Interviews/Lova Rakotomalala

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Background

I am a Global Voices member. We give context, and we give a summary of what’s been said in the region, specifically focusing on Madagascar and some other Francophone countries.

I am also a part of the outreach program for Global Voices. The goal there is to help populations that are not online—to help them participate in the conversation online. Give them online access first, and then once they are online, they give the rest of the community insights on what is going on in their region via blogs, photos, and the like.( because they know better) We want them to participate in online projects like Wikipedia. We received a mini-grant from Global Voices outreach program, Rising Voices, and are now reaching nine regions in Madagascar to train them on how best to use our online tools. It’s been going well, though sometimes people don’t know what to do with it or what it’s for. So far, though, it’s been fairly successful.

For example, when the coup happened in Madagascar, the media was more or less blocked, except for the blog community. I think that gave the community a real boost, some insight into why this type of work is important. So that’s been my experience with how to work online with Madagascar .

I know that access and speed of connections are always problems. They’re trying to get fast connections in E. Africa and Madagascar but now, because of the ongoing political turmoil in Madagascar, it’s unclear as to when it will happen and how much it will cost (some say it is already in place but no feedback yet). Either way, costs for the individual payer and the average person will still be too high for the average person, and that’s a problem.

Interview

Could you describe who is currently online? How are they accessing the Internet? It’s sometime a bit difficult to make these assessments. I was there in early June to late July this year, and what I could see was that many people access from cyber-centers (Internet cafes). These are the ones that drive the most traffic, but it is changing. At least for Madagascar, there are four different providers that offer high-speed Internet services for individuals and businesses People are starting to subscribe, though there are some complaints. I think it’s getting there, and I have a few friends who subscribe to wireless mobile on their phones. That was not available a year ago, and now some people are using it. It’s making its way slowly.

I think there is also some vlaues in downloading some pages or data while online, and being able to go through it while offline. This is powerful for people without high-speed Internet access.

What languages are they using? Mostly French, but it’s changing. It’s a class thing: people in Internet cafes using chat rooms are more likely to use the native language ( not a strict rule of thumb evidently) but for people who subscribe at home or at work, most of the time, they use French for work communication. This is the language used for higher education and also for business. Before the coup, the former president wanted to introduce English as an alternative for official business in Madagascar. With the change of regime, the use of English has actually been pushed back For some reason, the native language is really conversational at this point. There are no official business transactions done in the native language only. Most official business happens in French.

When do people use the native language? Until you reach high school, you do in fact learn in the native language. There are a few newspapers in Malagasy, and there is a demand for native language content. Even online, there’s a native language community. There’s at least 5K people members of an online community called serasera.org, exchanging music or chatting, and they use exclusively the native language.

I think this content is largely directed to Malagasy people.

What about Facebook and other social networking sites? Are people using these? Yes, though it’s been changing. When I first joined Facebook, there were at most 1K people who used Facebook in Madagascar, but now it’s around 20K. It’s been a bit mind-boggling. This might be the biggest threat to the online community I was just talking about (serasera.org) A lot of people are migrating to Facebook.

Twitter made a lot of news about Madagascar because there were, I think, 15 people who were aware of what Twitter was and used it on their phone. So when there was turmoil, they would put it on Twitter. This was picked up by the Wall Street Journal, and we need to pay attention to that. That was right around the coup. There’s a bit of a feedback loop as well, because people in the country are starting the say, “Oh look, there’s this Twitter application. Maybe we should follow it.” I would guess there are between 300 and 400 Twitter users. It’s not growing as fast as Facebook, but it is growing.

When people use Facebook, what language do they use? It’s funny! Once they reach Facebook, they actually are not as shy about trying it out in English. You see this on Twitter too. I don’t know if that shows a willingness to interact with Anglophones, because there are more English speakers there. Still, though, Facebook is still mainly used in French.

About half of Twitter users, though, write in English. It’s a hesitant English, but they want the majority of the world to know what’s going on.

What is your view on developing African language communities online? I think it’s very important, and I’ll tell you why. I have the data on how many people are reading Global Voices’ content in the native language, and there is a demand there. Especially in Madagascar, there is a willingness to keep their culture and cultural pride. It’s not a strong thing, but there are people who try not to communicate in French because they feel some of the culture has been lost that way. It’s about ownership of the content they put online. The traffic from Global Voices in Malagasy ( the native language), I would have guess that it would have dropped because the same content is available in French and English But it’s been going higher and higher from the one website I monitor ( Global Voices in Malagasy)

If there is enough content in the language, I think people would flow towards that. There is demand for these languages. But without content, I’m not sure it would work. What is available now is being read.

About how many people per month are reading the Global Voices site in the native language? On a daily basis, it’s around 95-110 readers. Location-wise, it’s basically readers from Madasgascar, with some from France and the U.S. It’s been stagnant for 2008, but with the crisis, it’s reached more traffic. So it’s now getting around 3300 per month.

Do you use Wikipedia? Have you edited? I don’t often edit, but I do use it at least twice a day. On a personal level, it’s probably the website I go to very often. I followed what happened to the Wikipedia page about our new president, and that was fascinating. It’s the kind of content that’s most important for my region, I think, because people are looking for basic knowledge information. (This of course comes second to relationship-building via online communities.)

This debate happened on both English and French Wikipedias. It was more limited on the English site: limited to four or five users. But the one in French had more users. It turns out that right now that the French page for the president is—because of this debate—actually very limited. People are still fighting about what should be there. The former president’s page has a lot more. There’s more to write about, less controversy.

Do you think most people debating this on the French Wikipedia are from Madagascar? No, I think most of the people were probably in France, though probably born in Madagascar.

Do you think people in the countries you’re familiar with are using Wikipedia? I don’t really think it’s taken off, but I’m not certain about this. For the most part, people are not aware of how Wikipedia works and why it’s valuable. That might still be the issue for the African Continent

How would you recommend increasing usage of Wikipedia? I think it would require linking up with mainstream media. I have friends who are involved with mainstream media, and I think they would be open to writing a bit about what Wikipedia is and how it could be used. Basically advertising. I think that would be how I would go about increasing awareness of what Wikipedia does. There is mutual interest in doing this. The mainstream media is aware of Wikipedia, and they have a lot of pull for spreading the word among the general population.

Have you found in the English or French Wikipedias that there is a lack of content regarding Africa? I think that number of pages is not the issue. I think that once we go beyond a country description, or a crisis, I think that’s where the content gap is. The high-level pages are there, but there’s not enough deeper informative content. But I have a limited view on this, to be honest. It may be different for other regions.

My hunch is that people are not using the native language Wikipedia because of a vicous cycle: people don’t want to create the content because no one is reading, and no one is reading because there is no content. Maybe this will change over time, as Internet access increases and spreads. Maybe it could grow exponentially. But I cannot be sure here. It depends on Internet access and people awareness of Wikipedia.

What do you think about the user interface of Wikipedia? Is the wiki syntax a barrier to use, based on your experience in outreach? What are the key barriers in engaging with online communities? I wanted to edit a few entries in the native language Wikipedia. And I think there is some truth to the difficulty in editing here. That was an obstacle, I think, for people to participate more.

The truth, though, is that most of the people who would be editing now are programmers who already know a little bit about coding and all that. So I’m having a hard time trying to assess whether the wiki syntax is a big barrier or not.

There is a team translating the Global Voices page. Right now, we are six or seven translators. I think they are very good in translating content to Malagasy. There is an untapped resource in the translation community.