How the mid-2000s dream of the “citizen journalist” mutated into a dangerous trend of digital citizen policing.
Citizen journalism was one of the great dreams of the mid-2000s internet. Just as blogs had given anyone with an internet connection and a keyboard a platform, media companies like AOL and CNN hoped that cell phones and high-speed internet would transform an army of private citizens and online hobbyists into freelance, oftentimes pro bono writers, videographers, and reporters.
Eight years and countless failed ventures (CNN's iReport, AOL's Patch) later, that dream is almost unrecognizable — more powerful, and at times darker, than the seers and corporate executives imagined. Today's citizen journalism is not owned by any one major media conglomerate; instead, it takes place across the social web and in anonymous message board communities across the internet. It has a vast new subject matter in the personal, corporate, and government information that has migrated to the social web. But in many instances, citizen journalism is something like the more troubling idea of citizen policing — that is, vigilantism: taking the powerful, and even dangerous tools of journalism to the communities with the least responsible actors. At its very best, it gives voice to the disenfranchised. At its worst, it ruins lives.
The first time I really, truly noticed it was around 4 a.m. on July 20, 2012. I'd come home from a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises to news of a tragic movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. I watched my Twitter feed, which was moving feverishly, considering the hour, spitting out information at a rapid clip. As is usually the case in the immediate moments following a tragedy, local news outlets were doing most of the groundwork before the national correspondents and cable networks descended. That night, however, my feed was dominated by links to Reddit, where an 18-year-old student from Denver named Morgan Jones spent the night chained to his dual monitors, exhaustively collecting and dutifully updating a Reddit thread with posts from local media, police scanners, and on-the-ground social media posts. Working fast, but carefully, Jones found a Reddit post from a user who'd been shot that night and had posted a photo of his wounds, beating local and national media to the story hour after hour.
In the hours and days after Aurora, media reporters — myself included — spoke to Jones and Reddit about this seemingly new style of citizen journalism, fueled by social media and aided by an intimate familiarity with news cycles and the internet. Reddit was cautiously excited about this development; then-general manager Erik Martin told me that “what is on the news isn't always the story that people want to talk about and be involved with. On this site, you can get into and explore what you're truly interested in.”