Maher complained about the lack of citizen journalism taking place on the day. "Maybe they’re all asleep", he sniffed, complaining that nobody was posting first-hand accounts, or photographs or video in the wake of the four would-be suicide attacks. He was even upset that someone’s faintly trivial post about How Terrible It All Is lay at the top of Technorati when he first looked in.
First thought: more fool him for trusting the unreliable Technorati to spot stuff (Robin Grant was doing a much better job of pulling things together over at perfect.co.uk). Second thought: he’s doing what so many champions of citizen journalism tend to do; insisting on applying old journalism models of working to judge what citizen journalism is, or is going to be.
Let me explain. I think it’s time to stop calling citizen journalism… well, citizen journalism. The current notion of what that dread phrase actually constitutes is essentially a product of old-fashioned, centralised, old media thinking, and needs to be thrown out. As one commenter on Jane’s post has put it:
"News journalism requires a level of commitment that only the hardcore amateur news junky could muster. Taking a picture of an event you happen to be close to is not journalism. Let’s face it: new forms of independent journalism have and will continue to appear, but don’t expect a flurry of well-written and accurate on-the-scene reports from the public at large any time soon. Weblogs and flickr can complement traditional journalism, but they can’t supplant it."
Now here’s a paragraph that, for all its brevity, could save millions in venture capital, prevent decades of accumulated wasted time, and abort countless circle-jerk conferences.
Let’s stop trying to make members of the public go to work like paid journalists.
While we’re at it, we could also concede that other attempts to get Ordinary People to behave like journalists – Ohmynews I’m looking at you – are also unforgivably lame? Student newspapers, only without the brevity?
Let’s, instead, alight on a model of citizen storytelling. Now, I know, storytelling gets a rough ride. Telling stories is something you do to children, or which children do to one another. And, vitally for the hype factor, storytelling just isn’t the ticket if you’re an academic trying to make a name for himself, or a businessperson trying to locate the Next Big Thing.
A pitch for encouraging citizen journalism might attract venture capital bucks. A pitch to facilitate storytelling probably won’t even wash down the Arts Council.
But stories really are very important. They’re the way we communicate. Or, at least, they’re the way we communicate whenever we’re being our most interesting and engaging. We tell stories at barbecues whether we’re talking about our holidays or the half-assed thing someone did on the way to work the other day. We tell stories when we get home about what happened at work, or when we’re describing a great goal at the football.
We even use stories to paint a picture of how we’d like things to be – when we want to make a group of people pay attention to our point in a meeting or in a speech.
What blogs, and picture phones, and other "me media" do is bring everyday storytelling to the web. They’re mainly personal stories, being published – yes – for an audience, but an audience that we think we know very well. And we tell those stories using the words we write on simple CMSs, like blogs, or via pictures distributed via Flickr, or movies made in iMovie.
Occasionally – very occasionally – those stories, pictures and movies will intersect with a story which a very large audience is interested in, as happened to the mobloggers who got pictures of the July 7 bombings. But a big, mainstream audience is never the intention – we’re just using technology to do what we’ve always done, and tell stories.
In big media terms, however, there’s a problem if you start relying on this amateur army to replace a journalism which – let’s say – you believe doesn’t represent your views, or is corrupt, or you’re bored with. These amateur storytellers only form a rather chaotic patchwork of what editors would call "coverage". It means you’re never going to be quite sure who has seen what, how soon they’ll "report" that experience, and where you can find the resultant information.
That’s why Google and Technorati and other aggregators – mechanical and human – will grow in value. They’ll be the places that pull together the things you want to read about, from corners of the web you’ve never visited, and may never return to.
But for old media types used to the certainties of a newsroom full of reporters, ready to swarm on what the editors decided was newsworthy, that chaotic, laissez faire arrangement may feel very uncomfortable.
For instance, it means some things that anyone might regard as highly newsworthy – such as Thursday’s explosions around London – may get very few stories told about them in the immediate aftermath, simply because those explosions are outside the experience of most people.
They didn’t see anything, so there’s nothing to report. They can only talk about the events second hand, about how those events make them feel. And that’ll come after they’ve had the details related to them by the professional journalists who make up for not having actually been there by travelling around, asking questions, doing research and, basically, working quite hard.
Those events that will be well covered will tend to be ones that take place in front of lots of people – July 7, 9/11, Live8, others to come. It explains why our Blair Watch Project – where we asked members of the public to send in mobile phone pix of politicians doing their campaigning during the General Election campaign – didn’t really work as expected. The problem was the last election campaign didn’t really take place in front of the public – it happened before party loyalists and the professional media.
So where does this leave us? Well, increasingly, I believe that one of the next steps in online journalism is going to be about the various elements in this story – professional journalists, amateur storytellers, editors, computer-powered aggregators – finding their place in the structure, supporting one another and doing things the others can’t. An ecosystem will build up – quite fluid, and as appreciative of big centralised efforts to organise as a herd of mogs.
And that means people like Vincent Maher have to write less about "hating" to defend "traditional" media, and get on with the business of training professional journalists who know how to tap into the web’s emerging storytelling culture to get new stories, and improve on the ones they’ve always written.
That’s where the revolution will lie – not in "citizen journalists" overthrowing the professionals, but in countless individual stories being told, and then highlighted when they happen to touch on a matter of mainstream interest.