first sentinel session

Leaving the Sentinel: 5 things I have learned about faciliatating community-led media

Having spoken at a few conferences recently about the impact of social media and community-led media in terms of community engagement, I have been meaning to write this post for a while – especially as I’ve been talking specifically about method and approach to developing community based media outfit – and – several people have been in touch about how they might kick start a project in their area, organisation or specific-project related context.

I’ve recently concluded my year long stint at the community media development worker for the Carnegie Trust funded news agency Digital Sentinel in Wester Hailes in Edinburgh. It has been a year full of learnings, a chance to look closely at models for developing a volunteer pool who can find news and lead to community story generation – but most importantly, how do you develop and follow on from a much loved community based newspaper (which lost its funding in 2008) and replace the news source from top down established news models to shift towards a locally produced, community made news agency – made by the people, for the people. I am a hugely inspired by the work of Citizen’s Eye in Leicester, who’s editor, John Coster, has been a key role model for me in terms of thinking about encouraging people and groups to tell their own stories and to make these tools more accessible to all – especially as more and more people find themselves online and/or using a smart phone to access social media for their news and small media.

The gauntlet of CMDW now been passed on to a local Edinburgh resident and hyperlocal media producer Phyllis Stephens from the Edinburgh Reporter (so safe and expert hands then!) but as a sort of ‘exit-interview’ with myself, here are my top 5 learnings from working on and (as it emerged from idea to reality) with, the Digital Sentinel to share with those potentially interested in starting your own community led agency:

1)Identity community leaders, and empower them to tell stories- not just for the website, but about the website itself

That saying “If you want something done, ask a busy person” is never truer said when it comes to beginning to recruit volunteers for a local media project. Meeting members of a community council, those who volunteer their skills through time bank initiatives or community education practitioners/participants give a good starting point for identifying who is already active on projects in their community. Similarly, many successful community media projects are lead by just 1-2 people who drive the image and the work of the project forward, it is not just a case of building it and they will come. A turning point for me was after the first training taster session at the health agency, and speaking with John, the leader of the community council about what he had learned since beginning the Sentinel journey. Total goosebumps.

A challenge is reaching beyond those who are aware and interact with services, community advocates who know and understand what is trying to be achieve are one of your biggest assets in terms of ensuring the project has longevity.

2)Free and accessible tools, use what is in your pocket

interview reporters
Using a Samsung Galaxy Tab for digital storytelling

There are a range of specialist tools available to make and share media for the web. You can get bespoke cameras, apps and addons which a community group can purchase to help produce and share stories on their website – however – this can often be a difficult position to administrate, who looks after the kit, who gets to use it, what gets bought when starting up. It’s horses for courses, particularly as we live in a personalised, networked environment online – no one twitter or facebook feed is the same, depending on what and who we subscribe to – so sharing tips and techniques is key before a decision on kit and training of that kit is made. The Media Trust Local 360 is a great resource for getting recommendations of what might work for you.

If you are wanting to get out there and begin to tell stories, you are better to ask people to reach into your pocket and see what you have. A larger screened, app-based smartphone is slowly but surely becoming the default mobile phone that is available for those purchasing a new device. Similarly, tablet purchase and use are becoming more and more accessible with an apparent 1000% increase in sales at Christmas last year.
The trick is to tap into what you have got, before you start a shopping list of desirable kit. Reflect on the fact that access to broadband and/or wifi, digital literacy demands and cost of  the technology will also come into play, so it is advised to work with devices and scenarios that people can understand and are already embedded within – and support your volunteers to get confident in that – before dazzling with more expensive and more experienced kit. A pen and piece of paper is enough to get you started.
All that is happening is shifting the perception of the consumption to the production of online media, something that many do not realise they are already doing when they take a photo, write a status update or create a short video for the web – as a user of a social media platform, you are a content creator.

3)Cutting edge of mundane, not all community news needs to follow a News model

My core thesis for all my research and project management interests is that events are the perfect catalyst for media content generation and can be used for working towards longevity and self-production in a community media setting. Take a community fun run.

Sentinel reporters at the Wester Hailes Fun Run in July

Even if you’ve never attended a fun run in your life, you know what happens, what its aims are and you know that there will be news factored into the process – a starting call, individual and group causes being championed for fundraising or personal goals, the process and suspense of the run, the audience cheering on their relatives, colleagues and friends, data and stats of results – and of course, the winners.

The irony now is that an event that a whole type of community would come out to support, lacks coverage and support from existing media sources. Individuals may take pictures to share with friends, others might tweet that they are attending – but in terms of a coherent story, many local events and personal experiences are generally ignored by over-stretched local media who have a specific agenda to fill.
This is where a community media news outfit can come in, setting up a space to share and collect stories, interviews with participants and special guests and of course capturing the winners of the event as they cross the finish line.

Use these events to stimulate interest in your news outfit, allow volunteers to practice capturing and reporting in a safe environment, explore ethics and style – but most importantly, soak up the environment and have fun, these events will make the harder, more political and ethically diverse stuff easier to report.

This is what we did with #citizenrelay (citizen journalists, covering the Olympic torch relay in Scotland) and is at the heart of Digital Commonwealth (the Big Lottery funded project I’m coordinating at UWS), which will be recruiting and training people to tell their stories as a creative response to the Commonwealth Games in 2014 – the bigger the event, the more opportunity to connect people locally (or in our case, nationally and internationally) using the same catalyst of activity (Glasgow 2014 across Scotland – Baton relay particularly) – the skills developed to cover these larger events can then be used to tell stories closer to home.

When we say “cutting edge of mundane” (a phrase I borrow from John Coster), we mean that the story of the canal swans having cygnets, or a local member of the community finding a canary can be much more enjoyable to read than yet another report of a stabbing or criticism about a particular group of people that the mainstream media seem to enjoy picking on.

4)Face to face is key, it makes the digital better

A community news agency should not just provide a ‘taken for granted’ news service for the community but instead find ways to encourage people who have news to report on themselves rather than reporting for them – the only way that it can be truly sustainable is to spread the skills beyond a core set of ‘reporters’.
I’ve recently wrote a blog post for the Digital Commonwealth site on the benefits of a “Community Media Cafe” for bringing people together to co-produce the news gathering, training and networking experiences. It is often a complaint that it is very difficult to know about what other people are doing in your local area or similar field, a coordinated drop-in or regular time to come together to chat and listen to others who you may be able to help or be able to help you. Face to face time is a precious resource, but also the backbone to a locally produced digital resource.
Those moments where you can give people the space and structure to share information face to face are worth a million direct mail newsletters. What I learnt over the years working with Citizen’s Eye around the London 2012 Olympics is that the most important thing about community media is people, not the content itself – a website itself cannot communicate the richness of seeing people learn and begin to produce the media that represents their community, not having those stories told for them.

5)Many hands make light work, do what you enjoy and it feels less like work

A question I was often asked was about the process of using volunteers and ensuring that the project can be managed and administered within the community itself. The fact that a project of this scale does require a lot of coordination, recruiting volunteers, finding stories and developing a database of contacts – it does need core funding to be able to do this. It exists outside of any particular organisation, with the hope it becomes its own entity in the future – but with that will come challenges down the line, governance, growth and ownership will come into play. In terms of community media training, if you are working with volunteers who want to learn more about digital storytelling or producing community media for their area, discover what their passion is and let them run with it.

Everyone will have a role in shaping the future of their community media outlet, and not all need to be the citizen journalist – some people are good at finding and telling stories, others are loaded with local knowledge and history – more so, as the web because easier to access and use, you will discover a local tech champion who can help with website input or design, or others who are running local web based campaigns using hashtags and the interaction between the on and offline environment. The important learning is to support people to do the things they love, to feel that they are as much as important part of the project as those who already have the skills to write articles or build websites. Many hands, light work.


So that’s it, my time with the Sentinel is over. Following the official launch in October, It makes me smile, that there is now an active and fledgling community news website that the Wester Hailes community can now see and call the Digital Sentinel.

From idea, dream or desire being discussed at working group meetings to tangible thing that you can access, see and interact with, and now with local, on-the-ground support, I look forward to following the project from a distance and being able to connect it to other community media projects through the Digital Commonwealth intitative.

P.S. I spoke about this a few weeks ago the Neighbourhood Watch’s Community e-ngagement event at the Crowne Plaza. Below is a video of my talk and a short interview post-talk where I manically and red-faced give some tips on the use of citizen journalism for community engagement. Enjoy!

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The #digitalsentinel and on being the cutting edge of mundane.


I’m currently in London after attending the AHRC Connected Communities Showcase yesterday. I was representing the Digital Sentinel project that is based in Wester Hailes and is a follow on from a wider set of ‘Community Hacking‘ projects (check out the amazing comic strip on the projects website!) such as Ladders to the Cloud and the installation of the Digital Totem Pole last year.

I feel, for me, the process of the Sentinel is at a crucial stage where it is now moving from a vision of a ‘digitized newspaper’ format (that will replace the previous paper copy that had its funding cut in 2008) to become something that is more of a living breathing news agency, which needs to be by the community, for the community (and that doesn’t mean it can’t be printed/hard copies produced and shared as well for those with limited access to the technology. I’ll get onto that in a mo.)


Last month, I ran a taster session for the staff of those who work for the service providers in the community – which includes representatives from places such as the Health Agency, the Library, Community Learning Partnerships, Prospect Community Housing and others – to discuss what a Digital Sentinel might look and feel like.

After walking through Citizen’s Eye (a community news agency in Leicester that I was very much involved in/advocated when I lived there) and other Media Trust’s Local 360 beacon hubs as case studies of successful and active community led news agencies in the UK, I got the group to walk about between different flipcharts and to write down the How, Why, What, Where and When of the Sentinel from their perspective, keeping it open for interpretation (as ‘Where’ for instance could mean both a physical space for meeting to produce news, a place to host content or a place to access the website. I left the workshop deliberately informal to leave space for much needed discussion and debate about what this should actually be, where we should take it and, most importantly, who was going to step up and actually do it (as it’s all very well that I’m there and funded to be there for now, but essentially ,it’s not about me and never will be, and I need to be able to hand it over to the community as a thing and a process, not as a tick box, step by step commissioned wordpress magazine format that sits empty without me putting my own content up.)

Some of the obvious (but I needed to hear it from the community) points was the notion of an affordable central service provision for communicating the information that they currently provide online (be it through email lists, social media or facebook/blogs – see (and get lost in) the excellent social history of Wester Hailes blog “From There to Here.” to get a taste of what is already happening in online around this community.) whiteboardsThis is absolutely attainable through platforms such as WordPress and content that already exists can be aggregated/converted to be pulled into the website – no problem.

But – and this is a big but, the energy and stamina for a community news agency to get of the ground and to exist needs to be beyond sharing existing services and act as simply an information giving service – even if that information being given is stories from the past or a social history style project. It needs to want to exist and it needs to be opened up to new ways of thinking through co-collaboration with those who will be involved (and I honestly canne tell you/or predict who will be.)

You see, when you identity with employment or a service role, it is much clearer to identity with the purpose of communicating online as part of a process. If you want to use social media/citizen journalism as an exercise in stimulating community engagement, empowerment or even politicising (with a tiny p) people enough to want to attend some of the many activities in place that are inclusive to democratic, citizenship style processes (like the community council for instance) – then it needs to be more fluid, less replicate on journalistic processes and more about seeing value in the mundane, not the shiny.

68913_10151173953067654_843607420_nMy lovely friend John Coster (who is the editor of Citizen’s Eye and a big inspiration in my life) phoned me last week for a bit of a #peptalk style catch up on all of the things (including some of the exciting #citizenrelay plans for the Glasgow 2014 – stay tuned!) and having just opened the first UK Community Media Training School in Leicester (*proud* get to visit it in a few weeks!) the came out with the phrase “I aim to be the cutting edge of all things mundane” – which got me thinking. I’ve been trying hard to get to grips with how I am going to stimulate a community to want to take ownership of their news – getting a bit hung up on the fact that I’m *not* from there, I’m all academic-d out my nut when it comes to theorising about it (which is why AHRC event yesterday  – and the the related Connected Communities UWS event on Remaking Society a few weeks ago was so useful for me in terms of getting back on track with PhD and reflecting on that weird role of being a academic who does practice and is/has been pretty political with it all.) and that during the Olympics it all just got a bit too bloody much.

Anyway… cutting edge of mundane. What does that mean for Wester Hailes and the process of the Digital Sentinel as a thing that needs to be imagined but also start to exist?

Rather than focussing on the big ideas and the complexity of community (rarr, PhD, rarr!), in fact, I need to focus on just getting those who show an interest in the future taster sessions (to be arranged this week) to 1) get involved 2) produce content that is relevant to them 3) get it online 4) walk down to the totem pole with the kit bags that are getting bought in the next few weeks, to scan the QR codes of the pole (on smart phone or the rentable ipads) that point to the Sentinel and to see that what you have made, written, filmed, taken a photo of, is now online and existing online, live and feeding into a site as part of a wider community.totem

It can be present in the community (there is a section on the website that can only be accessed from scanning the pole, so you have to be in Wester Hailes to do it) and it can go out-bound. It can be tagged as super -hyperhyperlocal (there are 7 estates in Wester Hailes, all with clear identities right down to whit street you live on – like everywhere really) or it can be pointing out to the wider world as a process that folk might want to get involved in, connect with, respond to or just read as something related to their interest. It can be all or both – but the main things is to make the access to such processes (the making of the media stuff) so simple and non-judgemental a process (so none of the ‘this isn’t proper journalism’ argument at this stage – it’s story telling, its data, its whatever you want to make it – it is mundane) and to be able to meet in places to get involved. It’s loose and it is flowing & anybody can get involved.) My support is getting those who are interested and engaged at this stage (with little existing stuff happening on the site) to get to a stage where they can take ownership and feel that it is theirs.

I rambled some stuff to myself on audioboo a few times about this yesterday.

What is just superb is that all of the things I am using to update about the Sentinel are all tools that can and will be used to make it exist. Even down to the photographs which are all my own and taken in Wester Hailes on my phone and using instagram to make them look a bit better. It is important to remind yourself that some of the most mundane, boring things that you find yourself doing on a daily basis (or feel a little silly doing at the time – #jencam) can actually be some of the most interesting and useful things that you can bring to projects such as this. It’s not about being, replacing, challenging the mainstream/established media and processes. It is about giving people the option to provide and contribute to their own alternative narratives.

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What I’ve been working on: @UWSInteractive Festival, March 5th-9th 2012

Some of you might have noticed that I’ve been tweeting a lot about a thing called “@UWSInteractive” (which has a website and everything) – well, because I don’t have enough things on and inspired by the pure madness of 2012, John Coster, Tina Barton and myself decided we wanted to try set up and run a citizen media festival across all campuses and regions of the University of the West of Scotland – touring between them, hosting themed activities and events on each day. UWS is unique as a university, mainly due to the fact that the widest distance between its 4 campuses in Ayr, Paisley, Hamilton and Dumfries is over 60 miles. Since its merger and name-change in 2007, there hasn’t been a festival or a set of public events that have scaled between the 4 locations – and I don’t think there has ever been a festival that focussed on citizen media and community education in the area before either. I’m excited.

With support from such great partners such as Somewhereto_, Newsnet (part of the Media Trust), DocFilm DogWoof PopUp Cinema, and the Skillset Media Academy, we’re hoping to generate a schedule of free workshops, showcases and ‘stuff’ relating to anything to do with media activism and community production.

Essentially, we want to demonstrate with a bit of organisation that we can provide space and context to people who want to do stuff, learn stuff, meet other people and generally appreciate the part of the world that they live in. Being from Ayr myself, I know how easy it is to get angsty and down on yourself because of the lack of obvious and available opportunities to do things – especially when it can feel isolating and closed when others say it is impossible and not worth the effort.  UWS  was my way out of it, but it is also my way back into it again.

This festival is about reclaiming things and making the most of what we have already, instead of waiting for the big solution to drop by and fix it – and with the help of great people like John and Tina, who have managed to do so much of this in Leicester over the last 4 years, and the people who have already been in touch about running an event or simply just attending, that I’m totally excited about what might possibly happen during the 5th-9th of March.

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Talk at Leicester’s @docfilmfestival: Olympic Games and the rise of social media documentary

via Community Media Hub Flickr

This weekend I was asked by John Coster, editor of Citizen’s Eye and the curator of Leicester’s Documentary Film Festival to give a talk around the forthcoming Olympics and the rise of social media documentary around megaevents. Using a couple of slides from this presentation and showing a number of clips from a youtube playlist I prepared earlier, I gave an hour-long talk (which could have been much longer tbh) around themes of citizen media and resistance around the games.

Ambrose Musiyiwa very kindly interviewed me after the talk as part of his CivicLeicester project  – which has loads of interesting videos on its youtube channel of people doing creative and political stuff in Leicester, worth checking out.

Overall, the 2nd Documentary Film Festival ran over 3 days this year and was in partnership with Dogwoof Films and also hosted many local film makers who had films screened and took part in social events around the themes of the festival. A highlight for me was the “silent disco” social documentary session  on the Saturday night – where John brought the contents of his HOUSE to the Phoenix Square to change the entire vibe of the space. It was awesome.

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Notes on @thirduniversity Rabble for the @poddelusion Live in Leicester, 16th August 2011


[Disclaimers: These are the work-in-process notes that I’ve prepared for a *five-to-seven* minute stint as part of a live-recording of Pod Delusion at Leicester’s Skeptic in the Pub meet last Tuesday (16th August, 2011). In their own words The Pod Delusion “is a weekly news magazine podcast about interesting things. From politics, to science to culture and philosophy, it’s commentary from a secular, rationalist, skeptical, somewhat lefty-liberal, sort of perspective.” I probably won’t use this all – and I don’t want to constantly repeat myself and I what I *really* want to talk about is what the third university is planning come the revolution *cough* 9th of November.]

Yesterday, the UK’s longest running student occupation in recent history, Glasgow’s Free Hetherington, declared victory as their occupation of the ex-postgraduate club of Glasgow University, comes to an end. Those involved in the 6 month protest against the Principal’s plans for cuts, compulsory redundancies and the closure of courses and departments at the University, managed to exert pressure to get the institution’s management to reconsider their decision and agree to halt such proceedings. The full details of which are still being negotiated (in detail) between the students and those in charge. This is an important, but  under-reported development of the student movement against the future self-destruction of the higher education system – as we know it. 

In the shadow of last week’s troubles, where the tories confusingly called for the ‘education’ of young people, but in the same breath supporting the rise in tuition fees and limiting access to post-16 institutions, we have to take a moment to understand what we mean when we are talking about eduation, indeed the purpose of a University come the illustrious 2012/2013 9k term. The focus on employability and the need for ’employability skills’ (such as the ability for me to teach my students to have ‘self-belief’, networking skills and ‘creativity’ if I want to keep a position in the UK higher education sector) has been increased since the publication of the Browne Review in October 2010, where the relationship between increased undergraduate fees and future income were explicitly linked for the first time (Browne Report, 2010: 35). The expectations of future acceptors, who once used to choose a university based on the love of a subject area or the quality of the course content, may instead only seek to attend universities that can guaranteed successful career prospects (BCU Acceptance Survey, 2009) Can you blame them – when the average debt predicted for the first 9k cohorters is set to average of £60,000 – the pressure to earn and ‘pay back’ that cost, as well as maintain an appropriate standard of living, becomes forefronted as a priority. Essentially, the government is contributing a new set of educational tools for society; a pedagogy of debt. 

Come September this year, we are looking at the last generation of students to enter the university system at the current cost of £3920+ a year. In three years time, when those students graduate, the system will be supported by the new collatoral of the accepting, ever obdient 27k 18-21 year old at its heart. What we know of the education that we enjoyed, albeit at a cost beyond what the majority of those in power experienced, will have been wiped out in favour of Lord Browne’s decisions. The collective memory and the collective purpose of the university can be wiped as quickly as the effects of a riot on the anger of the phone hacking scandal – it is almost as if the school terms are designed in such a way to neutralise radicalism before action can take hold and spread. Already, we are being to see the shutters come down on the next generation of students and with cuts to research funding – the next generation of PhD students and therefore, the next generation of critical thinkers who could pose a challenge and alternative to those in positions of power. What are the alternatives for those brought up to believe that the only route after complusary education is one of the University? 

Interesting things started to happen after the Browne review decision last winter. There was resistance and there were protests – and it was the a-typical, until then generically posed as a-political student cohort. They were the first to act. We watched, as police kettled young people in the cold of November, as they protested for the future of education, knowing that most of them would have graduated beyond that system by the time changes were implimented. At the same time, over 30 universities across the UK went into occupation, reclaiming spaces within the university campus and using for places of learning. Out of the student occupations, many groups and collectives began to form in order to challenge, question and reimagine what a university might look like. Some examples include Leed’s “Really Open University“, the University of Utopia and the University of Strategic Optimism. Other happenings saw groups running learning spaces, where individuals could volunteer and contribute skills and sessions where others could take part and learn from each other. These include the “Really Free School” in London, the Glasgow Open School, the Free University of Liverpool and the Third University here in Leicester. Some, such as the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, are taking on the responsibility to run an organisation that will offer the equivelent of degrees to participants, working as a cooperative to create a geniunely workable and sustainable alternative to a degree paid for by debt. However, this list of places is not limited, where I find that the more I speak and write about these occurances, the more I find out other projects and similar acts of community-led education systems. These are reasons to be excited, in a world where you can’t predict the social, political – and dare I say, economical impact of what the government’s austerity measures may have on us in the coming weeks, months and years. For me, the glimmer of hope that these spaces and the people I’ve met through my very quick introduction to radical politics and media, has been a power antidote to the neo-liberal rhetoric of the mainstream and dominant narratives of 2011. 

So what can be done in Leicester? I’ve already mentioned the Third University, content on being Leicester’s 3rd best, which was set up on the day of the first set of UCU (Univesities and College Union) strikes back in March. Like many good idea, it was dreamt up in a boozer, after many discussions about what the strikes could do and what they represented in terms of the larger picture of resistance against changes to education. We asked ourself what it meant to defend a building and if there was indeed, uncontested space in which these critical ideas of what a university means could be discussed. Through the process of several ‘happenings’ (because we can’t/won’t call them meetings or committees) we discovered that, actually, the third university was an idea to learn things from each other (especially people who are passionate about their favourite things) and to help provide space in order to do that. It doesn’t have a set of demands, but it does have a customer charter, it doesn’t have a governance structure, but it does want you to get involved in anyway you feel that you can. 

So as I conclude, I think about what will happen come September as the students begin again and what can be done to share stories, knowledge and keep the history and understanding of what happened last year alive whilst the system attempted to neutralise it. The battle of ideas – and the battle of knowledge and understanding are key here. These stories of action – especially when they result in positive outcomes, when the media prefer to report on their own agendas- are worthy of being heard and being shared. For me, I see the links between alternative media, citizen reporting and viable alternatives to the corperate and business-like approaches that is being to dominate educational mission statements. It is important that not only are these alternative heard about, they are also shared, passed on and encouraged to grow for as long as they are required. As we have seen from the Free Hetherington, it is possible to make a stand and to make a change against what is happening – and although we cannot predict what will happen in response to the promised demands, we know that there are people out there who are commited to re/defend our education system and those of us who are in, against and beyond the university as it stands. 

The third university is working closely with Leicester’s community media network Citizen Eye, running sessions alongside other events and workshops. We will be running a week of activities/lessons and things during community media week in November, a week leading up to the 9th of November national demonstration in London.


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What does the Citizen Journalist Want?: Alternative Media & Activist Rhetoric in Cyberculture. (Paper for #virtualfutures, University of Warwick)

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. 

Atton, C. (2002) Alternative Media. Sage: London.

Carpenter, S. (2010) A study of content diversity in online citizen journalism and online newspaper articles. New Media and Society. 12 (7) 1064-1084.

Chomsky, N & Macedo, D. (2004) Chomsky on Miseducation. Rowman & Littlefield: London.

Dean, J. (2010) Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the circuits of the drive. Polity: London.

Downing, J. (2001) Radicial Media: Rebellious communication and social movements. Sage: London.Goode, L. (2009) Social news, citizen journalism and democracy. New Media and Society. 11 (8) 1287-1305

Hall, R. (2011) Occupation:a place to deliberate the socio-history of re-production. Roundhouse journal: Reimaging the University. Available at:

Hine, C. (2000) Virtual Ethnography. Sage: London.

Illich, I. (1971) Deschooling Society. Harpercollins: London.

Rikowski, G. (2004) Marx and the Education of the Future. Policy Futures in Education, 2 (3&4) 564-577

Slevin, J. (2000) The Internet and Society. Blackwell Publishing: London.

Terranova, T. (2000), ‘Free Labor: producing culture for the digital economy’, Social Text, 63, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 33-58.

Turner, G. (2009) Ordinary People and the Media: The Demotic Turn. Sage: London.

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