The Unspoken Undercurrent in Global Voices

For many times, we have been elaborating how wonderful to see Global Voices growing. During our Santiago Summit in early May, we have once again witnessed the dynamics of contributors, authors and translators alike, in person. These people, coming from all over the world, fly as long as 42-hour flight+layover to Chile not just because of, thanks to donors and sponsors, free tickets and accommodations. It’s not just because they happen to be available during that week. It must be something more about those monetary elements. It could be love, some say.

As many people may know, vast majority of our contributors are volunteers. A small number of editors, managers and directors receive compensations, but almost definitely not enough to cover their monthly expenses. Global Voices Online, no matter in English or in other languages, is still working until now, mostly due to continuous enthusiasm and active participations of volunteers/contributors. At least I am grateful to them EVERY SINGLE DAY. It may sound cheesy or cliché to some people, but I am always delighted to see new articles on the site for me, as a reader, to understand more about the world. I am always inspired to see new translations on our Lingua sites, so other people can benefit from these information in their own ways (and their languages).

Afterwards, some people, within or outside GV, ask me, what the difference is between Budapest Summit 2008 and Santiago Summit 2010. The obvious answer is bigger. The number of GV people is bigger, the venue is bigger, and even people are bigger (both age and size). But, there is actually an undercurrent before, during and after the summit this time, that I didn’t notice in Hungary.

Some (long-term) contibutors are leaving, or at least considering to leave Global Voices.

Several editors are very curious, during the summit, in learning how other teams/editors recruit more contributors. It’s of course a good news seeing more people joining in the community. This time in Santiago, however, when I talk to people in private, leaving Global Voices seem to be like a popular topic not on the agenda.

Global Voices now almost has a standard welcome rituals for new members in the community. First the designated editor will send out a notice to our (by far) biggest Google group mailing list to welcome new people. Then, people will receive dozens of emails from all over the world, saying welcome in different ways (and often in different languages).

Isn’t that warm and sweet?

But when people decide to leave, they disappear quietly.

They leave the community by stopping receiving emails from mailing lists, by not participating discussions within groups, and by not writing or translating articles in Global Voices. Sometimes it’s a sudden end; often it’s a gradual ebb.

I am not saying that no people left GV after Budapest Summit in 2008. There were, and quiet a few of them, but at that time, their major reasons were different. Some people started a new job, some people started a new stage of life (e.g. marriage or having a baby), and others moved to an new industry not related to internet anymore.

This time in Santiago, however, many people are leaving, or thinking about leaving, because of some frustrations.

Maybe the community has grown so big and complicated. Maybe the information within the community is longer transparent enough. Maybe they feel insufficient communications between teams. Maybe their suggestions are never recognized or adopted.

The topic becomes so common in the venue and in the hotel, that makes me even start to wonder if I am just too complacent with the status quo in GV.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I never feel frustrated with current situations in Global Voices, which I believe some people have heard from me before in private, but I am still here, not intended to leave yet.

This topic makes me think about what happens, though. These people join the community, sometimes long time ago, with wholehearted passion, ideas and insights. What happens that make them feel disorientated, disillusioned, disappointed, disconnected and disenchanted enough to leave Global Voices? Where is the downpour from to put out the inner fire to write/translate/contribute to Global Voices?

I assume there must be a reason. Why do they, if as authors, no longer feel excited when seeing their articles are translated into more than half a dozen of languages? Why do they, if as translators, no longer feel eager to translate new articles into their languages for local readers? Whey do they, authors and translators alike, no longer feel overjoyed when their contributions are read and spread by thousands and thousands of readers, directly or indirectly, around the world?

So far, I don’t have a short and clear answer, but as a middle director of this growing community, I believe it’s part of my faults. Honestly, it’s never easy to manage an online community, especially like this one with so many different cultures and backgrounds involved. Clearly, I am never a good-enough director. I am still learning and thinking of new ways to serve these contributors, and hopefully my learning curve will be able catch up with growing curve within the community. Otherwise then, it may be my time to say goodbye.


24 responses to “The Unspoken Undercurrent in Global Voices

  1. I didn’t have the feeling you express, maybe because I didn’t talk with the same people as you! but I think it’s a consequence of having more people in the community, u know, more people, more everything. Anyway I also think is natural for some people to decide that their cycle at GV is complete, it’s not only that GV changes, people changes too. Big Hug Leo!

  2. I was talking with Elena during the summit. She was surprised to hear some information from me she did not know! That leaved me thinking there must be some miscommunication or lack of communications. Those who are not proactive and unspoken – how do we know that they have some questions unanswered?

    The only way forward is to interact with each other more. How about a monthly IRC?

    • Good idea Rezwan. Elena told me about that and I’m sure it was simply a failure in keeping herself updated on the topic, and that’s understandable when u have many different occupations. Maybe we can coordinate this on GV-lingua-ed’s mailing list?

  3. I worry about this too – especially the size. As GV grows, it’s too big to know everyone, and too much information. How do we keep the community cohesive and find the right balance of sharing, community decision-making, and an acknowledgment that not everyone does everything – or even wants to. We’ve tried mechanisms and tools to solicit comments and start conversations, but outside of the google groups they don’t seem to retain energy. We’re sharing the board minutes, and trying to actively solicit input, with mixed success. What else should we be doing, that we’re not?

  4. Somehow I feel sad when I read this one…

    As an author (and a translator sometimes), I guess more feedback from the readers (other than the people in the GV community) might help.

    One of the problems for me, as a reader, is that there are too many articles, and I never feel I have time to read them.

    Maybe I can say: The world is listening (is it?), but I am not sure what I want to say. On the other hand, when there are too many people talking at the same time, it is like noise.

  5. Interesting, Leonard. I’ve overheard a lot of these conversations, too, and my sense is that one of the reasons people get frustrated (and yeah, I’ve felt it too) is when a complaint or issue isn’t handled well (or at all) by editors, they become disillusioned.

    Why is this happening more now than before? My opinion is that it probably has nothing to do whatsoever with who’s in charge, but rather that, when GV was smaller, volunteers had various other reasons to feel part of a special (let’s even say “elite”) community. As the organization grows, it’s easy to feel like yet another cog in the wheel.

    Regardless of point a, I think point b remains valid. The larger any group grows, the easier it is to feel like you’re just one of many. Huffington Post is really cool, and it’s great exposure to write for them, but they’re so big that there is zero sense of community, or community incentives (e.g., the Summit). I would hate to see GV go that route.

    At the same time, re: the Summit, since you mention it, it was frustrating that there was so little time for discussion of anything! We had one single set of breakout groups, and everything else was oddly formal. Once again, I don’t find fault in anyone, but rather think that it’s perhaps just what happens when an organization gets so big.

    So I guess the question is: Is there a limit to GV’s growth?

    • I agree with you Jill, at the point that there were little time for discussion, in that sense, Budapest’s Summit was more intimate and cool. Maybe next summit has to be structured in another way, indeed there were a great dinner-discussion on that with Leo, Hisham, Juliana and others, one of those Santiago’s nights.

  6. Frankly I haven’t heard these talks, but felt it in the air. There is something about global voices that fascinated me for long – as Jillian and Juan mentioned- the community. But when I was in the summit, seeing it as big as it was.. I felt lost..
    They say the more the merrier, but I never ever believed so – especially in the online world, where we barely know each other.. because usually the more people any community gets, the more likely it will start the declining phase..

    I don’t know how this can be solved.. but may be dividing into smaller groups would be a solution in a way?..
    We need to get to know each other better.. and keep this intimate, helpful and friendly spirit going.. its the one best thing about this community, far more better than expansion..

    • Leonard Chien

      I agree, Eman, that we need to know each other better. Small groups, in my opinion, can be a good start, but they should not stop people from mingling with the wider community. That’s partly why during the Summit, I keep “intruding” different groups of people. At least it helps me say hi to many people. I feel after meeting people in person, it is sometimes easier to maintain connections via emails in GV.

  7. Yes, bigger isn’t always better – but should GV really be exclusive? Should we stop accepting more members? I doubt that would go over too well. And – we aren’t expanding because we’re being driven by any agenda – no donor, partner, board, or management impetus is behind GV’s growth in community size – rather it’s because we’re all out in the world talking to people, and people respond, and want to participate. In aggregate, that’s a lot of new faces.

    In an ideal world, there would probably be some kind of balance between the cohesion of GV as a small and relatively intimate community, and the appearance of new people, ideas, and energy. We can try for that but I’m personally loathe to try to overly influence this aspect of GV.

    It’s also interesting that the nature of new community members is uneven around the world. We still have big gaps in coverage in some parts of the world – Francophone Africa, parts of East Asia (Vietnam, Korea), parts of the FSU – should we even consider capping participation in those regions that are well represented, and actively seek to find authors and Lingua communities where we’re not? And who gets to decide that?

    When we were planning the summit, one of the expectations we felt very strongly coming from the community is that we had to invite more people than at Budapest – that the community had grown by nearly 50% is part of that, but even if it hadn’t, we’d still not be able to get close to bringing everyone. At Budapest we brought 70 GVers, more or less, and on the public days there were about 150 people, I recall. At Santiago, we had 104 GV community members, and attendance on the public days were over 250, and we were close to turning people away. For GV community participation in Santiago, we were able to bring less than 30% of the overall community.

    But those are just the numbers. We tried to provide an event for people to have lots of informal time – there were about 4 hours of open sessions during the public days – and lots of breaks – but I think it’s hard, when there are so many old friends and interesting new people around, to avoid running around trying to make contact with everyone, and losing intimacy as a result.

    We tried to balance the energy of the public days with a more reflective internal meeting. In some ways, we knew that the public meeting wouldn’t be as intimate as last time, and maybe, shouldn’t be. As it was, we had some comments from non-GV participants that the conversation seemed cloistered or somehow exclusive – a perspective I personally found valuable.

    I like the idea that we all step up and make the community stronger, and get to know each other better – whether through more regional engagements, more cross-fertilization of regions through joint projects, or through online tools – IRCs, etc. We had a lot of conversations, for instance, about trying to re-energize or evolve the community site or build another site within the GV url to allow for personal writing and posts from GV members, for instance. It might be true, though, that any of these engagements won’t involve everyone. Maybe, that’s ok, and it’s a matter of expectations. It seems to me that GV is still a community whereby, if you want to be active and known, and make things happen by your own initiative, you can. And it’s that quality which makes me optimistic that we can handle the expansion of our world.

    • Leonard Chien

      I don’t think stop accepting new members is the way to go, as new people constantly provide different perspectives. Closing the gap between new and old contributors, on the other hand, is for sure a promising method. I was surprised to know during the Summit that some GV people don’t know the GV story since 2004. A kind of welcome package for new people, therefore, is necessary. At least, we can avoid some “insider jokes” in the mailing lists that not everyone understand. Information symmetry always helps.

      Juan in the previous comment has mentioned a dinner discussion. I was present, and I brought up the topic about how the Summit and the community can be improved. “Welcome package” was suggested then.

      Another idea is also offered. Maybe it can be implemented in the next Summit. Should we have closed meeting before open meeting? People said they spent too much time in two-day open meeting getting to know each other in the GV community. Only after the initial “awkward” period, discussions become more efficient.

      Another advantage of having closed meeting first, is that GV people can have some consensus before talking with other participants in the open meeting, so we don’t need to spend much time in open meeting discussing inner/exclusive topics.

      Other suggestions in the dinner discussion are interesting and valuable as well. I think it deserves another blog post tomorrow.

      Overall, it’s impossible for us to have everyone involved. We cannot force people to talk. Maybe in the future, when we start some discussions in the community, we need to make sure someone to follow up and make sure some responses later, so people won’t feel their inputs go nowhere.

      • Another idea, that was quite discussed between a group of latin american contributors was to have some kind of regional meetings. Dont know if that’s possible, but I’m sure it can be evaluated!

      • I think we definitely need to work on the quality of our ‘welcome package’. On my end as the developer I often just assume that something like that is being given to people, but it so often turns out that they are just thrown in the pool with no instructions.

        The Wiki is our friend here. We need to get articles like ‘GV Posting Guide’ and ‘GV Style Guide’ to be as detailed and full as possible as a reference, then we need shorter, simpler articles that link to the important parts. Something like a “Welcome to Global Voices” page that explains GV and how you can contribute, linking to the author guides and translator guides.

    • Ooh, Ivan, I really want to respond to this point:

      “should we even consider capping participation in those regions that are well represented, and actively seek to find authors and Lingua communities where we’re not? And who gets to decide that?”

      I think that’s actually a brilliant idea. How would it be implemented? Well, here’s one thought: For two years, I was the only Morocco author. For awhile, I didn’t want any others, but when my life started to get more hectic, I invited Hisham (with Amira’s permission). Shortly after, Anas A. asked to join, and Amira asked what I thought before saying yes…she’s always done that. Now, the three of us make such a good team that I would be hesitant to take on a fourth team member for Morocco unless he or she brought in a totally new and different perspective, or language.

      I wonder if that’s how other teams operate. I don’t even know if that’s how other countries within my region do things…But I think it’s a thought worth considering.

  8. Leonard Chien

    @Juan I believe no one opposes to that idea about regional meetings in GV. On the other hand, however, in every GV Summit, we try to encourage people to mingle with others from different parts of the world. That’s why Georgia insists on assigning roommates for Summits. GV Summits and regional meetings are definitely not contradictory, but complementary. Otherwise, Juan, when will I see you again?! 🙂

  9. I’ll make a longer response later. I just wanted to refer to Andrew’s post at EngageMedia: At the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit 2010

    We probably need a more formal or better known way/place for this kind of evaluation. Despite lots of issues, I came away from santiago very energised.

  10. Hmm, I am not sure if the case of people not interested any more and willing to leave, is applicable here in MENA – or at least among the ones I know. I can see people around me being even more active after the summit. I myself may not be very sure if I am a better GV Author after the summit, however I hope I am, but at least I am sure I became a better GV Reader after it. Getting to meet and know GVers in real life made me more interested to read what they write/translate and know more about their countries.

    Yet, I have to agree that there might be a communication problem. The periodic IRC meetings is a good ideal, however I myself find IRC a bit awkward, may be it’s just me anyway.

    So I was thinking of, why don’t we encourage people to use informal ways to communicate, i.e. instead of setting a date for an IRC meeting or so, which is useful sometimes, but also we can make people’s twitter handles and blogs available somewhere, and people might then start to follow eachothers blogs and tweets and chat one-to-one via gtalk. I guess the summiteers are already getting in touch more using such tools, but we have to encourage – or at least suggest to – everybody to do so. Gohary has made a list for summit attendees and we can add to it other GVers.

    About the cost vs. mingle with others dilemma. What about applying Juan idea of regional meetings, may be in odd years, and appointing a single person from each of the other regions to attend that meeting – represent their region. I.e. MENA + Representers from other regions held in Cairo, then after a week or some Americas + Representers from other regions held in Bogota for example, and so forth.

  11. Very interesting discussion. Since i am one of the new members I did feel like an outsider (given your long history together). However, the few I met, went drinking with and spoke with, all made me feel like I was part of the group – thank you to each one of you. I only regret that I didn’t have more time to get to know each one better.

    Even within 3 days I did not get to talk with some but I did connect on FB but Like Leonard said, there is a big difference in meeting a person face to face and talking to them. I am trying to take that a little further on FB/Twitter.

    Whether I will be there next time or not – I do not know. But till then I must say that I am just happy to have met so many amazing people and had the opportunity to go to the conference!

  12. I experienced lots and lots of frustration too, personal and otherwise, in Santiago… even if it remained mostly confined to small dinner chats and hotel hall circles, never made in the larger discussions at the library, unfortunately

    same thing seems happening now: there are several posts spread around with many great comments (here, and also inEthan’s and Andrew’s post, for example) but no centralized place, no large virtual roundtable where every GVer can sit and talk…

    didn’t we say the last day in Santiago that we were supposed to follow-up with online discussion what we couldn’t finish discussing there? and didn’t we plan to use the GV-Authors list so that everybody could participate? But….

    In the same way, I think we need community-building tools and especially facilitators, also someone that can assist new authors and translators, copy-editors – a small but agile structure, good enough for a non-profit news organization that is also a great community

    and I also believe that we can find some money to support such part-time positions, not necessarily from sponsors, donors or internal funds, but also from external partnerships and projects, since we are stronger now and should not be afraid to talk with mainstream media and other venues in order to conquer more space and support worldwide

    my point is that, to make this expanding community stronger and avoiding that too many feel frustrated and leave, we’d address swiftly and openly the many issues on the table right now, providing a more flexible and efficient internal structure to expand actual participation, create more transparency and “manage” in the best possible way that growth – otherwise IMHO we risk a huge implosion…

  13. Dear all,

    Have we now opened Pandora’s box? As many of you, I too sensed an atmosphere of wariness and disorientation at the Santiago summit, and have been worried about it ever since.

    Equally true is that I have been hesitant to address these issues as the substance and forms of voluntary work that Global Voices allow for are of far greater interest than organizational matters or internal politics.

    This said, a commonplace Russian expression comes to mind: “What is to be done?” followed by “Who is guilty?”

    The obvious risk with a discussion like this is that it becomes disparate and fragmented, both in identifying problems and solutions.

    I believe it is as in science: One has to be careful to problematize, limit the scope of the subject, analyze and deduce. Not doing so in most cases means not attaining any tangible results.

    In an organization, such outcome tends to result in further frustrations, and may cause people to turn from: “What is to be done?” to “Who (or what) is guilty?”

    There is no one who wants such a discussion, but from what I have already gathered, we are jerking the lid of Pandora’s box no matter whether we address these matters or put them aside.

    I therefore have two related organizational points to make:

    1) Global Voices has seen constant expansion over the five years of its existence. Such expansion is perilous if not accompanied by consolidation. In other words: What is our core business? What should be the focus to also allow further expansion? What is the nature of the problems and issues addressed? Do changes in our “environment” affect activities and the way we should organize?

    2. What is the nature of organization? To me, Global Voices is a typical network organization, where the diversity of competence and background among contributors and its fundamental non-profit approach have been major strengths, but as in any network organization, also its major weaknesses when confronted by expansion. Would turning into a regular NGO change the nature of the organization from, basically, “bottom-up” to “top-down”? Would that be compatible with the approach to the issues and tasks confronting us on a daily basis? In terms of substance, how would this affect our abilities to put “emphasis on voices that are not ordinarily heard in international mainstream media”, especially if the nature of our representation changes, e.g. from volunteerism to professionalism?

    So, summing up, I believe that we can no more shy away from organizational issues of expansion vs. consolidation, the changing nature of our core business, and the demands this makes on how we organize our activities, viz. the substance that we are all interested in. I also believe that this is the main problem to be addressed, whereas most other issues are simply symptoms of expansion.

    With those words, I would like to think I could leave this discussion, as I am into GV for the substance and not the organization, but I also realize that this is a mutual relationship, which regrettably cannot be ignored.



  14. First of all , thank you Leonard to have raised a point here, an appreciated proof of your sensitivity and warmth as Lingua director 🙂 !

    It seems somehow symptomatic that your blog was the place chosen to say aloud what several participants at the summit thought by themselves. And it is where a long-waited discussion starts, in which I’m writing here from the Lingua side perspective.

    Reading post-summit posts on blogs, watching videos or looking at pictures I feel exhilarated, and made nostalgic of conversation opportunities not seized.

    GV is growing fast, structural issues are growing even faster, which is the case in all organizations, with some disentchantment maybe an unavoidable side-effect.
    Projects were announced during the private days,some met with sometimes harsh criticism. The perceived reaction was more tactical withdrawal than open and overall discussion. Where do we stand about their implementation or reorientation?

    I was made somehow uneasy by
    – first, during the summit, unexpected questionings about transparency in the gv structures and projects
    – being left with the post-summit feeling I don’t have so far a clear, attractive and comprehensible material to report to the GV French team back home
    In many ways, The GV board message might be undestood by volunteers as “You’ve got to grow up, kids, because going professional is the future”. A concern that is very new and not necessarily well perceived. There is no shortage of new volunteers at GV French. What attracts them primarily is still the content and the spirit. Some may be very disorientated by this sudden “corporateness” in decision making and implementation.

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