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.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


I'm disappointed the picture doesn't show much detail. It looks funerary because it is indeed a shot inside a funeral home. When my mother died her remains were cremated, so for the visitation and memorial service we wanted something there to remind people of Mother. We emptied out a cupboard and filled it with artifacts from her life. There's a quilt she sewed under a piece of an old woven bedspread which we pinned photos. In the cupboard there's her sewing basket and a notebook with recipes. The Srabble board is open with the yellow pad we kept score. In her last days she wasn't always too coherent, but still managed to beat me in a game. Her vocabulary was immense.

This trope worked very well, there are too many little details to point out in the cupboard, but you get the picture. After we gathered together to say our prayers and sing our songs, we closed the door and locked it. Then a few of the grandchildren carried the chest to my mother's pickup truck to load it on for a parade back to our house for food. Along the parade home the chest fell over, and very nearly off the truck. That was funny and appropriate because my mother was always strapping something to the car to transport and on a few occasions she actually did loose the load. Where do stories like this fit?

This story has nothing to do with Kenya, I've never traveled to Kenya and nor did my mother. But I'm still ruminating on Njorge Matathia's post Tech Killed The Kenyan Blog. The cupboard we quickly filled with artifacts which somehow told stories about my mother occurred to me because those artifacts were so physical. And I wondered about the artifacts we create in cyberspace and the issue of curation which Matathia raises. I'm sure he making a good point, but it's so hard for me to place the blame on "tech."

Umair Haque has a new post up, The Social Media Bubble which seems to me to be making a similar point in a more general context; essentially that our online relationships are too thin and insubstantial. I'm not sure I agree with him either. I do note that the number of responses to his post seem greater in number than usual. Some of the comments are strongly in agreement, but most seem to offer nuance. Haque writes:
Today, "social" media is trading in low-quality connections — linkages that are unlikely to yield meaningful, lasting relationships.
I certainly have "lasting" relationships from online connections. What's true of most of these relationships is a great physical distance between us, but I'm loathe to think that the distance makes these relationships less than real.

There is some quite brilliant writing on blogs--I certainly haven't produced any. While I do seek out brilliant writing, I'm quite happy reading the quick and ready writing that's more common online. If friends were to memorialize me with my online writing, it's not clear what the story would show. Clearly that I'm a poor speller and proof reader would be evident, but that's not much of a story. Social media has introduced me to profound friendships that I'm truly grateful for. But my own online content when viewed objectively reveals a shoddy quality, and I'm hardly alone.

What I think both Matathia and Haque critiques have in common is a question of how to increase the thickness and quality of both personal relationships and content produced online. Both note the central importance of authentic relationships to such production. Certainly being in the same room can help forge authentic relationships, but there's no guarantee. There seems a certain similar ambiguity about content, like online writing. Physical content, like the the objects in we put into the cupboard to tell stories about my mother, seem to have authenticity that's hard to quibble with. Content displayed online seems to invite more quibbling. For people of a certain age works in print have a special sort of authenticity.

I'm very much in favor of beautifully made books with exquisite content. But I also like the idea of very inexpensive books. I want children to have stories they can enjoy and share with their friends. I want text books cheap enough for every school to afford to have them. It's easy to imagine that e-book readers in the near future will be inexpensive. I like the idea of e-book, but still think that printed books have a future. What's true right now is that computers and the Internet make the editorial production side of inexpensive books easier than before.

I noted with interest something Dimitri Orlov has done in part to help raise some funds so he can continue writing a book he's working on. Here's how he puts it:
Two years and just under a million unique visitors later it is time for this blog to ask for something back. But instead of an endless beg-a-thon, I've decided to give my readers something valuable in return for their donations: anyone who donates in excess of $20 will receive a numbered, autographed copy of a limited edition book which contains five of the most significant (and longest) essays I have published between 2005 and 2009.
So he's self-published a book of some of his Internet writing to participially fund writing a proper book. I like that. Perhaps it's because I'm "of a certain age," that makes me love books so. It's more than that, I think, books are a remarkable invention.

Dimitri Orlov writes about collapse of civilizations. When in that state of mind I often wonder about lost technologies, for example the scraping of movable type printing presses. I'm not really sure what the best sort of printing process for really cheap books is. Very expensive printing presses can cheaply produce mass quantities of books, there's already a market model for that kind of production. What I'm interested in finding is a printing process that's cheap for a more distributed production model. Back before photocopiers were common there were mimeograph machines, distinct from spirit duplicators to which people my age have a nostalgic attachment to from the aroma of the alcohol that lingered on the sheets. Mimeographs used cut stencils, the common method was to use a typewriter to cut the stencils, although the stencils could be cut by hand writing with a pen or stylus.

I had thought the mimeograph process had become extinct, but modern versions of the machines are quite neat. They use scanner technology and a thermal head to cut the stencil. The printing is faster and cheaper than toner-based photocopiers. And for runs of up to about 5,000 pages cheaper than offset printing. The machines are not cheap, but cheaper than many photocopiers. They are however heavy and so not as portable as the older mimeograph machines. Once the pages have been printed binding the books is something that could be done with little investment in tools, and various investments in time.

I strongly suspect that I'm missing something essential about this, because if it's such a good idea why aren't people already doing it?

I'm not sure of the right formula, there actually probably are many formulas which are "right." I do think that print is far from being obsolete, so that one of the key challenges is to find ways to bring some writing and make it live in print. One of the attributes of online writing is that it's often done for free or entailing very little monetary reward. The habit of thought about printed works always seems to point in the direction of requiring lots of money. Thinking really cheap seems to open all sorts of new possibilities.

I was with friends last night telling stories around a bon fire. The moon lit the woods in wonderful moonlight and no other setting I can think of is more conducive to telling stories. In regards to one idea or another a friend said that ideas are like a generally unmentioned--at least in polite company--human orifice, and we've all got one.

One of the reasons that I have tried to encourage my friends in meatspace to pay more attention to developments in Africa, comes around to a view that much of the technology we currently take for granted is unsustainable over the long term. In response interest in what E. F. Schumacher called intermediate technology strikes me as really good to cultivate. And from my obnoxiously privileged vantage point I make comments like: "If it works in Africa, it can work anywhere." I do think that a distributed publishing model of printed work has real potential in Africa. But what I'm realizing now is that making something work where I am has the same potential; i.e. what works for a poor guy in Pennsylvania might also work in Africa. It's hardly a new idea, I'm a late comer to zine culture. Still I think cheap books are a good idea, and the thing for me to do is to start making some!