Will Africa Benefit from the Rise of Personal Media?

Young people in West are increasingly finding Africa's endless cycle of hunger, violence and disease unacceptable. This can be seen in increased travel to Africa and massive interest in campaigns like Save Darfur and Make Poverty History. At the same time, these youth are increasingly turning to personal media (blogs, vlogs, podcasts, wikis), instead of mainstream media, to shape their world view. One important question of our time is how do we harness the emerging power of emerging technologies to give youth a richer picture of the problems and opportunities in Africa, while also enticing them to act in coherent and effective ways.

Especially in the United States, there is a long tradition of media being a pillar of democracy. De Toqueville wrote about the connection between civic engagement and newspapers and Watergate was investigatory journalism's pinnacle. None of this is new. What is new is the elastic nature of personal media to be both an accurate and balanced information source, and a source of mobilization for real world participation.

What is participatory media and how is it different from the mass media it is replacing? As David Sifri, founder of Technocrati aptly stated: mass media is a lecture from media company to an audience, while personal media transforms these lectures into conversations. Blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and other internet based communicative technologies allow people to create their own content, as well as be their own judge (no longer the media company) of what is quality content. (For an overview of personal media, see the Economist.)

What does this mean for Africa? First, many would agree that mainstream media has lost its chance to give Africa a fair shot. Land on the main Africa page for CCN or NYT on any given day, and see the cycle of war, famines and disease repeated ad nauseum. Africa is far away, and it is expensive to send and maintain a correspondent to cover the continent. Also, editors dictate content based on what they believe consumers will find interesting. With limited print space, editors choose to cover seemingly apocalyptic disaster, but fail to capture either the remarkable potential that lies behind these struggles, or the successful projects already being undertaken to break their cycle. Will African benefit from the rise of participatory media? The tools are available, the potential is unmistakable, but the benefit will not come without smart, strategic action.

To illustrate this potential, here I assess the state of blogs (the most popular form of new media and the form I am most familiar with). Watching the Afri-blogosphere closely for the last two months, I have noticed two types of quality Afriblogs. The first group are practitioner blogs, either in the realms of politics, policy, or business. Even when they involve theory, these blogs overwhelmingly deal with solutions. They do not underestimate the challenges on the continent, but they recommend or point to practical changes in business or policy that would make life in Africa better. Further, they tend to write within the historical narrative of failed African leadership, pinning the problems closer to home (and thus fixable from home), instead of choosing the narrative of foreign neo-imperialism.

Stephen Schwenke, a leading development ethicist, and a former professor of mine, likes to emphasise the common humanity shared by seemingly completely different people. A relatively wealthy American professor from Washington DC, he says, and a poor, illiterate subsistence farmer from northern Uganda may not have lots to talk about. However, they both know what it feels like to be a father and love a child. This simple tale shows alot about why many people want to help Africa: they simply want to help other human beings. Connecting on this most basic human level is how we elucidate our common struggle. The second group of Afribloggers, cultural bloggers, can play similar role at creating human connectedness. These bloggers depict the worlds of African music, theatre, movies, fashion, or architecture. This family of blogs is incredibly important because it demonstrates Africa's creative component, paints a more human, nuanced view of Africa that disaster based reporting from the mainstream media never approaches.

It's interesting to look at the profiles of these bloggers (see my sidebar for some examples in each category). They are often journalists, former Peace Corps volunteers or entrepreneurs, both African and Western. I've also noticed that they are definitively cosmopolitan, comfortable engaging with both African and Western viewpoints and styles. They are almost exclusively either Africans who are or have lived in the West, or Westerners who are or have lived in Africa.

This highlights an important point. What I have learned from running several programs focused on exhcnages between Americans and Ugandans is that even Ugandans who speak fluent English are still speaking a different language from Americans. Africa desperately needs people who can be understood both in Africa and the West. I believe this is simply a matter of exposure ,acculturation and exchange. Talented bloggers cut this barrier in a way that allows important stories and information to travel between these two 'worlds.'

The myriad of voices contributing to Afriblogs makes for a richer contextual picture of the continent. However, blogs also have the revolutionary potential to encourage people to take practical, focused action on the issues that they find important. Two organizations illustrate this point. One of the most innovative technology firms in the world, EchoDitto (Click here for an interview on Africa I did on EchoDitto's blog with co-founder Michael Silberman), is a leader in inspiring real world action through online content. While they largely work in the American domestic sphere, through their innovative web based campaigns, they have encouraged millions to vote, raise money, or call their Congressman. They understand that people can be connected and empowered through the web.

However, mobilizing for efficient, effective change is one thing when dealing with American domestic politics and activism, but it is quite another when dealing with international development. There are language and time issues, digital divides to conquer, and difficulties in measuring success. As a foundation for change, I think we have to take advantage of what blogs and other emerging technologies can bring us: the best African political, intellectual, policy, business and cultural innnovations.

Take the example of Global Youth Partnership for Africa's (GYPA) Uganda Immersions (Full disclosure: I am Associate Director of GYPA). Next week, 13 American undergraduate, graduate and young professionals, interested in print/radio/video journalism, marketing and public relations will arrive in Kampala. Over the next two weeks, they will meet with some of the exciting social entrepreneurs in several different issues areas throughout the country. Their goal is to literally create media that will both help change the way that Africa is looked at in the West, but also incite young Americans to contribute to the solutions put forth by these entrepreneurs. Telling a balanced story about Africa is important civic action in itself. However, once young people from the West and from Africa can connect over exciting ideas and commonly held beliefs, the potential for practical partnership skyrockets.

A new global market is emerging. The sellers are intelligent, energetic and pragmatic young African leaders with innovative projects in their respective fields. The buyers are equally intelligent, energetic and pragmatic young Westerners yearning to apply pragmatism to their idealism. The market place is new media, where stories are told, opportunities are elucidated, connections are made, and action is taken.

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  • Having been to Africa myself (Sierra Leone), I can attest to the language barrier that exists between Westerners and Africans. While both parties may comprehend the message, the view points are entirely different. For a poor farmer living in the country, the only thing that matters is putting food on the table; he has no real opinion about international matters because for him, that's not what's putting food onn the table.

    By Blogger mckibbon, at 3:46 PM  

  • Josh,

    I really like what you said about language. Even communication between Americans and Africans who have grown up speaking English can be difficult, and I'm looking forward to helping bridge that gap next year, at least with the kids I'll be teaching.

    I do think there's a sort of media void when it comes to good news about Africa, one that personal media is quickly filling. The challenge is getting people beyond those who are already interested and seeking more information to respond to these types of media.

    Keep me updated on the journalism trip. See you soon,

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:36 PM  

  • thanks for the link! pretty amazing how much technology, the internet, and the social web will/could play a role in the ability of your students to successfully impact public opinion on africa -- i can't imagine this project being nearly as successful 10 years ago (or 3yrs ago!) without the technology that we have now

    enjoying the posts here -- keep it up!

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  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:18 AM  

  • Excellent post, Joshua. I found the link from Muti. Blogs can also be powerful advocacy tools in Africa and I agree - "The tools are available, the potential is unmistakable, but the benefit will not come without smart, strategic action."

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:31 AM  

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