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Netizens and Citizen Journalists around the World

The post-lunch session here at AoIR 2008 begins with a paper by Ronda Hauben. She notes that 2008 is the fifteenth anniversary of the publication of Michael Hauben's seminar article on the 'Netizen' concept - a concept emerging from Michael's research that spread rapidly and widely, and (especially in Asia) still has a great deal of currency. The concept had a great deal to do with the fight against commercialisation of the Net which was prominent then; today, for the same reason the concept has been suppressed to some extent by those interested in a more commercial Internet.

The Netizen idea provides a bottom-up framework; the top-down model of information is no longer the only model for news, it suggests, and this can give voice to a greater section of society. This ties into older ideas of the press as a watchdog over government, but (enabled by technology) positions everyday Netizens rather than professional journalists as such watchdogs. South Korea is an interesting example for such trends: in 2002, Roh Moo-Hyun was elected president largely because of Netizen activism, and in 2004, a drive to impeach him was defeated for similar reasons.

This year, there have been extensive candlelight demonstrations in protest against the government; the first of these were called by middle- and highschool girls, creating a "CandleGirl Army", and to some extent these were directed in the first place against a new import deal for U.S. beef (some of which did not meet U.S. food quality standards), but the also tie into an underlying impeachment drive against the current president. Much of this also connects to the OhmyNews Pro-Am citizen journalism phenomenon, of course - and some of these demonstrations were Webcast live by a new sub-division, OhmyTV.

The presence of self-declared Netizens in such events is palpable - remarkably, there are people with laptops (sometimes wrapped in plastic to protect them against tear gas and water cannons) at the demonstrations, doing live DIY Webcasting using the wireless and mobile Internet connections which are ubiquitous in South Korea. One particularly notable demonstration involved the presidential palace which had been surrounded by a ring of sand-filled containers (described ironically by demonstrators as Myungbak Castle, with its own Wikipedia entry); there were lengthy online and face-to-face discussions amongst demonstrators about whether to scale these walls and enter the protected zone, again showing the important role of Netizens in these events.

Jay Hauben is next, and shifts our focus to the role of Netizens in China. Internet adoption in the country is growing rapidly, of course, with some 43 million more users coming online only this year. Some 60 million users are active contributors to forums and chat rooms, and it is amongst this group that Netizens can be found and that, as Michael Hauben wrote, a new electronic commons is forming. In Chinese language, in fact, there is a distinction between wang min (Net users) and wang luo gong min (Networked citizens, or Netizens) - but this is often lost in translation.

One case in which Netizens made their presence felt was the 2003 death of Sun Zhigang, a student who was falsely identified as an urban vagrant, detained by police, and died in custody after what turned out to be a brutal beating. This issue was raised on an online forum for media professionals in China, and taken up by journalists on the forum; a report was finally published in the South Metropolitan Daily newspaper and various online news portals, and generated a great deal of online discussion and protest. Various other online sites were created (gathering news reports, reports about police brutality, or creating online memorials to Sun), People's Daily reported about the case and published selected Netizen comments, and some three months after the death 12 police were convicted for their actions in the death; shortly later, the 20-year-old anti-vagrancy measures were abolished, too.

Another incident occurred in the same year, when a tractor accidentally scraped a businessman's BMW, and the wife of the businessman drove into a crowd of locals in retaliation. The driver received only a suspended sentence, however, as many witnesses had been bribed by the businessman. This case, too, was taken by Netizens, and generated some 320,000 posts on one portal alone; there was substantial discussion about the growing gap between rich and poor, the corrupt judicial system, and related issues. It also expanded to a broader discussion about the overall direction of change in China.

However, while a new investigation was promised, discussion and coverage of the incident was ultimately removed and forbidden by the government, and a retrial did not lead to a different outcome. Here, then, Netizen power did not have a direct positive outcome; at the same time, however, there may be underlying effects, and there is some indication that there were broader, less immediate and longer-term policy changes which may have been driven by this and similar cases.

Ulla Rannikko is next, and takes us (in part) to Finland. She begins by pointing out discussions of a crisis of democratic journalism, and the related criticism of the quality of the mainstream media. Additionally, the media are struggling to maintain their profit margins, and journalism is being de-professionalised by the rise of alternative journalism and media activism. Citizen journalism (which may be online or offline) is seen to offer a partial solution to such challenges.

Citizen journalism is described by Bowman & Willis as ideally providing "independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging, and relevant information" - a tall order that it may never necessarily deliver on; however, this shopping list of adjectives may not provide the only definition of citizen journalism. Ulla contrasts the views of Dan Gillmor and Andrew Keen here, and extracts from this the realisation that citizen journalists need Internet access, appropriate tools, motivation, skills, and support for their work - they do not simply emerge fully formed.

What is required of citizen journalists, then? Ulla draws on interviews with citizen journalists at a Finnish Indymedia site and OhmyNews International: they should aim, they say, at a quality similar to that of conventional journalism, but provide different points of view from the mainstream media; journalistic skills are hardly different from those of 'professional' journalists, but they are put to somewhat different uses.

The two sites orchestrate such work differently, of course; citizen journalism in OhmyNews is clearly editor-assisted, while Indymedia practices a form of direct, unedited publishing which is moderated only for severe infringements against a set of basic standards. Indymedia provides no training for citizen journalists, and has only basic guidelines for participants, while there are a code of ethics and style guidelines for OhmyNews contributors. Editors on the latter site are there to help the citizen reporting process along. Additionally, of course, the Finnish-language nature of this specific Indymedia site limits the availability of a large community of participants.

Overall, then, there is a need for appropriate support and guidelines for citizen contributors; this may increase quality and in turn also the appeal of citizen journalism. The challenge is to develop a responsible and sustainable form of citizen journalism.

Finally, we move on to Anders Ekeland, who focusses on user-led innovation in Denmark. He points to the literature discussion the role of the Internet in democratic and policy-making innovation, as well as to literature on user-driven innovation which still works with a number of relatively old-fashioned concepts that have a hard time dealing with the altruistic nature of many forms of online colaborative efforts. So, there is a need also to look to other theoretical traditions.

Adam Smith noted that many early machines were the inventions of common workmen; this is a clear case of what von Hippel called innovation by lead users. In many cases discussed by von Hippel, users are either the or at least a source of innovation - the term 'consumer' certainly does not apply here. The Internet is especially instrumental here in the formation not only of information, but of innovation communities.

There are many implications of this. To begin with, if users are (co-) innovators, then the income generated from such innovations should be more widely shared; if user-led innovation leads to fewer commercial failures, then governments should support such processes; if user participation is driven by non-egotistical motives, then this points to the potential for a democratisation of innovation.

Indeed, the prevalence of 'free revealing' of innovation has been a major surprise for innovation researchers (as it is usually seen as encouraging freeriding) - revealing perhaps more about the mindset of the researchers and the limitations of existing theory than about the user-innovators who engage in such sharing. Open source has been instrumental in bringing this phenomenon to wider attention.

Anders suggests that one way of overcoming this theoretical impasse is to draw from philosophical approaches which describe the phenomenon as a way of overcoming alienation through the formation of innovation communities. Market forces may be not as important as drivers here as non-market forces - and indeed, strong competition reduces the likelihood of collaboration and learning from one another. The Netizen or homo neticus, rather than the egoistic, short-sighted homo economicus, may provide a better theoretical role model.

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