Monday, October 09, 2006

Where do you live, citizen journalist? Flattening the Hyperlocal Concept

In many corners of the journalism establishment, hyperlocal citizen journalism blogs or placeblogs are all the rage. Some newspapers want to emulate them, others want to stomp them into the ground. But if you think about it, in an Internet Age of long tails, niches, and an increasingly flat world, the term "hyperlocal" can itself end up...well...flat...

On My Heart's in Accra, Ethan Zuckerman posted some fabulous thoughts on the idea of "being there" and citizen journalism. Ethan notes that the current perception and emphasis is on what he refers to as "being there" citizen journalism: photos of the Asian tsunami and the London bombings. Yet there's more to just "being there":
But I think there's another place where citizen's media may be at least as important - introducing citizen expertise on subjects where existing journalists may not be expert

He's got a very good point! Still, there's more to what Ethan's saying about broadening--or, perhaps flattening--the idea of "being there" citizen journalism. Some of GVO's editors, Ndesanjo Macha the Africa editor and Neha Viswanathan who covers India, do so from homes far removed from their homelands. Ethan forwards the idea that it is their expertise on these particular geographic regions that makes them qualified to edit on those regions for GVO.

Yes, they have expertise--and Ethan points that existing media outlets might be threatened by citizens with expertise. Totally agree on that one, too--even though I know that some journalists might argue that citizens with expertise make bad journalists because they *may* (in their view) lack objectivity.

However, let's take Ethan's thought one step further--into the realm of hyperlocal. Hyperlocal is a form of "being there" citizen journalism, no doubt, but in this quickly evolving online space, "being there" and "hyperlocal" can take on a meaning beyond geography. What if we find ourselves "citizens" of a particular place within the boundless boundaries of the Internet? Are we, perhaps, then "hyperlocal" citizen journalists when we are writing about the corners of the Internet that we patrol/troll regularly?

Perhaps so--but this way of thinking requires that we stretch our sense of what we mean by concepts such as "community." In social networking, "community" is sometimes defined as places such as MySpace, YouTube, or any other social networking software space we (1)keep a profile and (2)participate regularly. So, could someone not write about a particular corner of MySpace as if it is their neighborhood?

Think about it.

The concept could stretch our ideas of what, where, and how we get expertise. Can we indeed get expertise from being online, social networking, for a prolonged length of time? Absolutely! Could we know more than the individual who never participates online, in social media? Absolutely!

What are the psychological/social implications of all this--to us as individuals and as groups? Do we think of particular websites/forums/blogs/etc. or "spaces" in the same way we might think of our physical neighborhoods? Do some of us split ourselves in two--allow our unsupervised Ids to run wild in cyberspace while maintaining a buttoned-down Real Life (in that case, though, which life is truly the real one?)

Have some of us gone far enough to have developed professional as well as personal lives on the 'net? Absolutely. There are, probably, more of us than the physical world realizes...

As I participated in the NYTimes Film Forum (98-'01), my idea of what constituted a "friend" changed. I had many "friends" in that space that I would never meet IRL because of the geographic distance. As I now write for online publications, my sense of workplace has changed. I touch base with editors and such, but rarely do I sit with them over lunch, talk on the phone, or get direct feedback from them. I must be very self-disciplined and self-directed. In my life, then, there has been an evolution from online social space to online work place. The Real, or physical, world has played a role in the movement from online social to online work--a necessity because the totality of who we are does not, and cannot, be contained within the boundless boundaries of the Internet.

We are, after all, physical creatures, and on some level require face to face meeting.....we learn from all our senses, not just those we use online.

(contrary to a popular conceit, one not need to be an engineer-hardware or software--to have expertise in this space. to say that only engineers can have expertise of this space is like saying only architects or city planners can have expertise enough to write about what it is to live in a particular place. think about it. the internet is more than engineering. Some folks built it, and lots of us live in it.)

Yet my sense of the world, overall, is that it is "flat." My sense of neighborhood and of friends is one more of affinity and expertise than of geography. Therefore, I am committing an act of "hyperlocal" journalism (citizen or professional) when I am writing about the places/spaces/sensibilities on the Internet that I know just as well as I know the shortest route to the Chicopee Wal-Mart and my neighbor's first name. My "beat" as a journalist is media--it is the world online, just the way for someone else it might be Greenfield or Chicopee or Springfield.

I live here in this online space as much as I live in a physical space. It's the way many of us live today..It is our "hyperlocal"....

Think about it.

(thanx Dave Weinberger for Ethan link....)

Further Reading:

Doc's ten clues to help newspapers--let's all stop using the term "content" please!! it doesn't make y'all sound any smarter....

When hyperlocal goes wrong: The Knoxville News-Sentinel decided to give front-page coverage to a 15-year old's decadent birthday party, and the citizens gave them what-for. And they're right. This is not responsible hyperlocal coverage. If someone wanted to blog about it, that's one thing--but then it would be pretty crappy hyperlocal citizen journalism on a non-story. (thanx Bob Stepno--very cool! via Doc...)

Jay Rosen Interviewed on Slashdot-- citizen journalism, and a few other things...

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