Mutter these two words to many journalists and you will be lucky to escape with your front teeth. To many old hacks, the idea of average toerags doing their job is an affront. However, citizen journalism isn't really about doing away with journalists and replacing them - it's about complementing traditional news outlets with user-generated content that gives something different to readers.
It's hard to contemplate user-generated content without mentioning Digg. This geeky startup has grown to become one of the most popular news websites on the Internet, rivalling many American news networks for traffic. All the news on Digg is posted by its readers, and a simple 'most popular rises to the top' algorithm dictates the hot stories of the day. The power of many is often greater than the power of a few, and stories find the light of day on Digg that never would have been reported by traditional news outlets - not because news outlets wouldn't, but because they wouldn't find them in the first place. Because of its reader-based contribution, Digg stories often have a personal slant that is all too often ignored by the corporate outlets.
Digg is a news site where the readers provide the stories.
In some ways, user-generated content has been with us for a long-time. The clearest footage of the 9/11 tragedy wasn't captured by reporters on scene - it was captured by normal people who happened to be in the area and whipped out video cameras to capture those awful moments. Mainstream media did a stirling job of covering the events from then on, but those early moments remained the domain of the citizen. The same can be said of the 7/7 bombings in London, where camera phone pictures gave us the best idea of the situation inside the Tube as the carnage was taking place.
Citizen journalism, then, is about bringing that power in numbers mentality to the web. It must be considered in its place, however. People enjoy reading what experts have to tell them, and the considered opinion of a journalist who writes well will seldom be surpassed by a punter, and neither will the specialist expertise that journalists often have be challenged by an average reader. But people also like talking to others about problems and situations, so the ability for readers to become creators and to participate in culture and journalism offers exciting new opportunities for media.
Some of the most striking images of July 7 were captured by bystanders, not journalists.
If citizen journalism revolves around reader-generated content, perhaps the most popular form of reader-generated content right now is blogging. It's very easy to go and sign up at somewhere like Blogger and have your own little venting area on the web for your (ir)rational thoughts and opinions. Letâ€™s begin with a caveat - just as there are many people in the world who you wouldn't listen to if you happened to be sat next to them in the pub, so there are many, many bloggers who have absolutely nothing of any wider value to bring to the web.
However, there are some people on the net who have truly interesting and informative blogs that are worth reading, just as you will sometimes meet truly enlightened and entertaining people in the pub. In that case, the opinions of that blogger become something of a conundrum. Where you have a guy writing coherently and with a fanbase of readers who are interested in his opinions, how different is that, really, from traditional journalism, which also relies on readers eyeballing interesting articles? Here, the issue of citizen journalism crosses over, and we find that user-generated media is actually a tailor-made proving ground for those hoping to participate in, or create, mainstream media.