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Harvard academic claims world wide web is narrower than ever

Harvard researcher Ethan Zuckerman says the huge online bias towards wealthy countries has turned us into 'imaginary cosmopolitans' with only 'the wisdom of the flock'.

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A leading academic believes the internet has veered away from its original vision and has created a society of "imaginary cosmopolitans" with a world view far narrower than they believed.

Speaking at the TED Global (Technology Entertainment and Design) conference in Oxford, Harvard academic Ethan Zuckerman said the increasing move towards social media meant people were gravitating more than ever towards people who shared their views on the world, and towards information from just a handful of wealthy countries.

"We think we're getting a broad view of the world, because it's possible that our television, newspapers and internet could be giving us a vastly wider picture than was available for our parents or grandparents," Zuckerman said.

"[But] when we look at what's actually happening, our world-view might actually be narrowing."

Zuckerman, a blogger and researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said the web had turned away from its original utopian vision of a "great leveller" of information, and had instead narrowed to increasingly favour technologically advanced and wealthy countries.

This, he said, was "making us 'imaginary cosmopolitans'" where we believed we were truly taking an interest in affairs around the world when in fact more than 95 per cent of traffic to news sites in the UK and around the world was directed purely at domestic sites.

"The promise of the internet the idea that everything is just a click away is that in Britain I can read newspapers from Australia, India, Nigeria, Ghana, Canada, at no cost and end up with a wider view of the world. The truth is that, on average, I won't."

Even broad-based "organic" news sources such as Twitter suffered from the same problem, because amid the overwhelming volume of information people were choosing to look at only that which they were already familiar with.

"The internet is too big to understand as a whole, so we get a picture of it that's similar to what our friends see," Zuckerman argued. "If you turn to your friends, eventually you get the wisdom of the flock.

"The wider world is a click away, but whether we mean to or not, we're usually filtering it out."

With this in mind, Zuckerman has co-founded of a blogging network called Global Voices, a not-for-profit group that aims to step outside the interest patterns led by typical global media coverage typically only of local conflicts and crises and promote voices and opinions that may not otherwise be heard.

He told delegates of the Madagascan Foko club, a blogging group originally set up to teach students English, which rose to become one of the leading informal news sources in the country when official media organisations were barred following a coup last year.

He also spoke about Chinese translation network Yeeyan, whose 150,000 volunteers work to translate and publish 50 to 100 articles a day from western news sources.

"Where's the English-language version that's giving us insights into what's being said in Chinese media?" he asked.

"We have to figure out how to rewire the systems we have. We have to fix our media, we have to fix the internet, we have to fix education."

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