Ethan Zuckerman’s Thoughts on Success

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Ethan Zuckerman (EZ): I’m interested that you’re contacting me around this, because I’m not sure that I actually consider myself to be a particularly successful person. It’s not really a frame in which I think about things. I suppose my definition of success would be having a clear sense of what you want to accomplish, and then being able to accomplish it. For some people that probably means money, for some people that probably means influence or fame. I think for some people it means completing projects. For me it’s had a lot to do with developing ideas, and getting people to take those ideas seriously, but it’s interesting. I think what one person might define as success, someone else might think would be a failure, basically.

HK: I’m very impressed by your works at Global Voices. It is amazing. Can I ask what you want to do through the project at first?

EZ: Well, here’s an interesting thing. I gave a lecture about Global Voices; let’s say about six months ago, at the University of Texas. And I told the audience that Global Voices was a failure, and I said that for a couple of reasons; I said it because it’s a provocative thing to say. But I was also dead serious about it in one sense, and the reason for that is that the idea behind Global Voices was we wanted people to pay more attention to stories that came from around the world, and maybe a little less attention to stories that were in people’s own pasts.

HK: And I asked you to be the interviewee of the law of success… [Laugh]

EZ: And the truth is, we have not been very successful at doing that, the people who come to the website are getting exposed to some interesting international stories, but most people are not. And so when we started the project, we sort of, thought the goal was to change American media culture, and we certainly haven’t done that. So I think this is one of those places where it can be very challenging if you give yourself a very difficult task to achieve. Sometimes, even if other perceive a project as very successful, you may still be frustrated by aspects of it. No, let me be clear. I mean, I obviously think Global Voices is a success. It’s just a very different success than I expected.

Basically I expected at this point, that CNN or a major American network would be looking to us for coverage from the developing world. And the answer is, they really haven’t. We’ve been successful in the sense that a lot of people like the site. Where we’ve been most successful is that we have an amazing community of people who’ve decided just to work together because they share this common vision of a world that’s more connected. But it’s interesting again, for me, to think about this, there are ways in which it’s very successful and I’m very proud, but there are ways in which, for me, it’s a failure. And to me, success is not very interesting. Success means that I can stop trying, and that’s no fun at all. I would much rather have a problem that I have not solved than a problem that I have solved. so it makes your project very interesting for me, because like I said, I rarely think of things in terms of success. I’m more interested in something that I haven’t succeeded at yet.

HK: Oh, that’s a really interesting point, you mentioned my project, and I have one anxiety, and maybe you have the same anxiety as well which is, most of the people in this world cannot afford to buy even a PC, you know what I mean, because you are very familiar with Ghana and African countries right? And they cannot buy a PC, and they cannot be on the internet. They can’t provide their voice on the web, so what would be your solution? I want to try to solve this problem as well.

EZ: Sure, so you’re very, very right to identify that problem, and at this point, it’s quite hard in many countries, for most people to get access to the internet. We should be very clear by the way, there are actually lots and lots of African, lots of Ghanaians who are on the internet, but it’s really a matter of whether it’s the majority in society, or whether it’s a minority in society. What’s interesting though is if we were to have this conversation 20 years ago, and we would say, how are we ever going to hear from or learn from people in Africa? The response would be, I don’t know, or maybe it would be, I guess we could send some journalists over there. Now we’re asking this much more ambitious question, which is how do we make sure we hear from everybody in the world? And the reason we’re even able to ask that question is that we’ve had such huge technological change.

Now, most people in Ghana for instance, don’t have access to the internet, but most actually do have access to a mobile phone. And one of the ways that many Africans are now making their voices heard is through the combination of mobile phones and radio shows. And that has become a very powerful space for public discourse, so even if not only do you not have access to the internet, even if you don’t know how to read and write, it’s now possible for you to have a voice which could be heard nationwide in your country. And then, if people are doing work to try to build bridges between different media environments, and people are paying attention to who’s talking in different countries, there’s no reason you couldn’t talk to the rest of the world.

So I would sort of, spin your question on its head. I would say you’re absolutely right to ask the question, how do we make sure that everyone in the world can raise their voice? But I would also say that we are so much closer to that reality than we have ever been at any other moment in time, I often end up worry about a different question, which is not just how you get people devices. Because the market is actually not doing so badly, and mobile phones keep getting better, and there’s ways of building new systems. I’m interested in how we actually make the decision to pay attention to each other, and listen to each other.

And so most of my work these days deals with the question of how do people in Korea talk to people in Cameroon? Because they speak different languages, they are interested in different subjects, even if we can do the translation, how do we get people talking about common issues, common topics, common ideas?

HK:  That’s true.

EZ: How do we get that conversation started? And so those are the questions that I’m working on these days.

HK: That’s a really interesting point, do you have any solution to break the barrier between the languages?

EZ: I actually think tremendous progress is being made around language lately, and I’m very excited about it. I just got email from someone today, telling me about a really fun project. I’ve written about a lot of projects where English language media is translated into Chinese. For instance, there’s a very big volunteer project called, which translates English language media for Chinese audiences. And I have been complaining for a long time, that there are not many projects that try to translate from Chinese to English.

But this person emailed me and said, here’s what I’m doing. I’m translating the Twitter stream of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who is this very fascinating artist and activist in China. And so these two people, one Chinese American, one American are translating Ai Weiwei’s tweets, and are trying to build a dialogue between English speakers and Chinese speakers with Ai Weiwei.

What is so interesting about is that these aren’t necessarily computer programmes or machines that are making changes. Often what’s making these changes are people who decide that they want to give their time to translate, so that there’s better understanding in the world. What I think is so exciting is that the internet has changed what it means to be a volunteer. It’s changed what it means to be a participant, and if you want to lend a small hand and translate, say, from Chinese to English, you don’t have to go in and work a job. You don’t have to commit to doing it professionally. You might just do it for ten minutes, but it could help increase that dialogue, and that’s a very exciting moment in time that we are living in, in that sense.

HK: What is the biggest challenge currently you have?

EZ: I think it’s attention; I think it’s really hard for people to make the decision to pay attention and to listen to one another. I would say that even in people who speak the same language, one of the things the internet lets us do is pay attention to what we care about, and ignore everything else. It’s a very different way of encountering media, than the old-fashioned way. So rather than reading what’s in the newspapers, we can make the decision to go out and pay attention to the subjects we are interested in, and ignore the rest of them. And the problem with this is that if you’re not careful, you can reach a point where people in society, whether that society is a town, whether that society is a nation, whether that society is global, where people are not listening to each other and are not paying attention to one another.

My fear is, even if we solve the language problem, even if we’re encouraging people to participate, we may not be able to get people to listen to each other and pay attention to each other. And for me, that’s the problem that I right now am most interested in working on.

HZ: That’s also what I’m interested in; cultural diversity, individual diversity, how to understand each other, and so on. It’s pretty interesting.

EZ: And you think that success is going to be the best way to explore that question?

HK: No. I mean, I think there are as many ways to achieve success as the number of human beings, and of course, your definition of success and my definition of success is different. And people in, for example, Ghana, people in Korea, Japan and United States or wherever, it’s all different. But our society tries to put people into one form.

In this sense I thought success is a good point to start thinking about individual diversity. Being famous or earning loads of money to be a millionaire, billionaire, those kinds of things were regarded as social success but I don’t think that is always right. I want to raise social consciousness of individuality by using the term success. So this is a sort of tool. Talking about the Global Voices, it’s pretty similar hence I hope your project is going well.

EZ:  Oh, Global Voices is going great, and a lot of these issues I’m talking about, you’re giving speeches on and writing about, and the more I talk to people about them, the better I understand them. But again, for me, rather than success, it’s the path towards success that’s interesting. So for me, I’m always most interested in the questions I don’t know the answers to, so that for me is fun. I like the idea that you are approaching success from the idea that it’s not universal, and also from the idea that it might have social consciousness as an aspect to it.

Let me share just one idea with you, and maybe it will be helpful to you as you think through this; people like you, who are bi-cultural, who have roots in more than one culture. You have roots as a Korean and also as Japanese, you are very well-positioned to be what I call a bridge figure. You are often capable of explaining things between cultures, which other people can’t understand, right?

We know that there’s been a long tension between Korea and Japan, we know that they who’ve misunderstand one another. But you have origins in both worlds, you have super-powers. No I’m serious about this, you have this special power to build bridges between those communities, so it doesn’t surprise me that, based on your experience growing up as a Korean in Japan, you are interested in these questions of social justice and also of dialogue.

But for us with Global Voices, people like you are critical. They’re how we are able to maintain our project. Many of the people that we work with come from different cultures, and they act as bridges between those cultures. And that’s often what you need to understand those cultures. If you want to explain China to people from North America, it helps to either be a Chinese who’s spent a lot of time in North America, or to be a North American who lives in China and speaks Chinese. And we have both of those folks involved with our project.

So one thing you may want to think about is what are the roles that you can fill, bridging between Korea and Japan, whether this larger role of being a cultural bridge to the wider world is a helpful way for you to think of yourself and your work.

HK: That’s fantastic advice, and of course not only between the two countries, I will build the bridge across the world. Especially since the research on the law of success focuses on wealthier people than average, I want to expand my activity to the bottom billion who can’t afford to be on the web as well.

EZ: Let me give you an example, one of the bloggers who is very closely affiliated with Global Voices, is a guy named Awab Alvi. And he’s a successful guy, he’s a dentist in Pakistan. He’s very well-off, he’s on the internet; he is now spending all his free time working on helping people who’ve been victims of the flood. And so if you wanted to talk to people who’ve been affected by that flood, you’re actually better off to talk to Awab, than you are to just try to go into a random community, and that’s what I mean by bridges. He is able to, because of language and because of context, build relationships that might be very difficult for you to build.

Ethan Zuckerman is the Co-Founder of Global Voices and Tripod, also a Researcher at Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Post is written by WBTW Correspondent Haegwan Kim who conducted the interview.

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