’s the project of a guy named Zhang Lei, who was living in the United States during the Lhasa riots and who couldn’t believe how biased American media coverage was. And he said, “If there’s one thing I can do, I can start translating, so that people between these countries start understanding each other a little bit better.” And my question to you is: in Yeeyan can line up 150,000 people to translate the English internet into Chinese, where’s the English language Yeeyan? Who’s going after Chinese, which now has 400 million internet users out there? My guess is at least one of them has something interesting to say.

So even if we can find a way to translate from Chinese, there’s no guarantee that we’re going to find it. When we look for information online, we basically have two strategies. We use a lot of search. And search is terrific if you know what you’re looking for. But if what you’re looking for is serendipity, if you want to stumble onto something that you didn’t know you needed, our main philosophy is to look to our social networks, to look for our friends. What are they looking at? Maybe we should be looking at it. The problem with this is that essentially what you end up getting after a while is the wisdom of the flock. You end up flocking with a lot of people who are probably similar to you, who have similar interests. And it’s very, very hard to get information from the other flocks, from the other parts of the world where people getting together and talking about their own interests. To do this, at a certain point, you need someone to bump you out of your flock and into another flock. You need a guide.

So this is Amira Al Hussaini. She is the Middle East editor for Global Voices. She has one of the hardest jobs in the world. Not only does she have to keep our Israeli and Palestinian contributors from killing each other, she has to figure out what is going to interest you about the Middle East. And in that sense of trying to get you out of your normal orbit, and to try to get you to pay attention to a story about someone who’s given up smoking for the month of Ramadan, she has to know something about a global audience. She has to know something about what stories are available. Basically, she’s a deejay. She’s a skilled human curator who knows what material is available to her, who’s able to listen to the audience, and who’s able to make a selection and push people forward in one fashion or another. I don’t think this is necessarily an algorithmic process. I think what’s great about the internet is that it actually makes it much easier for deejays to reach a wider audience. I know Amira. I can ask her what to read. But with the internet, she’s in a position where she can tell a lot of people what to read. And you can listen to her as well, if this is a way that you’re interested in having your web widened.

So once you start widening like this, once you start lighting up voices in the dark spots, once you start translating, once you start curating, you end up in some really weird places. This is an image from pretty much my favorite blog, which is AfriGadget. And AfriGadget is a blog that looks at technology in an Africa context. And specifically, it’s looking at a blacksmith in Kibera in Nairobi, who is turning the shaft of a Landrover into a cold chisel. And when you look at this image, you might find yourself going, “Why would I conceivably care about this?” And the truth is, this guy can probably explain this to you. This is Erik Hersman. You guys may have seen him around the conference. He goes by the moniker White African. He’s both a very well known American geek, but he’s also Kenyan; he was born in Sudan, grew up in Kenya. He is a bridge figure. He is someone who literally has feet in both worlds — one in the world of the African technology community, one in the world of the American technology community. And so he’s able to tell a story about this blacksmith in Kibera and turn it into a story about repurposing technology, about innovating from constraint, about looking for inspiration based on reusing materials. He knows one world, and he’s finding a way to communicate it to another world, both of which he has deep connections to. These bridge figures, I’m pretty well convinced, are the future of how we try to make the world wider through using the web.

But the trick with bridges is, ultimately, you need someone to cross them. And that’s where we start talking about xenophiles. So if I found myself in the NFL, I suspect I would spend my off-season nursing my wounds, enjoying my house, so on and so forth — possibly recording a hip-hop album. Dhani Jones, who is the middle linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals, has a slightly different approach to the off-season. Dhani has a television show. It’s called “Dhani Tackles the Globe.” And every week on this television show, Dhani travels to a different nation of the world. He finds a local sporting team. He trains with them for a week, and he plays a match with them. And his reason for this is not just that he wants to master Muay Tai boxing. It’s because, for him, sport is the language that allows him to encounter the full width and wonder of the world. For some of us it might be music. For some of us it might be food. For a lot of us it might be literature or writing. But there are all these different techniques that allow you to go out and look at the world and find your place within it.

The goal of my Talk here is not to persuade the people in this room to embrace your xenophilia. My guess — given that you’re at a conference called TEDGlobal — is that most of you are xenophiles, whether or not you use that term. My challenge instead is this. It’s not enough to make the personal decision that you want a wider world. We have to figure out how to rewire the systems that we have. We have to fix our media. We have to fix the internet. We have to fix our education. We have to fix our immigration policy. We need to look at ways of creating serendipity, of making translation pervasive, and we need to find ways to embrace and celebrate these bridge figures. And we need to figure out how to cultivate xenophiles. That’s what I’m trying to do. I need your help.

Your are the first person in your social graph to know! Share it with your wwworld now ๐Ÿ—บ๏ธ

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