The ethic of collaborative, social production is perhaps at its strongest in the rise of social media. People who were once passive viewers are becoming participants and actors. We can all be media producers in small ways.
The Genie is Out of the Bottle
Nick Jaffe has finished for the night. He puts his earphones to one side, closes the lid on his laptop and sits back in his chair, his nightly communication to his worldwide audience complete. He is not quite sure where they are, nor how many of them there are, but he knows they are out there because his nightly sessions – a mixture of music, chat and ranting – are being downloaded. Nick Jaffe is not broadcasting. He is a podcaster and just 13 years old. His studio is his bedroom. For him taking part in mainstream radio would be like going to a restaurant with his parents wearing a suit and tie.
Nick Jaffe produces media in a way that someone twenty years his senior could only have dreamed of. He consumes media in a completely different way as well. He rarely watches television or listens to the radio. He acquires most of what he wants to watch from the Internet, from sites such as Youtube. He most likes short films and comedy sketches which no one over the age of 15 will have heard of. He carries most of what he wants to watch onto his iPod, his device of choice. He gets the content from various aggregators of podcast materials and through recommendations from his mates. He does not like material being pushed at him. Nick Jaffe’s media life is pretty much a seamless cycle of production and contribution, reviewing and sharing, watching and listening.
How could Nick Jaffe’s entry into media production affect organisations as mighty and powerful as the BBC or CNN? By 2005 it became possible to follow a breaking international news story, almost as it happened, without ever having to open a newspaper, turn on a television or listen to a journalist. Instead, you could, turn to accounts provided by swarms of barefoot reporters, contributing their slice of the story, online, often with the help of photos taken with digital camera phones. CBS, the US news network has just a handful of foreign correspondents and most of them are in Washington waiting to fly to places where the news has already happened or to events that can be planned for. So when the Asian tsunami struck across the Indian ocean, over a Christmas weekend, when news is supposed to not happen, CBS was a bit stretched. The worst hit places were far-flung. When the mainstream media turned to their usual sources for information – aid agencies, governments – they found they too had little idea of what was going on. The most telling and graphic images of the tsunami, which really explained what it was like to be in Banda Aceh when the wave struck, came from digital cameras operated by tourists and locals. On the web you will find tens of thousands of video clips of the tsunami and its after-shocks.
When London’s transport system was hit by terrorist bombs in July 2005 Christine Armanpour, the legendary CNN news reporter could be seen on television, standing in a non-descript London street, in an exchange of thinly veiled mutual ignorance with an obscure “security analyst.” Neither had a clue what was going on. While Armanpour was stuck on the street would be reporters were already on the scene: citizens caught up in the action. Once we might have accepted that Armanpour was “live” and “on the spot” in London. But now we grow quickly frustrated: we know when people are just filling space. The London street scene might as well have been a digitalised backdrop. A television reporter in a suit, standing outside a building, speculating about what is going on, is no longer good enough. Our expectations of authenticity and immediacy have risen sharply. The new standards are being set by barefoot reporters, citizen journalists, bloggers, people who want you to know what it was like for them. They have something to contribute, in their voice, for their slice of the action. That morning as Armanpour floundered in the street in about four hours following the bombs the BBC received 20,000 emails, almost 400 photographs and four video clips from people who wanted to tell their part of the story, add their piece of information. They did not want to be in the limelight, to displace Christina Amanpour; they just had something to add to the picture. The following night the main BBC evening news led with a piece of video footage shot from a camera phone, taken by a participant in the drama who for the sake of their fellow citizens became a citizen reporter for a few hours.
That is all a far cry from the profession I joined when I started work at the Financial Times in the mid 1980s. Then readers were allowed to contribute to the newspaper in only two ways. They could write a letter to the editor, which we would cut in half and condescend to publish if there was enough space. Or if they were particularly well connected the editor might agree they should write an article for the comment pages. Those two, carefully policed zones, were the only places journalists allowed readers into their closed world. I spent most of my time avoiding readers in case I found out they were not that interested in my long articles about the future of the European steel industry. The journalists performed on stage; the readers were the audience. Now it turns out that many readers do not want to be just an audience. They also want to take part. That does not mean they want to take to the stage themselves. Nor do they want to take part all of the time. But many want to be able to have their say and connect with people who share their interests. Thanks to mobile phones, podcasts, blogs and what will come after them people can communicate, even if only to very small audiences online.
We have grown many more eyes and ears. Weblogs, podcasts and mobile phone text messaging have given people new voices. The Internet and communications networks provide the nervous system to link them together. People who were once consumers, prepared to leave it to the professionals, are now becoming participants creating and distributing, critiquing and recommending content. The action is no longer just taking place on the stage but among the audience as well. We have crossed a threshold. From now on swarms of barefoot journalists will be alongside the professionals on any story of note and on many more that are not of note.
Niche news will thrive. In 2004 a customer of US cycle lock manufacturer Kryptonite, found his super strong bicycle lock could be opened with the help of a ball point pen. He posted his findings on bikeforums.net, where it was read by 400,000 people. A video version was downloaded more than 3m times. Retailers started clearing their shelves and shipping products back to the manufacturer. Kryptonite replaced at least 350,000 products at its own expense. The story really took off when professional and citizen journalists joined forces and the story got taken up by the New York Times. More us will work in this mix, where amateurs and professionals, consumers and producers, can find themselves swapping roles and sharing ideas.
Newspaper organisations can be drawn in a series of straight lines: copy gets written, edited, printed, distributed and read. The content goes from the journalist via the editors to the reader. There is no flow back up the pipeline. The blogsphere is criss-crossed with lines and links. Readers are simultaneously writers and publishers. They market one another’s content by word of mouth. Everything works by lateral links. There are no artificial deadlines set by the necessity of distributing news on paper, by road to breakfast tables. Content gets created when people feel something needs to be said. A newspaper’s content expands and contracts depending on the advertising available to sustain it. The blogosphere expands and contracts as news demands. A blog or podcast gets distributed if people find it interesting. News used to be broadcast, from the top down. Now it is also generated, laterally, by word of mouth, from the bottom up. It is more like being part of a conversation than sitting and listening.
So far so good. But it is one thing for there to be a welter of reports, gossip, clips and photos. It is another thing for it to be brought together, ordered, classified, tested, in a way that means it can be trusted and made part of a bigger picture. Much blogging is drivel. If Pro Am reporters are each contributing their slice of salami, how do you put it back together into a single sausage? Many Big J journalists’ response to the rise of citizen journalism is to argue “they cannot be trusted, they are not proper journalists, there is no quality control.” Big J journalists as with other professionals do not see that people these days often feel able to make up their own minds about quality and credibility without having to turn to professionals for advice and judgements. These free-form communities are developing their own capacity for structured self-organisation to deliver reliable products. The most impressive is probably OhMyNews, the citizen news service in South Korea which has thousands of regular contributors. We are just at the start of the rise of citizen-media. It could herald far reaching changes in the way our societies work.
Nick Jaffe is not going to displace Christine Armanpour, at least not yet. But he announced the arrival of a new media environment, one that will disrupt and reconfigure the world of mass-produced, industrialised media. In a sense we are moving from an era in which information and media was produced for the masses, to one in which it will also be produced by the masses. The corollary of that is that we are moving from an economy of mass production to one in which innovation and creativity also become mass activities, rather than being confined to an elite of journalists and broadcasters, special people, working in special places. The audience, at least a large chunk of it, that used to simply watch and listen, passively, how wants to and is able to take part, to have their say. They will no longer just sit slumped on their sofas; they can take to the stage themselves, become part of the action, at least some of the time, in a way they want. If the last fifty years have been about the creation of cultures, organisations and infrastructures for mass media consumption – the couch potato society - the next fifty will be about mass media participation.
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