Keeping Our Voices Loud — The Evolution of CrowdVoice.org
The importance of information has always been at the engine of all the operations of Mideast Youth. The nature of information is that it evolves as the situation on the ground changes, and in addition to that, the means through which that information is shared has changed just as rapidly. The history of CrowdVoice has been a reflection of that change, and of its dedication to providing not just the information, but the story that lies at the heart of social movements and current events.
From its earliest days between 2005 and 2009, Mideast Youth was running various human rights campaigns online. We shared information with our team of supporters and volunteers constantly as it was the only way we could follow issues closely enough to write about them in an engaging way, in a way that raised awareness about abuses that were typically ignored by the mainstream. This information was shared exclusively through e-mail updates, which was not only time consuming, but it was also ineffective and non-transparent. By its nature it was a single-sided information sharing mechanism, where we controlled the flow of information in a way that limited engagement. Articles, images and videos that provided evidence of human rights abuses or simply tracked news coverage were important, but the delivery was weakening the message.
Mideast Youth set out to develop a system that aggregated information collectively, in an environment that invited public engagement through crowdsourcing while at the same time making it easier for us to share information. Our aim was to create a visually dynamic interface that gave users an overall idea of what they were clicking on.
CrowdVoice was launched in 2010 as an internal experiment within our team, and within a matter of a few years, it grew to accommodate thousands of users around the world with topics from sexual violence in India, to forced labor in China, to police brutality in the United States.
Between 2010 and 2013, the presence of social media in general multiplied exponentially. CrowdVoice had global access and unprecedented engagement, but we realized that it wasn’t enough for us to just curate information. We were faced with a different problem; giving people links to curated media feeds was useful to current issues and recent protests and movements, but it fell flat as a way of conveying a long term, useful narrative.
By 2013, we realized the new challenge wasn’t just in providing media, but in placing that media into an understandable and accessible context. At this stage of social media and information aggregation, users faced the opposite problem that they had faced a few years before – being so overly inundated with information that they couldn’t focus on what was going on. The next phase of CrowdVoice began, and we began to build infographics for major or ongoing issues that helped people understand what was happening generally. Infographics that explained history, casualty rates, and other key general information reminded users that the thousands of videos that they have access to are still connected to a central struggle. The voices of the people involved in these movements stayed relevant and human, rather than disappearing into an unconnected web of videos and articles.
Ultimately, I was pushed to keep working on CrowdVoice by this drive to maintain connections. A recent article about news coverage of conflict zones asked:
As builders of these online networked spaces, how do we make sure we optimize not only for traffic and engagement, but also for an informed public?
At CrowdVoice, we came to the realization early on that information alone didn’t make for an informed public, and thus we pushed for the third layer to CrowdVoice that provided an even more engaging story to the public. The “backstory” that we developed is essentially a timeline that explained the roots of a conflict or movement, whether it was 3 months, 3 years or 30 years ago or more. The timelines drew from the information on the pages and from our own curated information to give a thorough understand of the issue to users before they are met with a media feed that contains evidence of those events and issues – videos, eyewitness reports, news coverage, and anything else people help curate into one place.
Today, CrowdVoice balances these multi-faceted functionalities to give one of the most comprehensive explanations of social movements available online. The complexities of current and past issues have proven that news reports are not enough, and neither is mere curation. To truly do justice to struggles around the world, people need to be presented with the story, then the numerical facts and their relevant sources, then they need to be able to engage with the media feed and have the ability to add more information so that more primary sources and raw videos can be taken into account.
CrowdVoice is a work in progress – it has to be, because our world is as well. As social movements redefine our societies and tech innovations redefine how we relate to our societies, CrowdVoice is important because it fits right in the intersection between these two dynamics. Whatever the future holds, CrowdVoice will be prepared for it – informing the public, building information into stories, and making sure people’s voices are heard.