In the recent edition of the “Participatory Learning and Action” magazine titled “Change at hand: Web 2.0 for development”, I wrote an article about blogging and whether writing blog posts could make a difference in the development work. In this times of breathtaking web changes, blogging seems already outdated, therefore, in my article I argue that blogging can enhance transparency, support the process for openness and be the key for sustainable network building and quality discourse.
Accountability and transparency Compared to normal development websites, bloggers both analyse and link information – and in the process, create meaning. Bloggers are also notified (‘pinged’) every time there is a new link from another blog to their own posts. It generates interaction between bloggers and also measures the popularity of a blog – e.g. citations and affiliation (i.e. a list of links to other blogs). Bloggers weave a web of knowledge, expertise and perspectives. In a way, blogging means linking conversations and other existing blogs, increasing the ebb and flow of information. This forms hubs or nodes within networks, where bloggers aggregate information, and give orientation and relevance – and also become effective filters of information. They act like fishers, who pick the most relevant pieces of information out of the net. This aggregation is important to find different blog posts with different perspectives. The advantage of filtering is that these bloggers give an overview on interesting topics.
The disadvantage is that a blogger decides that on a personal basis and it might be biased information. Critics such as Andrew Keen wonder where the added value of this growing content lies – compared to professionally compiled information by journalists. Many say that most blogs ‘copy and paste’ from other blogs or repeat themselves, often ending in an echo chamber of mutual confirmation. Networks of sympathising blogs often do develop where not enough perspectives are heard or discussed.
However, blogging proponents underline the strength to link information from different connections, disciplines and interests and highlight the possibility for direct feedback. The paradigm shift is that each Internet user is able to link information and can add values and perspectives – Wikipedia and worldchanging.com are good examples. These networks of blogs and their readers become a large conversation, where everyone can participate. New ideas and interpretations of them find their way to different blogs every day. Much of this kind of exchange was already happening through email mailing lists. However, these connections made by blogging are accessible to anyone online: they are not limited to a certain thematic mailing list and so are more transparent.
Examples in development For development, this linking and exchanging becomes essential. Multidisciplinary approaches are key to tackling complex environmental problems. Blogs have opened up new channels for development communication.
One example is the UK Guardian newspaper’s ongoing Katine project in Uganda. Villagers, journalists, scientists and aid workers are invited to write openly their perspectives about the project on a blog on the newspaper’s website. It entails controversial discussions around development aid, but also shows the complexity of community-driven development projects. For example, on the Katine blog, Richard M. Kavuma writes bluntly, “The trouble is, the need is much greater than the project budget.” This is a direct comment about the limitations of development aid. Blogging can allow us to be transparent about projects. It gives more space for opinions, different perspectives and reflections than traditional communication channels. These can help influence the course of a project. But here, the limits of blogging also appear: one blogger made the comment that, “At its best, the Guardian’s reporting allows us to analyse and think about life in Katine in a careful way.” Just blogging does not necessarily have a demonstrable impact on development.
For many organisations, blogging offers the chance to enter into an ‘authentic two-way conversation’, enabling people to provide feedback in an open manner – and more easily than before. This bottom-up approach to speaking out about social, economical or political issues has the potential to engage a broader public sphere in the development sector. But it seems only a few organisations in the development field have discovered the potential of blogging – and not all appreciate this degree of openness.
Unfortunately, many of the existing initiatives are often only randomly linked – they are islands rather than networks. Yet Allison Fine (2006) argues that future organisations have to embrace this kind of openness and learn to improve their listening skills. For development organisations, which are non-profit and publicly-funded, there is a chance to improve transparency. Although there are examples of increasing political influence of blogs, particularly in the USA, the political blogosphere in most countries is still marginal. The communication power of blogs has not yet challenged development organisations – but they can act as watchdogs. As Daniel Kaufmann, Director of the World Bank Institute writes on his blog,
“Blogs are playing an increasingly important role for improved governance. Blogs do not face the restraints of commercial print media. The blogosphere is a planet apart from traditional PR departments of public institutions, enabling citizens to share unfiltered information, expose misdeeds, and freely express views. Blogs help make governments and public institutions more accountable.”
Some challenges to be aware of Since the creation of the first blog, we have witnessed a huge boom. But not all blogs become vibrant spaces for discussion. Many blogs quickly lapse or are rarely updated. Finding an audience is usually a major challenge. Many also underestimate how much time and resources a blog needs. It takes skill and patience to achieve a vibrant blog with an active, commenting audience. Attention and visitors are not guaranteed. You need to persevere to find the audience or help the audience find you.
Issues of access and literacy For the average, experienced Internet user, you can quickly learn the publishing process for a blog post. It should not take more than three mouse-clicks, including writing the text. But not everybody is as well connected or has the experience to use this tool and its opportunities. The participatory web has opened new ways of interacting on the Internet, but there are obstacles: access, cost, time, literacy and a certain degree of media literacy. Particularly in developing countries, few people have Internet access or the means (literacy and media competence) to engage in such a conversation. Also, just a few languages dominate and there are very few bridges between them. The majority of online development debates are in English and exclude many groups from participating. Some of these obstacles will remain or might even intensify.
The speed at which innovation is transforming how we use the Internet is breathtaking. Even so, bandwidth is a big constraint. One approach to bridging the online and offline world is social reporting, where knowledge-sharing is documented for the Internet and vice versa. Participants at events act as reporters to present the different opinions and perspectives articulated within a group. The results can be texts, videos or audio presented on a website.16 Reading blogs also means that the reader has to find content and then also filter it to create their own understanding. It takes a certain level of education and familiarity with different writing styles to do this. Also less ‘media literate’ people may take blogs as factual and ‘trusted sources’ in the same way they would a newspaper. Although there are numerous cases of blogging that have helped to empower people – it does not benefit all causes. With all technology, a best fit approach is key: focus on needs. Not all communication solutions need to technological.
In the development context, the key question must always be: how can this potential tool help? Lastly, there is also a risk that the front-runners are far ahead of normal Internet users. I share the author of We-Think Charles Leadbeater’s (2008) concern: ‘Those already rich in knowledge, information and connections may just get richer.’
Conclusion Blogging can have a positive impact on communication and empowerment, but nevertheless there are limitations. There is still very little evidence of blogging making a difference for development. In my opinion we are still at a very early stage in this whole movement. So long as the South cannot participate more easily and until northern organisations change their mindsets towards openness, blogs and all these other wonderful Web 2.0 tools will have limited effects.
Blogging is just one form of publishing and interacting. Many Internet users are publishing content on wikis or on social networks such as Facebook, which allow their “With all technology, a best fit approach is key: focus on needs. Not all communication solutions need to technological. In the development context, the key question must always be: how can this potential tool help?” members to interact and facilitate collaboration.
Mobile social networks go in the same direction, letting you interact from your mobile phone wherever you are. Nevertheless one key problem of all these initiatives is that they always struggle to get a spill-over effect to the offline world. It is not only about publishing, but interacting within your own networks. Enthusiasts see in this open collaboration promising times ahead, where development challenges are tackled collectively. So whether you choose to use blogs or any other Web 2.0 tools – remember, it is the people who form these networks and their exchange that create value, ideas and innovation.