A conversation with Indi Samarajiva

Indi Samarajiva

Indi Samarajiva was raised in Columbus, Ohio, studied at McGill University in Montreal and now lives in Colombo. His blog serves up some of the most interesting posts and subsequent discussions in the Sri Lankan blogosphere. Kottu, an blog aggregation website he was instrumental in creating, now collects over 100 blogs on Sri Lanka. His writing, ideas and innovation is pioneering, and has inspired many of us, including myself, to take up and treat blogging as a serious activity.

Now working for a large mobile telecoms company, I caught up with Indi after a long time and over email fired a couple of questions.

When and why did you start blogging?
I was in Montreal, studying at McGill. I was taking this open-ended Technology and Education with Andre Renaud. He got us using FTP and starting websites and had us do a journal, in HTML. I loved FTP cause it was the first time I’d really uploaded stuff to the web, where I’d been downloading for years. That’s when I started messing with websites.

I started blogging cause it was easier than writing and uploading my own clumsy HTML. FTP is fun but it’s literally moving files around and that gets old. I started on Xanga, then 20six. I got the first generation smartphone, a Sony Ericsson P800 and I was really into moblogging. Montreal is a beautiful city and I just walked around photographing stuff and writing about it. My phone bills were like $100 a month with data, but I learned a lot. I used Phlog for photos too, Flickr wasn’t around then. Also I had a Typepad account for a while. I used a lot of free servers before I got frustrated with the lack of control.

I didn’t get my own server and upload WordPress till my first summer in Sri Lanka.

For a medium that’s still dominated by English in Sri Lanka, what do you think it’s potential is to reach the vernacular speaking people?
Most of the blogs in the world are in Chinese or Japanese, so I don’t think it’s a language thing. Right now you can’t type or read Sinhala reliably, though the Unicode finally exists. That’s the biggest hurdle, I think you’ll see growth after that.

The curve is going in a lot of different ways, so I actually dunno where SL will come in. I suspect that people will get online through mobiles more than computers, but dunno. Video may even outgallop text by then. I think people will always need content.

You are the creator of Kottu. What prompted you to create a blog aggregator for Sri Lanka?
It was Mahangu’s idea. He wanted to do something like a group blog, for fun. I was just coming off tsunami work. During the tsunami government was AWOL and NGO communications were fucked. I knew people were non-technical, and I though if they set up blogs it would be easy. I wanted to make a blog aggregator (called a Planet) to pull them all together, to enable some communication. I think I pitched it at a CPA meeting but they brushed me off. Some computer industry guys said ‘don’t worry about it’ and wrote Sahana, which I thought was technical and useless. I mean, nobody I knew used it. Anyways, I had that data structure and just implemented it for Kottu. I was honestly more interested in the data structure than the content at first.

What are your future plans for Kottu, if any?
Dunno. I’d like to develop some ties with the main stream media. Am developing ties. I suspect that the MSM may be beyond repair, however, so I’m looking into mobile stuff as well.

Your own blog brings up many interesting issues on economics, media, politics, society and life in general – who is your primary audience?
I think it’s people with nothing to do at work. Mostly Sri Lankans, though I’m actually not that interested in SL politics. I read Andrew Sullivan and the New York Times everyday, so I can say more about the Libby trial than the UNP/SLFP drama. I honestly only write about SL politics because it intrudes on my life, usually in a bad way.

The audience that I care about is fellow bloggers, and a few friends who read. When I write I write mainly for my own taste. I try to research cause my parents and school have drilled that into me, that ideas need to be solid and defensible.

Have you done any demographic study / survey of those who visit Kottu? If not, what is your sense of the age, sex, location of those who visit?
No. The stats are public, but not demographic per se. Most are Sri Lankan, and young. Many are younger than me (24). Mostly male, but women seem to do very well.

Can blogging fulfill any larger social purpose other than writing for oneself? If so, can you give any examples, say from Sri Lanka?
It’s just words, so of course. Laws and Constitutions are just words and the American Revolution was spurred by pamphleteers. One example is one of the Rotary Clubs. I gave them a presentation on Blogger through my friend Harsha. I didn’t think it’d go anywhere, but then the tsunami hit and they setup a blog. They posted photos, got tons of email and raised enough money to buy lots of food and build some houses. On a larger scale, I setup and wrote a blog for Sarvodaya during that time and we raised over $800,000 dollars. I remember the first night we setup the payment gateway like $25,000 came in. And the comments were very supportive, and Sarvodaya used the blog to post detailed financial reports, and give people some feedback for their money.

Blogging, to me, is inextricably tied to the tsunami. That’s what Kottu was borne of and it was at that time I realized how vital international communication is. Blogging also helped me meet girls.

What really is the potential for media such as blogs to foster reconciliation and support democracy where there is a deficit of both?
I think blogs and politics are actually very connected. In the US every major politician has a blog and many announce their campaigns there. Stuff like YouTube also has the potential to keep people honest. They’re into it cause they can raise a lot of money, but I think the end result is more democracy.

But do I think blogs can foster democracy and reconciliation in SL, not really. Not yet I guess. This is still a print/TV culture and some bridge needs to be built.

You’ve been attacked personally, your current partner has been attacked viciously, and with every post, you seem to rake up progressive discussions as well as hate speech in what appears to be equal measure. Is there any way in which the balance can be tipped in favour of civil conversations and progressive debate?
I think part of the problem is anonymity. I don’t tell people to fuck off in real life cause my identity and my place in this culture means something to me. A lot of perfectly sane people are complete sociopaths on the road, when they’re hidden behind a windshield. No one walks like that. I think what we call civility is heavily dependent on facial and non-verbal communications, which simply doesn’t exist on the Internet. The diplomatic civility of letters and print is again dependent on a concrete identity at the end of the chain, and there’s a legal framework against libel and obscenity.

As for a way out, I think there are ways to give more identity to commenters. I’ve been experimenting with these WordPress plugins that detect IP and show their national flag, and another one that generates these cool icons from their IP address. I’m inclined towards those cause they’re automatic, I don’t think enough people will sign up for gravatars or whatever. If people have identity maybe they’d behave more like people.

Also, comment moderation works, and I use it. In the blogosphere a person’s right to moderate comments is a non-issue, but it still generates debate here. If someone is simply spewing hate and diverting the thread I’ll moderate them, and I have some semi-functional filters on the backend to do that.

With all the online attacks, what keeps you going?
The first ones hurt, but I’ve been getting it for years, so it just registers like email spam. A harsh comment doesn’t make me anymore nervous than an email about V1agra. I read them all in my email anyways. I honestly don’t read most comments, especially long ones. If someone is being especially toxic I’ll moderate them.

I also never wrote for comments. For about 2 years I had like 30 readers a day, mostly random. For the first year I think it was just my mom reading cause I never called home. It’s nice getting comments, but it honestly has nothing to do with why I write. I don’t really participate in the threads and they’re mostly there for the people that do. If it wasn’t a blog I’d be writing in a notebook, or on walls.

Is the essential anonymity of new media a boon or bane for conversations that engage with contentious issues such as peacebuilding?
I dunno. The net is anonymous. I think it’s overall good cause nobody gets killed for what they say.

What was the fate of iTimes? Is old media dead?
I left. I dunno what they’re doing with it. I wasn’t a good fit for the job, and there’s a lot of admin stuff that I just sucked at.

Old media thinks it’s dying, but it’s not. Especially in Sri Lanka. Old media hasn’t even really begun here. People really love print here, I think there’s a huge market. What I would love to see is for someone to neutralize the state media. If one can find an alternate classifieds system then that kills their revenue. The Sunday Observer sucks. People just read it for the jobs and matrimonials.

How do you see the evolution of new media in general, and blogs in particular, in Sri Lanka?
Mobile is the best vector to reach people, but the user experience sucks. I think that’s just one pipe. New media is, to me, separating form from content. You have a database of content (some user generated) which is then distributed via print/TV/mobile/whatever. I think blogs are a part of that. However, social networking sites like Hi5 and Facebook are more popular here than blogging, so I think that’s more important.

Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t really think of stuff in a Sri Lankan context. Blogs and new media are by essence global. I think Sri Lanka is a good place to test and dev stuff, but it’s not a significant market. Eventually we have to start talking to the world.

Who do you think are key allies to foster and strengthen if blogging is to be developed (especially in the vernacular) in Sri Lanka? Does an institution like ICTA have any role to play in such a process?
I’m more interest in the mobile companies and stuff. The MSM I guess, but they’re actually very small and inefficient. I don’t know much about the ICTA. Nothing they’ve done has made any ripples in the online world I know. I honestly don’t care. I’m just writing cause I like it, there’s no national plan in mind.

I don’t think it’s an organizational thing. I think you just need more people doing whatever they love. Blogging and Net is just infrastructure to enable them. Whatever good comes will come from them, and I think it’ll be surprising. I wish I could do more writing and less infrastructure, but that’s just how it is right now.

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