Thursday, March 25, 2010

Tech and Kenyan Blogs




Oh heavens, I haven't been around at this blog for a long time. Like every space I inhabit, its in dire need of cleaning up. For the time being, excuse the clutter.

The impetus for this post comes from a post at The Black Campaign, Tech Killed the Kenyan Blog. It was cross-posted to A Kenyan Urban Narrative and the comments seem better there. Njorge Matathia has slightly different voices for the two blogs, and The Black Campaign might be his "yuppie" voice, while A Kenyan Urban Narrative the voice of Potash champion of ordinary Kenyans. Anyhow, the post fits both places well, as it begins with:
Days I miss: when Kenyan blogs were about stories. The politics of every day- the Kenyan way of life relived by voices hitherto unknown- and not big politics.
I posted one of my too long comments on his subsequent posts and he wrote me an email suggesting that I do my own blog post--very tactfully I might add. The picture is a screen shot of Trevor Horn of the Buggles from their 70's music video Video Killed the Radio Star. Back in those days the question was Beta or VHS--rival videotape formats. It wasn't so much that videos were new, but that people could record videos on a home machine to video tape. Technology advances, but it's never easy to predict what the ramifications of technology will be.

I like the edition of the post at A Kenyan Urban Narrative because that blog goes back to the times Potash is nostalgic for, and most of those who left comments there do too. A shared history is a big part of stories.

Matathia remembers the early day of Kenyan blogs when people were telling stories and linking to each other's blog posts. He writes of that time:
The parochialism was not only charming, it put fluency and local colour into the blogs and for one moment a pastiche of an immensely stratified and arbitrary nation called Kenya was starting to emerge.
He laments the passing of a a truly Kenyan-flavored network :
The pan-African curators or the African Internet’s power axis- chugging deux ex machina like in the background, all along- came to the fore and absorbed the Kenyan blogosphere into a broader African Internet narrative.
The common ground of this new narrative is around technology.

Of course the Kenyan context is particular, but there's a general issue of how to knit communities together and what role technology plays. In the the state of Vermont in the USA is a forum to knit at the very local level called the Front Porch Forum. We'll see lots more efforts to encourage such very local communications online. A part of these efforts are tech issues, but the bigger part are community issues. The good old days of the Kenyan Blogs weren't so local as the Vermont Front Porches and many writers imagined an even wider audience. Still, in having come together for a time there was a body of particularly Kenyan content online which coincided with more Kenyans accessing the Web. But now there is so many more venues for content what's missing is perhaps the sense that these sites present a uniquely Kenyan voice.

To promote their second studio album 82 the "experimental boy band" Just a Band uploaded a film to YouTube Makmende Returns highlighting the track "Ha-He" from the album. At Facebook the JaB fan page has about 3,659 fans. The Makmende fan page has got over 17,000 all in about a week's time. I don't have the patience to scroll through the fans, but it looks to me the majority are Kenyan. The YouTube video has about 23,000 views as I look tonight. I suspect that it's not so easy for people in Internet cafes in Kenya to watch the video at YouTube. I'm really curious if the video has gone viral in Kenya, and how? All their videos are cool. Makmende is particularly enjoyable to me because I'm old enough to remember the 70's when the Blaxploitation movies the video appropriates were popular.

Just a Band are multi-media artists. Matathia raises the point in his post that part of what did-in the Kenyan blogs was that the curation of them somehow escaped Kenyan borders. JaB is an example of artists using online social media effectively, and to an extent "effectively" means not holding on too tight but allowing the content to flow. I'm not sure for example that hundreds of Makmende jokes posted a day is sustainable, but the fan page will live on. Part of the appeal of blogs is the commitment to them is over a longer time than fan pages require. Perhaps the difference in numbers at Facebook between JaB's fan page and the Makmende fan page has to do with the sense that the jokes at the Makmende page won't be fresh forever so might as well be enjoyed "in season." In the present it's a gathering place for Kenyans all over.

Update: Ethan Zuckerman Makmende's so huge, he can't fit in Wikipedia

In the Kenyan blogs today perhaps the Gay blogs come as close to the sort of community that Matathia laments passing. Those blogs certainly are not overly concerned about tech subjects--although in general it seems that blogs by Africans are quick to adopt useful widgets. While these bloggers talk mostly about the scene in Kenya, certainly they also keep and eye out for a pan-African perspective. And no matter what the content of blogs or where they are written, it's a feature not a bug that people everywhere can blunder into them. Yet gay-themed blogs are perhaps too parochial in the sense that Kenyans looking for Kenyan content can easily by-pass them never really knowing they exist. There probably are many other subset of Kenyan blogs I don't know about.

Afrigator is a way to discover Kenyan blogs. Also since the blogs are rated by popularity it seems to provide some data to test Matathia's hypothesis about the tech take-over. I'm not sure how to do that somewhat objectively, but just pursuing the blogs I'm left with and equivocal yea and nay.

Matathia writes:
The death of Story came when Bloggers turned into professionals- Internet authorities. Suddenly the broadcaster and his equipment became more important than the broadcast.
Looking over the top blogs at Afrigator does to my mind reinforce the idea of "Internet authorities." There are almost 700 Kenyan blogs listed and I think since people sign up for Afrigator there's probably a selection bias towards tech-savvy people there.

I'm not so sure about the equipment becoming more important than the broadcast. Part of the problem is "broadcast" really doesn't quite describe what's happening with the new technologies. Bloggers are often putting content on different channels, like Facebook. But all of the channels also have feedback options so that readers can engage. Online content is peer to peer, many to many, so not quite like broadcast as we are used to thinking of it.

Facebook makes connections visible. Just in a cursory way I was looking at a few profiles linked from Kenyan blogs to Facebook and discovering that quite often mutual friends show up. I've never been to Kenya and am not especially connected so this surprises me. It is true that often the links are cyberactivists, For better or worse my connections have endured hearing my stories and I've heard stories too. I think that less than a hand full of my network at Facebook is from knowing people through the blogs they write. There are many venues for telling stories now.

One conclusion following from the observation that I, some random white guy in Western Pennsylvania, seems to have at least one connection made visible to the Kenyan blogosphere, is that the online world really is small. Potash with A Kenyan Urban Narrative surely has tried to provide a voice for those seldom heard. He admits that lots of regular folks are using Twitter and Facebook now and wants them to up their game, going beyond banal descriptions of their day-to-day towards the meanings they discover. Blogging for most requires more time than the 15 and 20 minute bites on the Internet most people buy. The short tweets, status updates and jokes are enough to say "I'm here!" and provide more bang for the buck. Some of my contacts to the Kenyan blogosphere are Western activists, but others are Kenyans who collect characters online.

Online participation in many frameworks to model it have watchers at the base. the simple observation that many more people will see something you put online than respond to it in a visible way. Beth Kanter provides a more descriptive framework from Forest Social Technographics: watching, sharing, commenting, producing and curating at the top. I'm no tech maven, but Matathia pins the blame on the demise of stories on Kenyan blogs not just on "Tech" but also with the curation of blog content. So I want to think aloud a bit more about curration, and who the curators might be.

Valdis Krebs uses social network analysis and blogs about it at TNT-The Network Thinker. In this post he provides a very simple diagram of a network and asks about it: "Where would you put your message?" The post gets rather involved, but a simple message is that very connected people aren't just the people who are so obviously connected. The Forest framework of course is about connections and the base who simply watch and don't post also don't curate much, but the other actions: sharing, commenting and producing seem to me to contain a bit of curation in them.

When I looked at my Facebook connections to prominent Kenyan bloggers one of my most productive links is a Kenyan fellow, I won't name in case to offend him. He doesn't blog and I don't see him putting much up at Facebook. I know him from the old Omidyar social network and now Ned. He's most active there participating in recreational games an posting an occasional wry comment in threads. Our direct correspondence isn't too extensive, yet we both know about each other from watching posts, and I think we are both what others might call slightly off-beat characters. I don't know him from comments on Kenyan blogs I read, although it's quite possible he uses an Internet handle; it's also possible that he doesn't comment much on them which is what I suspect is the case. Nevertheless, in looking at my social network as revealed by Facebook, he's one of my most direct connections to it.

Topping the framework modeling online engagement with curation implies there are very few curators. Probably the number of people who identify as curators online is few in number. And I think most of us do think there ought to be more sites online that join together various content in unique ways. Curation is also a collective activity. Just a Band is a great band and they bring together creative people in producing wonderful videos and shows. I'm sure they knew in advance that their promotional video staring Makmende would get attention, but it seems the popularity of the Facebook Makmende fan page probably came as a surprise. Just in my dilly-dallying with this post the number of fans has increased from 17,000 to 25,000 and counting--eight times the number of fans on the JaB fan page. I don't think all these people are new fans of JaB, but rather joining in the fun of Makmende is what enticed them to go a step further than just watching.

The length of this post is a good sign that I've not gotten around to making any point, so summing up is pointless, nevertheless her goes: One of the points I thin Njorge Matathia makes in his post is that the wide variety of venues for posts has diluted the availability of Kenyan stories online. Everyone got so interested in the tools that they forgot the stories. But the tools have changed the stories being told too. Blogs are still one of the best ways for people to make pages to share online with others. Facebook is getting lots of new folks accustomed to putting stuff online, and when it comes to making pages they might well choose to do it there. There are advantages to blogs versus the walled-garden sites. I like very much that Potash and Njorge use Facebook to get people to his blog because it demonstrates some of these advantages. One of the big advantages of blogs is there are hundreds of great Kenyan blogs all with social networks that often touch Facebook but expand beyond it.

There is also a point that I haven't addressed, as this post is too long already won't in any depth right now, that can be stated as a question: "How is an artist to make money nowadays?" JaB provides some clues of what it is to make something of a living from music, but written works, story authorship isn't just the same. I'll talk about this problem in a subsequent post.

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