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Last Updated: Monday, 2 January 2006, 00:05 GMT
The year of the digital citizen
By Jo Twist

2005 was arguably the year citizens really started to do it for themselves. Raising mobiles aloft, they did not just talk and text, they snapped, shared and reported the world around them.

Image of Underground evacuation on 7 July in London
Striking images of the 7 July bombings were taken by amateurs
Twelve months ago, it was clear the mass consumer was going to have at his or her disposal many more gadgets with greater capacity to record, store and share content.

It was going to be a year in which people started to challenge those who traditionally provide us with content, be it news, music, or movies.

Crucially, what 2005 proved was that far from these techno tools being purely dumb funnels for the same paid-for content from mainstream media, they had the chance to become powerful tools for political expression and reportage.

The consumer was turning into the citizen with a meaningful role to play. Media started to look more participatory and inclusive.

The Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 starkly showed the potential of these tools. Most of the memories of that day have been graphically captured, replayed and played again, making the event much more immediate and personal.

Later in the year, the 7 July London bombings and the hurricanes in the US forced home the fact that citizens had a much larger role in the production of news than ever before.

These collages of eyewitness accounts showed the immediate aftermath of the events long before any press camera could.

More recently, the BBC received 6,500 e-mailed mobile images and video clips showing the fires at the Buncefield oil depot, thousands more than the number received after the London bombings.

Shifting sands

With this explosion of citizen reporting, the relationship between producer and consumer has to realign itself.

Start-ups, such as Scoopt and Spy Media, have started to capitalise on the shifting sands by becoming intermediaries for citizen journalists to negotiate rights to their content.

The changing nature of news offers a diversity of voices, sources, and choice... and lets anyone join in global and local conversations
Podcasting exploded into the media landscape in 2005, puncturing it for good early in the year. It secured its place in media history when Apple incorporated podcast directories into its iTunes jukebox.

As a result, the challenge to content industries and mainstream media has been to think about how to ensure everyone has access to quality and trusted sources of news and information.

They also have to grapple with sticky questions such as who owns what, and who has the right to share content and re-create something with it in this converging world.

But there is no doubt that, coupled with a high-speed network, these media tools could do much to enhance participation in community and political life.

Vlog vote

US video blogger, or vlogger, Steve Garfield is already showing how politicians themselves can harness these tools to engage with voters.

He "produces" his local Boston city councillor, John Tobin's, video blog, or vlog.

Regularly, Councillor Tobin reports and shows his voters the positive and negative about their community. He shows them the new mural or neighbourhood graffiti problems. He returns to areas for updates where action has been taken to make something better.

Mobile phone with camera
The cameras on mobile phones are getting better and better
Councillor Tobin is convinced that by the 2008 presidential elections, most politicians in the US will vlog or die in the public eye.

"It's going to be mandatory. People are going to have to do it. Voters won't accept that they don't have it," he recently told the Boston Phoenix.

It is a cheap, accessible and locally relevant way in which to engage with and be visible to the very people who voted you in.

Just like blogs and podcasts, vlogs can be subscribed to so that each show is automatically pushed to the viewer.

Podnosh, set up by Nick Booth, calls itself the Grassroots Channel and is another example of how new channels for media can give local communities a voice.

It is a podcast inspired and sponsored by b:cen, the Birmingham Community Empowerment Network.

Local residents share experiences, short stories, local campaign news and resources, as well as support each other as "active citizens".

Mixed up media

And as we said goodbye to 2005, 65.9% or 16.5 million UK households were watching digital TV.

Broadband is within reach of nearly 99% of the country, and now makes up 57.4% of all net connections compared with 42.6% for dial-up.

The UK has long worried about the relationship between government, media and the public
That still leaves swathes of the nation digitally excluded, though.

This year will see much more convergence around traditional media such as TV, and broadband which could serve to plug this hole.

But regulation needs to be clear about what its role is in this landscape, and that will be a long and intense process.

Government and local government also need to know what role they should play to support these changes as well as how to make the most of the potential therein.

The UK has long worried about the relationship between government, media and the public. The erosion of trust and democracy is feared above all.

The question is what happens to social cohesion in this quickly evolving landscape and how can the government negotiate consumer-led media.

Some might argue that the remaining ties binding government, media and the public will be eroded further by the decentralisation of media.

'Appetite to be involved'

Greater choice of what to watch, what news means and who produces it, as well as the shift from broadcast to on-demand media, could increase people's ability to opt out of public and democratic debates if they want to.

Alternatively, the changing nature of news offers a diversity of voices, sources, and choice to enhance democratic potentials and lets anyone join in global and local conversations.

We need what big institutions do so well, but we also need the bottom-up... knowledge and ideas
Dan Gillmor
Center for Citizen Media
Clearly there is an appetite to be involved with the production of news - the capturing of moments that have left their indelible watermark on history, big or small.

This needs support and nurturing. It also needs to be inspiring and relevant.

To that end, it will be interesting to see what former journalist Dan Gillmor's newly announced non-profit Center for Citizen Media achieves in the coming year.

"We need a thriving media and journalism ecosystem," Mr Gillmor says on his blog.

"We need what big institutions do so well, but we also need the bottom-up - or, more accurately, edge-in - knowledge and ideas of what I've called the 'former audience' that has become a vital part of the system.

"I'm also anxious to see that it's done honourably and in a way that helps foster a truly informed citizenry."

The next 12 months should make an interesting year.

Dr Jo Twist is a Senior Research Fellow leading the Digital Society & Media team at the think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research.

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