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Opinions of Thursday, 19 April 2012

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi

Ghanaweb and its competitors

In the beginning of the internet era, there was Okyeame network which was mainly patronised by the university community where internet had an early spread. Then came Ghana Review sent out by email as a free newsletter to subscribers. Ghana Review became a glossy print edition called Ghana Review International. On their heels came ghanaweb in the mid 90s as a fully-fledged website. And ghanaweb became very popular and has come to dwell with us since then.

Ghanaweb has been joined by many other Ghanaian websites. Many of them may have taken inspiration from ghanaweb. They all look alike. They have sections on news, sports, entertainment, opinions/features, and business. All carry ads with space for ads from local servers. The news reports all tap on the same news sources so it is common to see the same news items on all the sites.

Many Ghanaians, especially those living outside the country, have come to depend on these sites for the latest happenings in the homeland. The opinion articles have become very popular. Most of them are on our politics. The likely reason for the popularity of political pieces is the relatively easy nature of the subject. Everyone can talk about politics in Ghana since everyone has an opinion about the actions and inactions of our politicians. Topics like the workings of our economy, education, science, literature, are too technical for many people to discuss while silly articles on tribal issues attract a lot of equally silly comments. Sports and entertainment may be popular but these do not have the same appeal to all Ghanaians. Book reviews do particularly badly underlying the fact that Ghanaians, like most Africans, do not like reading. But our politics is fodder for everybody.

All the sites freely lift articles from each other. Copyright infringement laws on the internet are inchoate which means those “stealing” articles may not be breaking any known laws. The situation becomes dire only if articles are stolen from the internet without the permission of the authors and published in a book that is sold for profit. It is only the best features or most juicy news items that are poached by other sites. So if you send a badly written article to any of the sites, you can’t expect other sites to spread that article. Some of the more serious sites may edit the articles they steal. Many just lift them and post them – complete with all the mistakes in the originals.

A full demographic survey of the sites is impossible in the absence of information some of which will be private. But it can be easily seen that, even though some people use monikers, there is a preponderance of male generators of, and contributors to, items on all these sites. Many may also be young. This fact can be gleaned from the nature of the comments. The old, especially in Ghana, are not likely to take on to a new technology like the internet. Most of the visitors are living outside Ghana/Africa if only for the simple reason that those living in the advanced countries have better access to the internet than those at home. Indeed, commentary on Ghanaian websites is dominated by foreign based Ghanaians. Access to ipaddresses may throw more light on some of these demographic factors but the exposure of such addresses may be undesirable since the internet thrives on the preservation of anonymity.

There is really not a single quality Ghanaian website in existence – certainly none that can be compared with the likes of salon.com or huffingtonpost.com. Most of the articles on the Ghanaian sites are very badly written. There are also many individual blogs but blogging in Ghana is not a big business. The effect of internet based news on public opinion in Ghana may be limited. Many of the individual bloggers are forced to send their articles to ghanaweb or some other major site for greater exposure. They also use the occasion to invite readers to their own obscure blogs.

Ghanaweb: It remains the leader in the field in terms of popularity. But it is not the best in terms of quality. Its hands-off policy means it is the site that publishes the most badly written articles even though now and then, all too rarely, you will see some dazzling prose. There is absolutely no editorial oversight. Often, articles are posted with obvious grammatical mistakes even in the titles. Many sites poach feature articles from ghanaweb. It seems like they wait each day to see what ghanaweb has put up and then lift off the best articles. It is the oldest and the best known. Its name (ghanaweb.com) is almost the default web name for a Ghanaian site. The features site is, perhaps, the most popular. Anybody can write an article and is given the chance to be published. The comments section is very active probably for two reasons: everyone is allowed to say anything whatsoever and there is instant gratification of seeing your comment come up immediately you hit the post button. Comments are threaded so that you can place your comment directly under the one to which you are replying. Say It Loud (SIL) is also quite popular. It is a forum where topics are taken up and discussed.

The Webmaster holds absolute sway over ghanaweb. He does his best but it is clear that he is under great pressure. He places articles as he sees fit. He reads only the titles of the articles he receives, so you can deceive him by putting an appropriate title on a sports article and having him post it in the opinions section. You can change the title of an article and he will post it twice. But he certainly knows how to put the most sensational news item on the front page. They are the ones that generate the most comments.

The free for all policy of ghanaweb also means that a few people quite dominate the features section as they publish articles almost on a daily basis. What is interesting about the most prolific writers is that they write exclusively on Ghana’s politics even though they no longer live in the country, have not visited for a long time and have no firsthand knowledge of the happenings there. For all you know, they may not even have a vote in the forthcoming elections on which they have such strong opinions. Perhaps that is the only way they think they can perform their duties to God and country.

Many suggestions have been offered over the years as to how ghanaweb can improve its services but it seems the owners of the site have been absolutely impervious to any new ideas. Ghanaweb will never be the same if any attempt is made to completely weed out the bozos and the yobbos who post the stupidest comments. Incidentally, sometimes, the best and most incisive comments are the ones couched in the foulest language!

Modernghana: There had been a feud between the owners of ghanaweb and modernghana – its nearest competitor. The two sites look very much alike. Modernghana is, technically, superior to ghanaweb. The layout is great. But it is not very popular. There are some cool features on modernghana. It gives the contributor complete control of his or her article. You place it yourself, format it, add your own picture and edit it even after you have posted it. You can use italics and bold letters, something you can never do on ghanaweb. You can also remove your article if you want to. The site provides great statistics to authors who are given their own passwords to access their author pages. You may see how many comments your article has garnered and how many hits it has made. It is not everyone who looks at your article who leaves a comment. When you submit an article, it is often up in less than two hours. Ghanaweb’s feature articles are posted once a day at around 0600 hours CET.

Modernghana gives too much freedom to the author who has the chance to post as many versions of a useless article as he likes. It is also clear that editorial oversight is minimal.

Myjoyonline: The website of the premiere FM station in Ghana is a serious commercial venture. They read every article BEFORE posting it and they do not publish as much trash as ghanaweb. They do some slight editing of articles like changing the title to suit their and splitting them into easy to read paragraphs. You will never see a title with an obvious mistake in it. Unlike ghanaweb, features are posted as they come and some good articles can enjoy front page exposure for days.

Perhaps joy’s greatest strength is that it is a news organization and, unlike ghanaweb, writes original news articles. It is operated from Ghana where the action is. They also monitor comments to their articles and remove abusive ones. If you put up a comment, you get a message saying: “Thanks for your comments. The web administrator will review and approve your comments.” The downside of that is that you are not going to post another comment if you can’t see your comment immediately. Sometimes, comments posted appear only after a few days – perhaps never. Unlike ghanaweb, they do not archive comments which may disappear after some months.

Peacefmonline: It is very much like joyonline from where it frequently quarries articles. Like modernghana, it has a place from which you can place your article but this feature doesn’t seem to work. They carry monitoring of comments far by deleting certain **barred words** - very much like the “beep” sound that replaces a swear word on radio broadcasts. One advantage of this is that comments that are, otherwise, good but contain swear words are still retained – without the swear words. Comments on peacefm do not have date signals and you cannot know when a comment was posted. They do not have threaded comments and you cannot reply directly to a specific comment. Comments appear instantly.

The others: These include citifmonline.com, ghanamma.com, vibeghana.com, infoghana.com, spyghana.com, ghanafuneral.com, Daily Graphic, Ghanaian times, GNA (too bad the official government owned sites are not very popular or well-made) and several sites belonging to the various embassies and high commissions. Then there are many social networks that discuss issues relating to Ghana – twitter, facebook, linkedin or even youtube (Akufo-Addo’s alleged fondling of a make-up girl was widely viewed and discussed on youtube).

And now abideth all these many outlets, but ghanaweb surpasseth them all. When you wake up in the morning (in Europe or Ghana), one of the first things you do when you put on your computer is to check which articles have come up for the day. If you’ve written one, and given it a good title to attract readers, you’ll look to see what (and how many) comments there are. It is often more satisfactory to get a few good comments than hundreds of stupid ones. You will not be satisfied with most of the articles (except yours, of course). You will wonder why you’re wasting your time here. But you will be here again tomorrow. Indeed, for many of us, ghanaweb has become a veritable Hotel California. It may not be such a lovely place and you know you can check out anytime you want. But you can never leave…

Kofi Amenyo (kofi.amenyo@yahoo.com)