Participatory journalism in an unlikely -- or likely? -- place

Written by Adrian Holovaty on February 4, 2004

You know, there really is something to this participatory journalism thing.

I turned on the Super Bowl for a few minutes Sunday night. (Not because I wanted to watch the wretched thing. My wife had asked me to tape the subsequent show, so I wanted to see how much time was left.) Turns out it was halftime, and Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson were performing the type of music I normally go out of my way to avoid.

Well, we all know what happened during that performance. And I saw it -- live. Er, I thought I saw it. I wasn't sure. The camera cut away so quickly that I couldn't really tell what'd happened.

So I did what any self-respecting Internet-junkie would do: I flipped open my laptop and hit the Web.

CNN had nothing. MSNBC had nothing. Neither did the New York Times, Washington Post or Chicago Tribune. Google News didn't say anything about it, either. I checked a bunch of other big-media sites but couldn't find any coverage.

I began to think I'd just been delusional. Then I checked Fark. -- a deranged mix of quirky news-article links, hilarious Photoshop antics, incestuous user comments, and a healthy dose of porn -- had the story. In my estimation, it'd been less than 15 minutes since the halftime show ended -- and Farkers were already talking about it.

The thing is, despite Fark's classically low signal-to-noise ratio, it wasn't all prepubescent blather. I daresay some of it was participatory journalism in action.

Read the archived comment thread to see the story unfold. There were first-person accounts of watching the event. There was background information. There was analysis and piecing-together of the facts. And, most importantly, there was an effort to distribute any and all raw information about the incident, mostly in the form of high-resolution TV-screen-grabs and video.

It was clear that all of this was fueled by a desire to get to the bottom of the story -- a desire not unlike that of a professional reporter.

Could this have been a glimpse of the future? Could a much more traditional news story be covered in the same way, given the right mix of a dedicated audience and enabling technology?

Yes, much of this interest was on a prurient level, and most people probably wouldn't share the same excitement about, say, a school board meeting. But who's to say there isn't a core niche devoted to, and willing to contribute to, every feasible news story?

Yes, nudity is taboo in the United States, and media have community standards to uphold. But shouldn't mature adult readers have access to it when it's newsworthy, as long as it's opt-in?

Yes, probably not a single one of the Fark contributors was actually at the Super Bowl, and all of their facts were collected from "mainstream" sources such as the CBS television broadcast. So what? Even two days later, this is STILL coverage you can't find at any big-media site. And who's to say a photo-phone-toting Super Bowl attendee couldn't have contributed?

Yes, traditional media outlets couldn't have posted a lot of those photos and video because of licensing, syndication privileges and all that. Ahh, maybe this is a limitation of traditional media?

UPDATE: It's come full circle.


Posted by Andrew Dupont on February 4, 2004, at 11:02 a.m.:

It reminds me of Sept. 11. I was asleep when everything happened; I was awakened by my roommate's parents calling him to tell him to turn on his television. Once we realized what was going on, I stumbled over to my computer and went to Yahoo. Or at least I tried. Wouldn't load. Neither would CNN, or ABC News, or pretty much anything else I tried. I was a little late to the party, and all these sites were crippled from the amount of traffic they were getting.

So I went to Slashdot. I found this news item, which gave me more information than any of the TV broadcasts did. People were posting their own analysis, links to photos and articles on sites that were still functional, even copied and pasted article text into posts. Even after the traditional news sites came back online, I kept refreshing this thread all through the day.

The problem, I think, with participatory journalism is that the signal-to-noise ratio is bound to fluctuate almost unpredictably. Out of all the news that happens all over the world, so little of it results in this kind of mass pooling of info that it's hard to think of "participatory journalism" as anything but an organic life-form, something that'd be damned near impossible to engineer on your own.

I'd love to be proven wrong; I'd love to see even a handful of people display as much zeal over a school board meeting as a millisecond of quasi-nudity on TV. But I think that we're a long way away from that level of awareness and enthusiasm in the news.

Posted by Ben on February 4, 2004, at 6:16 p.m.:

I think what the Internet needs (and is perfectly made for) is a site that every knows they could go to and immediately read and about see people talking in real-time about current events as they are happening. I want the equivalent of shouting from a mountain top, or going to the town square and hearing everything that's currently happening. Maybe it's a chat-like space... maybe it's like a mix between Fark, Drudge, yet a little more all-news/serious. Maybe a bit like "the people's AP newswire"? Does something like this exist?

Posted by kpaul on February 5, 2004, at 2:17 a.m.:

Lycos 50 is saying it's the most searched event in internet history, beating out even 9/11...

Posted by kpaul on February 5, 2004, at 2:33 a.m.:

one more side to the internet angle: MTV had been running a story saying to expect a shock. they changed it afterward (according to drudge) but Google had a cache.

although not as many people were watching it closely, the recent ricin scare in the capital also has a lot of participatory journalism surrounding it - on conspiracy type forums across the 'net.


Posted by jrh on February 6, 2004, at 5:41 a.m.:

It would be interesting to see how this would evolve. My theory would be that as participatory journalism became more mainstream the number of problems would increase. Others have mentioned the s/n ratio, but the issues go beyond that.

At slashdot and other sites when people post noise it is generally humor or opinions, but there is the possibility of people posting false information intentionally. For a good example of this, visit any stock discussion web site. Back during the boom when everybody became a day-trader, many folks lost money on false tips, while those posting the tips shorted the stock. Of course the term a fool and his money are soon parted applies to many of the instances. Unfortunately, it points out that many still believe that what the read must be the truth.

I can't remember the name of the tech company at the moment but remember a few years ago some 18 year old posted a press release via PRNewswire that the CEO was resigning and there were some accounting issues (he did it from the Mandalay Bay business center in Vegas). All the wires picked it up. The firms stock went from around 68 to 30 before the SEC stopped trading. The CEO was on TV by lunch saying the whole thing was a hoax. At the end of the day they had lost around $3 billion in market cap. The stock never returned to it's opening price that morning. The kid was caught becuase the SEC traced who shorted the stock for the greatest gain.

Perhaps a solution would be a wiki similar to Wikipedia. But with any polarizing story (politics anyone?) both sides would constantly be editing each others posts.

Posted by anonymous on February 6, 2004, at 11:50 p.m.:

I know that wasn't the real point of the article but... Jesus H. Christ. It reminded someone of 9/11? A glimpse of Janet Jackson's breast was enough to make you search the Intenet for 15 minutes? Searched more than 9/11? America, go look at pictures of women's breasts until your sense of proportion returns. (No pun intended).

Comments have been turned off for this page.