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Smart Mobs, Virtual Communities, and Citizen Journalists

In light of our last discussion about collaboration and the ethic of sharing, it’s important to turn our focus to some specific aspects of digital media and cyberculture that relate directly to the experience of connectedness. In addition to the new economy represented in mutually beneficial sharing, problems can be attacked collectively and resources can be pooled to more broadly inform and enrich.

Smart Mobs

Turning to Howard Rheingold yet again, we encounter the phenomenon of smart mobs. Rheingold wrote Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution in 2002, and his accompanying website notes:

Smart mobs emerge when communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for cooperation. The impacts of smart mob technology already appear to be both beneficial and destructive, used by some of its earliest adopters to support democracy and by others to coordinate terrorist attacks. The technologies that are beginning to make smart mobs possible are mobile communication devices and pervasive computing – inexpensive microprocessors embedded in everyday objects and environments. Already, governments have fallen, youth subcultures have blossomed from Asia to Scandinavia, new industries have been born and older industries have launched furious counterattacks.

Mobile technology, in particular, makes it possible for groups of individual actors to collaborate and coordinate quickly and flexibly, as we’ve since seen in both Iran’s Green Revolution and in the Arab Spring more broadly. The old notion of the mob as an unruly and largely reactive mass of people is turned on its head, in part, by the ability to coordinate and inform on the fly. It’s important to recognize that spontaneity is an element of the smart mob, but that years of disciplined activism inform real change even in this fast moving era. Further, smart mobs can use mobile communication technology to generate messages and provide their own publicity and narrative to a connected public, bypassing traditional media in the process. The smart mob is the larger category of which the flash mob is one type.

Virtual Communities

Rheingold wrote The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier back in 1992, and has since revised the book a number of times to account for changes in technology and culture. In the introduction to the book, available online at the link above, he wrote:

Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.

The notion of virtual community owes something to the concept of the imagined community, which was coined by International Studies scholar Benedict Anderson to describe the artificial bond that is “nation.” When individuals perceive a common interest and identity, it comes into existence and narrative are built around the perceived connection that reinforce and maintain it. This is often the case in situations where it is impossible for members to be in direct interpersonal communication with one another, and yet sense something common. Virtual communities are one step closer to the interpersonal, in that they are defined, reinforced, and maintained by electronic communication. These communities are bound less by geographic space, if at all, and more by common interest or identity work. What is it, for instance, to be a member of the Catholic Church? A Yankees fan? An American? Virtual communities create a new space, via digital media, in which imagined communities find greater coherence and meaning.

Grassroots political activists might do collective identity work online, while maintaining important offline connections. Various interest groups might take advantage of Second Life to engage in meaningful relationships, like this group of people dedicated to the use and spread of Esperanto in the virtual world. Think of the virtual communities that you know, and identify the ways in which online interaction facilitates a sense of community among individuals otherwise disconnected in geographic space.

Citizen Journalists

What exactly do we mean by the term citizen journalist? Let NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen handle this one:

Rosen cleverly coins the phrase “the people formerly known as the audience” to describe the shift from a hierarchical relationship to news and information to a more horizontal experience in which pooled resources, information, perspectives, and areas of expertise offer the public an alternative to older modes of journalism. He writes:

The people formerly known as the audience do not believe this problem—too many speakers!—is our problem. Now for anyone in your circle still wondering who we are, a formal definition might go like this:

The people formerly known as the audience are those who were on the receiving end of a media system that ran one way, in a broadcasting pattern, with high entry fees and a few firms competing to speak very loudly while the rest of the population listened in isolation from one another— and who today are not in a situation like that at all.

Click through for more. PBS’ Mediashift offers a more in depth definition and explanation of citizen journalism, interestingly centering the concept in American history:

In “We the Media,” [Dan] Gillmor traces the roots of citizen journalism to the founding of the United States in the 18th century, when pamphleteers such as Thomas Paine and the anonymous authors of the Federalist Papers gained prominence by printing their own publications. Further advances such as the postal system — and its discount rates for newspapers — along with the telegraph and telephone helped people distribute news more widely.

In the modern era, video footage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in the ’60s and footage of police beating Rodney King in Los Angeles in the ’80s were both captured by citizens on the scene. Plus, the rise of talk radio and even the D.I.Y. stylings of cable access TV and ‘zines gave average folks the chance to share their views with a much larger audience. In newspapers, there were letters to the editor and op-ed pieces submitted by citizens, while pirate radio stations hit the airwaves without the permission of the FCC. The advent of desktop publishing in the late ’80s allowed everyone to design and print out their own publications, but distribution was still limited.

The new citizen journalism relies on the connectivity of the web and the new freedom it has achieved via mobile communication. News and information that travel through these new channels are prey to new pitfalls like the inherent trouble with speed, conflicting accounts of the same events, or the general issues of ethics in online communication environments (see: trolls). Still, these new environments are often superior to old channels when it comes to things as simple as traffic reports or news about power outages in one’s neighborhood during a storm. In older environments, the same general take on a story may have followed events across newspapers and TV networks. Alternative perspectives were hard to come by, and many ways of seeing the world were underrepresented, if they were voiced at all. Likewise, incorrect or untruthful information was often slow to be corrected, if it was at all, and we know very well that fact-checking has emerged as an important part of our citizen journalism in the 21st century, even as it relates to urban legends.

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About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University

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