Review of Ryann Manning – FollowME.Int.Dev.Com.: International Development in Blogosphere (2012)
Ryann Manning from Harvard Business School in his paper “FollowME.Int.Dev.Com.: International Development in Blogosphere” attempted to research the inclusiveness of blogosphere in international development, i.e. who engage in blogging and who dominates the blogging sphere. He chose One Million Shirts campaign as a case study and detailed analyzed the reaction it caused within international development concerning blogs.
As Manning research shows the campaign caused blogosphere explosion with “passion, outrage, or heated debate” (p.11). Even if most messages were positive and the campaign actually weighted in thousands of peoples, the resounding and sharp criticism followed it from the international development and Africa diaspora communities. Without any sugar-coding it was called the ´worst advocacy idea´, or ´simply stupid idea´.
But what is interesting here, is who dominated the debate and whose opinion mattered in its outcomes. Only few days after the projects coughed broad public attention, its founder was pushed to discuss possible project improvements through roundtable discussion with blog-critiques and other relevant parties. Finally, after 3 months of intense critics and as a response to it, the campaign was revised and eventually closed down.
Such example, according to Manning shows a “uniquely influential moment for the international development blogosphere” (p.12). The discussion online, not only involved professionals and a range of people around the world, it actually – change the course of the project!
However, as an open discussion platform where theoretically everyone is welcome to join, blogosphere, as Manning concludes, is not that open as would assume. He notes that “significant barriers to online participation still exist, even more so in poor communities” (p.13). And in this particular case, the voice of prospects beneficiaries were totally absent, which inevitably proposes privileging the voice of aid providers and expertise, rather than aid recipients. Furthermore, as Manning found out a certain form of expertise and knowledge were valued by both bloggers and their commentators, and those possessing these expertise “enjoyed higher status in the debate”.
From this point of view the whole blogosphere seems to be much closer to and invisible college or knowledge community, where experts debate international development matters, than a public sphere, that is equally inclusive and open to all disregards to their status.
Nonetheless, of its shortcomings the debate in a blogosphere around international development proved to be effective in changing the practice of organization. And this, as Manning sees it, it’s a positive change or at least prospects towards it in creating a more inclusive, even though not ideal, platform for debating development, i.e. creating more legitimate, accountable and participation based outcomes in international development initiatives.
The blog provides some interesting reflections on the political power of blogging, showing that there are hierarchies in the blogosphere, like in real life. The argument is that blogging can be so influential as to change the course of a spefic project or, in this case, campaign, but it matters very much Who writes, criticizes and debates. It seems that while the blogosphere might like to think of itself as an open space where anyone can contribute, in reality, it is much less inclusive. It is revealing that the development blogosphere would reflect real world power inequalities in the sense that apparently no voices of the supposed beneficiaries of the 1 Million T-shirts campaign participated in the online debate. This might be related to the digital divide between North and South, but is also indicative of the development debate often displaying itself as a kind of elitist Western intellectual exercise, rather than an open-minded exchange of ideas and opinions on equal terms between those that want to help and those that are to be helped. Blogging has the potential to be a powerful tool for influencing political debate and bringing about change, but we need to be careful that we really listen to those we are trying to reach. Rasvita provides a tought-provoking analysis of the topic.
Thanks Sophia for your comment! You are grasping right on, and, indeed, the blogosphere has potential to be a powerful tool for influencing political debate and bringing about change, however, it must become more inclusive, and more representative in order to become such force.