The above headline comes from Dan Gillmor's explicative eulogy to his citizen journalism venture, Bayosphere. Dan credits them to technologist and web pioneer Esther Dyson - "Always make new mistakes" - and uses them to introduce the lessons he learned from Bayosphere about technology, transparency and collaboration, a schooling he will no doubt use to shape his next project, the Center for Citizen Media at UC-Berkeley. (UPDATE: The center is affiliated with Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society as well as Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.)
I don't think it's wise to draw any deep conclusions about the future of citizen journalism or grassroots media - and there is a difference -- from Bayosphere's short-lived existence. We are very early into the we-media cycle. The technology is still developing, the user curve is still rising and there hasn't yet emerged a large-scale viable business model based on media creation (vs. selling the tools).
That said, I see three principles from the Bayosphere experience that are key for newspapers and other entities that hope to use citizen journalism as part or all of their business:
Community can't be forced.
Focus is foremost.
Personality is a plus.
Community can't be forced. Dan alluded to this when he said, "Tools matter, but they're no substitute for community building." I would amend this to say, "Tools matter because they allow people to build communities." One reason newspapers are suffering is the erosion of the importance of geographic communities in favor of virtual communities - soccer parents, Unix users, media critics. Newspapers, with their fixed size, expensive printing plants and gasoline-powered, doorstep delivery can't scale to meet the needs of virtual communities, which rise and fall according to interest and may have no geographic component. [Read: Local News: Who is Going to Write for Citizen Me?] Newspapers specialize in covering location, which in the world of virtual real estate hardly matters.
There are many others who have thought more deeply than I about virtual communities (start with Howard Rheingold), but I think it's fair to say (and please correct me if I'm off base) that most successful online communities thrive because their users feed, nuture and police them, not because they were built by an entrepreneur or incumbent media company.
I have been using Flickr as a recent example. The site now contains more than 70 million photos uploaded by users, who sort the images by tags, rate them as favorites, and share them with friends and family. Within this vast digital warehouse, hundreds and hundreds of communities have formed, groups devoted to locations (California), pets (cats) or objects (doors). Flickr provided the tools, invited members of the digital camera revolution and got out of the way.
Can the Flickr experience translate to citizen journalism ventures like Your Hub or Backfence? I'm not so sure. Certainly, in these nascent stages of those sites, fewer people seem interested in the goings-on in Boulder or Bethesda than in posting photos of their vacations in Cancun. Some of that discrepancy arises from the relative ease of uploading a photo compared to writing a report on the local sewer board. (See Tom Grubisich's well-debated content critique of these sites.) One of the differences between "forced community" sites like Your Hub and Flickr is well articulated by Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review, in a comment on Grubisich's piece:
"With online journalism, the less you structure your grassroots initiative like a workplace newsroom, and the more you structure it like a social community, the more successful your initiative will be."
These geo-centric ventures, which are attempting to replace or supplement newspapers as the providers of local news and information, do fulfill the second prime principle of community journalism: Focus.
Focus is foremost. Bayosphere lacked focus, the same ailment eating away at newspapers. The thin-slicing of media into smaller and smaller segments that technology-enabled individuals can now readily reassemble into me-media forms is killing all forms of mass media. Journalism is general - for all newspapers that are not the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or USA Today - must become more focused, more topical and more local. Citizen journalism provides newspapers and other organizations with an opportunity to do that, either by topic (sports, tech) or geography (hyperlocal). But, because media has become personal, both traditional and new forms of journalism are going to need more personality in order to compete for the attention of public already over-stimulated by all forms of digital information and punditry.
Personality is a plus. Compare the bland, templated, almost scrapbook quality of a Your Hub site to the idiosyncratic nature of hyper-local sites like Barista.net or Fresno Famous or H2otown that reflect the personality of the people behind them. They have voice and emotion and quirkiness, human qualities that appeal to people and bring the news down to a small-town level (even if Montclair, N.J., or Fresno, Calif., aren't very small-town at all.)
A reporter from the Wall Street Journal called yesterday to talk about Bayosphere and citizen journalism in general. What is it, he asked, how would you define it? I didn't have a concise answer because I think it's still evolving, so I told him what I believe: That the power to publish is now universal and that fact will forever alter our perception of media - and of journalism. With the barrier to entry gone, the separation of "professional" and "citizen" journalist is no longer dependent on access to systems of creation and distribution. The dividing line now consists of communication skills, topical expertise, creativity and innovation - and it will be the public, not the profession, who decides which journalists deserve their attention.
In his post, Dan Gillmor said that "citizen journalism is, in a significant way, about owning your own words." True. It is also about communities telling their own stories. Newspapers must now decide if they want to be a part of those communities.Posted by Tim Porter at January 25, 2006 10:03 AM