CYBERPUBLISHING: A case study of an online publication
M. O. Ene
A very popular play enjoins children to clap for Little Lizard. Why? Two reasons: First, its father fell from the tallest iroko tree in town, nodded nicely in acknowledgment of the feat--since no one applauded him--and ran along lovably with no broken bones. Secondly, Little Lizard itself ran from its leathery shell without walking; it didn't even crawl, and there was no one to help it navigate a strange new world!
In a society where the second-born child does not run if the firstborn has not walked, Little Lizard's feat rattled the brain of the village sage. I believe this was why the egghead egged on children to clap for Little Lizard, for it would be not be noble for an esteemed elder to show such visible perplexity over the wonders of Little Lizard. But this is not a wonder of Little Lizard; it is the wonder of nature.
I was hoping that a Nigerian group would be the first to clap for the most popular Little Lizard in Cyberspace, figuratively speaking, that is. Alas, albeit happily so, "AboutPolitics.com" beat then all to it, just as I was about to forward this piece on April 4, 2000. CONGRATULATIONS, Nigeriaworld.com on bagging the Internet Award "Political Site of the Day, April 4, 2000." You ran while we waited for you to walk; and others have noticed and aptly applauded. Many more shall applaud.
The study of Cyberspace (I term it "Cyberology") is not your run-of the-mill social science. Many people narrow it down to e-commerce (the power of money, what else), or to the psychology of the Internet, as if you must have some nuts loose to surf the Internet. Many still do not know how to define it. With the appendage of the prefix "cyber" to almost every known lexical item, e-newspeak or “cyberspeak” sometimes perplexes the uninitiated. However, we have to start somewhere in analyzing some silent changes creeping in on the way dot-com communities interact. And this one is about Odili.net -- a popular website among Nigerians.
No matter how you look at it, Charlotte, NC-based Chuck Odili has quietly started something in the Nigerian community -- a come-and-chop/shop mall -- and many Nigerian Internet surfers visiting Nigeriaworld.com eat what he is cooking, or rather what they are helping him cook; he is frankly feeding the fire. Ironically, the main boiler room (Odili.net) is fast becoming a world of its own, an El dorado you hear about but would probably never visit. Many newcomers hardly know it exists, let alone an Odili.com -- which is an entirely different kettle of fish. Nigeriaworld.com is it for teeming Nigerian surfers.
When I first resource-located Odili.net, it was not very much unlike any other well-done web page, except that it provided live links to personal pages of other Nigerians. It also featured some recent and decent write-ups. This was the descriptive phase of the setup. It was before Nigeriaworld.com and naijanet.com. I tried to tease out a few issues, figure out the writers' penmanship, the site's policies, and web architecture. It then dawned on me. No, not the writings - some were still of newsgroup quality - not the persons, and not the setup. No, it was something else: I was looking at the end of "Naijanet@wherever-it-goes-next.com," as we knew it. (Presently it resides @egroups.com.)
Far beyond the eventual decease of the famed forum, I was looking at the future of cost-effective, interactive electronic publishing by Nigerians. Since then, Odili.net has recorded great leaps from a personal website to an e-publishing venture that is both descriptive and increasingly transactive. It was breaking away from the many Africa-targeted web sites that popped up in mid 1990s and did not make the grade because:
· Some pages took ages to load, and dodo links were dozens for a dime.
· Stale news items are a great turnoff; some still have the news from day one prominently displayed on their homepages.
· The reckless and ruthless regime of General Sani Abacha contaminated many media - no one knew who was paying or working for/against whom.
· Many people were rearing to get on board and be a part of the process. You couldn't feed Nigerians news for so long without giving then the opportunity to talk back, not the Adamus, Ades, and Emekas.
Throughout the Abacha era, the famed Nigerian newsgroup, Naijanet, was very vibrant, notwithstanding the following detrimental effects of unmediated platforms:
· crude comments of certain members
· massive hauling of junk mails
· reproduction of entire thread histories just to write "I agree" or "Thank you,"
· annoying cross-postings, and the attachments that transmit dot-exe viruses.
There were problems in Naijanet, but there were few alternatives for those who considered themselves Nigerians first and foremost. Alternatives were sought. Large mailing lists sprang up everywhere, and included perceived "good netters." Many people did not want to be a part of lists that grew by the day, forcing them to change addresses or simply block particular incoming mails somehow. This was long before onelist.com and egroups.com came to be. (They have since merged.)
According to Obi Taiwan, the CyberLord Himself, Naijanet was not designed to be a moderated forum. As enumerated above, all-comers and unmediated platforms come with adverse effect. However, attempts to moderate postings only incubate unnecessary acrimony. The delay in posting contributions becomes a greater turnoff than the factious postings, and the modalities for acceptable rejections create testy threads of their own. As has been established, a mediated forum loses its initial membership at the same rate unmediated fora gain members.
On the other hand, unqualified and anything-goes platform makes a mockery of serious debates, encourages the trading of tirades, and drives away groups with common interests. This probably explains the existence of many ethnocentric newsgroups [Edo, Akwa-Cross, Igala, Igbo, Yoruba, etc.] Even where there are common interests, dedicated individuals gradually limit their participation. This has been the bane of Igbo--net. So, unless one adapts to the changing trends in the fast-changing world of Internet, head, you lose; tail, you still lose.
Although Naijanet has seen better days, it still has good and bad sides -- like many things in life -- and they will be missed if the forum falls into a moderated mold with its attendant disadvantages, or if it folds up in the face of interactivity of more modern platforms. Presently, its present home at egroups.com allows only subscribers to post and receive emails; others are "moderated." "To approve for posting" is actually a better term, but the Internet has its own lexicon.
In his study of the Naijanet, Ben Moran of Cambridge (1998) observes: "This ability to reproduce and edit texts leads to a particular, novel form of argument, in which the protagonists take each other's postings line by line, interspersing them with their own commentaries and rebuttals. In return, these points will be answered, and so on, leading to a very thorough form of argumentation which can possess the analytical depth of a written debate, or equally the passion of a face-to-face slanging match. Selective quoting of one's opponent is very possible, and leads to many recriminations."
Good or bad, this will not happen in Odili.net. Those who wish to haul massive material would be helped with live links that connects the surfing reader to the source of the original mail somewhere on the Internet. The "many recriminations" constitute one of the greatest attractions of Naijanet.. Some people enjoy a good fight. They crave it. Their cyber-world would be empty if law is enacted against cyber-wars. It is rooted in an aspect of Nigerianess: the "njakiri" (teasing) and "shakara" (grandiosity) syndrome. But this is not really about the psychology of the Internet.
With the demise of Abacha in June 1998 and the dawn of another try-your-luck democracy on Saturday, May 29, 1999, the new and improved, end-of-millenium Odili.net came out with a winning formula that resolved most of the ills that plagued many Internet publishing ventures. With affordable, powerful computers and cheap - if not free - Internet access, Nigerians crossing the digital divide in great numbers found a functional port of entry in Odili.net. In the process, the site set in motion the slow but steady erosion of the e-fabrics of Naijanet's newsgroup efficacy.
Late last year I was with a prominent professor who shall remain unnamed for now. We talked about issues and people's positive impacts on the Nigerian diaspora. I suggested that Odili.net had impacted and defined news delivery and information sharing more than any other Nigerian medium in the new world called Cyberia. It had in fact defined a post in the participation of Nigerians in the evolving information revolution. And he (Chuck Odili) deserved sincere commendation. Everyone present --and who had been to the site -- agreed and noted the fact. Odili.net has not disappointed so far. It has moved on to solid portal Internet presence, and it is going places.
The brilliance of Nigeriaworld.com setup may not be so apparent, but it marks the takeoff ramp for serious African e-publishing ventures that are both cyber-class, cost-effective, unrestricted, free, and on-tap, as Internet communication was designed to be. One thing is certain: When future cyberologists study the evolution of Internet communication, especially from Afrocentric angles, they would devote more than a page to this phenomenon evolving before our own eyes.
Amongst the many leaps:
· It has sealed the idea of subscription-based news sites.
· It provides current live links and a fairly quick feedback process.
· It provides a level-playing field with its business approach, eliminating the who-is paying-whom angle.
· It even offers a free @naijanet.com e-mail address.
What more could anyone want at this point in the process. It is becoming very "yahoo.com-ly" at its own level; and you therefore begin to understand the Webmaster's call to dump the relatively cyber-oldie. Who is next, AOL? That will be the interactive phase, and the process would be complete -- a big step from the descriptive phase of the last century.
Odili.net is a welcome development for many reasons. The ethnic newsgroups that dismembered Naijanet have refused to let go of each other, just as the real Nigeria won't split and won't coexist. The cross-postings make a mockery of the cyber-confederation. A netter was so fed-up he could not hide his joy with the success of Odili.net in netting a major Naijanet fish:
“I sing the long 'Alleluia!' All those forwarded mails and cyber-copies and essays and to-and-fro empty emissions in-between shall be gone forever! Now I only go to the Nigeriaworld.com, read the news items about Nigeria out there, and move on. Yes! My storage space shall soon breathe easy from all those whose only claim to cyberfame is derived from how many times they rattle the nerves of [the ubiquitous naiberian*].”
A Naiberian, in case you are wondering, is a Nigerian netizen or cybercitizen, not to be confused with "Niberian," a child born of a Nigerian soldier and a Liberian woman during the ECOMOG jamboree in Liberia. This netter is fed up with what is termed "Naijanet noise." Even though Naijanet will never be the same again, it still has a deserved place on the Internet. It is therefore not surprising that, noise and warts and all, this person is still an avid consumer of Naijanet, an addict of its noisome cyber-pollution.. And he is not quitting.
SOURCE OF NEWS
Odili.net has become a source of news to many new arrivals. With so much to read and regular updates and for non-hardcore pocket politicians in diaspora, the need to try other sources rarely arises. And so it was that the Sharia-stoked Kaduna Killings came to pass on Monday, 21 February 2000. The magnitude of the massacre (in predominantly Muslim northwestern Nigeria) emerged, and the vigilante "Bakassi Boys," having expelled criminal elements from the Enyimba City (Aba -- in the predominantly southeastern Nigeria) decided to balance the terror of Muslim fanatics up north. And Nigeriaworld.com "editorials" section simply set itself on fire!
I feared for Odili.net; it was stepping deeper into the political quicksand. Nothing else mattered: no poetry, no fiction, no stories about society; it was politics of restructuring and religion and revenge, or nothing. Surprisingly and fortunately, censored or not, the notorious and avoidable ethnic baiting of Naijanet didn't make it to the site. I guess this proves once again that it does not take great minds to trade bare-knuckle slurs over the Internet.
I told a compatriot - who during the course of discussion worried about anti-Muslim sentiments spreading throughout Igboland - that the Enyimba City (Aba) eruption would not spread to Arugo City (Owerri) -- also in southeastern Nigeria. The Hausa (predominantly Muslim) community had become an integral part of the city, I argued. The next morning he called to say that the so-called "revenge massacre" had reached Owerri. Two people had died! I told him to check his mailbox, that I had sent some latest news on the development: It was about the Bakassi Boys ("outsiders") storming Owerri, or so the roughed-up deputy state governor of Imo was telling whomever would listen.
"It is not on the Internet!" he protested.
"I didn't make the news up; I got it from the Internet."
"What are you talking about: I am right here on the Internet; it is not there!"
"WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!"
He coughed and stated matter-of-factly: "Are you on Nigeriaworld.com or what!"
Nigeriaworld.com has become THE Internet, the authentic source of news about Nigeria, for Nigerians -- and by Nigerians! Meanwhile, the site does not exactly generate its own news; well, not yet. It took two minutes to drive it through this person that we were speaking different cyberdialects, and that Nigeriaworld.com is not the Internet but a portal that makes surfing easier for us all -- just as Bill Gates had done with the computer itself.
I have observed Nigeriaworld.com for a while. I saw its Y2K snafu! [The wrong date was quickly corrected, and the Y2K bug-watch was generally a no-event.] I have seen outlines change and texts reformatted. I don't know how many people really cares about these things, as long as new materials appear and stale ones drop. No one cares as long as the links to news sources are alive and the writers are zipping across interesting articles, which are becoming a tad too many and too long with the Sharia saga and fairly predictable. The selected sentences showcased on the homepage as excerpts (the blurbs, if you like -- and they are brilliant) are sometimes all there is to the long piece, assuming you have no time to enjoy the writer's literary style and choice of words.
There is no known style or a set of instructions for writers. There is no editorial police or content policy to stop the Anglicization of Nigerian ethnic nationalities (Edo, Efik, Hausa, Ibibio, Igbo, Ijaw, Tiv, Yoruba, etc.); enforce the unauthorized use of "Ibo" or Igbos ("Igbo/Ndiigbo" are the correct forms); tone-down some run-away verbiage we like to spew; or limit the length of runaway write-ups -- as this one is fast becoming. Everything with wings seems to fly and fly well. Those that will not fly probably end up crawling into the Elysian fields of Cyberspace. And because of the transactive-descriptive stage of Odili.net development, we would never know how many are rejected, unless of course the Webmaster keeps track and releases the report some day. These are not major flaws; they are very Internet: irreverent and unbridled, but semi-filtered and easily structured if absolutely necessary.
That Odili.net has become Nigeria's premier portal is good news, but no setup can satisfy everyone. There are many Nigeria-biased web pages, and more will emerge. Like the supermarket to a flea market, Odili.net will continue to mop up the upscale markets at this stage of its development. But supermarkets beget malls, and big malls beget bigger complexes. Many other outlets shall emerge in malls. Those who aspire to tell or read apolitical stories shall one day want their space. Those who like poetry, who like their words sensibly spiced and gourmet-garnished, shall one day crave for a showcase. In fact, I cannot wait to read the first full-length, fiction Nigeriana on the Internet!
The market is big, there is space for more malls, and Cyberspace is expanding as the real Universe expands. To eclipse Odili.net, however, a new setup must be bigger and better and offer much more, a whole lot more beyond politics and current affairs. It should be able to tap from the community of cyberlords and great essayists. It must scale over a very high hurdle. But there will not be any Odili.net clones. The new Naija cybermall that does not improve on what Odili.net offers, possibly with cyber-cinema theaters and cyberdisco joints, shall of course be just another descriptive web page with live links. That is, if there is still a Nigeria; if they don't talk the old widow to death.
M. O. Ene, Ph.D.
Friday, April 14, 2000