The camera-phone video, shot vertically, shows a guy in khakis and a blue Google t-shirt. He’s holding a microphone and asking the audience to imagine what it would be like if ordinary people could effortlessly capture stories and share them, from their smartphones.
“What if it was possible to publish them instantly to the web?” he asks the crowd, with a whiff of wonder.
Weirdly, this video was not unearthed in a time capsule buried in the mid-aughts. It was shot last week in Nashville, Tennessee, as Google announced plans to get into the hyperlocal news game with the launch of a new app called Bulletin, currently in a limited pilot in Nashville and Oakland, California.
Bulletin is designed to let anyone create their own news content, which will then be “public and easy to discover,” according to the their site. “If you can text, if you can take a photo, if you can shoot a video on your phone: You can create a Bulletin story,” the Google rep continues, detailing a process that your mom has long since mastered on Facebook.
Maybe a decade ago, these hypotheticals might have sounded a bit more ground-shaking. But the world has already been flattened and reconnected by the hashtag. Donald Trump re-tweeted a random 16-year-old kid less than a month after being elected President of the United States; the social media-enabled Arab Spring ended seven years ago. At this point, the handheld video shot by a Nashville blogger feels less like a new-media disruption than a sly satire—a postmodern meta-commentary on Silicon Valley’s ardent love of inventing things that already exist, the crisis in local journalism, and the ways in which social media has upended the information game. But Google does not appear to be joking.
The actual mechanics of Bulletin remain a little fuzzy (it’s still only available to limited pilot users), but it’s billed as a “free, lightweight app” empowering citizen journalists to spotlight stories and injustices in their communities. Like many loosely defined catchphrases that will either save or destroy us, “citizen journalism” is a powerful idea with potentially perilous side effects, depending on who’s practicing it, and why. But first: How did we get here, and what are we even talking about when we talk about citizen journalism?
Media critic and NYU professor Jay Rosen defines the term as what happens when “the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another.” According to sociologist Andrew M. Lindner, it’s very much a turn-of-the-millennium thing. “‘[C]itizen journalism’ as a term essentially didn’t exist before 2002,” he wrote. “That said, the practice of CJ, ordinary people gathering and reporting news, is actually older than having professional journalists who report the news.”
Early modern humans may have documented their surroundings on a public cave wall some 40,000 years ago, but it’s barely been two decades since the first bearded programmer wrote some stuff online and called it a “weblog.” His name was Jorn Barger, the year was 1997, and the neologism was coined from his penchant for “logging the web.” In 1999—the same year that “weblog” was shortened to “blog”—there were 23 blogs on the internet. (Or, as we called it then, the Internet.) By the end of 2011, there were approximately 181 million blogs around the world. This is not to say that anything close to a substantial portion of those millions were performing citizen journalism (we’ll get to that), but merely that the platform exploded on an exponential scale.
In his book We, The Media, technology writer Dan Gillmor posits that today’s new-media citizen journalists are spiritual heirs of sorts to the colonial pamphleteers “who, before the First Amendment was enshrined into law and guaranteed a free press, published their writings at great personal risk.” Easily produced and distributed, the ephemeral American Revolution-era pamphlet was made possible by new printing technology and written for and by the people. The missives could be read aloud in public, as historian Homer Calkin explained to the Pennsylvania Historical Society in 1940, or “a single pamphlet might be handed from person to person” (a proto-retweet, if you will). Pamphleteer and semi-professional revolutionary Thomas Paine often gets called the first citizen journalist but, for what it’s worth, he was no amateur: He had a day job in media when he anonymously published Common Sense.
Two centuries and some later, in 2000, a South Korean website was launched that “pioneered the concept of participatory journalism,” according to journalism scholars Stephen Lamble and Stephen Quinn. Founded on the ideal that “every citizen is a reporter,” Ohmynews’ model combined citizen reporters with professional editors and published a wide swath of user-generated content. The site (which is still around) is widely perceived to have played a role in influencing the country’s 2002 presidential election. After his victory, the president-elect granted his first interview to the website. Citizen journalism had officially entered the zeitgeist.
“No one is really sure where this is all heading,” media columnist J.D. Lasica wrote in a 2001 article for the Online Journalism Review. But his hunch was that blogging represented “ground zero” of what was coming next. “Weblogging will drive a powerful new form of amateur journalism as millions of Net users—young people especially—take on the role of columnist, reporter, analyst and publisher while fashioning their own personal broadcasting networks,” he continued. He was more or less right.
The growth of free blogging platforms like Wordpress and Blogger in the early 2000s radically reduced the barriers to entry—anyone who could type had the keys to their own online kingdom, no tech savvy needed. By 2004, nearly three dozen bloggers were credentialed to cover the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Later that same year, the nascent blogosphere played a critical role in covering the Indian Ocean tsunami, providing “a ready medium for instant news,” as The New York Times put it at the time. Harvard’s Nieman Lab characterized this as “an early watershed moment” for the citizen journalism movement. In 2006, the mainstream media caught citizen journalism fever, with the debut of CNN’s iReport (now largely supplanted by social media), which allowed users to submit photos and video.
(This is where we should probably draw a small distinction between single acts of citizen journalism—regular people capturing on-the-ground photos and videos, often largely due to circumstance—and the citizens who seek to supplant or supplement traditional journalism channels. In the former category we have pioneers like Abraham Zapruder, who filmed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and George Holliday, the plumber whose just-purchased Sony Handycam recorded the police beating of Rodney King in 1991.)
Twitter went live in 2006, as Facebook widened its reach beyond college campuses, and suddenly—in a system quite akin to the one Google is describing in their pitch for Bulletin—you didn’t need a blog to broadcast your hot take or game-changing footage: Anyone with a smartphone could publish immediately. This democratization of distribution platforms coincided with increasing mainstream media consolidation. As traditional news outlets came under the control of an ever-smaller share of individuals and companies, the Twitter effect simultaneously allowed users to provide their own live coverage and commentary, in community board meetings and crisis situations around the world. Social media surged on a tide of global populism; from Zuccotti Park to Tahrir Square, and later, the streets of Ferguson, every live-streamer could be Thomas Paine, and more than a few became internet famous.
But this is all old news, which is why Google launching a platform that allows users to capture “photos, videoclips and text right from your phone” and then publish it directly to the web in 2018 reads as less than revolutionary. It’s also hard to ignore the tremendous potential for spreading misinformation; we already live in an era defined by “Fake News” and an increasing distrust toward the very existence of objective facts. The app is still only available to a select few users in beta, and little has been released about how Google plans to moderate or verify content for accuracy.
We would also be remiss if we didn’t mention that Google itself is at least partially responsible for creating the very conditions that ushered us into the fake news era—and not just because their service can be used to spread clicky falsehoods. The business model for local journalism didn’t wither on its own: The advertising revenue that once supported traditional local newsrooms shifted digital, and almost entirely into the pockets of the Google/Facebook duopoly. The disruption may not have been malicious, but—as Steven Waldman, former Senior Advisor to the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year—“just because the result is unintentional doesn’t mean it is fantasy: Newsrooms have been decimated, with basic accountability reporting slashed as a result.” So it seems a little rich for Google to now say, “Gee, wouldn’t it be great if there was a way for people to get stories about high school sports and school board meetings?” Because there was. And you blew it up.
Traditional journalism has, of course, also failed to adapt and evolve in countless ways, and the world never stops turning. But even if Bulletin is truly intended as a corrective for Google’s ongoing toxic relationship with local media, I can’t help but wish that the app empowered professional journalism, instead of making the free-press bedrock of our democracy ever-more reliant on some enterprising volunteer with a smartphone.
Citizen journalism offers a vital avenue for telling on-the-ground and under-told stories—but it also deserves to be approached with a certain wariness. Recall the false report of Steve Jobs having a heart attack that surfaced on CNN’s iReport in 2008 (causing Apple’s stock to briefly plummet), or the shark on the freeway photo from Hurricane Harvey that went viral, or the hoax that the New York Stock Exchange was flooded during Hurricane Sandy (that rumor, which originated on Twitter, also eventually made its way onto CNN). At least, when viral nonsense blossoms on social media, it usually emerges as just that: a clearly identifiable social media post, begging for further verification. If, as a news consumer, I check a hyperlocal, citizen-run news site in my community, I am encountering it in the clear context of what it is (personal and likely specific to my geographic interests) and isn’t (a media site subject to stringent verification standards and editorial processes). What makes Google Bulletin alarming is that, according to Nieman Lab, Bulletin-created content may appear in Google’s news browser, amid headlines from the New York Times. That could blur the lines dramatically.
Ironically, just a week before Google launched Bulletin, the Huffington Post announced that they would be ending their reliance on unpaid contributions. HuffPost has long been a redoubt of citizen journalism: Its populist contributor network had amassed more than 100,000 unpaid content generators since its launch in 2005. But, having seen the mischief that this model can generate, they’ve apparently had enough. “One of the biggest challenges we all face, in an era where everyone has a platform, is figuring out whom to listen to,” HuffPost editor in chief Lydia Polgreen wrote in a blog post announcing the decision. “Open platforms that once seemed radically democratizing now threaten, with the tsunami of false information we all face daily, to undermine democracy.”