Vonvo: A website striving toward citizen journalism

On January 15, 2013

  • Three UB alumni – Max Ringelheim, Alex Chaplin and Rehman Baig – launched Vonvo.com, a website that gives people the opportunity to share their own opinions and listen to others through a face-to-face video interface. Courtesy of Max Ringelheim

Across the globe, individuals' thoughts and beliefs are censored. Many get punished by their government for speaking out. But Vonvo.com gives them a place to speak free of persecution and the chance to hear the voice of their "enemies," not the voice mass media gives them.

Vonvo, short for video conversations, is a conversation platform website created by Max Ringelheim, Alex Chaplin and Rehman Baig, three UB alumni who graduated in 2011, 2012 and 2008 respectively. The website hosts different channels about specific topics - such as the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the genocide in Syria - in which individuals are able to discuss current events with people from around the world in a real-time discussion format.

"[Vonvo is] a place where we provide an open forum where individuals can actively speak their mind and be exposed to both like-minded and opposing viewpoints," Chaplin said.

Each channel can host up to four speakers connected through video conferences. Viewers who wish to participate, but who don't want to be on camera, can listen to the discussion and speak through the text-chat feature, according to Chaplin. Either way, Vonvo users are engaged in the conversation.

Because Vonvo allows four different individuals to voice their opposing viewpoints and biases, the conversations give viewers what Ringelheim calls a "360-degree perspective." Instead of just reporters, many civilians or "people on the ground" - who live in areas like Syria, Israel or Palestine - share personal experiences, which allows viewers to form a more balanced and objective opinion, free from affiliated biases, Ringelheim said.

Vonvo does not pay the guest speakers, like some news organizations. The speakers join because they genuinely care about what's going on in the area - on many occasions, speakers are individuals who live where the conflict is.

Chaplin admits there is no way to fully eliminate an individual's bias, although Chaplin and Ringelheim make a point to keep personal opinions out of the company. But if the guests on Vonvo are biased, Chaplin and Ringelheim hope viewers will listen to every side and form their own opinions.

What makes Vonvo unique is the face-to-face interface, according to Baig. It allows users to see an actual person, not just a stereotype or propaganda shown through mass media.

The idea for Vonvo started in the spring of 2011, when Ringelheim sent an idea to Chaplin. Chaplin took that idea and spun it, creating the roots of the website.

The main purpose behind Vonvo, according to Ringelheim, is citizen journalism.

"Citizen journalism is important because many human rights issues and other atrocities are going on around the world, especially here in America. We continue to focus on Kim Kardashian, Lady Gaga and all the celebrity gossip. We've kind of shed away from important issues," Ringelheim said.

The website allows individuals currently living through the conflicts, such as people who live in Israel and Palestine, to give his or her first-person experiences and idea, according to Ringelheim.

Vonvo.com has only been successfully launched for about a month, according to Baig, who is a strategist and technology adviser for the company. Already, individuals from approximately 75 different countries visit the site - some participating in video conversations, while others just listen to the discussion of others.

Chaplin describes a normal conversation as progressing in three parts.

After Ringelheim gives out the general guidelines - be respectful and don't take over one another - the conversation begins, usually with many contrasting and strong opinions. Toward the middle of the conversation, the two "enemies," in some cases begin listening to one another. It becomes more of a discussion than an argument. Finally, the conversation generally ends with the two sides looking for a solution.

With such controversial topics, such as the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, Vonvo makes sure to have moderators in the channel, just in case things become "out of hand," according to Baig.

One conversation featured two speakers with differing opinions on a conflict; one individual at the end of the conversation "became flustered and he had to actually step out," and then returned later on to finish the discussion. It's times like these when moderators work to help conversations from devolving quickly, according to Baig, and allows them to be hour-long productive discussions.

The three joined together to compete in the Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition in 2011. They took home second place and with it a check for $10,000.

For the competition, the group presented the very early stages of what is now Vonvo.com. Unlike their competitors, Vonvo was not a specialized application, according to Baig. They presented a web development idea that was available to a general audience.

Baig sees the company's success at the Panasci competition as validation and motivation. The team the three lost to has already folded, according to Baig, while Vonvo is looking toward the future.

Vonvo is looking to work with existing organizations to provide a discussion platform for face-to-face conversations, according to Ringelheim, such as Birthright, an organization that provides educational trips to Israel.

Baig believes Vonvo provides a unique service - instead of commenting on a blog post about a topic, Vonvo allows face-to-face video chats. The website gives viewers the chance to hear different point of views from around the world, while giving speakers the chance to express themselves.

"To get different opinions, to have an opportunity to see the world from a different point of view and to be able to speak our mind, those are the key aspects of Vonvo," Baig said. "We want people to be able to express themselves and to expand their horizons."


Email: features@ubspectrum.com

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