Ethan Zuckerman on how to engineer serendipity online
A discussion with the Harvard Internet scholar on how to stumble upon the Web’s gems.
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Mahmood’s Den is one of Zuckerman’s favorite blogs. “I try to dispel the image that Muslims and Arabs suffer from ... in the rest of the world,” says blogger Mahmood Al-Yousif, a Bahraini engineer who has worked in the United States. Mr. Yousif’s goal is to “create a better understanding that we’re not all nuts, hellbent on world destruction.”
Zuckerman’s mission, in turn, is to amplify voices like that of Yousif.
Yousif stopped blogging recently but others, such as his compatriot Amira Al Hussaini at SillyBahrainiGirl, continue at Global Voices.
"Blogs tend to be mirrors of society and they don't only focus on serious happenings like revolutions, bombings and gloom," says Ms. Hussaini, the Global Voices editor for the Middle East and North Africa. "People party, they care about pets, post recipes and, in fact, write about everything under the sun."
Such blogs give readers a window into the lives of others, adds Hussaini, who currently lives in Canada.
“The Internet can only make the world smaller when we let it,” says Solana Larsen, the managing editor of Global Voices. “The truth is, we’re still trying to figure out a way to make people – and bloggers and journalists – more curious.”
Step 1 is letting them know that it’s possible to figure out what bloggers in other countries are saying, she says. Hopefully, her team and other sites will soon figure out a good Step 2.
Zuckerman’s aim, she notes, is “to recognize broader and subtler commonalities – by gaining respect for divergent views and experiences.” In other words: Tuning in to diverse viewpoints prevents us from being blind-sided, as many were after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. Suddenly, many Americans needed to learn a whole new vocabulary – Sunni, Shiite, Al Qaeda – words that were within reach online but somehow not in many people’s line of sight.
Zuckerman refers to our news diet as a problem of “broccoli versus chocolate cake.” Right now, he says, it is as if we are at a buffet of news stories and we reach out for whatever gratifies us immediately. We are unlikely to change our habits without compelling reasons, he says.
“Perhaps our information diet should come with the equivalent of nutritional labels,” he says. “Search in the future needs to lead us to people, to places, to voices.” The possibility of that accidental discovery that could essentially alter one’s worldview cannot be left to random chance, he emphasizes.