The ongoing identity crisis of ‘blogging’ in Africa

With the simple changing of a word to another word (no matter how similar it may seem), you can completely change expectations and results. Naturally this seems as if it would be obvious, but it is amazing how often mistakes are made in this area that lead to long term confusion.

I mention this because of Avenue Afrique. This is an energized, happening French project that is working to create African blogging communities in various countries. They’ve had overall good success with most of the sub-project “avenues” have taken off. But, others have faltered. A large part of the reason to this is that the countries where they are focusing on at the moment: Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal, are unfamiliar with blogging and it is an uphill endeavor to let people know about it. This is of course partially hampered in part by their using WordPress (which is slow even on my rather fast DSL connection in Côte d’Ivoire), but more importantly, it’s due to how they are projecting the image of blogging.

Take a look at this article announcing an upcoming “blogcamp” in Dakar, Senegal. While it’s in French, any English speaker can easily pick out “recrute des correspondants” which means, “recruit correspondents”. The word, “correspondents” as well as “journalists” (which they use freely on their site as well) are very loaded words. One may think, “Pfft, whatever. Bloggers, journalists, they’re all the same this day and age.” and one would be a bit wrong. The key difference in journalist/correspondent vs. blogger is that a journalist is part of a larger news organization and is a paid staff member within a staff hierarchy where an editor approves or changes what it is that they write. A blogger on the other hand can be paid, but is typically not and writes whatever it is that they want, free of the burdens of approval and potential censorship. This is the beauty of blogging in that it allows a free exchange of information, which can be incredibly important in societies where the dissemination of news is contained within government control, such as a number of African countries.

Blogging 101

We humans are funny creatures in that to understand something new, we try to understand it within the bounds of what we already know. So to quote Three Amigos, if I walk in to a bar, ask for a beer and they tell me that they only have tequila, but it’s kinda like beer, then I’m going to equate tequila as being beer. The problem that so many of these blog promotion organizations are creating is that by using the words “correspondent” or “journalist” when they mean “blogger”, people then relate to blogging in the terms of a news organization because they’re new to blogging. Traditional news is beer and blogging is tequila. While both of the same genus, I assume that anyone can see the problem there when one gets confused with the other. I know that it sucks to explain to each and every person you meet what exactly a “blogger” is, but that’s a responsibility you’ve chosen to accept if you want to truly promote blogging in areas where it has yet to be picked up to any large degree.

This relation of blogging = traditional news then sets up a series of expectations. First and foremost, it has people expecting to get paid whether immediately or down the road. For instance, take Congo Blog where it’s “bloggers” are each paid a very respectable sum in Congo of $50 USD per article. Combined in to that fact is that all of the bloggers were/still are professional journalists in Congo prior to their writing on this group blog. As far as I know, there was no effort made to recruit people from the general populace.

So you can see the confusion wherein anyone in Congo is going to expect to be paid to blog because they point to Congo Blog as the singular example of “blogging” in the country. Don’t get me wrong, I think that getting paid to blog is fine as long as it is sustainable and warranted, but the real thrust behind blogging is the fact that it can be done for free. Who on earth in Congo is then going to want to blog for free when there are people getting paid for it? What happens when the NGO sponsoring this project has to reduce or cut off the funding? And most importantly, will the average person on the street in Kinshasa or Goma think that they personally have access to blogging when they see that it’s just these professional journalists that are “blogging”?

This is a key point in the issue of perception in that making blogging sound fancy by using the terms from traditional media as opposed to the new, unfamiliar terms associated with it, it makes it appear out of reach to regular people. In societies where a title still actually means something (as opposed to the US where everyone is a “manager” these days) this is very important. With how things are shaping up in relation to African blogging, people truly think that if they aren’t already a journalist, then they simply can’t “blog” when nothing could be farther from the truth. So, ironically, all these initiatives to get more Africans blogging are then actually making the medium less approachable and possibly discouraging many wold be bloggers by incorrect word choice when promoting blogging.

It’s probably at this point that I need to point out that while this problem exists in Anglophone spheres, it is much, much more prevalent in Francophone. I assume that the background on this is that blogging initially started with English speakers who were a lot like me (frustrated English Literature majors in college) and saw blogging as an exciting new outlet that eschewed traditional news. Whereas in France, it seems that blogging has grown out of traditional journalism to a large degree. So the line has blurred and while an under current of people in France understand blogging, the general populace does not to a large degree. This lack of knowledge is then replicated in projects outside of France and you get the blogging misunderstanding that we see in the projects.

Choose Wisely

Ultimately, all I can say is choose your words carefully when starting a blogging project and if paying, make sure it scales with the local economy and is sustainable within the bounds of the project, such as through advertising, subscriptions, contests, etc. It would be the best if blogging started as a natural event in Africa as starting a blog is free, but if people keep associating it with journalism, news, correspondents, editorials, and the like, that is never going to happen.

3 Replies to “The ongoing identity crisis of ‘blogging’ in Africa”

  1. Sure the basic explanation is that the majority of young people want a job – status in francophone Africa seems to be particularly hierarchical (your profession is written on your passport / ID card). A lot of people here work for nothing; witness the community radio stations in Abidjan which have taken most of the market from the state radio, but in which almost no-one gets paid. Maybe blogging without any regard to status or having a position in society is a luxury few can afford.

    I hate the concept of having to give my profession; perhaps we anglophones don’t like being pigeon-holed and like to think we can be lots of things at once. I get the feeling francophone culture has less of an emphasis on such freedoms or ‘liberte’.

  2. Very interesting points Miquel! Especially on the Anglophone/Francophone distinction…

  3. John, it’s interesting that you bring up radio in this because we’ve had that mentioned a number of times to us as well and other have noted that when it comes down to it, radio is much closer to blogging in many African countries than newspapers are. It’s an interesting point that I think a lot of people working to promote blogging on the continent miss as the model, while still a broadcast medium is quite different and should be studied a good deal prior to any training. I mention this because in a place where blogging has taken off a good deal more, such as Kenya, the newspaper’s are much more prevalent than radio as far as I can tell.

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