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Monday, March 18, 2013

Participating in the narrative

This week we were asked to consider the opportunities that social media provides for citizen journalism or social activism. Specifically, we were asked if these new opportunities encouraged our participation; are we more apt to participate in social action or at least contribute to stories that are topical, if not important, to the development of our society. My answer to this question is, “I don’t think so”. The technology has certainly afforded me opportunity to join in and even initiate on occasion. But, while the technology is convenient and offers me many opportunities to engage in activism from the comfort of my flannels and favourite T, it doesn’t get me off the recliner. The very fact that these new opportunities exist, hasn’t encouraged my participation. Rather, circumstances have encouraged me to participate, to be socially active, to contribute to the narrative.

Bruns and Highfield (2012) suggest that citizen journalism is more often than not, news curation or a continual (re)framing of a story. “Commentary responds to existing, already published news and opinion; it collects, collates and combines these existing materials, contextualizes then and thereby points out new frames for their interpretation and analysis” (p. 6). My attempt at publishing a ‘story’ using Storify is a great example of this citizen journalism that Bruns and Highfield talk about. And, I suppose what I have been doing with my blog these past many months, responding to articles that I have read and reflected upon, is another example of citizen journalism, albeit less topical and for most of those outside (and some inside) the adult education realm, less interesting.

Bruns and Highfield present the argument that this type of journalism is ambient. Billions of producer-users are constantly watching as stories bust out of the cyber-gateway and develop, circulating among other producer-users who contribute commentary and links to other stories that provide verification of content or just another angle to view it from. But, if this type of participation in the development of the story is ambient does that mean that it is a watered-down version of true activism? Does the technology afford people the opportunity to participate but at the same time dumb-down our participation? And is the result an insipid bland version of a truly moving story? I tend to think that it is the exact opposite. While there is something to be said about a great investigative journalist, a truly gifted yarn-spinner, much of the journalism that I grew up reading was anything but. Rather, most of it was a tired attempt to get the facts down on paper to meet a deadline and fill a quota number of words or column inches.

Hermida (2012) suggests that journalists claim an ability to “interpret and represent reality. The practice of verification bestows journalistic communication with its credibility and believability” (p. 661). It’s this verification that some claim is missing from citizen journalism. However, verification is still there. It still exists. It’s just a collaborative and fluid approach to verification. As the story develops, from the moment that it is simply a tweeted experience to the moment that it is a feature-length documentary, the story is unfolding and being verified along the way, from the unvarnished truth to the polished truth. Verification, as Hermida suggests, has reverted back to a burden on the audience. Bruns and Highfield call this multiperspectivality.

I recall my time as a managing editor of my college newspaper. My job at the paper was a pretty sweet gig. In addition to having access to an Apple MacIntosh to complete my assignments for school (I hated booking time at the computer lab), I only really “worked” one night each week, balancing the books and managing a group of editors/writers (and eating pizza). I also had to write the occasional editorial. At that time, the mid-1990’s, newspapers were being bought up by huge multi-national corporations. It was feared that media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch would own the news and with that ownership they would have the power to dictate the stories that were told and how they were told. Call it uniperspectivality. Feeling inspired, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek editorial calming the fears of the student body; the student newspaper would remain student-owned and student-run. Their voice would still be heard.

One of the reasons for bringing you, the reader, down this little trip along my personal Memory Lane, is to make the point that the World Wide Web is really a place where millions of little student newspapers can exist alongside the multinational conglomerates. And the stories that they tell are no less compelling and often richer for the diversity. The other reason for telling you this story, is to bring me back to my assertion in the opening paragraph of this posting: circumstances encourage my participation rather than the technology and the opportunity that it affords to contribute to the narrative. Back in college, my participation in the narrative was circumstantial. If I had the time and felt compelled to write an editorial, I did. Now, the same circumstances draw me to participate.


Hermida, A. (2012). TWEETS AND TRUTH: Journalism as a discipline of collaborative verification. Journalism Practice. 6:5-6, p659-668.
Bruns, A. & T. Highfield. (2012). Blogs, Twitter, and breaking news: The produsage of citizen journalism. pre-publication draft on personal site []. Published in: Lind, R. A. ed. (2012). Produsing Theory in a Digital World: The Intersection of Audiences and Production. New York: Peter Lang. p15-32.

photo courtesy of Stuart Miles

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