It took me about a week to re-think how to write up the Global Voices Summit 2012 hosted in Nairobi last week and I think I managed to sum it up in my head today during my long Skype chat with GV Polska team. Since I got back from Nairobi I was in a bit of a funny state – you know that feeling when something, a realisation is growing in your heart and needs time to articulate itself clearly? And then suddenly hits you – under the shower or in a different, equally ordinary moment? Well, I do not think I had a real eureka moment tonight, but I did manage to find the crystallized product of my choices, conversations, feelings and considerations from last days…in three pages of development ideas for GV Polska.
But I am starting from the end! I was not sure if I am going to go to the Summit this year until almost a last minute and I knew that if I were to go it would probably be my last one. Partially as a result of my personal circumstances but mostly due to a series of small, but crucial circumstances within Global Voices, I was considering not only leaving my position of GV Polska editor but leaving the entire project. To sum them all up I felt that something has changed, it’s not there anymore and probably is gone forever. Something I used to call the spirit of the community but actually now, after a series of conversations with my close friends from various GV projects, a chat with one of the community leaders and the 5 intense days of the Summit I realised it’s not it. It’s the change I was not prepared for! The change related to growth. Not the lack of willingness to bring in new people, on the contrary – the fact that every new person brings in something new and changes the entire landscape of this voluntary group, work place, movement and community. The fragmentation of the community which results in silos and quiet places that if you do not have the power to fill up might ultimately feel just too empty. It results in the lack of time to address issues important for some and the danger of silence on occasions when a stand needs to be taken. No, I was not prepared for this change. And so much has changed since 2010! Back then we did not even dare to refer to GV as “community”! GV is changing and I was not sure if I am ready for this change.
Global Voices also changes its members. We meet and connect with exceptional individuals. We take an active part in sharing their stories. Their stories and their presence change the way we look at life. If anything they drag us outside of our comfy little boxes and make us think! As paradoxical as it sounds it was those small signs within the community that made me realise a new problem our community is facing – on our own GV Polska level but gradually on the global level too. The inclusive, democratic and supportive nature of our group(s) creates a culture of polite and quiet approval of our faults too. We find it really hard to flag up issues! It occurred to me during the last few weeks when some major faux-pas happened (due to the lack of time, I am certain) and where or ignored or flagged up too late (I say faux-pas as luckily in a voluntary work there is not much scope for actual damage and we are way too sensible for that). And then one day in our Polish team we had an email stating that a volunteer dislikes the corrections made to her translations – and I must admit I was happy to see this message. It proves the maturity of the group, bravery of the author and most of all – the fact we have a problem which needs to be addressed. It also made me think about the silence. We have a large group of volunteers – not all of them active, recently few leaving the group, more of them talking about planning to do so. We have a huge amount of group members who hardly ever speak up. At the Summit we have talked a lot about the sustainability of the site, increase in volume and quality of our content, recruitment. We have looked at the grey areas of our structure, the quiet corners in its basis. That made me realise that it is probably the time to address those people pro-actively, give them a voice.
I will not go down the route of trying to find an ultimate definition of what GV voice is and whether we should take a stand or not (it means something else to each of us) but when it comes to benefits and values of the community I question the focus on the goals of GV content only. I think it’s important to remember that we are here to deliver stories of under-represented voices and regions and counterbalance the mainstream media. I think it is equally important to embrace the growth of the community and prepare for any change coming with it. The mainstream media starts to realise the value of citizen driven content. Increasingly some of the main stream news outlets start to reinvent their models and embrace the fact that it is the public, not the media giants, defining the importance of a particular piece of news. Stories are brought out to the global view more easily thanks to the Internet penetration, Google translation and many other developments. The original goal of Global Voices might not be necessary so relevant in few years time but the historical growth and network value of the platform and its community will remain pretty strong. That is if we ensure that we treasure it’s building blocks – inclusiveness, openness to new ideas, tolerance and respect, trust and friendship.
I think that the real voice of GV is actually an amazing combination of all our relationships within the community and outside of it. I felt it strongly during my presence at the Summit, but then again I was one of more than a hundred Polish volunteers and they did not have the opportunity to experience that feeling. I did not want to actively contribute all the time due to my personal doubts, but since I was invited I felt obligated to represent my team and make the most of the time to then take back the learnings and observations and make the most of them for our team, as well as report and give back to the global community. That realisation led to a strong understanding of what GV really is about – people. I spent hours talking to my closest friends within the community about its value, their personal motivations, approach and problems. Once again I came to the conclusion that this “place” is all about people and their stories – in any sense. I chatted to the event guests, external observers who have also noticed a change in the community – and yet again: I had to conclude that what we have here is priceless because it’s built on a long term voluntary work and a similar approach not to life, but to what Global Voices is all about!
So my conclusions to this Summit? Let’s practice what we preach. Let’s continue writing – more and more and more. Let’s bring in more and more volunteers. Let’s improve the quality of our work, but also on the value of our community. Let’s not try to define it, but live it fully and ensure every single member of our community “feels it”. Let’s be transparent if we talk about transparency. Let’s be secure if we educate bloggers how to stay safe. Let’s give voice to the most silent members of our community and truly reverse the pyramid of our organisation. I am extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend this meeting and address my personal doubts and understand GV yet again a little bit better, at least I hope so. I had a hard choice to make – leave it as it is (to me) or change it. Inspired and supported by a few wonderful people and the overall voice of the community I have decided to stay and use the initial reasons of my doubts to at least try to change few things – hopefully, to make this place even better. We have now a list of 11 major points to address and the list will be growing, I am sure of that. All of them aim to increase our transparency, volume and quality of content but also listening to all of our community members and empowering each of them to speak up, write, take a stand – on many levels. Ultimately to take a more active role in the way Global Voices is growing and achieving its goals.
I am really really privileged to start this next chapter with people who were there for me all the time and people I would like to thank for their support but also painful honesty!Ulrike Reinhard asked me about “we” in the age of Internet. I think as I said in the video above, Internet has changed the world around us a lot but ultimately we are coming back to where it all has started – the need to connect with similarly minded people and build long term, trusted relationships with them. The tech and web landscapes will change but people will stay people. In the times of the Internet “we” becomes the most crucial concept ever: you, me and everyone else involved.