Chapter 3: How participatory journalism is taking form
Participation has been a fundamental component of the Internet since its inception. Newsgroups, mailing lists and bulletin boards were the early cousins to the forums, weblogs and collaborative communities flourishing today. Those early forms are still thriving, a testament to our need to stay connected to our social networks.
Participatory journalism flourishes in social media — the interpersonal communication that takes place through email, chat, message boards, forums — and in collaborative media — hybrid forms of news, discussion and community.
This section categorizes the forms in which participatory journalism takes shape. Some of these forms continue to evolve and merge and thus overlap. The list, while generalized, is meant to describe the outlines of that participation and the communities where it resides.
Considering the "publish, then filter" model1 that most of these forms follow, we define each form's self-correcting or filtering mechanism. The end goal of filtering is the same in all — to amplify the signal-to-noise ratio, separating the meaningful information from the chatter.
Forms of participatory journalismDiscussion groups
Online discussion groups are the oldest and still the most popular forms for participation. Discussion groups run the gamut from bulletin boards and forums to mailing lists and chat rooms.
Participants might engage a discussion group to answer tech support questions, to trade stock-trading tips, to argue about a favorite sports team, to share experiences about a health care issue, or to join a collaborative work project.
Mailing lists, newsgroups, bulletin boards, and forums are methods of asynchronous communication, meaning that all participants do not have to be online at the same time to communicate. Sometimes this leads to more thoughtful contributions, because participants have more time to refine their responses.
Chat rooms, on the other hand, are synchronous, where all participants must be online at the same time to communicate. This has the benefit of providing immediacy and can be used effectively for business services such as customer support. But for the most part, chat rooms are more like virtual cafes or hangouts, with live, unfiltered discussion.
Forum discussions are probably the most familiar discussion group form to the average Internet user. Forums are typically arranged into threads in which an initial message or post appears at the beginning of a discussion and responses are attached in a branching manner. When forums are viewed in threads, it's easy to recognize the branching of conversation that occurs, some of which might not be entirely related to the original post. Some forums permit the audience to sort messages by various means — popularity, date, ranking. Many forums are archived, turning them into a searchable knowledge base of community conversation.
Here's a look at the strengths and weaknesses of various forms of online participation, together with a description of how they work.
Self-correcting process: In a discussion group, moderators police the content and actions of participants, sometimes removing and editing parts of the conversations that violate the standards of the community. These moderators are sometimes appointed by the community; in other cases they are appointed by the host or owner of the forums. However, in many discussion communities, the participants police each other, sharing their views of when particular behaviors or actions are inappropriate.
Strengths: Most discussion forms have a relatively low barrier to entry (just create an user account), with an especially low level of commitment. For example, a participant can engage a forum only once, or few times, and still have a meaningful experience.
Weaknesses: Sometimes forums are too open, easily garnering flip, reactive comments. Active, large forums can get noisy, with so many posts from so many members, it's hard to determine what information is meaningful or useful. In addition, some moderated forums require each post to be pre-approved before it appears online, slowing down and smothering the conversation.
Many online media outlets have abandoned discussion forums in the past few years, citing legal problems as well as lack of sufficient staff to moderate and maintain forums. Ultimately, some media outlets think forums provide little value to the audience and to the bottom line (ROI).2 One barrier to effective advertising on these pages is the lack of content control by either the advertiser or publisher.
• Lawrence Journal World - Reader Reaction
• About.com - Voices of Hysterectomy Forum
Many news sites provide a vehicle — through Web-based forms or email — designed to collect content from the audience and redistribute it. This vehicle can collect full-length articles, advice/tips, journals, reviews, calendar events, useful links, photos and more. The content is usually text-based, but increasingly we are seeing the contribution of audio, video and photographs. After submission, the content appears online with or without editorial review, depending on the nature of content and the host policy.
Ranking is another popular and easy way for the audience to participate. Examples include rating a story, a reporter and other users. Ranking systems typically provide the best benefit when a sufficient number of users have participated, for example, "4,202 readers give this movie 4 out of 5 stars."
Internet users also provide content through feedback systems, such as polls or mini-forums attached to story pages. Polls sometimes also support comment submissions.
Self-correcting process: Usually, audience submissions go to a traditional editor at the host site, undergo an editing or approval process, and then are posted to the Web. Ranking and feedback mechanisms, however, are typically posted live immediately. Communities often police the submissions, and strong agreement or disagreement with a submission may prompt members to submit their own comments. This commonly occurs with reviews of products, movies and restaurants.
Strengths: Like forums, audience submissions have a relatively low barrier to entry, with a low level of commitment. A participant can submit (usually on topics that meet a special interest) only once, or few times, and still have a meaningful experience. Those who post repeatedly may build up over time a reputation among their peers as an expert on the subject.
Weaknesses: The quality of user-generated content can be uneven, with participants who are not trained writers or fact-checkers. As a result, some content can require extensive editing. Generally, this type of content relies on the good will of the audience to not exploit the system. It's easy, in some cases, to skew polls and other feedback systems, by voting multiple times. Also, a low volume of participation can limit the value of feedback systems.
• CitySearch.com - Location review
• BabyCenter.com - Forums, Polls, Advice, Chat
Among the newest forms of participatory journalism to gain popularity is the weblog. A weblog is a web page made up of usually short, frequently updated text blocks or entries that are arranged in reverse chronological order (most recent to oldest). The content and purpose of weblogs vary greatly, ranging from personal diary to journalistic community news to collaborative discussion groups in a corporate setting.
Weblogs can provide links and commentary about content on other Web sites. They can be a form of "latest news" page. Or they can consist of project diaries, photos, poetry, mini-essays, project updates, even fiction. The quick, short posts on weblogs have been likened to "instant messages to the Web." On other weblogs, the content can be longer, such as excerpts from a research paper in progress, with the author seeking comment from peers.
Weblogs fall into the one-to-many (individual blogs) or many-to-many (group blogs) model of media, with some allowing no or little discussion by users and others generating robust reader responses. Either way, weblogs inevitably become part of what is now called the "blogosphere." This is the name given to the intercast of weblogs — the linking to and discussion of what others have written or linked to, in essence a distributed discussion.
The blogosphere is facilitated by several technologies. First, it is supported by TrackBack3 — a mechanism that automatically finds other comments about a blog post on a weblog, and provides excerpts and links to the comments alongside the post. It's like having an editorial page of commentary on the Web, automatically generated to appear alongside a story.
Second, the blogosphere is fueled by meta-sites such as Daypop, MIT's Blogdex, Technorati and others. Theses sites track what items weblogs are linking to and talking about — news stories, weblog posts, new products (movies, books, software), whatever subject is catching their attention. Meta-sites provides a popularity ranking of the most linked-to items, and then indexes all links to those items.
The blogosphere is also supported by a third technology, XML or RSS syndication. This allows weblogs to syndicate their content to anyone using a "news reader," a downloadable program that creates a peer-to-peer distribution model. With content so easily exchanged, it's easy to know what others in your peer group are talking about. (XML Syndication is discussed in detail later in this chapter).
Weblogs are a powerful draw in that they enable the individual participant to play multiple roles simultaneously – publisher, commentator, moderator, writer, documentarian.
Weblogs have also proven to be effective collaborative communication tools. They help small groups (and in a few cases, large) communicate in a way that is simpler and easier to follow than email lists or discussion forums.
For example, a project team can collaboratively produce a weblog, where many individuals can post information (related Web site links, files, quotes, meeting notes or commentary) that might be useful or interesting to the group or to inform others outside the group. A collaborative weblog can help keep everyone in the loop, promoting cohesiveness in the group.
Self-correcting process: Weblogs rely on audience feedback, through weblog commenting forms, email or remarks made on other weblogs, as a method of correction. Typically, webloggers are reliable about correcting their mistakes, and a great many frequently link to dissenting viewpoints on the Web.
Strengths: Weblogs are easy to set up, operate and maintain. The technology is relatively inexpensive, sometimes even free. This allows just about anyone to simultaneously become a publisher, creator and distributor of content.
Weaknesses: This type of publishing requires a higher level of commitment and time from the creator than other forms. Also, it is difficult for weblogs to attract readers, other than through word of mouth and weblog aggregation and search engines. Weblogs have also been judged as being too self-referential, with critics likening them more to the "Daily Me" than the "Daily We."
• Florida Today's Columbia Landing Journal
• Gawker.com - a gossip weblog for New York City
• Leo's Mob - a weblog created with a cell phone digital camera.
The technology behind many online communities is open source and free. In addition, Web publishing tools and content management systems are becoming easier to install, deploy and manage. As a result, thousands of Web-based collaborative publishing communities have appeared in the past five years.
As open-source tools for forums, weblogs and content management systems (CMS) have evolved, they have begun to blur into each other. This has led to the development of groupware, Web- or desktop-based applications designed for the collaborative creation and distribution of news and information, file-sharing and communication. Weblogs are considered to be groupware, because they can be collaboratively created. But in this section, we are addressing systems that are somewhat more complex.
A collaborative publishing environment is designed to enable a group of participants (large or small) to play multiple roles: content creators, moderators, editors, advertisers and readers. While the environment may be owned by an individual creator or host organization, the goal of these systems is distributed ownership and deep involvement from its community of users.
Forums, mailing lists and weblogs can be effective collaborative publishing environments. But what distinguishes this group from other forms is the self-correcting process and the rules that govern participation (see Chapter 4 for more on rules).
Forums use moderators and community feedback. Weblogs usually have a feedback feature or, more often, other weblogs link back and discuss posts. However, in complex collaborative publishing environments, the self-correcting processes are more akin to peer review, traditional editing oversight and meta-moderators, individuals who police moderators to make sure the conversation doesn't get skewed or diluted.
The most well-known of these environments is Slashdot.org, which resembles a cross between a large-scale forum and a collaborative weblog. Slashdot is driven by a combination of editorial oversight by its owners, submissions by users, and moderation and meta-moderation by the community of users. The site attracts more than 10 million unique readers each month, with roughly a half million audience members (5 percent) participating by submitting articles, moderating, ranking and posting comments. The open-source technology behind Slashdot now runs thousands of similar communities on the Web.4
Extending the Slashdot model in a different direction, Kuro5hin.org passed on editorial oversight to its members. Every story is written by a member and then submitted for peer review. Next, the story is edited, discussed and ranked before it even appears on the site. Finally, the audience reacts, comments and extends the story.
The open-source technology that runs Kuro5hin, called Scoop, is a "collaborative media application" according to its creator, Rusty Foster. "It empowers your visitors to be the producers of the site, to contribute news and discussion, and to make sure the signal remains high."
One measure of the success of these two collaboration systems is that Google News includes Slashdot and Kuro5hin as two of the 4,500 sources for its news search index.
A somewhat less-structured approach to collaborative publishing is the Wiki model. Wiki technology, depending on how its deployed, is used for writing, discussion, storage, email and collaboration. In this discussion, we will narrow our focus to collaborative examples, such as Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an international, open content, collaboratively developed encyclopedia. In just over two years, it has amassed more than 120,000 articles in English as well as more than 75,000 articles in other languages.
At first glance, a Wiki appears to be somewhat chaotic, allowing any member the ability to create public domain articles and edit just about any piece of text within the environment. The central component is that every change is tracked, and can be reviewed, challenged or restored — an omnipotent version history. As evidence to the ever-blurring lines of these forms, there are now experiments in Wiki-style weblogs.5
Another interesting example of a collaborative publishing is Zaplet technology, where discussion forums, polling and group decision-making tools are exchanged inside dynamic emails.
Among the most advanced and ambitious groupware desktop applications is Groove, created by Ray Ozzie, who also created one of the best-known collaboration tools, Lotus Notes. Groove is a peer-to-peer program that allows large or small groups to collaboratively write, surf, exchange files, chat, create forums and invite outsiders to participate. It even supports voice-over-IP communications.
Self-correcting process: Collaborative systems usually have a detailed workflow for built-in correction, such as Slashdot's system, where the audience ranks other audience members and their comments, moderators police discussions, and moderators are monitored by meta-moderators. In the case of Kuro5hin, the audience acts as editor before and after publishing.
Strengths: Participants can engage multiple roles, or earn the privilege of new roles. A greater level of involvement and ownership from the audience usually yields greater reward (better discussion and content) than in other forms.
Weaknesses: These systems are more difficult to launch and maintain than others, due to technical complexity. Depending on the number of participants in the environment, the speed at which membership grows, and how active the membership is in creating content, collaborative systems become increasingly unwieldy and complex to manage.
• Wikipedia - Open Source Encyclopedia
• Slashdot - News for Nerds
• Kuro5hin - Technology and Culture
• Internet Movie Database
Peer-to-peer (P2P) describes applications in which people can use the Internet to communicate or share and distribute digital files with each other directly or through a mediating Web server.
P2P communication: Instant Messaging (IM) and Short Message Service (SMS) are the most pervasive forms of peer-to-peer communication. These forms constitute types of social media, where personal, informal conversation occurs in a "one-to-one" or "one-to-few" model.
While the content of IM and SMS is difficult to categorize or analyze, its appeal and usefulness as a communications medium is unquestionable. Surveys from the Pew Internet and American Life Project reveal that more than 50 million Americans (about 46 percent of all Internet users) have send instant messages, and about 7 million (11 percent) of all these users send instant messages daily. AOL, one of the most popular of instant messaging providers, transmits almost 1.4 billion instant messages each day.
SMS, short text messages that are sent between cell phones, is pervasive in Europe and Asia but hasn't yet gained traction in the United States due to the lack of support for a key industry technology (GSM).
In the past decade, as American culture has embraced mobile technologies, instant messaging has become a powerful means of distributing news and information to computers, cell phones, pagers and PDAs. Now, everything from news headlines and stories, sports scores, stock quotes, airline flight schedules and eBay bids are regularly sent directly to mobile devices, through instant messages or SMS. In addition, parents keep in closer contact with their teen children through IM.
Reuters explored the business prospects for instant messaging of news, sports and financial information with an ActiveBuddy tool. Audience members who added this intelligent news agent as a IM buddy could ask for news on demand based on keywords.
In Hong Kong, the Chinese government sent a blanket of 6 million SMS messages to spread the word and avert panic about the outbreak of the SARS respiratory illness.6
As cell phones and mobile devices have integrated digital camera technology, instant messaging is now expanding outside of text communications to include still photography and video. This is already being used in a peer-to-peer fashion among friends or colleagues, but it is also being used as a vehicle to submit photography and video directly to a Web site or weblog. During worldwide protests against the war in Iraq, the BBCNews.com asked its readers to submit photos from their digital cameras and cell phones.7
Microsoft's ThreeDegrees application is an interesting experiment in peer-to-peer communication. Participants form groups with this software to chat, share pictures and music to the group, without permanently sharing the files. Music and images are streamed to the group members on the fly.
P2P Distribution: Peer-to-peer forms excel when it comes to the distribution and dissemination of digital files, which may carry valuable news and information. Instant messaging users can exchange digital files on the fly in the middle of a conversation. But the heart of P2P file sharing was born with Napster, the controversial desktop software program designed to enable participants to share any digital music file on their hard drives.
At its zenith, 70 million users were trading 2.7 billion files per month. Since Napster was shut down, other file-sharing programs (called Gnutella clients) such as Morpheus and Kazaa have stepped in, allowing billions of movies, songs, ebooks, software and other digital files to be exchanged among the masses.
From a participatory journalism perspective, P2P has enormous potential to distribute the content created by digital amateurs. One example is the recent emergence of P2P photo-sharing software programs. Such programs let you define a list of friends and mark photos that you want to share with your them. The program watches for your friends to log on and then automatically makes the images available for downloading or real-time viewing.
Self-correcting process: Peer-to-peer file sharing doesn't necessarily need correction, but ranking and filtering mechanisms can increase the signal-to-noise ratio. Peer-to-peer communication such as instant messaging doesn't need correction either, any more than a conversation with a friend would. However, chat rooms sometimes benefit from moderation.
Strengths: Synchronous communication is a powerful vehicle for immediate news and information. SMS has the advantage of being both synchronous and asynchronous, because if a participant isn't online, the message is stored for later retrieval.
Weaknesses: Instant messaging requires participants to be online in order to communicate. The lack of interoperability between software programs, conflicting messaging standards and closed devices are sources of continual frustration, creating islands of users who are unable communicate with others. For example, an AOL instant messaging user cannot communicate with an MSN user.
The content on many of these forms, especially blogs and collaborative systems, can be syndicated through the use of an XML specification called RSS, Rich Site Summary. An RSS file typically contains a list of headlines, summaries and links recently published by a given site. Using news reader applications such as NewzCrawler, AmphetaDesk or NetNewsWire, Web readers can browse these RSS files, sorting through large amounts of news content at a rapid rate. When a reader finds an item of interest, she clicks on the headline and it takes her to the story on the source's site.
RSS syndication seems to be making an impact in several ways. Content creators, from mainstream media to the average blogger, can easily syndicate their content to RSS reader applications, creating a peer-to-peer distribution model. In many cases, the user doesn't have to do a thing. "It's all part of the democratization effect of the Web," says entrepreneur Dave Winer, who incorporated an early version of RSS in Userland blogging software in 1999. "It puts bloggers on the same field as the big news corporations, and that's great."8
News readers can be trained to go out and refresh content based on a time schedule. This allows readers to be up to date without having to search for recent news on their own.
"Most people, once they start using RSS to check the news, just don't go back (to surfing Web pages)," says Tim Bray, co-editor of the World Wide Web Consortium's XML specification. "The amount of time and irritation saved is totally, completely addictive."9
According to columnist J.D. Lasica, this virtue can motivate users into an immediate online dialogue, whether through e-mails, discussion boards or blog entries. "Interactivity is much more vibrant when the news is fresh."10
"News readers help to build community," adds Matthew Gifford, a Web developer in Bloomingdale, Ill. "You can see the ebb and flow of ideas around the network much better now."11
The XML structure of RSS feeds also allows other sites to easily integrate a headline and summary feed into other products, redistributing content in a viral fashion.
Open vs. closed
The scale of these forms, the technology behind them and type of participation that occurs varies greatly. However, the nature of participation can be affected by one additional key factor that should be considered: Is the environment public or private? We have identified four categories of openness that these forms usually fall within:
1. Open Communal: While there typically is a single host, facilitator or architect of the community, almost all activity within it — membership, editing, filtering, moderation, content contribution, etc. — is managed and governed by the community it serves.
2. Open Exclusive: A group of privileged members, usually the owners of the site, is allowed to post primary content to the site, while the audience creates secondary content through commentary. This is typical of weblogs. Sometimes exclusivity can be assigned to audience members. For example, MetaFilter limits the number of new members that can join each day.
3. Closed: Only a group of privileged members can read, post, edit and comment on content. The system, which can take the form of a weblog or forum, exists in a private Web environment, such as a company intranet. Instant messaging and email are private, and thus closed.
4. Partially Closed: In this case, some portion of the information created by a closed community is exposed to a public Web space.
Function of participationThis section attempts to categorize participatory journalism by the function the audience serves.
The most pervasive, and perhaps fundamental, level of participation is commentary. During the past three decades, forums, newsgroups, chat rooms and instant messaging have enabled online discussion on just about any subject of interest imaginable. Summing up the ubiquity and popularity of this activity, a Pew Research report noted that in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks, nearly one-third of all American Internet users "read or posted material in chat rooms, bulletin boards or online forums."
In the past five years, weblogs have increased the signal of this activity, with some advocating the blog form as the next generation of newspaper op/ed page.
"Though webloggers do actual reporting from time to time, most of what they bring to the table is opinion and analysis — punditry," says Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee and author of the popular weblog InstaPundit.12
Filtering and editing
With the flood of information available, as well as competing demands of media attention, the door has opened for alternative forms of editing — filtering, sorting, ranking and linking. This process is akin to "editing" in the sense of editorial judgment and selection. The online participants "guide and direct" their community, large or small, to valued news and information.13
Filtering and ranking can be based on explicit singular or collective participation. For example, Gizmodo, "the Gadgets Weblog," is a well-edited, "best-of" list of links to news and information about cutting-edge consumer electronics. Gizmodo is produced by one person. The search engine Daypop, also run by one person, has a collection of the Top 40 most linked-to news and information Web pages within the blogging community.
Many news sites, such as MSNBC.com and CNN.com, employ a similar "Most Read Top 10," where all site visitors' choices are accumulated into a popularity ranking. Other interesting examples of filtering systems include Google's Page Rank algorithms, Yahoo's Buzz — based on popular searches — and The New York Times' "most e-mailed stories."
Filtering, however, doesn't have to come from explicit activities, such as linking or favorite lists. It can also have implicit origins, such as Amazon's well-known "People who bought this item also bought ..." feature. This is an example of collaborative filtering, in which Amazon uses information about previous sales and browsing to suggest potentially relevant products to returning customers.
In discussion forums and weblogs, the act of verification is a frequent activity. The initial post in either form begins with a link to a story, followed by a statement questioning the validity of certain facts. What ensues is a community effort to uncover the truth. Sometimes journalists enter the fray in an effort to uncover the truth in traditional media. One example of this occurred when the Slashdot community and an Associated Press reporter uncovered a fraudulent ad campaign by Microsoft.14
"This is tomorrow's journalism," says blogger and journalist Dan Gillmor, "a partnership of sorts between professionals and the legions of gifted amateurs out there who can help us — all of us — figure things out. It's a positive development, and we're still figuring out how it works."15
Taking the form of eyewitness or first-hand accounts, Internet users are participating in the fact-gathering and reporting process, sometimes even conveying breaking news. Weblogs and forums brought compelling first-hand accounts and photography to the events of September 11.
The terrorist attacks were the watershed event for grassroots reporting in weblogs, says John Hiler, co-founder of WebCrimson, a software consulting firm based in Manhattan, and Xanga.com, one of the largest weblog community sites. "Eyewitness reporting comes in large part from people's desire to share their stories and publish the truth. These are key features in blog-based grassroots reporting, and a big reason that weblogs have exploded in popularity since September 11th."
"There are so many post 9-11 weblogs that they've gotten their own name: warblogs," Hiler says. Warblogs continue to dissect and analyze the news from the war on terrorism.
The scope of blog journalism has expanded to other areas of interest. "[A]lternative internet sources are gaining a reputation for breaking important news stories more quickly than traditional media sources," says Chris Sherman, associate editor of SearchEngineWatch.com. "For example, The New York Times reported that the first hint of problems that doomed the space shuttle Columbia appeared on an online discussion eleven minutes before the Associated Press issued its first wire-service alert."16
Fact-gathering and grassroots reporting also come from professional or amateur subject matter experts who publish a weblog or participate in a collaborative community, such as Slashdot. These participants tend to produce a wealth of original content as well as opinion, links and original databases of resources on their expertise. This is particularly successful on a subject or theme that is not covered well by mainstream media.
An excellent example of such niche amateurs is the Web site Digital Photography Review. This news and reviews site is written and produced by UK photography consultant Phil Askey and his wife Joanna. The nearly 4-year-old site features a weblog on digital photography news, plus in-depth equipment reviews and original coverage of trade shows. It also has a active discussion forum. From its modest beginnings in late 1998, it now attracts almost 7 million unique visitors and 40 million page views each month.17
Another way to characterize the fact-checking, grassroots reporting and commentary in weblogs and related forms is to view the activity as an extension of traditional reportage. Adding to, or supplementing, the information in a given story is the goal of many participants who believe that a particular point of view, angle or piece of information is missing from coverage in the mainstream media.
Reporters have also used participatory forms on the web to annotate themselves, calling it "transparent journalism," by publishing the complete text of their interviews on their weblogs. For example, Online Journalism Review's senior editor J.D. Lasica sometimes uses his weblog to print the complete text of interviews he conducts for an OJR article. Lasica explains why he did this earlier this year on a story about RSS syndication, "I'm posting the comments of my interview subjects here, since I had so little room to include them in my column. I suspect most journalists don't do this because (a) it's a hell of a lot of work, and (b) it could call into question the decision-making process on which quotes the writer selected for his or her story."18
When taking the role of a source, Lasica also posts transcripts of when he's been interviewed by media outlets about subjects like the state of online news media.19 This could have tremendous impact if sources such as politicians, celebrities, athletes and others begin to post transcripts of interviews by the media.
Open-source reporting and peer review
Some media are allowing their readers to evaluate and react to content online before its official publication in the traditional product. Journalism researcher Mark Deuze suggests that this type of journalism, similar to a peer review process, is best suited to "specialized niche markets" whose audience has comparably specialized interests and needs.20 Considering the fluidity and connectivity of the Internet, it is within reason to suggest that a community of interested peers could quickly be assembled on any given subject.
The most frequently documented case of open-source journalism, is the story of Slashdot and Jane's Intelligence Review. Dan Gillmor recounts what happened:
"In 1999, Jane's Intelligence Review, the journal widely followed in national security circles, wondered whether it was on the right track with an article about computer security and cyberterrorism. The editors went straight to some experts — the denizens of Slashdot, a tech-oriented Web site — and published a draft. In hundreds of postings on the site's message system, the technically adept members of that community promptly tore apart the draft and gave, often in colorful language, a variety of perspectives and suggestions. Jane's went back to the drawing board, and rewrote the article from scratch. The community had helped create something, and Jane's gratefully noted the contribution in the article it ultimately published."21
While not nearly as widespread due to cost barriers and technological know-how, the Web has empowered the audience to the play the role of audio or video broadcaster.
Internet radio and television stations use streaming servers or straight file downloads to deliver content. These bandwidth-intensive sites can be expensive to operate and require donations or some type of revenue stream to survive. Yet thousands of these sites continue to thrive, like many audience-driven sites, by providing alternative/niche content.
As broadband adoption increases, creation tools get cheaper and more simple, and the entertainment center of the home (TV) gets connected to the Web, we should see a significant proliferation of audio and video content created and distributed by the audience.
Buying, selling and advertising
The egalitarian ethos driving participatory journalism is not restricted merely to the dissemination of news and information but also encompasses commerce and advertising.
"The web has created an unprecedented opportunity for consumers to openly discuss the products that fill their lives," says Derek Powazek in his book Design for Community. "From email to web sites to Usenet, there are millions of conversations on anything and everything you can buy, rent, or do."22
Commerce communities began to develop in the mid-'90s with sites such as Amazon, which include reviews by users on its product pages. Sites like Edmunds.com provide discussion and advice about purchasing cars. The participation in commerce communities includes commentary, grassroots reporting and fact-checking.
At the same time, in the mid-'90s, consumer to consumer (C2C) environments began to establish the notion of the audience owning all aspects of the business chain — buying and selling to each other. Examples range from the monolithic auction site eBay, with more than 12 million items for sale, to the intimate, down-to-earth classifieds of craigslist.org.23
Easy-to-use systems such as PayPal, Amazon zShops and Yahoo Stores enable any Internet user to put up a storefront in a few hours. Affiliate programs, like those set up by Amazon, allow anyone to share in the profits when an item sells. Donation engines, like Amazon's Honor System, enable small-scale publishers like webloggers to collect an income ranging from the modest to respectable. During a one-week pledge drive in December 2002, weblogger and New Republic senior editor Andrew Sullivan generated $79,020 in donations from 3,339 of his weblog readers.24
In the past few years, following the lead of Google and collaborative weblogs such as MetaFilter and Kuro5hin, we have begun to see the proliferation of text-based advertising. Depending on how the system is designed and priced, audience members can compete with large companies for the same ad space.
Kuro5shin's community text ads offers a key twist — any community member can publicly comment on an advertisement.
"The idea behind ad comments is twofold," explains Foster, Kuro5hin's founder. "For the advertiser, the benefit is that potential customers can meet you on ‘neutral ground,' ask questions and get more information in a place they're already comfortable. And for the users, the benefit is that they can see what others have said abut the product, whether it's good or bad, and how the advertiser has dealt with other people."25
Some people are taking weblogs and using them as a tool for personal and corporate knowledge management, in what's become known as "klogging."
Weblogs have proven to be a great enabler of knowledge collecting and sharing. A strong emphasis on hypertext linking, simple content publishing and syndication helps creators amass a searchable and distributable knowledge base related to personal interests, academic research or the workplace.
Weblogging also encourages interaction and refinement of ideas, enabling a group of peers to add to the knowledge through feedback or comment. Group weblogging has become an effective tool for knowledge management in the workplace.
The authors of We Blog: Publishing Online with Weblogs explain one scenario of how weblogs build and capture knowledge: "By integrating the weblog publishing process into how inter-office communication happens, it becomes possible for weblogs to function simultaneously as informal knowledge management systems. An e-mail exchange between two technical support reps outlining a fix to a common problem can be copied to the department weblog. Now that fix, that knowledge, is stored in a centralized location, and is available to everyone else in the group."26
In the next chapter, The rules of participation, we examine what motivates the audience to take on their participatory roles and what kinds of rules yield the most fruitful participation.
1. Clay Shirky, "Broadcast Institutions, Community Values," first published Sept. 9, 2002, on the Networks, Economics, and Culture mailing list.
2. Derek Powazek's essay "Community-friendly advertising," published April 19, 2002 on his Web site, describes why CNN closed their forums, and other sites moved forums to fee-based services.
Jim Cashel, editor of the Online Community Report newsletter, says, "While many (community) sites were successful in attracting huge usage, revenue hasn’t kept pace. Most online community sites are not economically viable and never will be." From his article "Top Ten Trends for Online Communities," published in his newsletter.
3. TrackBack is the formal name of this function within MovableType, a popular weblog software system. Other software offers this functionality under a different name. For more information, see "A Beginner's Guide to TrackBack" by Mena and Ben Trott on the MovableType web site.
4. Slashdot statistics provided in an email from Jeffrey "Hemos" Bates, one of Slashdot's founders. Also see, Slashcode.com.
6. Associated Press, "Six million mobile phones get the message," April 3, 2003.
7. "Your pictures of the anti-war demonstrations" on BBC.com, February 18, 2003.
Steve Outing also has documented several other excellent examples of audience photo submissions in his Stop The Presses column, "Photo Phones Portend Visual Revolution," on Editor & Publisher’s Web site, March 12, 2003.
8. J.D. Lasica, "News That Comes to You," Jan. 23, 2003, Online Journalism Review.
9. Tim Bray, "Where Next for RSS?," Jan. 23, 2003. Self-published.
12. Glenn Harlan Reynolds, "Symbiotic Media," Oct. 16, 2002, TechCentralStation.com
13. Guide and direct is a term coined by Tim McGuire, former editor of The Minneapolis Star Tribune.
14. Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis, "Grassroots reporting breaks MS ad fraud," Hypergene MediaBlog, Oct. 15, 2002.
15. Dan Gillmor, "Microsoft Ad Unravels — Lessons," SiliconValley.com, Oct. 15, 2002.
16. Chris Sherman, "Puzzling Out Google’s Blogger Acquisition," Search Day newsletter, Feb. 18, 2003.
17. "Why Advertise on Digital Photography Review," statistics as of January 2003.
18. J.D. Lasica, "An experiment in interviewing: News readers and RSS feeds," posted on his weblog, Jan. 23, 2003.
Also see: Sheila Lennon’s "Bloggers, NYT author weigh in on interview transcript," posted on her weblog, Sept. 28, 2002.
19. Examples of Lasica posting interviews:A, B
20. Mark Deuze, "Online Journalism: Modelling the First Generation of News Media on the World Wide Web," First Monday, Volume 6, Number 10 (October 2001).
21. Dan Gillmor, "Here Comes We Media," Columbia Journalism Review, January/February, 2003. This story is also recounted by Mark Deuze, in his aforementioned "Online Journalism" article for First Monday.
22. Derek Powazek, Design for Community (New Riders, 2002).
23. eBay.com. About eBay — Company Overview.
24. Post on AndrewSullivan.com, Dec.19, 2002.
25. Bowman and Willis, "Kuro5hin’s active text ad comments," Hypergene MediaBlog, Dec. 5, 2002.
26. Paul Bausch, Matthew Haughey, Meg Hourihan, We Blog: Publishing Online with Weblogs (John Wiley & Sons, August 2002).