Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Blogs 2006 - Citizen Journalism or Dystopia

Blogosphere in 2006 – One man’s brave new world of citizen journalism is another’s dystopia?

Congratulations! ‘You’ have been picked by Time magazine as its Person of the Year. ‘You’, the “digital native” (as coined by Marc Prensky), have made Internet an integral part of life.

Indeed, one can’t live without the marvels of new media. The disruption to communications (as a result of the Taiwan earthquake) at the end of December 2006 was a timely reminder on the extent of reliance on the Internet that I have grown to be.

I enjoy my online shopping, gaming, and of course, YouTube. (Remember Funtwo, the Korean guitarist and Hong Kong’s Bus Uncle, and many other characters made famous / notorious by YouTube.)

And I love the blogosphere as an avenue to share my thoughts on issues, trivial or otherwise.

There are already millions of bloggers on the Internet, and the number is fast rising. Apparently, Technorati keeps track of at least 50 million blogs worldwide. and one more blog is born every half a second.

Is the burgeoning number of blogs a positive sign of citizen journalism?

Undoubtedly, there are a lot of frivolous chatter, half-truths and misinformation in the Internet and we bloggers have been criticised for making a magnum opus out of our mundane life events.

A study by Pew Internet & American Life Project released in July 2006 found that 37% of American bloggers (that’s about 12 million of them) only writes about life experiences. Only 11% cites politics and government as a primary topic. In Singapore, a survey of international bloggers by Singapore Internet Research Centre (SIRC) at Nanyang Technological University in 2004 found that 73% of blogs are online diaries or personal journals.

Yet, there are some shining examples of citizen journalism that have embraced the importance of ordinary citizens taking part in the news-gathering and reporting process.

In the US, Gawker Stalker collects sightings of celebrities around Manhattan reported via email and instant messages by its readers. OhMyNews in South Korea has performed commendably, combining both professional and amateur reporting. China’s daqi.com is popular with those working in media.

In Singapore, the General Election (GE) in May 2006 was the first since blogs exploded on to the scene. During the nine-day election campaign, blog articles reportedly averaged over 190. Although a post-GE survey done by the Institute of Police Studies (IPS) in Singapore found that only 33% of the electorate cited the alternative Internet media as important in shaping their decision, the indications are clear that the Internet discourse will grow more powerful politically in time to come.
(Singapore Patriot’s thoughtful review of the significant events in ‘The Politics of Singapore’s New Media in 2006’ is a recommended read. See also Clarissa’s ‘GE 2006 & The Internet’.)

But as blogosphere flourishes, there are also signs that it faces challenging times ahead.

Some government authorities have expressed their alarm at the potential of blogosphere to shape opinions and have attempted to challenge the sanctity of free expression on the Internet.

China is a case in point. While the country jumps on the Internet bandwagon (China has reportedly over 17.5 million bloggers and is the world’s second-largest Internet user population after the US), its government appears to be trying to tame Internet activities almost at its onset. In 2000, Beijing introduced State Council Order No 292, barring nine types of content from websites, online bulletin boards and chat-rooms that might “harm state interests” and “disturb social order”. In February 2006, Google, Yahoo and other prominent Internet companies were accused of alleged complicity in human-rights abused by the Chinese government. More recently, Beijing announced in October 2006 its intention to make registration of bloggers’ real names mandatory.

In India, Internet regulators reportedly blocked several websites in July 2006 following the Mumbai train bombings and heavily restricted the flow of online information. The Department of Telecommunications was reported to have ordered Internet Service Providers to close more than 15 sites (mistakenly or otherwise) that purportedly published hate speech against Muslims, Hindus and the caste system in India.

In Malaysia, a recent Microsoft MSN survey found that only 3% of respondents were involved in citizen journalism but this small group is highly visible because it dares to discuss sensitive issues avoided by mainstream media. This trend has forced the Information Ministry to issue warnings on crackdowns on divisive sites (reportedly two cases in the past three years) and to consider compulsory registration.

In Singapore, there are evidently regulations governing Internet activities. I understand that any website/blog that promotes or discusses domestic politics must be registered with the Media Development Authority; and any discussion that might subvert racial-religious harmony crosses the OB markers.

However, the approach of late in Singapore has somewhat been one of constructive engagement.

In his National Day Rally speech in August 2006, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong underscored his government’s commitment to adopt a ‘lighter touch approach’ and to ride the digital wave to get its message across.

Foreign Minister George Yeo began blogging on his encounters, both overseas and in Singapore. (Catch his interview with Channel News Asia blogtvsg on his thoughts about blogging.) And a group of new People’s Action Party Members of Parliament (MPs), born after Singapore’s independence, came up with their P65 blog to share their personal side.

Clearly, the way forward for governments around the world in response to the digital age has to be one of engagement than heavy-handed control – and the Singapore government appears to be getting it right. The best one to deal with half-truths and distortions in the Internet is to counter them with truths and facts rather than blacking them out.

As the populace becomes more informed and technology-savvy, the new media is a growing sphere and an important avenue to reach out to the people.

The future augurs well for blogosphere in 2007, I’m sure…

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