28 July 05
Bridge blogs give voice to the marginalised
Irish Times Online article by Quinn Norton
Blogging - posting personal commentary to a web page - is different around the world. For some, it's in a non-native language or several languages. Others blog when they get to cybercafes, or when the electricity is on, in places where such things aren't a given. Some use anonymous services to keep safe or avoid prosecution. Shaun Attwood has a particular difficulty blogging. Although he's in the middle of the United States, he writes paper letters to be posted on a blog he's never seen. These are bridge blogs - blogs that give different cultures a new medium of communication.
This concept of a blog that connects two worlds largely started with Salam Pax's "Where is Raed?". In 2003, this Baghdad blog offered something new in a war zone - a day-to-day account of civilian life and opinion. Readers were riveted and, in the politically charged climate leading up to the Iraqi war, many people came to trust Pax's blog exclusively. Since then, blogs from the edge of human life have blossomed. The number and range of these blogs is daunting even for the most enthusiastic internationalist. Ethan Zuckerman, founder of Geekcorps (an IT-focused volunteer aid organisation) and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, was as enthusiastic as they come. He followed many of these blogs, but with a lack of media attention and growing body of publications, he felt that a central clearing house was needed. Together with fellow academic and former journalist Rebecca MacKinnon, Zuckerman founded Global Voices (http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/globalvoices/) to address the problem.Global Voices is an online hub for international bloggers. It provides an aggregator, collecting together blogs from other sites, as well as a blog of its own, featuring roundups of reactions to international news and issues and profiles of the bloggers. The aggregator covers English-language blogs from most of the nations of the world, representing a huge cross section of cultural regions. Now, if you really want to know what the locals think, you know where to look.
At the conference that spawned Global Voices, blogger Hossein Derakhshan defined three metaphors for global blogs: "windows", which give you a glimpse of life in another culture; "cafes", which allow members of a culture to interact although geographically disparate; and "bridges", which allow online interaction between cultures where little or none existed before. It is this last type, bridge blogs, on which Global Voices focuses. Many bridge blogs start with a cause.
The most unusual and somewhat shocking bridge blog is http://jonsjailjournal.blogspot.com/. It's the blog of Attwood, a British stockbroker convicted of drug and money-laundering charges associated with raves in Phoenix, Arizona. Attwood has been imprisoned for three years, two of which have been spent in one of the most notorious prisons in a country already notorious for a huge and inhumane prison system. Attwood began writing letters to his parents from jail, describing in plain terms the conditions under Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's regime. Shocked and concerned for their son's life, Derick and Barbara Attwood took a cue from Pax, the famous blogger in Iraq, and started posting the letters to a blog. At first they kept the blog anonymous, fearing retribution."We wanted people to know what was going on inside. Several people have died in restraints and we wanted to get the conditions exposed," says Derick. Jon's Jail Journal did attract press attention: it was used as a resource for a campaign against Arpaio. Although Arpaio was re-elected, Attwood was relocated and eventually the jail was closed."We don't know if Shaun's blog had anything to do with that," says his father, "but it would be nice to think it did." The blog has connected Attwood with family and the world in general. "Having your son arrested and put in prison, it's been terrible - but it's strengthened us as a family. Shaun gets through it with his writing." Feedback has been almost universally supportive and readers regularly send Attwood books and publications. Recently, he thanked "Barry in Tonopah for the subscription to the Investors Business Daily, the arrival of which is now the high point of our day". Attwood writes about other inmates with their permission, and many of them are thrilled to be seen by the outside world, receiving correspondence from Attwood's readership. Of the evolving nature of the blog, his father says: "It's his lifeline really. He gets printouts back. The other inmates get copies as well and they're quite pleased. It's a link, not just for him to the outside world, but for his inmate friends as well; a lifeline to the outside world."
Perhaps more than anything, that lifeline describes the motivation of the bridge bloggers. "I think what it really has to do with is being listened to," says Zuckerman. He notes that, for many African bloggers, it's a way of correcting media perceptions as well. A lot of bloggers in Africa and the Middle East don't like the way they are presented in the media. "These people are saying 'please don't presume to speak for me'." Prior to the web, there wasn't an obvious way for these figures to speak for themselves: war victims, citizens of developing countries, prisoners in desert town jails. And when they did, their words were re-interpreted by the media who covered them. But as Attwood's lifeline, and countless other voices - from an African feminist's Black Looks blog, to the daily life of an aid worker in Somaliland show - there's more to say in these edge worlds than the news is willing or able to pass along. "We have a fascinating backdoor open with blogs... it really is diverse and complicated," according to Zuckerman. And sometimes, perhaps, it can be a little too much. It's not always easy to be the blogging proxy of your son in jail. "Sometimes it's more than a parent wants to know," Attwood's father says, "but we'd rather he was like that. We want him to tell us everything."
Quinn, thank you for the article about global bridge blogs, which included a focus on my journal.
You are right about the blog being a lifeline. The emotional fulfilment I obtain, from bringing computer users into the world of prison and from reading their feedback is beyond description.
It is my hope that increased public awareness of injustice to prisoners will lead to changes. It is thanks to reporters such as yourself that this important message is spreading.
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