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Collecting voices from everywhere

Harvard project looks at cultures through eyes of citizen bloggers

Ahmad was jolted awake by a powerful explosion. ``As I opened my eyes, I realized that I am still safe and that some building not far away was targeted," the 27-year-old engineer wrote at colddesert.blogspot.com, the war diary he updates daily from his home in Saida, Lebanon, 25 miles outside Beirut.

At the other end of the conflict, 26-year-old Amos Bitzan used kishkushim.blogspot.com to keep in touch with his sister, Carmia, 24, who was cooped up in her top-floor apartment in Haifa, Israel, as nearby neighborhoods were pummeled with rockets. ``The apartment keeps trembling every once in a while -- I'm finding it a bit unnerving," she wrote.

Ahmad's and the Bitzans' words offer unique, ground-level views of the Israel-Lebanon conflict that have been connected by a project called Globalvoicesonline.org . Based at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society , Global Voices is aggregating and translating hundreds of blogs and podcasts from nearly every country in the world, creating an international citizens' media portal.

``Our job is to amplify these voices coming out of the developing world and help people get their voices into the mainstream media," said cofounder Ethan Zuckerman.

Launched 18 months ago, Global Voices attracts 900,000 unique visitors a month, according to Zuckerman. It has gained support from the MacArthur Foundation and more than $400,000 from Reuters Group PLC .

The site grew out of brainstorming sessions with established international bloggers at Harvard two years ago, said Zuckerman . It started with a basic blogroll linking hundreds of postings, but then Zuckerman and cofounder Rebecca MacKinnon , a former CNN journalist, recruited editors and translators who were respected bloggers within their communities to summarize and choose postings and offer context for readers who weren't familiar with the cultural intricacies of countries like Paraguay or Zimbabwe.

There is food blogging from Panama about organic corn farms, writing from China about censorship, and posts from a biking trip from the United States to the Patagonian tip of South America. Contributors to the site say it offers a variety of opinions and slices of life that go unseen in the traditional news media.

``All you're going to get in mainstream news is the latest coup," said Alice Backer , who translates French blogs mainly from the Caribbean and Africa for Global Voices. ``Nobody realizes there's a lot more going on. I purposely stay away from stories of all the latest kidnappings."

For bloggers, it helps them to connect with a global audience. Many of those blogging on the war are part of the Lebanese diaspora or larger Jewish community. When the conflict broke out, hits at colddesert .blogspot.com and Kishkushim .blogspot.com reached 500 and 1,500 per day respectively. Well-wishers posted comments and prayers for Carmia, who recently left her home and boyfriend in Northern Israel.

``A lot of readers come back just to check if I'm doing OK," she said. ``The blog became like therapy for me."

Dean Wright, Reuters' managing editor for consumer services, said the news agency was attracted to Global Voices because the proliferation of voices on the Internet has changed the way information is disseminated.

Reuters has included some Global Voices feeds with recent packages about the Mumbai train bombings and Chinese president Hu Jintao's visit to the United States. Wright said citizen and mainstream media will eventually work in concert, not in competition, but that traditional media will still have a responsibility to fact-check and provide context to news events.

``We at Reuters have the responsibility to provide a spine of truth, around which these global conversations take place," he said

Zuckerman said he tries to find what he calls ``bridge bloggers" or writers who try to explain their local situation to a global audience rather than people who blog about their dinner or latest shopping trip.

Ali Fadhil , 35, a medical doctor in Baghdad, said he blogs in English to reach out to Westerners.

``My blog is my window to the rest of the world," said Fadhil, who blogs at afreeiraqi.blogspot.com. ``I hope it can be a small part of the cultural bridge that brings the West and the Arab and Muslim world closer."

Because blogging requires an Internet connection and a computer, it naturally skews toward the educated and privileged in developing countries, Zuckerman admitted. That often means there is a decided bias in the local blogosphere.

``It's impossible in the world of blogs to be fair and balanced, but it's possible to be diverse and transparent," he said. ``No one pretends that blogs are the voice of the common man."

Zuckerman said Global Voices instead serves as a complement to what the news media overlooks or lacks the resources to cover.

``We're not the alternative to having good foreign news coverage," he said. ``Bloggers aren't able to do what really talented professional journalists can. Bloggers for the most part have jobs. They're not able to spend days staking out a story. But we provide more perspective, more depth and more color than you're likely to get in a conventional newspaper."

Kim-Mai Cutler can be reached at kcutler@globe.com.

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