[This is a draft of something bigger, so reader feedback is highly appreciated.]
With all the buzz abut Jay Rosen’s latest brainstorm, New Assignment.net, I thought it might be useful to take a step back and typologize some of the citizen’s journalism projects that have either existed in the past and continue to exist today. There have already been some overviews of the types of CJ projects that could exist, along with some examples that flesh out the speculations, but it still might be interesting to look at what has existed, starting from the "beginning," more or less. Here goes:
I. The "personal" homepage.
The very first example of anything remotely approaching "citizen’s journalism" that I can remember. Having started college in the mid-1990’s, the technologically advanced amongst us soon had our own "homepages," provided to us on our school server space, which served as bulletin boards, rant space, and occasionally helped launch interesting personal and group projects. Some of the personal homepages linked to other web pages but there was very little political commentary on the early sites I remember: they were, indeed, personal web pages.
That’s why I’d argue that the real forerunner of the homepage (and the great grand-daddy of the blog, since I also argue that the blog is descended from the homepage, below) is the ‘zine. Many of the people who started homepages originally got their start in the DIY media world with ‘zines: small-circulation, often intensely personal, usually photocopied publications that exploded onto the high-school and college scene with the advent of cheap laser printing and photocopy services in the late 1970’s. Even with the explosion in blogging and other online media forms, zines are still around.
Drawbacks: Updating these sites was time consuming and took a bit of technological skill: you had to know html, for starters. Consequently, updates were (relatively) rare. I don’t recall there been very much two-way communication besides email; basically, the equivalent of a digital "letter to the editor."
At the same time, however, these sites were some of the first digital forms that got people used to the entire notion of "putting themselves online." And because they were harder to update, they were actually a lot more graphically interesting than a many of weblogs we see today. They more resembled traditional print magazines in that sense as well.
People often forget that Indymedia emerged in 1999– which, while only 7 years ago, is a generation when it comes to digital media forms (blogs, for instance, can be said to be about 3 or 4 years old, at least in their current form). The very first IMC was created in Seattle in November 1999, and broadcast photos, text, and video from the the WTO protests to the entire world. Soon, Indymedia sites began popping up in cities ahead of the large anti-globalization protests that were then sweeping the globe, and eventually, some cities decided that they wanted "permanent" IMC’s.
The fact that Indymedia was dedicated to providing "real-time" information to readers as part of a larger anti-capitalist movement had several major consequences regarding its relationship to traditional journalism. First, the relaying of specific information from "newsworthy" events immedately brought Indymedia into a closer relationship with journalistic activity (the fact that IMC’s were often, in their early days, doing a much better job of covering these protests than the mainstream media only added to the challenge. Second, Indymedia was grounded in a larger, much more radical critique of the corporate (and, I argue, the professional) press than many of the "citizen journalism" projects that came before it, or after it. While today we hear that most "bloggers don’t want to replace" the mainstream media, I thin its arguable that many IMC’s did want to do just that. Third, while we can trace personal homepages back to ‘zine form, IMC journalism is more directly linkable to the tradition of "alternative media" and "alt. journalism" that has existed for hundreds of years, ever since the start of journalism itself. This puts it far outside the mainstream, even in the American blogging world in the U.S., blogging’s political contours fall roughly within the spectrum of allowable political opinion as set by the domestic party apparatus, though concentrated at the fringes of this apparatus.There aren’t many openly anti-capitalist bloggers in the U.S., for instance, which may party explain why Indymedia is linked to much more frequently from blogs in other parts of the world than by bloggers in the states.)
Fourth, there were several technical developments that allowed Indymedia to thrive. The most important was the creation of "active", the codebase that allowed anyone who wanted to to upload media to an IMC website. This obviously marked a dramatic improvement over the old "homepage" method of uploading content. There were also technological advances in digital journalism equipment, like cheap digital photography, for example. Finally, though, I’d argue that the existence of a powerful global protest movement did more to spur Indymedia on than any developments in technology.
This is where many histories of citizen journalism start, with the emergence of the "blogging" movement, whose biggest growth occurred roughly between the attack on the World Trade Center and the 2004 U.S. Presidential election. Once again, we see the combination of a new technology– widely available, commercially produced blogging software– and a political moment– post 9/11 turmoil creating a new media form.
Blogging would become a shorthand term for much of the grassroots media and journalism work that has occurred since 2002, and as such, the term has become confused almost to the point of uselessness. At the same time, however, we must acknowledge that the notion of blogging "as journalism" has gained a cultural acceptance that has so far eluded previous digital media forms, like Indymedia, or successive media forms, like hyperlocal citizens media. Why might this be? Several explanations spring to mind: first, as already noted, blogs posed much less of an existential threat to traditional journalism than either Indymedia or hyper-local journalism; second, popular blogs fell within the range of normal American political discourse, and, relatedly, bloggers were often seen as a rational and semi-respectable breed (and included some notable current and former journalists in their ranks); and, finally, there was a surge in the sheer number of blogs out there, a surge that was difficult to ignore.
In general, we can note three previous media forms that would intersect with and help create the blogging movement: the ‘zine subculture; a largely de-radicalized variation of Indymedia "citizens reporting" practices; and a form of punditry / commentary. The majority of blogs, as the much-discussed recent Pew Survey notes, resemble zines in their personal focus and small readership. At the same time, many of the most popular and referenced blogs practice punditry or political organizing. The second stream, so-called "citizens reporting" seems to have taken a winding journey from the world of small-scale, hyper-local journalism to the world of networked journalism.
We’ll continue this journey in the second part of this analysis, looking at hyperlocal citizens journalism, "big-media" citizens journalism, and networked journalism.
I’ve decided to add a little more of a personal touch to this blog: at the end of my posts, I’ll tell folks what song(s) were playing on my iTunes while I wrote it.
Currently playing: (appropriately enough) "DIY" (Peter Gabriel) from Peter Gabriel 2 (Scratch)
When things get so big, I don’t trust them at all,
You want some control, you’ve got to keep it small.