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M/C Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2 (2010) - 'ambient'


From TV to Twitter: How Ambient News Became Ambient Journalism


In a TED talk in June 2009, media scholar Clay Shirky cited the devastating earthquake that struck the Sichuan province of China in May 2008 as an example of how media flows are changing. He explained how the first reports of the quake came not from traditional news media, but from local residents who sent messages on QQ, China’s largest social network, and on Twitter, the world’s most popular micro-blogging service. "As the quake was happening, the news was reported," said Shirky.

This was neither a unique nor isolated incident. It has become commonplace for the people caught up in the news to provide the first accounts, images and video of events unfolding around them. Studies in participatory journalism suggest that professional journalists now share jurisdiction over the news in the sense that citizens are participating in the observation, selection, filtering, distribution and interpretation of events. This paper argues that the ability of citizens to play “an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing and disseminating news and information” (Bowman and Willis 9) means we need to reassess the meaning of ‘ambient’ as applied to news and journalism.

Twitter has emerged as a key medium for news and information about major events, such as during the earthquake in Chile in February 2010 (see, for example, Silverman; Dickinson). This paper discusses how social media technologies such as Twitter, which facilitate the immediate dissemination of digital fragments of news and information, are creating what I have described as “ambient journalism” (Hermida). It approaches real-time, networked digital technologies as awareness systems that offer diverse means to collect, communicate, share and display news and information in the periphery of a user's awareness.

Twitter shares some similarities with other forms of communication. Like the telephone, it facilitates a real-time exchange of information. Like instant messaging, the information is sent in short bursts. But it extends the affordances of previous modes of communication by combining these features in both a one-to-many and many-to-many framework that is public, archived and searchable. Twitter allows a large number of users to communicate with each other simultaneously in real-time, based on an asymmetrical relationship between friends and followers. The messages form social streams of connected data that provide value both individually and in aggregate.

News All Around

The term ‘ambient’ has been used in journalism to describe the ubiquitous nature of news in today's society. In their 2002 study, Hargreaves and Thomas said one of the defining features of the media landscape in the UK was the easy availability of news through a host of media platforms, such as public billboards and mobile phones, and in spaces, such as trains and aircraft. “News is, in a word, ambient, like the air we breathe,” they concluded (44). The availability of news all around meant that citizens were able to maintain an awareness of what was taking place in the world as they went about their everyday activities.

One of the ways news has become ambient has been through the proliferation of displays in public places carrying 24-hour news channels or showing news headlines. In her book, Ambient Television, Anna McCarthy explored how television has become pervasive by extending outside the home and dominating public spaces, from the doctor’s waiting room to the bar. “When we search for TV in public places, we find a dense, ambient clutter of public audio-visual apparatuses,” wrote McCarthy (13).

In some ways, the proliferation of news on digital platforms has intensified the presence of ambient news. In a March 2010 Pew Internet report, Purcell et al. found that “in the digital era, news has become omnipresent. Americans access it in multiple formats on multiple platforms on myriad devices” (2). It seems that, if anything, digital technologies have increased the presence of ambient news.

This approach to the term ‘ambient’ is based on a twentieth century model of mass media. Traditional mass media, from newspapers through radio to television, are largely one-directional, impersonal one-to-many carriers of news and information (McQuail 55). The most palpable feature of the mass media is to reach the many, and this affects the relationship between the media and the audience.

Consequently, the news audience does not act for itself, but is “acted upon” (McQuail 57). It is assigned the role of consumer. The public is present in news as citizens who receive information about, and interpretation of, events from professional journalists. The public as the recipient of information fits in with the concept of ambient news as “news which is free at the point of consumption, available on demand and very often available in the background to people’s lives without them even looking” (Hargreaves and Thomas 51).

To suggest that members of the audience are just empty receptacles to be filled with news is an oversimplification. For example, television viewers are not solely defined in terms of spectatorship (see, for example, Ang). But audiences have, traditionally, been kept well outside the journalistic process, defined as the “selecting, writing, editing, positioning, scheduling, repeating and otherwise massaging information to become news” (Shoemaker et al. 73). This audience is cast as the receiver, with virtually no sense of agency over the news process. As a result, journalistic communication has evolved, largely, as a process of one-way, one-to-many transmission of news and information to the public. The following section explores the shift towards a more participatory media environment.

News as a Social Experience

The shift from an era of broadcast mass media to an era of networked digital media has fundamentally altered flows of information. Non-linear, many-to-many digital communication technologies have transferred the means of media production and dissemination into the hands of the public, and are rewriting the relationship between the audience and journalists. Where there were once limited and cost-intensive channels for the distribution of content, there are now a myriad of widely available digital channels.

Henry Jenkins has written about the emergence of a participatory culture that “contrasts with older notions of passive media spectatorship. Rather than talking about media producers and consumers occupying separate roles, we might now see them as participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands” (3). Axel Bruns has coined the term “produsage” (2) to refer to the blurred line between producers and consumers, while Jay Rosen has talked about the “people formerly know as the audience.” For some, the consequences of this shift could be “a new model of journalism, labelled participatory journalism,” (Domingo et al. 331), raising questions about who can be described as a journalist and perhaps, even, how journalism itself is defined.

The trend towards a more participatory media ecosystem was evident in the March 2010 study on news habits in the USA by Pew Internet. It highlighted that the news was becoming a social experience. “News is becoming a participatory activity, as people contribute their own stories and experiences and post their reactions to events” (Purcell et al. 40). The study found that 37% of Internet users, described by Pew as “news participators,” had actively contributed to the creation, commentary, or dissemination of news (44).

This reflects how the Internet has changed the relationship between journalists and audiences from a one-way, asymmetric model of communication to a more participatory and collective system (Boczkowski; Deuze). The following sections considers how the ability of the audience to participate in the gathering, analysis and communication of news and information requires a re-examination of the concept of ambient news.

A Distributed Conversation

As I’ve discussed, ambient news is based on the idea of the audience as the receiver. Ambient journalism, on the other hand, takes account of how audiences are able to become part of the news process. However, this does not mean that citizens are necessarily producing journalism within the established framework of accounts and analysis through narratives, with the aim of providing accurate and objective portrayals of reality.

Rather, I suggest that ambient journalism presents a multi-faceted and fragmented news experience, where citizens are producing small pieces of content that can be collectively considered as journalism. It acknowledges the audience as both a receiver and a sender. I suggest that micro-blogging social media services such as Twitter, that enable millions of people to communicate instantly, share and discuss events, are an expression of ambient journalism.

Micro-blogging is a new media technology that enables and extends society's ability to communicate, enabling users to share brief bursts of information from multiple digital devices. Twitter has become one of the most popular micro-blogging platforms, with some 50 million messages sent daily by February 2010 (Twitter). Twitter enables users to communicate with each other simultaneously via short messages no longer than 140 characters, known as ‘tweets’.

The micro-blogging platform shares some similarities with instant messaging. It allows for near synchronous communications from users, resulting in a continuous stream of up-to-date messages, usually in a conversational tone. Unlike instant messaging, Twitter is largely public, creating a new body of content online that can be archived, searched and retrieved.

The messages can be extracted, analysed and aggregated, providing a measure of activity around a particular event or subject and, in some cases, an indication of the general sentiment about it. For example, the deluge of tweets following Michael Jackson's death in July 2009 has been described as a public and collective expression of loss that indicated “the scale of the world’s shock and sadness” (Cashmore).

While tweets are atomic in nature, they are part of a distributed conversation through a social network of interconnected users. To paraphrase David Weinberger's description of the Web, tweets are “many small pieces loosely joined,” (ix). In common with mass media audiences, users may be very widely dispersed and usually unknown to each other. Twitter provides a structure for them to act together as if in an organised way, for example through the use of hashtags–the # symbol–and keywords to signpost topics and issues. This provides a mechanism to aggregate, archive and analyse the individual tweets as a whole.

Furthermore, information is not simply dependent on the content of the message. A user's profile, their social connections and the messages they resend, or retweet, provide an additional layer of information. This is called the social graph and it is implicit in social networks such as Twitter. The social graph provides a representation of an individual and their connections. Each user on Twitter has followers, who themselves have followers. Thus each tweet has a social graph attached to it, as does each message that is retweeted (forwarded to other users). Accordingly, social graphs offer a means to infer reputation and trust.

Twitter as Ambient Journalism

Services such as Twitter can be considered as awareness systems, defined as computer-mediated communication systems “intended to help people construct and maintain awareness of each others’ activities, context or status, even when the participants are not co-located” (Markopoulos et al., v). In such a system, the value does not lie in the individual sliver of information that may, on its own, be of limited value or validity. Rather the value lies in the combined effect of the communication.

In this sense, Twitter becomes part of an ambient media system where users receive a flow of information from both established media and from each other. Both news and journalism are ambient, suggesting that “broad, asynchronous, lightweight and always-on communication systems such as Twitter are enabling citizens to maintain a mental model of news and events around them” (Hermida 5).

Obviously, not everything on Twitter is an act of journalism. There are messages about almost every topic that often have little impact beyond an individual and their circle of friends, from random thoughts and observations to day-to-day minutiae. But it is undeniable that Twitter has emerged as a significant platform for people to report, comment and share news about major events, with individuals performing some of the institutionalised functions of the professional journalist.

Examples where Twitter has emerged as a platform for journalism include the 2008 US presidential elections, the Mumbai attacks in November of 2008 and the January 2009 crash of US Airways flight (Lenhard and Fox 2). In these examples, Twitter served as a platform for first-hand, real-time reports from people caught up in the events as they unfolded, with the cell phone used as the primary reporting tool. For example, the dramatic Hudson River landing of the US Airways flight was captured by ferry passenger Janis Krum, who took a photo with a cell phone and sent it out via Twitter.

One of the issues associated with services like Twitter is the speed and number of micro-bursts of data, together with the potentially high signal to noise ratio. For example, the number of tweets related to the disputed election result in Iran in June 2009 peaked at 221,774 in one hour, from an average flow of between 10,000 and 50,000 an hour (Parr). Hence there is a need for systems to aid in selection, organisation and interpretation to make sense of this ambient journalism.

Traditionally the journalist has been the mechanism to filter, organise and interpret this information and deliver the news in ready-made packages. Such a role was possible in an environment where access to the means of media production was limited. But the thousands of acts of journalism taking place on Twitter every day make it impossible for an individual journalist to identify the collective sum of knowledge contained in the micro-fragments, and bring meaning to the data.

Rather, we should look to the literature on ambient media, where researchers talk about media systems that understand individual desires and needs, and act autonomously on their behalf (for example Lugmayr). Applied to journalism, this suggests a need for tools that can analyse, interpret and contextualise a system of collective intelligence.

An example of such a service is TwitterStand, developed by a group of researchers at the University of Maryland (Sankaranarayanan et al.). The team describe TwitterStand as “an attempt to harness this emerging technology to gather and disseminate breaking news much faster than conventional news media” (51). In their paper, they describe in detail how their news processing system is able to identify and cluster news tweets in a noisy medium. They conclude that “Twitter, or most likely a successor of it, is a harbinger of a futuristic technology that is likely to capture and transmit the sum total of all human experiences of the moment” (51). While such a comment may be something of an overstatement, it indicates how emerging real-time, networked technologies are creating systems of distributed journalism.

Similarly, the US Geological Survey (USGS) is investigating social media technologies as a way quickly to gather information about recent earthquakes. It has developed a system called the Twitter Earthquake Detector to gather real-time, earthquake-related messages from Twitter and filter the messages by place, time, and keyword (US Department of the Interior). By collecting and analysing the tweets, the USGS believes it can access anecdotal information from citizens about a quake much faster than if it only relied on scientific information from authoritative sources.

Both of these are examples of research into the development of tools that help users negotiate and regulate the streams and information flowing through networked media. They address issues of information overload by making sense of distributed and unstructured data, finding a single concept such as news in what Sankaranarayanan et al., say is “akin to finding needles in stacks of tweets’ (43). danah boyd eloquently captured the potential for such as system, writing that “those who are most enamoured with services like Twitter talk passionately about feeling as though they are living and breathing with the world around them, peripherally aware and in tune, adding content to the stream and grabbing it when appropriate.”

Conclusion

While this paper has focused on Twitter in its discussion of ambient journalism, it is possible that the service may be overtaken by another or several similar digital technologies. This has happened, for example, in the social networking space, with Friendster been supplanted by MySpace and more recently by Facebook. However, underlying services like Twitter are a set of characteristics often referred to by the catchall phrase, the real-time Web.

As often with emerging and rapidly developing Internet trends, it can be challenging to define what the real-time Web means. Entrepreneur Ken Fromm has identified a set of characteristics that offer a good starting point to understand the real-time Web. He describes it as a new form of loosely organised communication that is creating a new body of public content in real-time, with a related social graph.

In the context of our discussion of the term ‘ambient’, the characteristics of the real-time Web do not only extend the pervasiveness of ambient news. They also enable the former audience to become part of the news environment as it has the means to gather, select, produce and distribute news and information. Writing about changing news habits in the US, Purcell et al. conclude that “people’s relationship to news is becoming portable, personalized, and participatory” (2). Ambient news has evolved into ambient journalism, as people contribute to the creation, dissemination and discussion of news via social media services such as Twitter.

To adapt Ian Hargreaves' description of ambient news in his book, Journalism: Truth or Dare?, we can say that journalism, which was once difficult and expensive to produce, today surrounds us like the air we breathe. Much of it is, literally, ambient, and being produced by professionals and citizens. The challenge going forward is helping the public negotiate and regulate this flow of awareness information, facilitating the collection, transmission and understanding of news.

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