- March 12, 1997 -- This past week Florida International
University sponsored a meeting of "Webmasters of key Latin America
and Caribbean websites."
Such a gathering poses a number of questions. Why does a gathering
of Internet webmasters need to occur in a physical place at
all? And second, why wasn't the local community more actively
involved in the preparation? The following is a response co-written
by Molly Molloy, host of the
Internet Resources for Latin America and Ron Mader, founder
We both became interested in the Web as a way to find information
not readily available from traditional sources.
For Latin Americanists, the Internet now serves as a welcome
tool to access current and detailed information. And, perhaps
more importantly, the net has empowered scholars, activists,
journalists and others, to create and disseminate unique information
from and about the region to the rest of the world.
Thus, the primary value of the Internet is communication: networks
of people keeping each other aware of events and activities;
creating communities of affinity without geographic limitations.
We hope that this week's meeting in Miami will illuminate
ongoing communication efforts, rather than create new labyrinths
that hinder interamerican dialogue. Duplication of efforts is
a poor use of limited resources. Will these concerns be raised
at the Miami meeting? And, can others express their opinions
through online proceedings accessible on the web?
As Latin American inter-networking grows more sophisticated,
I wonder if any attempt to organize it into a "confederation
or consortium" (one of the aims of the meeting) will be necessary
I'm more interested in reports from a local human rights organization
in San Cristóbal or Lima, for instance, than in the ability
to get a United Nations document or a New York Times article
on the web. Mainstream information providers have and will always
have the venues and resources to sell or distribute their information.
However, the Internet has provided a new and unique communication
space for the NGOs, non-profits, and individual creators and
publishers to get information out to the world.
As an extension of the ubiquitous "superhighway" vision of
the Internet, I'd like to propose that we focus on the "blue
highways" -- a metaphor from Blue
Highways: A Journey into America, the 1982 best-seller by
William Least Heat Moon.
The sectors of the net I'm most interested in correspond to
these backroads that do not travel to fancy shopping malls and
fast food outlets, but provide a slower trip with more interesting
shops, tastier food, and most importantly, access to unique
people and places.
I see an important role today for Internet activists to work
to maintain the shrinking space on the net for local, independent,
individual information creators/providers. In the process of
proposing any new "organization" relating to the Internet, we
should ask ourselves if such an entity will help or hinder the
independent sectors on the net.
As far as the task of "organizing" what's already on the web--
this is a quixotic task. But, the combination of human-designed
net guides and automated searching tools has vastly improved
our ability to find things in just the last few years. As the
quantity of information grows, we will rely more on automated
search and discovery.
Can we do anything to ensure that information produced by local
communities in Latin America and other world regions, non-English
language sources, and other non-mainstream information remains
"findable," as search technologies become mega-commodities,
bought and sold by the richest technology corporations in the
While Florida International University's AmericasNet
website ostensibly focuses on a given region, it is also unabashedly
Florida-centric. Perhaps the university is posturing to both
its funders and international colleagues that FIU actually is
interested in inter-hemispheric exchange.
AmericasNet played a pioneering role during the 1994 Summit
of the Americas, but the website has since floundered. I sense
that the March 1997 gathering of webmasters was little more
than a photo shoot.
I don't mean to single out this particular university. Institutions
have notoriously information-poor websites. If you're looking
for more than a snazzy home page, it's hard to find details
or updates within university or government sites. How can Latin
American webmasters work together to ensure that official documentation
is posted and archived on the Internet immediately and regularly?
I would argue that the taxpayer-funded reports and meetings
should have more disclosure on the Web. It seems absurd that
when another Miami university co-sponsored a meeting on "Strengthening
Public Participation in Environment and Sustainable Development
Policy-Making in the Americas" a few weeks ago, it was by invitation
Frankly, I'm more concerned about the availability of official
documentation *and* the meeting notes than grassroots reports.
When NGOs and government officials met behind closed doors in
preparation for the recent Bolivia Summit, they were in fact
shutting the doors on public awareness, and consequently, participation.
Informal networking among webmasters has improved a number
of fine websites, that take full advantage of the interactivity
of the Internet. The University of Texas' Latin
American Network and Information Center (LANIC) depends
on submissions and suggestions.
Internetworking activities related to the indigenous Zapatista
rebellion and other political events in Mexico beginning in
1994 embody a new model of communication and activism made possible
by the Internet. Scholars and activists created new lists and
newsgroups that quickly developed into a decentralized, cooperative,
global network of websites that provide current news and archival
information about the EZLN and other popular movements in Mexico.
One example, see Zapatistas
Formal institutions or alliances have yet to be as creative
or as powerful in terms of information sharing.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
Finally, we'd like to pose the following questions:
Does the world want or need another "clearinghouse" or "supersite"
of Latin American information when search engines and customized
guides already perform this service?
Will institutions commit time and money to step up their efforts
in producing reliable and regular information feeds on the Internet?
And finally, how can we make it easier for individual efforts
to receive the necessary funding and support for expansion?