For the odd moments I can manage to think of something.

Telling stories

What's news pussycat?

What's news pussycat?

So, to those who know me – the fact that I am reading another book of essays on citjo will not be a huge surprise. Reading around the topic for a handful of years I’m getting used to the formula for this sort of academic writing.

So – open with a hot example – a war, a crisis – something newsworthy and set the scene. Something big happened and people who are now enabled with recording tools to tell as story choose to bear witness and publish to the web so that they can share. Then use this to illustrate your theory – whatever that may be – “People are sharing”, “Some content is free”, “Sharing can disrupt mainstream media and politics”, “It can reshape civic action”, “It can bring your life closer to your relatives thousands of miles away”, “It can show how clever and funny you are within a shared context”. Yes, yes and yes all over. I totally agree and within reason, I enjoy the context and the examples, although many are repeated as it is usually the higher profile cases that make the grade.

With relation to news, one thing struck me as an odd chord. More than one commentator claims that citizen journalism or reporting started either with the London attacks of July 7th or the Asian tsunami of 2004. I was starting to wriggle at this idea…it didn’t sit right – so I had a think and a search and here are some notes for discussion should anyone else want to chime in.

I don’t think that’s right. There – I said it. Citizen journalism for crisis reporting for sure had a much wider platform to appear for these events. The rise in ubiquity of the mobile phone with added camera helps and the way we use the web without silos for access, also useful. But journalism and news was already granular on the web by this time. People take what they need, the specify their interests. Blogs and discussion boards were already rife with comment and witness statement, I’m just not sure we were all looking and reading.

Back in 1997 an author named JK Rowling (you may have heard of her) finally had her first Harry Potter book published. Do you remember? I was already pottering about on Aol around this time. Silo? yes. Fun? definitely. I had access to people all over the world – we talked about everything that was of interest to us. At this time America Online had chat rooms split into interests, I enjoyed roaming around talking to people in Japan, or to people who liked gaming and of course to those who were interested in books.

Roll on 1998. The Harry Potter series progresses to book 2 and by now there’s a fever about it online. I dropped in to the book chat rooms regularly and often there was little else on the agenda. At the time I made friends with a guy in Texas, he was dealing in books. I got to know him and his wife – lovely people – hot after copies of the UK release of HP because they knew it would sell. They would ask about the popularity in the UK and we’d chit-chat for hours.
Naturally as we became friends, the topic would change and we’d hop channels so that we could talk about our general gossip and not bore people looking to talk about books.

Something else was happening in Texas at that time. The heatwave of 1998 killed at least 21 people. The couple I was chatting with were elderly and of course the heat is a danger to those of advanced years – they were worried too, about their health, the people around them, water bans, their garden. The usual things you talk about in this situation. It was news for us – and for the headline writers of newspapers and online publications.

These are the people I would be trying to talk to during an extreme heatwave in a particular area today. They were bearing witness to an extraordinary happening. Though they were not self publishing on a blog, many others were and it was possible to find those writings often with their sparkly Geocities gifs and additions. People do what they can with the means available to them.

So – citizen reporting starting in 2004? No, I don’t agree. It was not as simple to find the right texts for the untrained and people were not so self aware about their publishing, nor was it a classy presentation of data with multimedia collected via cameraphones and flip cameras. But I think that people (citizens) tell their stories (reporters) no matter where they are.

The thing that has changed maybe is that many of these people act in with way with a purpose now. To attract the attention of or compete with mainstream news outlets. Also to report the stories that mean more to them if they feel that larger media outlets are not providing adequate coverage.

Naming the beast doesn’t mean we invented it. But paying attention to those original outposts and methods can be very useful as not all news comes via Twitter (although many hot tips these days do). Reading blogs is still a good discipline, the dynamic is different and the selection of writers also differs from Tweeters and Facebookers in some areas. But the original voices bearing witness to news – both fluffy and for crisis reporting still remains a strong point when it comes to gathering information.

Jump in – let’s talk.

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2 Responses to “Telling stories”

  1. alexiskennedy

    people were not so self aware about their publishing,

    I think you’re bang on. The overlap between storytelling and citizen journalism is one of those things that only look obvious after it’s been pointed out, but now you’ve pointed it out it makes thorough sense.

    The flex in audience size is the key point here, isn’t it? You post an eyewitness anecdote to Usenet or fifteen years later Tweetpic a sinking airliner, and you have no idea if the audience is twelve people you know or twelve thousand you don’t. that only happens after you’ve published it. So if I’m not self-conscious about what I’m doing, the distinction between storytelling and citjo is just the post facto audience size. The importance of the topic is only one contributing factor to that. As you point out, it’s just the shift in expectation by the storyteller that they might be talking to thousands that makes the difference.

  2. jemimahknight

    Thank you Mr Kennedy, if only I could turn that hindsight into at least current observation or maybe futurecasting!


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