York: It’s our job to seek out the world

Jillian York’s humble personality prevents her from boastfully speaking about her global impact as a digital activist. With the help of social media, though, York vigorously advocates for international freedom of expression in her full-time work and volunteer positions.

In a digital age when social media complement mainstream news outlets, York’s fingerprints are all over the Internet – Twitter, Facebook, citizen media networks and advocacy websites. Since creating her Twitter handle in 2008, York has gained more than 11,000 followers.

York is a hub based in Boston where multiple networks intersect globally. She is a project coordinator at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, a member of the board of directors and writer for Global Voices Online and a freelancer for Al Jazeera English and the Guardian. Her blog posts and tweets mostly concentrate on freedom of expression, politics, Internet controls and online activism, with a focus on the Arab world.

“When I blog, it is usually about educating people on a certain issue,” said York in an interview at the Berkman Center in Cambridge. “Social media provides a really important voice. And it’s not social media that’s providing it. It’s ordinary people, citizen journalists, bloggers who have lived in that space their entire lives and know more about the subject than anyone here ever could.”

The 28-year-old Dover, N.H., native began blogging in 2001 to share her experiences with relatives and friends while she studied abroad at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco. Her hobby has transformed into a digital activist role in her community and the world. She recently posted a response on her blog to Jonah Goldberg’s opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, criticizing his implication that feminism is no longer needed in the United States.

“I definitely perform journalistic duties sometimes, but I’m by no means objective. If anything, I’m a commentator,” she said. “I think I almost always function as an advocate. There are some issues I just can’t ignore, and a blog is a really good place to have for that.”

In 2009, York and Hisham Khribchi, a blogger and activist based in France, co-founded Talk Morocco. The edited online forum encourages intelligent, open and honest debate on issues relating to Morocco, according to its website. Each month, the co-founders post a question on the website to initiate discussion among the diverse group of bloggers, citizen journalists and other contributors. For example, on March 30 they asked the followers, “What now for Morocco?” At least 10 individuals have submitted their responses to the online forum.

“The general public hasn’t fully grasped [Talk Morocco’s] importance yet. It covers this area that, if it weren’t for Jillian and her partner, it would remain completely uncovered in the English language world,” said Nasser Weddady, civil rights outreach director of the American Islamic Congress and one of York’s online followers. “The landscape of Morocco is almost Martian in the English language, and Talk Morocco is a massive contribution that Jillian has made. Not only because it covers the content, but because she created a model that can be copied elsewhere.”

When she is not busy with her full-time job at the Berkman Center and moderating Talk Morocco, York contributes to the Middle Eastern and North African team for Global Voices. The network (tagline: “The world is talking, are you listening?”) is an international community of citizen journalists who report on blogs and citizen media from around the world.

“What’s interesting about Global Voices is that bloggers are really likely to just say whatever they are thinking more so than any other platform,” said York, who has contributed more than 450 posts to the website since 2007.

York posts in-depth, thoughtful news and commentary on Global Voices and on her blog, said Firuzeh Shokooh Valle, the Spanish language editor for Global Voices.

“She does have very strong opinions about Palestine and the Middle East, and I think that is fine. In that way, she is very courageous,” Shokooh Valle said from a conference room at Northeastern University, where she is a graduate student. “We are in a time when people don’t stand up for what they believe in. If someone right now really wants to understand what’s going on, I think they should follow her on Twitter, read her blog, read what she is writing on Global Voices. I think she is a very important voice that many people should be paying attention to regarding the issues that are unfolding in the Middle East.”

Global Voices relies on 200 freelancers to post stories and commentaries, said Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of the website. Contributors become experts on social media in particular countries and regions around the world, but they don’t earn salaries, he said.

“[York] has become a community leader and really a convener, particularly in the Arabic media space and the Middle East and North Africa spaces. She is really one of the people we most trust on these issues,” said Zuckerman, who is the senior researcher at the Berkman Center. “That has no small part to do with the fact that she’s also, outside of Global Voices, one of the leading scholars on Internet control and censorship. Because she is so deeply knowledgeable about the space, she ends up being a resource for a lot of other people who work on the project, and is really loved by her peers.”

For more photographs from the social media event at Lesley University, click on the image.

Before joining the Berkman Center in the summer of 2008, York taught English in Morocco and wrote “CultureSmart! Morocco,” a guide to Moroccan culture. Throughout her career, she has hosted presentations about using online tools for digital activism in the Arab world. On March 31, York was one of three panelists who discussed social media and popular uprisings at an event hosted by Open Media and Lesley University in Cambridge.

When York enrolled in college 10 years ago at Binghamton University in New York, she said she “knew very little about the world.” As a result, she chose to study sociology with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa.

“It was the first time I had started studying global history. I’m from New Hampshire, and our education system doesn’t necessarily emphasize the rest of the world,” she said.

On May 1, York will move to San Francisco to begin working as the director of international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which confronts issues defending free speech, privacy, innovation and consumer rights.

“I think her new career is basically the logical next step for her. Ultimately, what Jillian stands for is free speech. She’s a free speech lady,” Weddady said from his office on Huntington Avenue in Boston. “On the face of it, people get hung up on the technologies and blogs, but deep down, the core issue is the quest for free speech – questioning it and upholding it in cyberspace.”

With the rise of social media, the boundaries between professional reporters and citizen journalists have been blurred, York said. But the important aspect now is the possibility for cooperation and collaboration between reporters and amateur writers around the world.

“There is so much of the world to grasp, and I think that we can learn so much about it through its citizens and their use of social media,” she said. “There will always be language issues, there will always be translation issues, but I think that all of the technology is bringing the whole world a lot closer to us. It’s just our job to seek it out.”

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