This is so first draft it hurts – but I’m hoping to work with some of these ideas towards a final paper on a similar topic. Thoughts welcome.
What does the Citizen Journalist Want?: Alternative Media & Activist Rhetoric in Cyberculture.
One of the longstanding debates about new media culture since the early 1990s has been whether it has disturbed the media hierarchy. Namely, this is reference to the he convergence of broadcast and print media, internet technology and mobile equipment and wider adoption of broadband, and trends towards participatory media cultures, signified by user generated content and multiple platform audience experiences (Jenkins, 2006: 2)This supports the notion that mainstream media production is inherently a top-down function, controlled by governments, public-supported and private corporations. The presumed horizontal and interactive nature of new media broadly situations it as a potential anecdotal remedy to the one to many, broadcast model of the mainstream media, whose programming are treated as the dominant narratives. More specifically, alternative media, citizen journalism or community media act as quite deliberate interventions within the existing media landscape. The dimensions of the alternative media is often defined by its mode of production and distribution, the form of content, aesthetic quality and how it interacts with its audiences and often the focus is to challenge the dominant narratives of the mainstream media, to provide a voice to marginal communities or to build networks between other groups of similar focus (Atton, 2002; Downing, 2001).
Nevertheless, Goode (2009) warns that it is tempting to conceive that alternative media is a purely radical ‘movement’ that exists to oppose and challenge the mainstream, corporate media, especially when we are to consider the political economy of the ‘citizen journalism’ sector – one of commerce and advertising, and often with a growing relationship to existing media corporations. (Goode, 2009: 1289) It is not surprising that existing media would adopt and present the citizen media rhetoric as a style of broadcast, when it can not only respond to the ‘new’ in new media, but also provide “different perspectives, modes of address and story selection.” (Goode, 2009: 1289) This is apparent in sections of broadcast and newspaper media where the reader is invited to contribute stories, content and opinion in return for the promise of potentially being printed – an apparent incentive for participation and method of enfolding the alterity back into the dominant frame.
This is not to say that all radical, alternative media/activism will eventually end up being consumed by the forces that it wished to challenge, nor through the use of commercial, free-to-use platforms restrict the validity of the alternative narratives presented. In this case, the issue arises when the ‘end product’ – the content is traded as a commodity, perhaps by the platform itself, or by an individual, group or organization on behalf of those who was created it – where the citizen media producer removed from the value chain, and ‘rewarded’ in some other way. According to Terranova (2000), it may not be the ‘bad boys of capitalism’ that moves in to neutralize and ‘incorporate’ alternative media production into its food-chain, but instead a more “immanent process of channeling collective labor (even as cultural labor) into monetary flows and its structuration within capitalist business practices.” (Terranova, 2000: 104) She continues that the notion of a digital economy is not a new phenomena, but instead a continued process of experimentation – we must note that collective cultural labour is not simply taken, in some cases it is volunteered before being structured within business practices. Nevertheless, this is a complex and often personalized space, where the motivations, challenges and outcomes of those who participate often change and transform on a frequent and fluid basis. Therefore, it is worth asking “what does the citizen journalist want?” if we are to attempt to position such individuals and communities within the current contexts we exist in now.
The interest of this paper begins at the incentive for participation – whatever and wherever that may be. The act of contribution does not necessary always result in the production of a media text, nor does any media produced under the distinction of alternative media required to be a completed narrative. There are multiple entry points that may not always be articulated through the production of media content (Goode, 2009: 129). These could include regular meet-ups with others, themed discussions, training and educational sessions, calls to action, business meetings, showcases- the list is endless and depends on the needs of any community which may form on the result of independent media production. Therefore, the paper’s argument focuses on the debate on how citizen and social media functions as a vehicle for developing an alternative sphere through which the concepts of education, justice and media equality are problematized.
Citizen media is/as education.
Glenn Rikowski, with reference to Marx’s writings on education, proposed the education of the future as an anti-capitalist education, consisting of, and emphasizing the movement between, three moments; critique, addressing human needs and the realms of freedom (Rikowski, 2004: 565) I wish to emphasis this conceptual process, much as Rikowski has, as more than a frame or a template, but more an idea or a ‘transitional epoch’ towards education of the future (Rikowski, 2004: 566). In order to frame the social context of this paper, I am writing at a time of struggle within the university and within the field of humanities and arts, namely the business takeover of education and university’s role as the social production of labour, where debt is the key pedagogy, asking students to mortgage themselves, on the promise of progressive employment, before they are able to critique what that may mean. To be within the university, to teach both the production and theoretical concepts equating to this field, it is hard not to be influenced by, and working within the potential of alternatives to a capitalist [media] education. Therefore, the subsequent aim of this paper is to propose that participation within citizen media communities could be potentially considered a form of Rikowski’s education of the future.
Hall (2011) focuses on the recent student occupations, where in which students commandeered a building – most significantly, spaces on university campuses – and converted them into places of learning, in protest and response to the recent crisis within higher education. He highlights that the focus of those who participated is an action ‘underpinned by socio-historical narratives, rather than socio-technical’ where there is a move against prescribed relations of neoliberal notion of education, such as the shift in favour of the student as a consumer, to instead the possibility of an alternative to emerge within the hegemonic space (Hall, 2011: 54) The action of the students involved occurred even when they were not to be affected by the changes proposed to the system they were within. They were instead, Hall argues, “re-politicising those who benefit from the multiple forms of HE around the idea of what higher learning is for.” (Hall, 2011: 55)
Much like the citizen journalist, the importance of the reclamation and appropriation of space and history, rather than simply addressing the technical outputs, progression and platforms of content production must be emphasized. Furthermore, is it possible to use concept of alternative media – in both study and in practice, as a space and a method within the university to encourage critique, to identify human need (as opposed to want or desire) and to contextualise alternatives, rather than treating it simply (or cynically) as a aesthetic or a style of media production. Ironically, this is in line with the dominant idea that an education is to be nothing but a trade off between debt and a training ground for future employment. To teach citizen/new/alternative/web media within a university in its current guise, is the expectation to teach the media workers of the future a way of reaffirming the role of cultural labour through alternative perspectives, modes of address and (yet another) form of media rhetoric. However, rather than expecting that the future alternative media worker to simply be that, a worker, there are opportunities to not only create content, but to participate in the facilitation of learning from others who already occupy and use this space or identify with such definition. This is something beyond the style and substance of the content, but instead the human connections and the ways and hows they are organized through action.
In Illich’s (1971) thesis on ‘deschooling society,’ the early concept of “learning webs” is proposed. Although radical in its nature at the time of writing, it is now difficult to discuss new media without considering the notion of ‘social networks’ – the concept that people are connected in varies degrees and levels of linkages, through who they know, what they do and what they believe (Wellman, 2001) – and can be clearly visualized through virtual connections, such as on platforms named plainly ‘social networking sites’. In 1971, however, Illich was referring to the links that could challenge and change the notion of being “schooled” – where to be schooled is to “confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.” He argues that there are no more than four forms of learning exchanges, ‘things, models, peers, and elders’ where we can find all the resources required for “real learning.” The learning web, therefore, is attempt a different form of educational arrangement in order to ensure that all have access to the resources of engaging with their peers (Illich, 1976). To paraphrase Illich, we exist in a world of things and people who can act as models for skills and beliefs. We begin to find peers allows us to “to argue, to compete, to cooperate, and to understand;” and, if we are lucky, to be exposed critique from elders, those that we respect but also know care. Through the use of digital media, this arrangement can not only be emphasized and imagined, it can also be seen if we are to lift and analysis data from social networking sites such as twitter and facebook, and is normally displayed in the form of a network graph analysis. How people connect to each other – and why they connect is important – and this can tell a great deal about human relationships, and the clue is in the title of ‘social media’ around what potentially can be done in terms of people participating within both psychical and virtual alternative learning spaces.
Of course, the formalization of this process may never be clear, and discussed above, might not be desired, but to considered the acts of the citizen journalist within this context, there is potential to understand the motivations and the needs of the individuals participating. The exposure to “things” (in this case, tools for media production and discussion, platforms for message dissemination), being shown ‘how to’ by others and the variety of roles and activities within the process, encountering peers who may and may not feel the same, but speak, share and understand the ideas and offer the critique of them and other forms of media encounter, and being exposed to mentors – or to understand what a mentor, and the influence may be – are all powerful interactions that those who identity as a citizen media producer may encounter through their practice. They do not do what they do because they are told that it is something they should do, or something that leads to employment or accreditation – but it might lead to recognition or a response in other ways, the ability to have a critical self-awareness about society. Nevertheless, such interactions to not happen in a vacuum – nor can they be constructed manually – using the internet or otherwise. There must be a need before there can be a community .
Similarly, Slevin (2000) argues the notion that the web cannot provide new opportunities and new modes of relationship if we propose that people are able to “come together ‘out of nothing’” in order to form new entities. Thus, there needs to be motivation and a symbolic context within information can be produced, received and distributed (Slevin, 2000: 113). In this case, Slevin sees the interactional impact of the Internet as not about seeking proof towards how it improves or deteriorates our well-being, but instead finding ways to use such technology as to cope in modern conditions (Slevin, 2000: 117). The development of citizen media culture, digital or otherwise, is developed out of a need for the alternative – no matter what that alternative may be.
The engagement with the mainstream media is at the heart of this argument, where discussion could relation to the network of a specific group – or the to the content produced by individuals who have declared their interests, style or focus as being those of an alternative frame. Nevertheless, is is a difficult position to be within. For instance, in a study comparing the ‘diversity’ of content between online newspapers and ‘citizen journalism,’ Carpenter (2010:1070) points out that there is “no master online citizen journalism site lists” to sample from, unlike the homepage uniformity of online newspapers which are more frequently categorized and highlights by the semantics of google search. Instead, you search by topic, where that topic could be an event, a location, a theme or an idea, in the hope that you one might encounter the content to be considered to be citizen media (Carpenter, 2010: 1071). This is a ‘top down’ approach, as their is an intrinsic assumption that network reach can be equal on the internet, and therefore those alternative messages provided by alternative media will appear alongside the ‘official’ counterpart. It is clear that existing media platforms will tend to have a larger reach – and therefore influence on the search results. This inequality has to be overcome in order to even begin to compare the media rhetoric, in author’s case – out-links, topics and sources citied. Instead, as discussed above, the real diversity lies in the activities, how they are linked and the participation that provoked the content being assessed. Therefore, to explore the question of a citizen journalist’s needs – and in turn, the alterity and activist nature of the material, we must instead focus on the communities and participation within those communities, the spark of ideas – not simply defaulting to the notion of community media as simply another media commodity.
Understanding the alternative spaces (A method)
Slevin’s early arguments around the expression of asymmetries of power afforded by a interface such as the internet, suggests that we must see be beyond ‘semantic organisation’ of the interface, where online culture cannot and should be reduced to linguistic practices but instead the practical realizations of interests (Slevin, 2000: 88) This support the ideas that Hine (2000) proposed in her seminal text on Virtual Ethnographies, where she argues that the internet is both a cultural artifact and a culture in its own right (Hine, 2000: 14) She continues by stating that through an online ethnography, we can begin to study the “achievement of a meaningful cultural context for participants.” (Hine, 2000: 21) This is important if we are to attempt to examine the ‘alternative-ness’ of a sphere, a ‘moment of excess’, supported by the adoption of online communication within such interfaces, but in essentially and previously an idea, or a process, rather than a formed end-point, a business concept, a style or an institution.
Similarly, we must consider who indeed is participating within such a sphere of influence. The mainstream media may have an advantage in terms of how it used as a device for sharing information. This is despite the blips and ‘all-eyes-on’ nature in how they adapt new media technology, they still remain dominant in many ways [need source] For instance, the Guardian, on just one of the twitter accounts has nearly 150,000 followers – and even then, this does not include the range and scope of users who may participate within mainstream media, such as journalists, celebrities, politicians – or all three! It is difficult to be heard, or to push your alternative media out beyond your existing community, unless you attempt to engage with the influential nodes within the network – that still, in its majority, is those who have a relationship within and with the dominant mainstream media. Alternatively, there are those who have managed to gravitate around this notion of influence, with varies degrees of success. Again, this often results invite to publish their content onto mainstream sites, generating a greater readership and confirming the ‘alternative media as a rhetoric style’ from earlier. Nevertheless, this opens up questions around who decides what gets highlighted, and how it fits with the existing narratives at play within the media.
Turner (2009) refers to the process as being one of a ‘demotic’ turn, in the case of citizen journalism, it is the popularity of the ‘ordinary’ -represented in the uptake of reality television and lately, internet celebrity culture – where individuals are showcased in a form of ‘mass-mediated’ fame, being cultural artifacts in their own right. He critiques the notion of the “techno-enthusiast” of the 1990s and their optimism towards the web as a democratic realization of the public sphere (Turner, 2009: 123). Similarly, Dean (2010) unpicks the term ‘geek’ – previously a playground insult for an ‘unfashionable, socially inept person,’ but more commonly1 associated with the self-identifying early adopter, an individual with an insatiable passion for technology, in both the building of, use and ownership of technology. Although a geek may argue and campaign for equality, fairness and justice – the reality may be about competition, applications and raising venture capital for both. Dean states, “Even if geeks are ‘about’ justice and equality, the consequence of the widespread adoption and extension of their work is the most extreme economic inequality the world has ever known.” (Dean, 2010: 22) Without debate, Dean argues that it is possible for the ‘social media geeks’ – those with the most ‘influence’ in this case, can essential become the technocratic elite, far beyond building, facilitating and demonstration of neutral user-friendly online platforms and communities for the apparent purpose and carrier of public discussion.
However, both Turner and Dean are not criticizing the practice nor the mode of participation within the new media sphere, or how it is a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing but instead the danger of using the language of liberation, democracy and emancipation when referring to a potential abuse of media power (Turner, 2009: 147) This links back to Terranova’s argument, where not everyone that encounters the internet in this way becomes an active producer, nor creative subject (Terranova, 2000: 35).
However it is important to consider not only the potential for participation, but through shared learning, citizen media could be more powerful as a method to equip those who participate with self-defense and critical thinking skills against some of the issues that are being debated discussed briefly within this paper. Chomsky (2004) argued that “Any person with average intelligence can see how the media manipulate and censor information not to their liking. It may take some work to discover distortions and suppressions of information. All you need is the desire to learn the truth.” (Chomsky, 2004: 10) This may only be a short paper, designed to provoke discuss in this area, but the intent is to propose the argument that through participation and debate, it is possible to look at the citizen journalist, not just through the observation/analysis of the content they produce, although very important, nor to just track common links and ties through discussion, despite it’s usefulness for contextualisation, but instead, at times where the future of formal media education is in crisis, to include those who are researched and ask them to co-research and learn and learn from through potential collaborative learning spaces and networks. And that for me, is the way in which I will look positively, and with optimism towards the future of both education and the new media.
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Carpenter, S. (2010) A study of content diversity in online citizen journalism and online newspaper articles. New Media and Society. 12 (7) 1064-1084.
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