Sunday, July 31, 2005

The labors of "democratic, citizen journalism"

An essay by Rory O'Connor over at Global Journalist lauds the blossoming of online "citizen-journalists" (such as bloggers but also individuals contributing to new cooperative and "open source" web ventures like and Open Media Network) and links this revolution not only to the increasing household penetration of the broadband Internet, but to the consumption of personal digital appliances for media manipulation like digital cameras:

The rise in high-speed Internet connections is fueling an evolution of the Web from a medium heavy on text and graphics into a source of audio and moving pictures, and the proliferation of low-priced digital cameras, camcorders, recording gear and a host of personal electronic devices has created millions of potential journalists. With these tools of production now cheaper, faster and more accessible than ever, the tools of dissemination are becoming more ubiquitous and democratic than ever.

This tendency to equate the expansion of consumer technology to "democratization" is not new (see for example the 2nd volume of the Americans trilogy by historian Daniel Boorstin in the late 1970s) but claiming that a particular class of technology-consuming consumers can not only ehance, but replace professional journalism seems pretty risky to me. I think we need to ask some critical questions before we come to any conclusions: Which persons have the media literacy, the disposable income, the previous work- or education-related knowledge of the professional media industries, and the considerable "disposable time" to become effective citizen journalists? What kind of journalism, from what positionality and directed to what audiences and social ends, are these persons likely to produce (or even able to produce)? In many cases the answers to these questions might be inspiring and optimistic: say, educated individuals in societies which repress their political-economic participation or dismiss the value of their life experience finally able to find a collective voice through low-cost publishing of text to collective weblogs. At the other extreme, the answers to these questions might point to the snowballing production of an "echo chamber" where idle consumers of one narrow media slice parrot and quote tidbits back into the mediasphere for like-minded (and like-positioned fans). Many weblogs, in fact, might be judged to display both of these polarized sides simultaneously (this one included).

I think the key in making such judgements -- as we as critical consumers of any media must inevitably do, like it or not -- is to evaluate such activities neither on the basis of the "democratizing" consumer technology they use -- text blogs or photo blogs or video blogs or (mark my words) virtual-reality gaming-engine full-immersion experience blogs -- nor on the consumer popularity they elicit, but on the basis of the labor practices they promote, demand and sustain. And in that sense i think the divide between groups of "citizen-journalists" and groups of "fan communities" and groups of "online diarists" and any other subset of bloggers that we might try to bound is going to be their adoption of, and contribution back to, notions of careful, critical, and conscionable rhetoric, analysis, research, and documentation. These are skills one learns at, say, the university, rather than purchasing them at Best Buy.

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