You are here

Citizen and Hyperlocal Journalism as the Fifth Estate

As it turns out, I have two papers in this post-lunch session on the last day of AoIR 2008 - in competing sessions. Luckily, Lars Kirchhoff and Thomas Nicolai are on hand to present one of them (I'll post the slides for this as soon as I get them from the two) - and I'm here to present my paper with Jason Wilson and Barry Saunders on hyperlocal citizen journalism (understood here in a relatively broad sense).

The first speaker here is William Dutton from the Oxford Internet Institute, whose aim is to move beyond terms such as Netizen and citizen journalism and towards an understanding of various political uses of the Net as forming a fifth estate, in addition to the press as a fourth estate in society. Such uses promote social accountability in business, industry, government, politics, and other sectors.

This links to the continuing debate about the politics of the Internet, of course. The Net has been seen variously as a novelty, a not-real passing fad; as a technology of freedom or control; as a tool for reinforcement politics (supporting both controlling or democratic institutions); or as a strategic resource for reconfiguring access. It's this latter conception that William focusses on - and this reconfiguration (of the social ecology) has dimensions which relate to technologies, services, information, and people themselves.

Are there patterns of reconfiguring access, then? What, if any, actors does the Net enable to reshape their communicative power? One tool for examining such changes in Britain are the biennial Oxford Internet Surveys, and evidence here clearly indicates that there is an obvious incorporation of the Net into everyday life (shown especially in the growth in broadband access across all households) - so it is certainly not a passing fad.

The survey also points to the growing role of the Net as a primary source of information - for Internet users, the Net is by far the first source of information on a wide variety of topics even where the information sought is strongly related to their geographically local environment. The extent to which the Net is used in this way is still growing substantially over time, and there is a marked shift especially to a reliance on search engines between the 2005 and 2007 surveys. A sideline to this is also that Internet users are increasingly meeting new people online, rather than in local physical spaces.

What is the best way to describe this Internet space, then - is it a public sphere (Habermas), an information commons, a space of flows (Castells), an engineered information space (Berners-Lee)? Whatever the term, William suggests, the Internet is now assuming the role of a fifth estate, and it is also increasingly a trusted information space (UK users now trust information on the Net more than they do newspapers or television). Interestingly, people who are most distrusting of the Net are those who have never used it; trust increases with increasing usage.

There is a distinction to be made here between networked institutions and networked individuals. Individuals are choosing to network amongst one another independent of their institutional settings or institutional boundaries, and institutional control over individuals (for example, employees) is declining. The wisdom of the crowds is in the degree to which these networked individuals are able to manage their collaboration, from sharing to contributing to co-creating information.

Networked institutions are clearly different from the networked institutions of the fifth estate - William contrasts the emerging e-Health services provided for example by the UK National Health Service with individuals going to the Net for health and medical information, or with physicians networking themselves on the Sermo service. Another contrast exists between the networked e-democracy institutions and the networked individuals in political movements, organisations like MoveOn, and other groupings.

Arenas shaped by the fifth estate are governance and democracy (through Netizens), press and media (through citizen journalism), business and commerce, work and the organisation, and so on. Many such projects do fail, of course, and they are not omniscient or necessarily more prescient than conventional institutions (nobody managed to predict the current economic turmoil); they are threatened by the formation of mobs which use the same tools that support the formation of the fifth estate for negative, destructive purposes. However, such projects are beginning to assume emerging roles across a variety of arenas, promoting social accountability.

My own paper followed, and the slides are below. The full paper is also online, and I'll add the audio as soon as I can... I've added the audio now, too.

Technorati : , , , , , , , , , , : , , , , , , , , , ,


As you note, Possums Pollytics has now become part of Crikey. Admittedly I'm not familiar with this website, but a quick tour through it left me wondering if it could still qualify as an organ of "citizen journalism." It might not be "part of a media empire," but it seems to be a professional business undertaking - one that happens to have the agenda of challenging what is currently regarded as mainstream media.

And just another quick point. The "pro / am" model, as you explain in your article, describes what both sides bring to the table - how citizen journalists' contribution complements the work of pro journos. But citizens engaging in either the first-hand production or the secondary treatment of news might also have another side effect that is thought to beneficial from the point of view of deliberative democracy. This side effect is the writer gaining a better understanding of him or herself, as well as of the subject that he or she is writing or commenting about; or as Habermas referred to this process: "achieving self-understanding".

Thanks for this. No argument from me on the second point. On the first one: yes, it will be interesting how Pollytics develops from here, and how or whether it gets coopted into the Crikey brand. A cautionary tale here is the fate of Tim Dunlop's Blogocracy blog (Tim was recruited from the blogosphere into the News Ltd. stable of bloggers, ultimately with rather mixed results).

However, that said: I would suggest that it is possible to conduct what can continue to be described as citizen journalism under the umbrella of a professional news organisation. So far, at least, what Possum does within the Crikey isn't much different from what he did when Pollytics was an independent blog (albeit now probably with better resources and therefore more sustainably). All this hinges on how we define 'citizen journalism' in the first place, of course - and that's still very much an open question in its own right...