Sunday, January 10, 2016 spreads its wings

I’ve heard people disparaging blogs and bloggers, as though what they contribute to the internet in terms of articles, commentaries, and personal rants and raves hardly “add” to constructive debate. This is true, at least to an extent. Facts are sacred. Comment, however, is as free as it always has been. When a hundred or so typists fire away praise and vitriol in this universe we refer to as a blogosphere, we end up with little more than a set of self-appointed prophets who write, for the lack of a better term, absolute crap.

I’ve heard death knells being rung whenever someone starts to write to a blog. Inevitable. There’s precious little research or scholarship that goes into them, after all, which means (and this is true especially in Sri Lanka) that a bloggers’ Collective has become something of a need of the hour. The reason’s not hard to see: in a world where facts are becoming frilled when sifted through countless intermediaries, comment, especially of the analytical, hard-hitting sort, is becoming difficult to get. Again, this is very much true in Sri Lanka.

I want to talk about a group of people. More specifically, a group of students. Four of them, in fact. I want to talk about them not just because they’ve identified that need, but they’ve gone a long way in fulfilling that need. It’s been a matter of months, but within those months they’ve seen encouragement, embraced it, and tried to bridge the gap between ideal and reality. I am referring to an attempt (a laudable one, at that) to create a Bloggers’ Collective here, unprecedented in the history of our blogosphere.

It all began when a group of undergraduates studying at the Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) met at a competition organised by the University of Moratuwa. The competition was a Hackathon, and the four undergrads – Pavithra Perera, Sidath Gajanayaka, Viduranga Lahiru Gunarathne, and Heshan Molligoda – hit on a plan to create their own product and trend. What it would be was a question to be answered later, but back then the idea was to create something that would sustain itself in time.

The idea soon materialised. They hit on a concept. That concept was

Sidath explains the plan behind the idea. “What we wanted was a gathering space for bloggers. We felt what they wrote, in blogs and websites, was lacking proper readership. We wanted the common reader to come to a common platform, where they’d be treated to a wide range of bloggers. We were also particular about the content we’d accommodate: we didn’t want a news site. We wanted opinion. Comment. That was in a nutshell, for us at least.”

Liyamu was created using Wordpress and a customised interface. That was last July, six months ago. Since then, the site has seen a steady rise, thanks not only to an increasing readership but to an increasing number of contributors as well. “We weren’t picky about content, of course apart from the necessary rules about tolerating dissent, being polite towards other communities, and the like. We accommodated all three languages. More than anything else however, we were particular about ensuring that no one copied another’s content.” To my surprise the four of them admit that people did copy, a great many in fact. “We had to inform them that we couldn’t publish their articles, to be honest,” Sidath remembers.

Which brings them to the way they’ve structured their concept. “As of now, if you want to be a contributor, you have to create an account. You write an article and you submit it for review. If we greenlight it, which we do within 24 hours, then that’s published.” When I ask them as to how they thought of sustaining this model for the future, the four of them grow noticeably more serious.

Sidath interjects here. “We envisioned Liyamu going through three stages. In the first stage, we get it recognised. I think we’ve pretty much bypassed this, particularly thanks to a writing competition called ‘Write-Off’ that we organised some time after we started the site. In the second, we want a follow-up to that competition. In the third, which we’ll see as and when revenue streams begin to open for us, we’ll be paying writers a nominal sum for their contributions.”

Heshan then offers comment about the kind of content they’ve been accommodating all this while. “We were surprised to see so many contributors and brilliant submissions and articles, but we were even more surprised at the breakup of these articles. For instance, we saw quite a number of bloggers submitting Sinhala poetry. That was unexpected. We also saw and read articles on life, love, relationships, and politics.”

It’d be quite unbecoming of me not to say that these six months have yielded nothing short of the best for these four bright students. In terms of “presence” and “appreciation”, they’ve got all what they wanted, even with a Facebook page to its name (adorned by over 4,500 likes). The number of contributors has, as I’ve written before, ballooned: the creators themselves also have indulged in submitting their own articles, and as for the amalgam of interests and issues other writers cater to, suffice it to say that offers a veritable melting pot, full of variety, never short on interest.

Perhaps it’s a sign of how well they’ve managed their “brand” and “trend”, that everything it’s spawned has become unprecedented. Like Write-Off, which had a panel of judges that included Sybil Wettasinghe. At a time when comment has become as free and ravished as it can be and blogs are looked down upon (unjustifiably), what Sidath, Pavithra, Viduranga, and Heshan have done is noticeable. And notable.

We can help them, of course. We can write. Perhaps now’s the time for that.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, January 10 2016