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Opinions of Friday, 28 December 2007

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi

GhanaHomePage forum - have the best brains migrated?

Once a while, GhanaHomePage (GHP) turns the spotlights on itself. Not long ago, a contributor studied the responses that are generated on the forum. That contribution attracted some 40 responses. More recently, another commentator, in a timely but not so well argued article, deplored what he termed the ‘Ashanti/Ewe bashing on the internet’ and appealed to all to desist from doing so. That contribution elicited nearly 400 responses, one of the highest in recent times.

Of late, many forumers have complained about the extremes to which a few contributors, posing under various names and monikers, have gone to. That discussion is pertinent, not least to the future of GHP. GHP is unique in many ways. It was the first of its kind when Francis Akoto started his efforts as a pastime from the Finnish capital more than fifteen years ago. It was the early days of the internet and only very few (mostly in the universities) had access to it. Right from the start it became very important for diaspora Ghanaians hungry for news from the homeland. Gradually, it grew to be by far the most important portal for Ghanaians.

It is especially popular among the large number of US-based Ghanaians. The forum came later when that technology became possible. It caught on fast and assumed a life of its own. GHP is a well-designed site with great archives where the material is well arranged for easy access. Other sites have tried to emulate GHP but have not succeeded in attracting as many visitors. ModernGhanaCom, a feisty upstart which is GHP’s closest rival, is equally good in design and features but falls far short in popularity. There are many other sites offering similar fare. Some of these are artistically and technically superior to GHP (for instance GHP’s feature and news articles carry no formatting and use fonts with serif, something that is against the convention on the web, but who cares?) but none is as equally popular. GHP has had a head start that will be hard to bridge. It is the site to publish your articles about Ghana if you want a wider internet readership than your obscure blog. GHP has achieved this status even though it hardly generates its own news items..

Every news item that is published on the site is taken from elsewhere. They are always duly credited but it is not clear if they are paid for. The only original articles on the site are the so-called features which are strictly on Ghana and Ghanaian matters. These are more journalistic than academic. No cross references or footnotes are allowed. Now and then, there are some brilliant scholarly pieces but most often, the articles are very ordinary. (The site owners need to edit the feature articles more seriously, though. There are often too many petty mistakes and sometimes just plain bad writing.) The features carry the names and email addresses of the authors and a disclaimer from the owners of the site. The ‘borrowed’ news items, the feature articles, and the rare GHP-credited article are the only things that change on a daily basis on GHP. These are also the only places the editors can play a gatekeeper’s role: accept or reject articles and news items or ask for revisions to feature articles. As for the forum, it is left completely at the mercy of the often maddening crowd.

Uncontrolled forums always carry all sorts of trash and this has always been true of GHP’s forum but a small section of the crowd has recently really gone haywire and is spoiling the fun for the others. Some people even claim the best brains have left the forum on account of this and are crying that something should be done. One thing is certain: even if a few ‘best brains’ might have migrated elsewhere, there are still some well-read and articulate Ghanaians patronising the site. Many have PhDs and some are associate professors in colleges in the US – a fact which they proudly parade together with their published and written but yet to be published books. Some of them are very prolific and they spend time reading all contributions critically and making lengthy comments. They will continue writing features, responding to, and commenting on others. This will make the forum worth visiting. The forum will live on but what can we do with the trash? I have a few suggestions as to what the owners of the site can do. I leave these for discussion on the forum.

1. They can limit the number of characters each contributor can write at a time. This will prevent long articles or comments on the forum. This method will not prevent people from cutting up their long articles into tiny bits and putting all up but it can slow them in so doing and perhaps discourage them.

2. They can filter out certain words and block certain ip addresses. This will not prevent the diehards from using similar or even worse words or moving around computers. If they are operating from public computers, it will inadvertently prevent others from contributing to the discussions.

3. They can enter the discussion board ‘after’ the postings have been made and simply delete the ‘bad’ stuff. (This is what myjoyonline and other sites do). They will be faced with the problem of deciding what is bad and what should stay. This method will not prevent the repeated offenders from just waiting and putting up their trash again. They seem to have a lot of time and if, as some suspect, the culprits are people out to sabotage GHP, this will not stop them..

4. They can read every contribution ‘before’ it is posted making sure the bad stuff doesn’t get there in the first place. (This is what BBC Online and most other more professional sites do). This will radically change the nature of the GHP forum. Many of the regulars will disappear because they cannot see their responses instantly. Moreover, this will take a lot of time and effort and will need the editors to read a lot of material before they are posted. It can be a full time job they may not want to do.

5. They can just leave things as they are. It is possible that the more serious culprits will get tired and desist from their ‘malpractices’.. A certain amount of trash is inevitable on a free-for-all forum and is a small price to pay for the enormous advantages of the medium. The bad stuff is in the forum for which the owners of the site cannot be held responsible. There is the risk that some serious contributors may leave the forum and new ones will not be attracted to it.

My own guess is that the owners of the site will do nothing (option 5). They are determined to leave the forum as open as possible. They have the technical knowledge to do something but other considerations will weigh heavier. Perhaps it is a matter of policy – pushing free speech to its utmost limits. In the forum you can say the worst things about Islam and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) without having your throat slit. Perhaps it is the money involved which depends on how many hits the site gets.

Anything that decreases the number of hits will be avoided even if those hits come from the likes of SARPONG, JEFFEREY, RESEARCH & INTELLIGENCE UNIT, OLIVER TWIST, or lately OKWASEA.

Even if there is a loss of a few people, this will not make much more than a dent in GHP’s fortunes. Most people who visit the site do not really care for the forum. They come there to read the headlines, listen to the radio, watch the TV and feel ‘at home’ or simply through habit. Even those who get disgusted at the trash on the forum will still visit GHP for these other reasons and simply avoid the forum. There is a core of devoted and regular visitors to the forum. They will not desert it. They will wade through all the garbage and put in a good word somewhere. In the New Year, many of the articles and discussions will be about the forthcoming elections. The major protagonists in the great cyber battles in the forum will return again. Insults will still be hurled here and there. The tribal tensions will be heightened rather than abated. There will be more ‘verbal fisticuffs’ (my courtesies, dearest NAO).

Some more people may leave but the forum will survive. It has always done so. What do you think?

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.