Netizen-Journalismus, Ohmy News und chinesische Blogger

Netizen – den Begriff prägte Michael Hauben (1973-2001), um Netzbürger mit gesellschaftlicher Verantwortung zu charakterisieren. Michaels Eltern Ronda und Jay Hauben, Internet-Historiker an der Columbia University, New York, sprachen im Vorfeld des Kongresses Wem gehört das Internet? mit Gabriele Hooffacker über Netizen-Journalismus, Ohmy News und chinesische Blogger. Das Interview ist in englischer Sprache.

Interview with Ronda Hauben and Jay Hauben by Gabriele Hooffacker

Following is an edited excerpt from a longer interview conducted in Berlin with Ronda Hauben and Jay Hauben by Dr. Gabriele Hooffacker on September 21, 2007. Ronda Hauben is co-author with Michael Hauben of the book „Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet“ which was published in the 1990s and is one of the pioneering histories and studies of the social impact of the Internet. Currently, Ronda is a featured writer for OhmyNews International, the English language edition of the OhmyNews newspaper in South Korea. She covers the United Nations in New York. She also writes freelance for the German online magazine Telepolis, and has just begun a blog at the German newspaper, „Tageszeitung“. Jay is a netizen reporter for OhmyNews International and works in the Libraries at Columbia University. Unless otherwise indicated the excerpt is of the part of the interview with Ronda. Jay’s responses are specifically indicated in brackets.

Dr. Gabriele Hooffacker: Would you say that netizen is the same as grassroots journalism?

Ronda Hauben: I think it is not quite the same. It includes grassroots journalism but the significance that I understand with netizen is that people have a social perspective and do something for that social perspective.

Some of the origin of the term [netizen] was in 1992-1993. Michael Hauben, a college student did some research. He sent out a number of questions on ‚Usenet‘ which is a forum for discussion that was very active in the early 90s.In the responses to his questions people said that they were interested in the internet for the different things they were trying to do but they also wanted to figure out how to spread the internet, how to have it grow and thrive and how to have everybody have access.

He noticed that there was a social purpose that people explained to him, that people had developed from the fact that they could participate online and find some very interesting valuable possibilities online.

Grassroots journalism I would interprete as people from the grassroots having the ability to post. Where there is also a social desire and political purpose, that is what I would define as netizen journalism.

Is there netizens journalism for example in China?

I have seen articles written in China that say that the netizens are a small set of the Chinese online population but those who have the political purpose and activities.

You told me that there is a great blogger community without censorship?

There is censorship. But there is a blogger community. I found a quote from a Chinese computer person who said focusing too closely on internet censorship overlooks the expanded freedoms of expression made possible in China by the Internet. From what I have seen by my research, that seems right. It turns out that there is something very significant developing and that has developed, which involves a lot of people that are being very active trying to discuss the problems of China and trying to see if they can be part of helping to solve those problems and that is the opposite of the sense you get from this news media talk about censorship all the time.

Are there some examples that netizens can sometimes get control over the government.

James Mill, writing in England in the 1800s said that if you do not have some oversight over government then government can only be corrupt. That is why you need processes and ways that people can discuss what government is doing and watch over government – I like to use the word ‚watchdogging‘ government.

[Jay adding: I know of two situations in China, one where some people resisted demolition of their house by developers and one where child slave labour was uncovered in brick foundries. These situations had been casually covered by the mainstream media and then dropped. When a blogger came and investigated the reasons for the resistance and spread the word, the ’nail house‘ as it was called was discussed by a large cross-section of the population. Then the resisters got proper compensation and a new house as they had wanted.

The same for the child slavery situation. After the blogging community made it a topic of substantial national discussion, the provincial governments involved moved to end the situation. The government was not influenced by coverage of the mainstream media but was pushed by the coverage of the netizen media. Also, when the government started to act, the mainstream media picked up and gave more coverage.]

You are a featured writer for ‚OhmyNews‘. Why do you think that ‚OhmyNews‘ is a good thing?

The Korean edition of ‚OhmyNews‘ has pioneered a concept which is very interesting.
The founder of OhmyNews, Oh Yeon-Ho had worked for an alternative publication – a monthly magazine – for almost 10 years. He realized that it was not the importance of the issue that determined if it would be in the news, but it was the nature of the news organization that determined it. He wanted to change that.

With a small amount of money and a very small staff he set out to try to influence the press with how a story was framed and how you determine what should be the stories that get covered. He also decided to welcome people to write as citizen reporters, opening up the newspaper so that the broader set of the Korean population could contribute articles to it and could help set what the issues were that it covered.

As an example, a soldier who had been drafted into the army ended up getting stomach cancer. The medical doctors for the army had diagnosed an ulcer. The soldier died shortly after his term of being in the army was over. Someone wrote an article telling this soldier’s story and contributed it to OhmyNews. OhmyNews staff wrote follow up articles. Others contributed. There were 28 articles in 10 days looking into the situation and 20 other situations that were uncovered.

[Jay adding: The government first said that the incident was not significant. But as more and more articles were written and more and more people were commenting and more and more people were writing letters and more and more people were blaming the government, the government changed its tune and said: it would put 10 billion won over a 5 year period to have a better medical system in the service.

Everybody knew someone in the army that might get sick and they did not want that to happen. Every mother was upset. It was a major national phenomenon from these 28 articles in 10 days.] That is the kind of thing that they have done in the Korean edition.

A lot of the analysis of OhmyNews in the journalism community is only looking at the fact that it uses writers who are not part of a regular staff as reporters. They do not look at the whole context of the significant innovations to journalism that ‚OhmyNews‘ has attempted and developed.

I’m afraid that some professional journalism teachers only see the professional standard of journalism and their own journalists but do not realize what the aim of journalism is anymore – the political participation and the citizens‘ control over their government.

What I see is that it is getting back to the roots of why you need journalism and journalists.
In the US there is a first amendment because there was an understanding, when it was formulated, that you have to oversee government and that there has to be discussion and articles, in short, a press that looks at what government is doing and that discusses it and that such vibrant discussion is necessary among the population.

But the corporate-dominated/profit-dominated form of journalism in the US will not allow that to happen, so the netizen journalism makes it possible. The Columbia journalism school claims that it supports ethics in journalism. And yet here is that challenge to it, to treat this new phenomenon seriously and to learn about it, to support it, to encourage it and to help to spread it. Instead, it does the opposite.

Do you think that netizen journalism will affect the mainstream journalism or that the mainstream journalism will learn from it?

If there is discussion among people about what is going on, then that leads to the mainstream media having to learn something. Maybe that is already happening because even BBC is exploring ways of opening up its discussions and processes. Maybe it already is having its impact and there is change happening, but we do not see it quite yet.

Let me add that in South Korea other online progressive publications have developed and other online conservative publications have developed.The media situation is much more vibrant now than it had been. I think as an result of what he [Mr. Oh Yeon-Ho] had achieved.

When you look into the future and imagine what journalism and netizen journalism will look like/be like in 10 years what are your expectations?

It is an interesting challenge that you put. There has been a lot of support from governments and others towards doing business on the internet. But meanwhile for example the US society is in deep trouble because of the ability of government to do things without listening to the people or considering what the people’s desires are.

In my opinion netizen journalism holds out the hope and the promise that there can be a means for the citizens and the netizens to have more of a say in having what is done by government be something that is a benefit to the society instead of harmful.

The form this will take is not clear. But one of the things that Michael wrote in 1992-1993 was that the net bestows the power of the reporter on the netizen. He saw that that was already happening then.
And now we see ‚Telepolis‘ in Germany which last year celebrated its 10th anniversary and which unfortunately we did not get to talk about now, but which has pioneered a form of online and netizen journalism that really is substantial and has achieved some very important things.

There is ‚OhmyNews‘ in South Korea. In China, there are the Chinese bloggers and people posting to online forums. Even in the US some significant online forums have developed. I just looked at those few countries for a presentation I gave recently in Potsdam. I did not look at all the other places where things are developing.

It turns out that there is a very vibrant environment online. A great challenge to people interested in this, is to look at it seriously and try to see, firstly, what is developping and secondly, is there a way to give it support and to figure out if there is some way of beginning to have some possibilies for people to get together and have serious papers about what is happening and some serious discussion towards the question: can we give each other help, for example, to start something like ‚OhmyNews‘ or ‚Telepolis‘ in America or similar things elsewhere. I feel that something will turn up. It is exciting that so much is in fact going on.

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