Fifteen floors above the financial district in downtown San Francisco, through a pair of unmarked double doors and past a maze of mostly uninhabited cubicles, Amra Tareen is determined to change the world — from the bottom up.
A skeptic might question how much a well-heeled Harvard MBA, with a successful background in venture capital and technology companies, would know about the communication needs of the world’s poorest people, those whose voices are virtually never heard through conventional media channels.
But that would only be a skeptic who hadn’t yet met Amra Tareen. A tall, strikingly beautiful woman with wild hair, boundless energy, and a speaking style reminiscent of the water pouring over Niagara Falls, Tareen is less an entrepreneur than a pure force of nature. Her tiny company, Allvoices.com, may be only six months old, but with 1.3 million unique monthly visitors in over 100 countries, she is off to a strong start toward living up to her corporate logo, “The first open media site where anyone can report from anywhere.”
Tareen’s inspiration for All Voices came partly after the devastating earthquake in her native Pakistan in 2005. As a volunteer with Relief International, she witnessed first-hand the resilience of the poor women, widows and orphans she met when they were offered sources of micro-credit to rebuild new lives. “This inspired me to start a company that would let people no matter where they were to write about what they knew about an event, upload photos, videos, and write their stories and views and share with the rest of the world,” she says.
Tareen is also keenly aware that as a Muslim woman living in the West, unveiled, highly educated, successful, married to a white American and mother of two, that she can act as a symbol to help break down the anti-Islamic bias that permeates American culture, as well as much of mainstream media. Not only that, as an ethnic Pathan, the largest “segmental lineage” (tribal) society in the world, she represents the other side of a people who have given the world the Taliban, the lawless provinces of the Afghan-Pakistan border region, and safe harbour for Osama bin-Laden and al-Qaeda.
Not one to move slowly, Tareen has already built All Voices into a robust content platform with articles and perspectives available nowhere else on the web that I am aware of. Even a cursory look around the site reveals datelines from such a wide variety of places — Eskişehir,Turkey; Jaba’, Palestine; Fayetteville, Ark.; Dera Ghāzi Khān, Pakistan; Sunan, North Korea; and Sheboygan, Wis. — that you’d be hard-pressed to find a more truly global news service anywhere.
Most of the articles come from “citizen reporters,” whose posts are then contextualized with other perspectives imported from mainstream media, blogs, YouTube, and all manner of SMS via RSS and other feeds. “We give the users a way to create a rich, multimedia content page that is really an event,” explains marketing chief Aki Hashmi. “It’s quite natural, then, that they want to share these events with their friends, so we are growing virally very quickly, without any marketing spend at all.”
Writers who want to earn money on the site, which Tareen dubs “the CNN of the people,” can do so by building page views — $100 for every 10,000 PV’s at present. “We’ll find other ways to compensate them, also,” Tareen says, noting that a share of the advertising revenue that is the main business model underlying the site is not out of the question.
Allvoices is built on several layers of technology developed under the supervision of some of the leading experts in information retrieval and computer sciences from Northwestern, Stanford, and the private sector. All text is geo-coded, categorized, and analyzed for keywords.
None of this user-generated content is censored or edited, which leads me to note a potential red flag that could slow down The Amra Express. Left to their own devices, users will inevitably introduce unsavory content to the site, as well as spam comments, flaming, swarming, porn and all the other content detritus so prevalent online.
It would seem that Allvoices will need human community managers, hosts, coaches, editors to set the right tone and keep the content on track if this is really going to scale that Tareen told me she is seeking: “All six billion people on the globe.”
Sounds grandiose, but I wouldn’t bet against Amra Tareen. She has the vision, idealism, drive, resources and charisma to transform her dream into reality, even though there’s going to be a lot of heavy lifting to get from here to there.
Thank you to Junko Sasaki for help with this post.