Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Community in Space

Another one from the Indian Express: http://www.indianexpress.com/story/19421.html

A community in space

Bloggers in India may be turning into a self-conscious and coherent force. They are banding together for social causes. But the shadow of censorship still hovers


This year saw the baby bloggers growing up. After the Indian government’s ban of blogger.com in July, many bloggers who had till then been lost in a sea of websites, banded together to try to fix this problem. Within a week there was an online group created on google, and about 500 bloggers were active on the forum. Many made RTI applications to the government. Others posted helpful proxy server addresses so that people could access their blogs once again. And suddenly everyone seemed to be talking about them. The mainstream media noticed this frenzied activity on the Internet and censorship became the buzzword of the summer. The ban was lifted, but a movement had been created. Most bloggers now look back at the ban as a good thing — because it gave them a coherent voice. But they are still concerned about the government keeping tabs on them.

For the uninitiated, blogs are personal spaces on the Internet. They are small websites where an individual can write about any subject under the sun, post pictures or use as a platform to collect information. “It is a social medium” says Dina Mehta of Conversations with Dina, “And I think the mainstream media did not quite understand it. It is community based. You build relationships with other bloggers as you leave comments on each other’s blogs, and that helps you improve. It is a self-correcting medium and so the good ones become popular and the bad ones left behind.” In fact, many from the blogging community in India have banded together in Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Delhi to meet face-to-face. This October there was a Bloggers ‘Unconference’ in Chennai and Delhi Bloggers Meet (DBM) started in 2004. A team from the BBC that covered DBM this year was impressed with the diverse blogs in India. Apart from personal blogs, they found numerous social-minded blogs, and moreover, bloggers who were leaving the anonymity of cyberspace to spread this social consciousness.

Many Indian bloggers became involved with a group called Global Voices, which is based out of Harvard Law School. It is a non-profit global citizen’s media project, which explores how the Internet can be used to build a more democratic, participatory global discourse. It tracks blogs from around the world and highlights some of the more interesting conversations (or posts) for its readers. It also wants to bring more unheard, ignored, or disadvantaged voices into the global online conversation, and this subject was discussed in great detail at its Delhi summit in December. Mehta explained, “The idea is to go into rural areas and set up a pilot project. We want to get the villagers to keep an online diary where they can talk about their lives. But we are still planning it out.”

A similar idea struck Sanjukta Basu, an active blogger, and with her friend Swagat Singh she started the ‘Bloggers Outreach Programme’. The idea was simple. “Mainstream media is limited whereas blogging is limitless. It is not an elite concept — and if we could just introduce people to it, teach them how to blog and encourage them to write about social problems etc. we could spread more awareness about issues.” She invited students and social workers and is happy with her first attempt. She is planning a series now, but also needs funding. “Blogging is a more effective medium that is coming up as an answer to the mainstream media and it is breaking the journalist’s privilege. People use blogs as an alternative to news media. In India it is not a substitute at all; because of their editorial slants and distinct points of view, they appeal to people.” And she is right. Most people, after finding out the news, seek blogs to read an analysis.

However, at the close of 2006, blogging still remains largely in the hands of the tech-savvy. MSN surveyed a random sample of Indian bloggers — official numbers in India are not known — and found that 85 per cent of them were under thirty-five. The majority used blogs as a medium for self expression, while the others for entertainment. Personal blogs are the rage with the younger generation. And if you thought there was no money in blogging, consider this — a Delhi journalist who kept a blog about her life became so popular that its fame spread across India and Penguin offered her a book deal! However, the more serious bloggers have been putting their heads together to try and understand how the phenomenon is developing in India. Questions at DBM up for research ranged from ‘personality of the blogger vs personality of the blog’ to ‘translating blogs from regional languages to English’ and ‘comparing the Indian and Pakistani blogosphere’.

But one question, that of censorship, still hovers above everyone’s computer. Reporters Beyond Borders credits India with more media outlets than any other country in the world, but it also criticises the government for regulating online activity with disregard to individual liberties. While it attempts to tackle cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism, the rights of the Internet user suffers. But as this year has shown, a blow to the blogger is a blow to not just self expression but a new form of social activism. And a free, democratic country like India cannot afford to hold back the not-so-baby bloggers again.

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