For the odd moments I can manage to think of something.

Thoughts from the Arab Bloggers Meeting in Tunis #AB11

It’s taken me forever to get a coherent thought together about being at the Arab Bloggers’ Meeting in Tunisia. I eventually put my finger on it – because it was right in front of my nose. This is a long post – skip to the end if you want the up-sum without the flavour.

It’s hard to encapsulate the bloggers’ meeting as an outsider and a writer because we are prone to making broad sweeps. Though the label “Arab” brings a lot of people together, it also throws into stark relief the differences.

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating, the Arab Spring movement has as much to draw the nations together as it does to point out that the nationalities, cultures and faiths are so very different. It’s complicated beyond my ability – I’m not an expert. I had been trying to find a way to homogenise the group and I can see that this is why it was not working.

One thing that eventually got through the crowd of thoughts since I was there, was that there was something that did indeed belong to all of the people in the room. Authority.

When I was growing up, the man on the news at six p.m. told me what was happening around the world. I didn’t doubt it. There were videos and reporters in places that I had to go and look up in the atlas and ask my parents about.

I don’t doubt it today either – but I know more about it to ask questions and go to the source to find out now. I go to the internet and I try to find ways to find people who are primary sources. In other words, people who are right there up against the story and are talking about what they see, hear and know.

This doesn’t work with all news of course – try getting the political inside scoop from the horse’s blog. Unlikely.

The shift in authority has changed for me. It’s changed for a lot of people who use the web in similar ways. The man who reads the news – now more happily sometimes the woman who reads the news – is a good source. Researched, produced and clear. What they can provide is the gateway to the subject and I know that they work hard to make those facts salient, digestible and understandable. That clarity is invaluable – any journalist who has had to “read in” after a break from working knows that the top lines on mainstream news sites or broadcasts will give you the basics.

But that man or woman reading the headlines in a place near me, no longer carries the authority of a person updating on the internet in a place far away. Though checks and verification are essential to separate the agendas on social platforms and that only a particular and specific section of global society is available on the web, they hold a spark that sometimes explains a situation far better than a script can in a limited amount of time for broadcast. Online speakers sometimes have all day to update piece by piece. Better still, they already live all over the world, they’re already saying something, whether it is a headline yet or not.

I still like to read the analysis of course. Context empowers the current update. History brings focus to current events. But that is for people who have time to step away and observe a situation and put it into a comparison with other happenings in the past.

So, when I first stepped into the room with Arab bloggers I had never met but I had been following online for the best part of a year, through their ups and downs, I was feeling almost a bit nervous. These people told me the story of revolutions in their area. They took risks that do not appear in my own life, in order to try and make a virtual world listen and identify with their struggles.

The people who were there were casual and funny, friendly, helpful, curious and interesting. About what you would want at a conference of any type. What was really nice about it was that all of the speakers, all of the presentations were for and by people who were highly relevant to the topic, culture and geographical area. A lot of the presentations were in Arabic or French (live translation was provided for people like me). There were very few “parachute” speakers, dropping in to add their filters.

All of the people I spoke to and listened to at that event had the authority, the knowledge and the experience to tell me how things really were around them this year. What happened to them as individuals. To choose the news agenda for themselves based on what they had seen and heard. (I have another thing to say about agendas in a follow up post).

Probably I could summarise all of the above in the following lines. News for me today is as much about the man in the suit behind a counter on the screen as it is about the people in jeans and t-shirts taking photos with their phones and expressing themselves on the web. Both hold a different type of authority. I work daily with the former and I learned a lot by being in a room with the latter.


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