Álvaro Ramírez Ospina is an associate professor at the University of Bergen's Department of Information Science and Media Studies. His Spanish language blog is called Ojo al Texto. (Read the Norwegian version of this article).
BlogsMéxico, PerúBlogs and BlogsChapines are part of a group of rare directory websites that are facilitating the construction of a myriad of small scale and unpretentious kind of “public spheres” in today’s internet. They are not as visible as most prominent stars, politicians or media channels, but they are gathering a young generation of Spanish speaking bloggers that behave with energetic autarchy and a sheer sense of belonging.
Before and after the presidential elections in Venezuela this month, the latest example of the renewal of the public spheres in Latin America emerged: Bloggers in Venezuela joined forces to report and discuss the campaign and the election issues directly on their own blogs.
Global phenomenon, regional dialects
This past summer the British deputy prime minister John Prescott said: "I think it's called the internet or something - blogs is it? - I don't know, I've only just got used to letters." The remark is typical of such an important person, and not an isolated one. Politicians in general ignore blogs for many reasons.
...the phenomenon is roaring, mainly among middle class youngsters...
Not many people can describe how a blog works or define its main features. But approximately a hundred thousand people are creating their own new blogs everyday and learning about them in the process of publishing. This has allowed David Sifry to publish his “alerts”, which are quarterly reports about the state of internet’s blogosphere based on data from Technorati, a search engine that by December 2006 was tracking over 62 million blogs all over the world.
If few people in the streets of any big city in Latin America have heard about blogs, the reality is that the phenomenon is roaring, mainly among middle class youngsters who live in a vast geographical region that stretches from south of the Rio Grande in the US to the last tip of Patagonia in Argentina.
Screenshot of the blog portal BlogsMujer, which aggregates the contributions of female bloggers.
Latin American blogs resemble their counterparts in the rest of the world but have a particular feature that deserves some attention. They tend to gather themselves around some sites that function as phone catalogue listings, where authors can find themselves and other bloggers under country categories, regional and even gender BlogsMujer forms of belonging. The majority encourage the building of national blogospheres on their own right which are bits and pieces of the great international blogosphere being tracked by Technorati.
National blogospheres as small societies
These national directories function as virtual gathering places where Spanish speaking bloggers can be updated about new blogs being created, recent postings, and a weekly selection of remarkable authors which are featured in a special section of the site as “recommended” or as “the blog of the week”. Not all of the noticeable blogs are necessarily highbrow, as many are personal diaries (written mostly by women) that engage candidly and sometimes expressively in tales about their own experiences.
These listings can be searched by means of a careful list of blog theme categories. In most of them 15 categories are featured. The most popular are the Personal, Opinion and Cultural blogs. Other popular categories are Fine Arts, Technology and the Internet, Fotoblogs, Humor, Music, Literature and Politics.
Ecuablogs have short news about its members and activities while BlogsColombia gives bloggers the opportunity to chat and to plan annual face to face meetings. Veneblogs functioned as “godfather” and reference to other blogging communities for a while, but its founders have showed recent signs of been stalled after four years of running their site. A much newer initiative BlogsDominicanos with help from some of their most active and enthusiastic members organizes regular real life group encounters (Coroblogs). The main function however of all of them resides in the search for peers, the exchange of links and the ability to ping the directory server every time a blogger publishes a new post in his own blog. By sending a coded ping, each blogger activates the continuous rolling list of blogs that are updated as new entries are published. In that way he or she gets to be “top news” within their community, for brief periods of time during the day or week.
Naming them, Ticoblogs, Ecuablogs, BlogsPanama, BlogsPerú, and BlogsChile, one can notice their similar naming pattern and by visiting them their similarity and motives can be summed up as sites that intend to construct a sense of read/writing communities of interests. Two of them, La Union de Bloggers Hispanos and Blogalaxia ignoring national borders, attempt to gather the whole spectrum of the Spanish speaking blogging experience.
When internet formats favour horizontal mediations
A clue in good media studies has always been the analysis and comprehension of the “mediations” that mass media provide. It should be a study not about “technologies” but on how people use them and how audiences make sense of the messages, images and communications strategies that are mediated through those technology channels.
In spite of the fact that mass media behave as a very vertical, one way only form of communication, reception studies proved that audiences where attending, reacting and resisting much of what was broadcasted or presented to them via film, radio, TV and the press. Audiences were not as passive as many theorists intended them to be.
Bloggers, vloggers and podcasters are about connecting, sharing and building communities
With the internet however new forms of a less vertical approach to communication are emerging. The world wide web was born and used at the beginning in a similar vertical mode that imitated traditional mass media approaches to audiences. But new channels, formats and genres are emerging, and with them a new trend towards a somehow more horizontal approach to the way images, messages and communication strategies are mediated. The fact is that millions of people are adopting formats like blogs and wikis, for the fun of it, working in collaborative filtering and improving their opportunities and abilities of becoming visible and opinionated consumers, and sometimes citizens too.
In Latin America the blogging activity is just emerging with a peculiar interest in emphasizing the social and the local aspects of the authoring tools, in an attempt to swim in the vast waters of the global ocean called internet.
Wikis and blogs, as new and unique formats within the web, allow audiences to jump into a two way dialogue channel of communication. In wikis anybody, in theory, can participate and add their five cents of knowledge to a particular theme, dictionary or repository of information. In blogs, podcasts and vlogs or videoblogs, millions have found a way of expressing themselves, while giving others (usually their own readers or audiences) the opportunity to respond on line, comment or contradict what these creators/bloggers show or state.
This change of perspective is challenging mainstream media outlets around the world and presents a challenge to the traditional monopolists’ game of media industries in Latin America.
Some of them, including the written news and TV programming, are jumping on the bandwagon, trying to catch up with this two way dialogue approach. They have created programs were audiences can phone in with their questions or opinions or send text messages to television channels to be viewed by all. But traditional media lag behind in their approach because what they want primarily is to be heard, as the mobile phone manufacturer Ericsson used to say in their old slogan: "make yourself heard". It was Eirik Solheim who noted that Nokia, on the other hand, has always pointed in their slogan to the innovative mediated approach that internet elicits: “Connecting people“.
In Latin America, instead of wanting to be heard most bloggers, vloggers and podcasters are about connecting, sharing and building communities. They help each other filtering the loads of information coming from all over the world, while developing new forms of dissent, controversy and dialogue between authors and audiences in what the Cluetrain Manifesto has coined as conversations.
The dialogic society
The existence of these emerging national directories is a good example of still weak but interesting formation of small communities (with their own rules and codes of conduct), that resemble an earlier format, the newsgroups. It was there that people developed what later became internet’s netiquette, just a few years ago. In some national blogospheres it is common to find discussions about codes of conduct, how to tackle insults, flames, trolls, spam and other forms of improper conduct while sharing thoughts, poems or daily experiences. Some blogging communities are interested in ethical behaviour, while others fiercely defend the freedom, independence and autonomy of their blogging activity.
The profuse use of links, not only to other blogs, newspapers, video, and other on line media resources, allow bloggers to engage in a larger web of complex exchanges that are relevant not only as entertainment, and social interaction but as a cultural and educational phenomenon in itself. It has even begun to show how relevant they can become in the political arena, especially during election periods in each country.
In a recent interview with the Financial Times Eric Schmidt, the chairman and chief executive of Google, said: "Many of the politicians don't actually understand the phenomenon of the internet very well. It's partly because of their age . . . often what they learn about the internet they learn from their staffs and their children."
Politicians who have mastered their skills in communicating via radio and television face now the challenge to adapt to the new tribes of internet natives. Blogs and blogospheres are a very young phenomenon. They are in rapid change and it is impossible to predict where and how they will be used by the people who are empowering themselves with these tools. As with all technologies they will be used for good and not so fair purposes. But one thing seems clear: if the Gutenberg Era was pivotal in the distribution of knowledge and sharing of new ideas, political actions and renewal of thinking, the internet looks today as a new arena that can deepen the impact of networking knowledge and discussion on societies in need of wider forms of connection, participation and engagement, because it seems to expand the possibilities of a wide variety of “public spheres”.
As several and new areas of discussion, action and dialogue appear in the interaction between blogs and news media, the hopes for more democratic societies are increased. At least in Latin America where powerful elites still dominate all kinds of venues of political deliberation, and few can afford to take the risks, or have the will to engage in it. Whether or not those hopes are fulfilled is a matter of time, chance, power relations and a critical mass of internet activists.
Jill Walker and other scholars have been observing, analyzing and reflecting on blogging communities around the world. Some papers have been written on the vigorous and energetic dialogue that has emerged mainly in the English speaking internet community the last two or three years. Other projects like Global Voices have begun to look into other dynamic communities around the world, speaking different languages and eagerly engaged in their creative and expressive goals. As a matter of fact things are changing and the English language hegemony in blogs will soon be a bygone era because of the massive eruption of blogs on other languages, especially Japanese, Chinese and Spanish.
For my part I plan to continue observing and studying the way blogs have been adopted by the Spanish speaking communities around the world, composed mainly of people from the old Spanish Empire, their old colonies in Latin America, and the diasporas of people who have emigrated from their home lands but keep using their mother tongue in blogs. Many things are happening and tracking their rapid evolution is not an easy task. The rewards can be fruitful in many areas of society, especially in the field of education, where these formats and tools are showing their dynamic potential.
Blogging and politics in Venezuela
In the public sphere of politics the recent presidential election in Venezuela showed the potential of a national blogosphere. The social dynamics of that blogging community was set in motion under the leadership and inspiration of young journalist and blogger Luis Carlos Díaz. In his own blog he proposed to organize a network of bloggers in order to follow, report and publish in their individual blogs directly from their neighbourhoods, villages and cities around the country:
“… let’s try to converse with our neighbour… ask questions, and also pay attention to the other’s voice. If you can do this with your friends and neighbours, congratulations, you can post about it if you find it interesting. No need to stick a microphone in front of their mouth and prepare an interview."
The call got an immediate and enthusiastic response. A group of bloggers of the diaspora joined in and decided to cover “Election Day” (3rd of December) from embassies and consulates around the world. Luis Carlos' idea was to add a third voice or dimension to the Venezuelan public sphere. Up to this election day Venezuela’s public arena was fed only from press releases from election authorities and the mass media covering of events around election day. This time around bloggers contributed with a more personal approach telling stories and relating to people’s experiences and tales.
A group of bloggers meeting in Venezuela on September 29, 2006. Luis Carlos Díaz is no. 2 from left, Iria Puyosa nr. 2 from right. (photo: oso. The photograph is published here under a Creative Commons-license).
It took them only five days to get organized and running. Iria Puyosa initially offered a free domain name and site in order to collect all their postings. A better solution came some hours later from the newly formed Venezuelan directory To2blogs.com. They had the people, the engine and technical solutions in order to set up an automated RSS aggregator to collect and update on line all postings referring to the theme of elections under the banner Elecciones 3D (Elections 3 dimensions). One thousand blogs have joined the the initiative and many of them are still publishing in the aftermath. The site got more that ten thousand hits on election day. This unprecedented event in Venezuela’s election campaign was tracked by Technorati and by a couple of prestigious English speaking blogs.
Some people called it citizen reporting, for me it was an educational experience, too.