Back in 1999, during the NATO bombing of Belgrade, Salon.com bragged that they could send a reporter to Serbia – the first online-only magazine to do such a thing. That was a sign that online-only journalism was maturing. But Dave Winer, while agreeing this is a sign of maturity for a US-based outlet, voiced the opinion that the Web was already there, in Yugoslavia, and that the people were on it, using it. Last week, Dave remembered that episode in a different context and I have, in a few posts before (regarding Mumbai attacks and Iran revolution), wondered why would American audience put more trust into an American reporter parachuted into a foreign country with no knowledge of local geography, history, culture, language and politics, instead of trusting the locals who are steeped into that knowledge – by reading multiples of them, you can quickly learn to detect (and thus ignore in any individual person’s writing) varieties of local political biases and use the collective reporting to get a clear picture and deeper understanding of local events – much deeper than the American reporter can ever dream of doing.
Anyway, I think Dave was right even back then in 1999. So I posted this in the comment of his blog:
Yugoslavia was on the Web in 1999! It just looked different from the Web we are used to seeing in the USA.
Urban centers in former Yugoslavia had a whole bunch of people who were excited about computers. Not having money to buy PCs or software, they built their own and programmed their own. I remember, as early as 1980, young programmers were sending their software to the big Belgrade radio station as audio files. Each day at 10am and repeated at 4pm, the announcers would warn us to get our tape recorders ready to record the audio to get the programs. Most were simple text or image processing programs but some were quite nifty. And nobody ever thought those should be anything but free for everyone to have and use (and read them into their Sinclair ZX Spectrums).
In March of 1991, the first big anti-Milosevic demonstrations were essentially organized and coordinated by a bunch of people in the city center via e-mail (those e-mail messages were later collected and published in a book). I did not have a computer of my own, but I knew some of the guys who did. I lived in the part of Belgrade, at the edge, towards the side where all the military barracks were. One day, during the demonstrations, I heard a distant rumble. March not being a time when we have thunderstorms, I immediately knew what that meant. I got on the phone and called one of the e-mailing organizers, telling him to tell the rest of the network that Milosevic is sending the tanks to the city. I opened the window and counted 40 tanks passing by my house. In the meantime, demonstrators hijacked a few fire-engines and blocked the narrow city streets in the center, effectively preventing the tanks from reaching the majority of demonstrators (I am not taking this as a sign that my message make a difference – I am sure I was just one of many doing the same thing – calling friends in the center to tell them about it). In other words, you don’t need everyone to be online, you just needed a small network of connected folks who can then use phones and f2f to convey information and organize the thousands in the streets (sorta like Iranian revolution two decades later).
In June of the same year, I came to the USA. I immediately got on Usenet where I could see all the reporting from the ground and from the global media. There were instant translations of reports by journalists on the ground writing for various media outlets in countries like Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Israel, Russia, Ukraine and Japan. There were messages by UN peacekeepers on the grounds. There were messages by locals: Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims (not that any of those groups were monolithic – there were 52 political parties just in Serbia at the time, ranging from ultra-left to ultra-right with social-democrats in the middle, each with different interpretation of events and different visions for the future). By the end of the day, from all of these sources, I could piece together a pretty reliable story of what happened that day. Then I would turn on the TV and watch ABC, NBC and CBS anchors straight-out lie about it during evening news, every single night for ten years, just parroting what Albright, Cohen, Clark and Christopher were saying in their press conferences. So did CNN, and so did the NYTimes next morning. That is how I learned not to trust the US media.
Today, Serbia is still one of the least connected nations in Europe (a colleague of mine, Danica Radovanovic now at Oxford University, did a comparative study for her MS on this a few years ago, with hard numbers and all). The most important factor is a huge disparity between city and country – people living in big cities are as connected as you and me, on blogs and social networks and everything else, while rural inhabitants don’t even use e-mail yet.
The second factor is that many of the computer geeks left the country during the 1990s, being well educated, speaking English, and having salable skills – mad programming skills. They got jobs at IBM and such companies around the world, leaving the country to less tech-savvy folks.
But just because they left physically, does not mean they left emotionally, and are now acting as a huge network of the diaspora, and a conduit of information about the old country around the world. They inform their neighbors about the realities of the Balkans, disabusing them of lies they heard from Peter Jennings and Christiane Amanpour back in the 1990s, and they communicate with the people in Serbia (or Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, etc.) and help them develop the Web there.
My deal is Open Access publishing in science and medicine and I have done my part to seed the idea there (two trips in 08 and 09, each time giving two public lectures, three long radio interviews and in 09 also a short TV interview), gather a small bunch of pioneers and feed them information they need to change local system from within. I could not have done that if I remained in Belgrade.
Finally, many people from around the former Yugoslavia have sent their kids abroad during the wars of the 1990s. Those kids are all on Facebook, all friending each other despite ethnic differences, joining the same fan pages of old rock groups or Balkan-only candy brands. Their parents may have killed each other, but kids are OK.