Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Citizen journalism: Inside information vs. outside perspective

Type the words citizen journalism into Google, and you'll get roughly 17 million results. And each will have a different definition for the term.

The discussion of the topic generally centres around blogs. Now, blogs are sort of online diary, right? Sometimes that means you're talking about just how cute your toy poodle is -- day after day after day. Entry 3368: "Toy poodle still cute! Click for video!" But sometimes a blog is a hard-hitting political report. Entry 665: "Congressman found with cute poodle!" Or it's a discussion of physics. "Entry 3.14: MA=Poodles." Or maybe it's even breaking news before the big news giants report it. "Breaking: Poodle joke stretched too far!"

Today's blog is yesterday's newspaper
So this has people all up in arms. How do you tell the "real" journalists from the amateurs if everyone can publish with pretty layouts and impressive typefaces? Whom can you trust? This debate doesn't seem much different from the kerfuffle around newspapers and broadsheets at their birth. Journalism today is much different than it's been throughout most of its history.

You see, big newspapers grew from citizens with printing presses into big companies. The same will happen -- no, is happening -- to blogs. In fact, it's happening at an accelerated rate. It already happened to Web sites as the term was used in, say, 1994. In 1994, a Web site was a very academic or possibly personal thing to have. By 1999, it was a business venture. (By 2001, it was out of business, but you get the idea.) The blog is just a very special kind of Web site.

Insiders vs. outsiders
By accelerating the process of involvement and innovation in publishing, the Web brings into focus a cycle that I think bears directly on the idea of citizen journalism. You see, journalists are citizens. What I think people mean by citizen journalism is regular Joes with Web sites, as opposed to folks who are employed by big media companies. There are insiders, and there are outsiders. Outsiders eventually can become insiders, and less often, insiders fall to become outsiders again.

Outsiders aren't in the know. They don't necessarily have contacts, but maybe they're smart and they're observant. These are the ones mainstream media fear and deride. They don't have qualifications. They often don't have all the facts. What they do have is perspective. They aren't disproportionately swayed by the events of the things they discuss. An outsider often points out simple contradictions that insiders can't see or perhaps can see but defend irrationally. On the other hand, outsiders can also be barking lunatics.

An insider is in the know. An insider has contacts and knows the facts. An insider greets the outsider's criticisms with a smile and a somewhat condescending "Well, it's not that simple." Insiders aren't just inside the industry, they're often top journalists. They have the inside info, they know the rumours, they understand how things really work and they can explain away the seeming contradictions pointed out by the naive outsider. They often lack perspective, too. They can be affected by whatever it is they cover to the point of becoming unable to spot all the flaws or see through bad arguments and specious justifications.

Blogs are just tools
It's worth pointing out that these days many of the insiders have blogs. Writing a blog doesn't make you an insider or an outsider, as much as some insiders would like it to work that way. It's just a tool of expression that tends to be used more often by the outsiders at this point.

The joy of free expression and the great creative product of a free society is the interplay between the insiders and the outsiders. The outsiders cry foul and expose great hidden truths and often have the effect of keeping things honest. The insiders protect the system against excesses of the outsiders' ignorance or misunderstanding. It's a natural system of checks and balances that the Web helps along by levelling the playing field a little more. The insiders aren't the only ones with printing presses anymore.

When printing began, the monarchies feared it greatly because the printers were outsiders at the time. They weren't priests or rulers. They were tinkerers. It was a new technology implemented by a class that could potentially expose abuses. Quickly the establishment learned to use it to its own ends. Now the newspapers, while still employing a few outsiders, have become insiders of the establishment themselves and logically fear the outsider bloggers.

The cycle repeats
Blogs are already becoming mainstream and will eventually become the province of the insiders. But the ease of publishing will leave plenty of room for outsider blogs. They'll end up in a situation similar to that of Web sites in general. A collection of big Web sites dominate the traffic, but cool new ideas do break through from small operators. In the future, a few big blogs will gather most of the attention, but smaller blogs will still be able to bust into the pack every so often. In the process, though, blogs will no longer be cool tools for outsiders, just because they're blogs. They will also be the tools of the insiders.

But it won't end there. In fact, all this crazy Web 2.0 talk probably has the seeds of the next wave. We'll see a new technology/model/tool arrive that the outsider will dominate at first. The insiders, bloggers or not, will fear it, and the whole cycle will repeat. And it's a good thing that it will. The world gets a little bit better and a little bit more open every time it does,

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