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December 15, 2004

Undercurrent: Nation, Region, Weblog, Home

There are hundreds of political traditions among the 193 sovereign nations of the world. There can be just as many press traditions. Just as every country has its literature, its poetry, its song, every nation has a press that carries the national imprint in some way. Now blogging will do that: it will carry the imprint of nation. What we're curious about is the imprint of "globe."

Through the simple magic of trackback I discovered an intiguing new weblog by a Norwegian journalist, editor, and writer, Olav Anders Øvrebø. It is called Undercurrent, an effective title for what he has in mind. So new is Undercurrent there’s only a handful of posts, probably because his English weblog is not a main gig, just something Øvrebø does to be part of a global dialogue. Keeping his hand in, it seems.

Øvrebø (bio page) helped create news sites in Norway and in Berlin, and he has written in English for, among others, the Wall Street Journal. “We shouldn’t stop using our own languages, and there are of course good blogs in Norwegian and German,” he writes. “But the conversation should be global, and for that end we have the latin of our age.”

The latin of our age. This phrase struck me. It refers to English, potentially to blogging. “So this blog will be written in English, with the aim of developing media/weblog analysis from the Norwegian/ Scandinavian/ North European perspective.”

I like the suggestion of regional press think. Must develop. Notice too how finely graded the sense of “region” is. There’s a Norwegian “way” with media analysis, a Scandavian perspective that can be added, a Northern European tradition, and the author has a stake in each. He also has a stake in the global conversation, for which Undercurrent exists to provide.

Which of these is his real identity? There is no good answer to that.

Blogging is an international form that is being developed in many languages and cultures. It is “natural” to none of these languages, none of these cultures. Øvrebø observes that while the Web is global, that doesn’t meant a level playing field for all. Participants in the United States benefit from having the most advanced blog sphere. “The dynamic has been strongest there,” he writes. “The fabulous blogger breakthroughs of the Bush-Kerry campaign only underlined this.”

At a recent blogging conference in Norway, he says, “the main attractions were Rheingold and Doctorow.” (My links.) Fom his Nov. 26 post, Weblog analysis, geography and language:

Does this matter? I think so. New media developments do not take place in a vacuum. I have some experience in developing news websites in Norway and Germany, and although we observed what went on in the US and other places, many of our choices were heavily influenced by the different countries’ press and political traditions. There’s every reason to expect weblogs, and the relationship between media and weblogs, to develop differently in different contexts also. Experiences will be different…

This is an important observation. There are hundreds of political traditions among the 193 sovereign nations of the world. There can be just as many “press” traditions. Just as every country has its literature, its poetry, its song, every nation has a press that carries the national imprint in some way. Now blogging will do that: it will carry the imprint of nation.

What we’re curious about is the imprint of “globe.”

“I saw the world change last night,” wrote Jeff Jarvis on Dec 9th. “Spirit of America showed its new Arabic-language blogging tool at a reception in Washington.” It’s a first. Americans blogging in English have bequeathed an initial platform to weblog writers working in Arabic. As a work of geopolitics that’s pretty cool.

But they—the Arabic bloggers—will be creating their own sphere with it, which will go its own way. There’s something poignant about it: the invention is released, and others take it where it must go. “Good luck Arabic blogging tool. Go now and meet your public— for good or for ill.” The invention writes home, but in another language, another code. I suppose all software is like that. To release is to relinquish.

Blogging in English is not a universal, but as the latin of our age it is a worldwide practice, in the sense that it stretches across all regions of the globe. At the Berkman Center (for Internet and Society) conference last weekend, the most excitement was generated by the Saturday track entitled Global Voices Online, presided over by the extremely able Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon, both of the Berkman Center, with participants from Iran, Iraq, South Korea, Latvia, Malaysia, China, Kenya, Poland, Canada and the US. (Reports here and here and here, for starters. List of participants. More conference links.)

It was an attempt to ask:

The blogging tool for Arabic is one answer to these questions. Another is Geekcorps, which Zuckerman founded. Another is weblogs like Undercurrent. (Which commented from afar on the Berkman Center conference; see Signs of the times.) I’m interested in the ideas we’re going to be needing about nation, press, region, blog, journalist, editor and globe. It’s not clear we have those ideas, or have them straight.

For example: PressThink is an American weblog. Its assumed world is the public culture and political community of the United States, including of course the American press. It’s not a crime to have a taken-for-granted world; it’s probably essential to blog ID. We catch on easily enough. At by Jim Zellmer the “given” is the public world of Madison, Wisconsin. At WordUp by Ed Cone the reference points are nation (technology and public life in the U.S.), state (North Carolina politics) and town (Greensboro, NC) but not in any sustained way does that include “globe.”

Now what about This is the blog of the World Editors Forum, which represents 5,000 newspaper editors around the world. The posts are about “practical issues and real solutions for working editors and senior newsroom executives.” The “given” is newspaper journalism and its problems— worldwide. It’s written in English, the lingua franca, and edited by a Frenchman, Bertrand Pecquerie. It’s also interesting to follow as an “intranet in the editors’ community,” as Pecquerie describes it in a FAQ post. (See his What’s wrong with American journalism?)

The editors community. Must figure out what that is. The world wide fraternity of newspaper editors is a “nation” scattered among the nations. To create a sense of an editors community worldwide is the whole purpose of bringing Editors Weblog on line.

Whereas in Greensboro, North Carolina, the community was imagined a long time ago and covers a particular plot of earth. There (according to Cone’s column) the local newspaper editor blogs, and the newly elected Register of Deeds (a public official) blogs, and a local CEO blogs, along with the usual writers and poets, all of whom meet up at an aggregator site, Greensoboro 101, which is just starting to get the hang of it. But that Web page is a new way of “seeing” what Greensboro is up to, just as the daily newspaper has always been. John Robinson, the blogging editor of the daily newspaper realizes that.

His imagination of Greensboro is being reshaped by blog, but being the editor who blogs is also changing how others in the community imagine him— the Conversible Editor. (People who have been around a city for many years will sometimes tell you how “our” newspaper became “the” newspaper in the era of chain ownership. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the reverse happened? The newspaper turns into “our” paper again.)

“In fact, all communities larger than promordial villages of face-to-face contact are imagined,” says Benedict Anderson in his great study of modern nationalism (Imagined Communities, Verso, 1983.) They differ, he adds, “by the style in which they are imagined.” A national community, in Anderson’s view, is when we know we’re connected to people we have never seen. Whatever helps us know this automatically is nation-forming. Journalism, and “news” thus form, as well as inform the people of a given nation.

“An American will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his 240,000-odd fellow-Americans,” writes Anderson, attempting insight from the obvious. “He has no idea of what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady anonymous, simultaneous activity.”

Baltimore and Kansas City are part of the same nation with San Diego because citizens in Baltimore, who think of themselves as Americans, know that “meanwhile” there are other Americans going about their lives in the midwest and the opposite coast. The modern nation, says Anderson, is one big elaboration on that sense of a specifically populated meanwhile… (“Meanwhile, in Iraq…”)

Ethan Zuckerman’s weblog is subtitled: “My blog is in Cambridge, but my heart is in Accra.” That’s a “meanwhile” statement. (His blog is really “in” Cambridge? In what sense? Must determine later.) To him and all the talented people who joined in Gobal Voices Online, I say keep Benedict Anderson’s insight close at hand: “all communities are imagined, they differ by the style in which they are imagined.”

Maybe that’s what this Voices group is trying to affect— the style in which the global conversation is pictured as on-going, emerging, real and live in the here and now. When I said that PressThink is an American blog I meant: that is the style in which it has been imagined, so far— though I don’t think I ever announced it until now.

Even though he only posts once every few weeks, I now have complete confidence in the “simultaneous activity” of my fellow media analyst and blogger, Olav Anders Øvrebø. Because of Undercurrent, which lets me imagine him, he is part of a live community, a company of critics I see stretching internationally across many countries, many authors, from many regions of the world.

But this community only goes as far as English, the latin of our age. By way of closing these reflections here are a few questions for PressThink readers (who are advised to hit the comment button) and for these bloggers, my brain trust wish-list for matters at hand: Ethan Zuckerman, Rebecca MacKinnon, Olav Anders Øvrebø, Jim Moore, Jeff Jarvis, Mohammed and Omar, Joi Ito, Dave Weinberger, Chris Lydon, John Palfrey, Seth Finkelstein, Ed Cone, Chris Nolan, Tim Oren, Lance Knobel, Simon Waldman, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Susan Crawford, Thomas P.M. Barnett, Glynn Wilson, Dan Gillmor, Dave Winer, Micah Sifrey, Hoder and others:

What is that great nation like—how do we imagine the community—corresponding to the English speaking, reading and weblog-writing world, as it extends across the globe? Is this one public, or many? Does it have its own press? Are there patriots?

After Matter: Notes, Reactions and Links…

Jeff Jarvis reacts:

I like to call this new medium of ours citizens’ media. “Citizen” connotes belonging and that is why I like the word as a substitute for the old-fashioned, one-way notions of readers, viewers, listeners, consumers. Citizens belong. Citizens join. Citizens own. Citizens act.

So I ask myself: Citizen of where? Citizen of what?

Joi Ito says in comments:

I think that there is a new community of English speaking/writing people from different regions. I think these people can serve as bridges, but they may often be looked upon as outsiders. There is an interesting phenomenon among alumni of international schools. They tend to create a third culture and not fit in in either their home country or the country they are visiting. There is definitely and “international culture” which many foreign diplomats also share. We call this chanpon in Japanese. It’s a mixed culture, not bicultural.

The ICANN meeting was quite interesting in this respect. English and to a certain level, French were spoken by people from every country. As an Internet person, English has, for the last 30 years, been necessary and most people heavily engaged in Internet technology and business have learned English. The Internet technology students in Japan speak better English than just about any other group that I know of.

America’s Best Spirit. Dan Gillmor on Spirit of America and its founder, Jim Hake, back in May, 2004.

What’s Next for Dan Gillmor? The tech writer talks to OhmyNews International about his plans to leave old media for a new media venture.

Chris Lydon on the Berkman event:

The superstars were Hossein Derakhshan, a.k.a. Hoder, the best known of the many thousands of Iranian bloggers, who finally copped a visa to Cambridge; and from South Korea, Oh Yeon Ho, the founder of the inspirational OhMyNews. Read OhMyNews, and read all about it here, for example, and here, to see the future and to believe that it works. With the mantra “every citizen is a reporter,” and asserting furthermore that “every real journalist, at heart, is a social engineer,” OhMyNews in four years has built a base of 35,000 contributors to its news report. It is the first Internet newspaper worthy of the name and exemplary of the idea that a lot of us cherish, and it’s a force to be reckoned with in the fascinating, fluid politics of South Korea.

Ed Cone at his blog:

Jay asks, “What is that great nation like—how do we imagine the community—corresponding to the English speaking, reading and weblog-writing world, as it extends across the globe? Is this one public, or many? Does it have its own press? Are there patriots?”

I would answer: It has many publics, but without bright lines between them; it is its own press; and it does have patriots, people who love it and propagate its ideals — too many to name, and the list keeps growing.

My question: what are the defining traits of Greensboro’s blog culture?

Great question. And check out some of the responses he got. But we have to check into the way Ed Cone put it. Sometimes, the public is its own press.

Rebecca MacKinnon with an important overview of the Global Voices deliberations:

Chinese bloggers like Isaac Mao hope members of the Global Voices movement will help him and his compatriots develop more sophisticated blogging tools in order to make speech “safer.” One possible idea is to combine blog-publishing with online social networking, so that more controversial blog posts are published only to groups of trusted peers. “Today’s blogging is not a very mature format,” says Mao.

Read the rest at Personal Democracy Forum.

John Palfrey, The Internet’s Effect on Politics: A Working Hypothesis, v2.0. Discussion paper in advance of the Berkman event:

The internet provides a model of placing power at the edges and in the connections between them, as opposed to vesting it in one centralized hub. This model makes intuitive sense in the political arena as well, where the aim inevitably is to reach out to voters, local organizers, donors, and more. These effects are reminiscent of the ways that eBay, Google, Amazon, digital music, and VoIP have substantially changed a variety of industries in the commercial arena. The puzzle is to pull apart what’s real from what’s hype.

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 15, 2004 7:02 PM