I found out about the London attacks this morning when my roommate told me about them on the way into work. Truth be told, I was out with friends last night and didn’t have direct access to any kind of news sources, so I was quite surprised when he explained what’d happened.
So today, when I started exploring what had been posted online, I was struck by how I went about looking for information versus how I ultimate found anything of substance. I started at a major news outlet earlier in the day and was disappointed by not only the detachment in the writing (“objective” journalism, they call it) but by the meager pictures available. I mean, I’m a visual person and I thrive on being able to see things — in order that I might gain a better understanding of what actually happened.
Only this evening when I sought to understand things more completely did I turn, almost accidently, to Flickr. I hadn’t really considered Flickr a citizen journalism site, but as I landed on the tags page, I realized that this community of people, equipped with cameras and living in the open could be my eyes on the scene — and would help me comprehend what happened with their photos. And beyond what Reuters could provide, I could go back before the attacks and learn about the very individual lives of each witness in their photostreams.
In addition to that, I stumbled upon an ad-hoc community of well-wishers setup within Flickr, called the 7/7 Community, whose specific focus is on the bombings.
What’s interesting in all of this and in my discovery process is that these various technologies and tools that are able to bring me so much closer to such a foreign reality are starting to become more widely used and disseminated throughout the general public. People are not only coming to web to share, to communicate and to understand, but there are finally there are tools to help express and capture reality as it unfolds. Even a year ago, this kind of local civic engagement over the web would have been very hard to pull off.
An uncertain result, however, as pointed out in this post on Radio Open Source (discovered in one of the Flickr groups) concerns how a number of Flickr photos are turning up across the world in the mass media. While I am a strong believer in participatory culture and citizen reportage, the mass media seems to be coopting this emerging trend by reappropriating such content without, in my view, being a good contributing citizen itself. Let’s face it: the media doesn’t “do” open source and yet they’re greedily snatching up the contributions of regular folks to sell their papers, magazines and so on… I know that this material needs to get out there and the more people who see it the better, but something about it simply doesn’t sit well with me.
I guess until initiatives like Dan Gillmor’s Bayosphere or media “escrow” repositories like morgueFile become more ubitquitous and well known, citizen journalists will have to tough it out on their own, finding a voice that stands out starkly against the lulling hum of the industrial megamedia machine and developing an organic community of readers who are themselves active participants in creating, telling and retelling the stories that matter to them, and to us all.