Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Battle of the Blogs
They have been branded the bad boys of the cyber world for their cunning talent to unlock the skeleton in the closet. But call them what you may, bloggers have drastically altered the traffic in the information highway.
From the WikiLeaks cables that shook the diplomatic world to its core to the Muliro Gardens sex scandal photos that left many Kenyans speechless, the so-called internet blue-eyed boys have pulled down the pants off the secrets of many.
“With the advent of the internet and its accessibility I think more Kenyans are finding alternative forums in which they can express themselves,” observes Jackson Biko, a renowned columnist and an ardent blogger. “This not only goes to provide a much needed avenue for such creative processes it goes into providing alternative source of information and platforms for interactive discussions”.
But in their quest to speak their minds or disseminate information bloggers have attracted wrath and praise in equal measure. While being applauded for being the silver lining under the clouds of conservative journalism by unearthing scandals and creating uncensored interaction platform, they have also been accused of fueling conflicts and bringing down social and political systems through unregulated content and promoting “shoddy” journalism.
However, overall bloggers have earned a reputation for being the daredevils ready to deep their hands on issues from which the mainstream media shies away from.
The now popular WikiLeaks, a site hosted by millions of bloggers around the world, caused a diplomatic pandemonium in recent times when they released thousands of classified cable messages allegedly sent to Washington by American diplomats from all over the world.
Earlier on, the same site had released “Collateral Murder”, a video from the US military showing soldiers allegedly killing civilians in Baghdad.
In Kenya, bloggers were the first to release the US drug dossier, publishing the harmonized draft constitution two days before the mainstream and accurately predicting the names of the Ocampo Six days before they were officially unveiled at The Hague.
Izvipi.com, a popular entertainment blog, was the first to release videos of erotic dancing at the Swaggerrific Concert at the KICC and the nude photos of a local diva. Other examples of instances where the blogs have stepped in the gap when the mainstream has been hesitant includes the Muliro Gardens sex scandal photos released by walalahoi.com and a video allegedly showing Prime Minister Raila Odinga being barred by Ethiopian officials from addressing the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa early this year.
Blogging culture gained inroads in Kenya around five years ago but reached a fever pitch during the 2008 post electoral violence. Led by an army of mostly Diaspora-based commentators, the blogosphere was literary on fire at the height of the post electoral chaos as hundreds of bloggers spewed chains of highly opinionated articles. This vicious content in turn triggered thousands of venomous comments from partisan readers.
While regional leaders burnt the night oil trying to work out a peace-fostering power sharing formula a fierce battle of the blogs raged on.
The BBC Monitoring, a body that monitors and reports on mass media worldwide, noted that “some bloggers and online forums try to regulate their content, but others appear to have shunned moderation” in their quest for justice.
However, many bloggers strongly deny the claims that they incited people or played any role during the mayhem, pointing out that they just provided a platform on which Kenyans could debate and discuss the issues that were affecting the country at that time.
“Whereas a few blogs got it wrong on the extremity of insults, a majority of blogs actually helped stop the violence,” explains Dennis Itumbi, a journalist and a regular blogger through the social network Facebook. “You will remember abunuwasi.com (since gone offline) did a sentence of hope appeal where hundreds of Kenyans set text messages about what was happening which was then transmitted to police headquarters and international bodies real time”.
Mr. Itumbi also identifies another blog, Ushahidi.com, that he claims used Google Maps, a satellite linked online mapping software, to identify violence hotspots and places where victims were in urgent need. Many blogs adopted the software afterwards.
“All reports done to probe the chaos like the Kriegler, Waki and the Kenya National Human Rights indicted a few radio stations in the mainstream media,” the popular blogger points out. “None identify any blog as having fuelled the election dispute or the violence”.
He also says that while the last general elections was a “live television” election where every station dedicated all its airtime to monitoring the proceedings, next year’s polls in Kenya will be the bloggers’ election. The precursor to this was the 2010 referendum where blogs trail blazed the way in announcing the provincial elections.
“Bloggers under Kenya United announced the results long before IIEC,” Itumbi recalls. “This was because whereas the mainstream had a reporter in every district, bloggers had a blogger in every polling station”.
However, showdown between bloggers and authorities is not a phenomenon unique to Kenya alone. While the Egyptian newspapers, radio and television stations remained partisan or cowed by the dictatorial regime young bloggers risked life and limb to take the bull by the horns.
By creating a network of information exchange through the blogs and social media, Egyptian and Tunisian youth traded tips on how to organize demonstrations and outwit anti-riot police. Ardent bloggers Ahmed Maher, Asmaa Mahfouz and Israa Abdel Fattah together founded the April 6 Youth Movement, the Facebook group that spearheaded the mass protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak.
Other prominent Egyptian bloggers that have had a brush with the law are Kareem Amer, who was charged with insulting Islam and Mubarak and jailed for three years, and Abdel Monem Mahmoud.
But despite the purported state of competition between the blogs and mainstream media channels the two information mediums compliment each other in many ways. For this reason media houses and individual journalists have opened blogs where they follow up on their lead stories or express their personal views on various issues.
“I stumbled on by mistake, I was looking for a place to release my creative energy and it sort of got a life of its own,” explains Jackson Biko, a renowned columnist and a consistent blogger. “Both mainstream and blogs serve different purposes hence this perceived “war” between bloggers and mainstream is a useless storm in a teacup”.
While grateful for having a column in a leading daily that gives him a platform to advance his professional argument Biko says its his blog bikozulu.wordpress.com that he finds a platform to indulge and vent his “creative longings” unhindered.
There are millions of personal blogs established by individuals as online daily diaries or to discuss a topic they feel passionate about like art, science and religion. Although very few of these blogs, unless the author is a well known character, ever gain much popularity they provide an ideal platform for venting and interaction.
“The trick is getting a subject matter you are at home with or very passionate about,” Sitawa Wafula, a performing poet and a consistent blogger, tips on how to attract traffic in the fiercely competitive blogging world. “Know what others are saying about it, know what it should be and be your own person. Striking a code in all those three combined with consistency and resourcefulness is what makes you a master blogger”.
She also says that one should also seek to connect their blogs to networks dealing with the similar issue by engaging in debates on other platforms.
To many content developers the beauty of the blogs lies in the fact that there are no gatekeepers or policies to adhere to and they provide a platform on which to display their work to a global audience at no cost.
“Advantage over traditional media is you are about to dictate how you present your word,” Sitawa explains. “You have a wider audience depending on how you position yourself and it is easy to share your work through social media and RSS feeds”.
Itumbi concurs with this view and adds that a blog gives the blogger the opportunity to virtually own different forms of media on a single platform. One can literary “own” a TV station, a newspaper and a radio station by consistently posting video, audio and text on their blogs.
“Unlike in the mainstream where a journalist plays an outsiders role by objectively telling the story, blogging enables the writer to fuse opinion and fact as part of the story”.
Apart from being a way of connecting with like-minded people around the world and giving readers real time information, blogging is a new form of self-employment since bloggers can earn money from adverts linked to their blogs or being invited to give professional services. It’s also an important source for mainstream journalists since bloggers are usually at the source of many events.
“We have an average of 20 opinion pieces per week and a total of 28 newspapers across the board every week,” Itumbi says. “In Kenya alone, 240 blogs are created and close to 1.2 million tweets generated everyday”.
The popularity of blogs in Kenya today is attested by the fact that all major media houses have established blog review columns. Business organizations have also embraced this concept to market their goods and services to the millions of people that navigate through the virtual world on a daily basis
“With the advent of the internet and its accessibility I think more and more Kenyans are finding alternative forums in which they can express themselves,” Biko concludes. “This not only goes to provide a much needed avenue for such creative processes it goes into providing alternative source of information and platforms for interactive discussions”.
Prominent leaders have also been sucked into this virtual vortex with a majority of them either having a blog or an account in popular social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Martha Karua and Rwandan President Paul Kagame are some of the most active politicians online around East Africa.