Only a few months ago ODI began asking itself what a blog was. Today, we recognise it is, at least, a useful communication tool and enjoys significant support. At its best, blogs can filter information from previously inaccessible sources; can convene different groups around a single issue providing a menu of opinions and links to further resources that conventional media finds it difficult to deal with; may offer the basis of a tightly knitted community of practice or interest group; and constitutes a cost-effective platform for individuals and organisations to join the global development debate.
Blogs are also only one of tens, if not hundreds, of different social technologies that have become available in the last few years; and whose use has grown exponentially. Blogs are nicely complemented by a flickr (or a pictures’ blog – www.flickr.com); and can be linked to private or semi-private networks of friends and colleagues (friedster or www.dgroups.org, come to mind). They can, and are often provided, with a wiki platform which allows the members of a community to build a common stock of knowledge (www.wikicities.com). Blogs constitute an inexpensive way of publishing material and opinions online. For more mainstream options, on-demand publishing such as that provided by lulu (www.lulu.com) are a complimentary alternative.
The value of these social technologies lies in their capacity to bridge the IT gap between resource rich CSOs in developed countries and those in developing countries; limited in their action by a systemic lack of resources. It awards small CSOs in developing countries access to information and participatory spaces otherwise closed to them. Some social technology platforms are being designed specifically for CSOs: see for example, www.civiblogs.org and www.dgroups.org. Other blogs are specifically targeting the development sector: http://psdblog.worldbank.org, http://blogs.cgdev,org/vaccine, http://blogs.odi.org.uk, and many others. Blogs can also be used to influence policy directly, bringing together similar or different opinions and articulating them around a common goal. Political and policy debate among Peruvian expatriates (http://peruexilio.civiblog.org), for instance, has found a space in the local debate through a blog developed on top of one of these platforms. This is a tool the diasporas can use to remit more than money: ideas.
But what is really interesting is what blogs and other social technologies will do to development. Just as it happened with the traditional news-media in recent years, blogs might be well on track to overthrow the traditional ‘thinking spaces’ of the development sector. Let us leap forward and imagine the future:
High profile conferences and symposia are pre-empted by detailed, dynamic and exiting on-line and public debates filled with up-to-date information and breakthrough and challenging premises, assumptions and theories. Ministerial meetings and trade negotiations see their agendas changed by the sheer volume of evidence and discussion being exchanged online. Blogs, unlike the traditional means of communications are all about links to other blogs. These links foster debate and aggregate scattered knowledge (sometimes through a wiki), making it easier to set agendas without the tedious and unfairness of long consensus building negotiations in which one view is imposed (or negotiated) over the others. They are therefore a perfect tool for the small CSOs who might be cash-short but not motivation-deprived.
If blogs have their way, development thinking will look very different. Blogs do not require long reference lists or foot-notes. They do not include literature reviews or conceptual frameworks. The speed with which ideas can be produced, shared and exchanged will increase. What will think tanks like ODI look like then? Will we be able to keep up with change? Are our research and production processes geared towards blogging? Can our complex narratives of development and change be easily translated into friendly yet intelligent and undiluted messages? Can we collaborate with competitors linking our work to theirs and trusting that they will link theirs to ours?
What will happen to intellectual property? As the Bob Dylan line goes, ‘anything that cannot be imitated must die’. Blogs are full of imitations, copycats and borrowed ideas that help strengthen them but rarely rewarding their source. Are the incentives of the academic and research community the right ones for this possible context? Can we just let anyone take our words and twist them around in a myriad of possible ways and contexts?
If blogs will shape the way in which we think about development, then what is there to stop them changing the ways development is carried out? Already e-groups help practitioners keep up with the latest theories and ideas. In turn they provide researchers with up-to-date information and monitoring of the projects and programmes implemented. Blogs are defining the prominence of particular interventions, jostling them to the top of the media agenda in just a few hours of the stories or the pictures being posted. Professional and personal blogs can be used as monitoring and evaluation tools that when used systematically can replace tedious, long and expensive traditional methods.
There is still much to ask about the ways in which the development sector can use social technologies; but this must come hand in hand with questions about what their use will do to the sector itself. How will it change how we think and do; as well as what?