vonRonda Hauben 22.10.2008

Netizen Journalism and the New News

Exploring the impact of the net and the netizen on journalism and toward a more participatory form of citizenship.

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[This is a slightly edited version of a talk given in Copenhagen on 10-17-08 at the 9th annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (The tag for the conference is IR9.0)]

This year, 2008 is the 15th anniversary of the publication of the “Net and Netizens” by Michael Hauben on the Internet in the summer of 1993. Michael posted this paper in parts because it was fairly long. It was based on research he had done about the Internet by asking people questions about how they were using the Net in that period of the early 1990s. Also at the time there was some use of the term net.citizen on the net. Michael contracted the term net.citizen into the term netizen. Based on the responses and his analysis of them Michael put together a paper defining what he called the netizen.

His paper was spread around the Net by the Usenet software network and by people forwarding it to each other via email. People embraced the concept of netizen to describe the social and political phenomenon that Michael had identified in his paper. Netizens is not a passive identity. Rather a netizen is an active participant in the affairs of the Net and ultimately of the world.

When people online were doing things that had this characteristic, they would call themselves netizens. Eventually identifying as a netizen has become an identity some people have embraced. They consider themselves to be netizens.

In a recent book, netizen was described as a political concept. The impression is given that it showed up on the net more or less spontaneously. That is not accurate. Before Michael’s work, the word netizen was rarely if ever used. After his paper circulated widely, the use of the concept netizen became increasingly common. It was a whole process of research, of summarizing the research and analyzing it, and then putting the research back online and people embracing it. This was the process by which the foundation for the concept of netizen was established.

The early 1990s was also a time when the privatization of the Internet was being actively promoted by commercial interests. Spreading the consciousness of oneself as a netizen became a piece of the fight defending the public essence of the Net from the attack by commercial interests. The result was that an understanding of the origin and development of the concept of netizens has in various ways been suppressed by those forces who wanted to promote the commercial domination of the Internet.

In the “Net and Netizens,” Michael wrote that the Net represents a significant new development. “We are seeing a revitalization of society,” he explained. “The frameworks are being redesigned from the bottom up. A new, more democratic world is becoming possible.” This new world had a number of characteristics that he outlined. He described a situation where “the old model of distribution of information from the central Network Broadcasting Company is being questioned and challenged. The top-down model of information being distributed by a few for mass consumption is no longer the only news.”(1)

Michael explained how “people now have the ability to broadcast their observations or questions around the world and have other people respond.”

The computer networks, he wrote, “form a new grassroots connection that allows excluded sections of society to have a voice. This new medium is unprecedented. Previous grassroots media have existed for much smaller groups of people…..”

The Net, Michael argued, was providing netizens with the ability to create the content and to set the agenda for what is to be discussed. Thus netizens had the power to not only determine the content for discussion forums but also design the forms that online discussions take.

Michael wrote elsewhere that in its simplest form this characterizes democracy, making the net and netizens a significant model for a democratic society. It’s not elections that is the essence of democracy, where certain candidate are put forward once every 4 or 5 years so you can vote for them. But democracy is where you can be active participating and where what you say has some effect on what happens. That is what I understand to be more appropriately considered a model of democracy.

Another one of the earliest pieces Michael wrote was looking at an article James Mill, who was the father of John Stuart Mill, wrote in 1825 about Freedom of the Press. Mill wrote that government officials are going to be corrupt. They can not help it because they are put in a situation where they have power. Therefore a means is needed for dealing with that. Mill suggested society needs a press that is a watchdog. The Net, Michael wrote, makes such a watchdog possible now.

Remember that the “Net and Netizens” was first posted online in 1993. The conceptual understanding it proposed when the article was posted was something new. The question to be raised is how much of this is possible to fulfill? How accurate was what Michael understood of the potential of the Net and of the netizen to make a more democratic world possible?

I want to come back to our current time, to 2008. What is happening now?

I have found that it is very important to follow South Korea if one is interested in the development of the netizen

In 2003 I read an article in the Financial Times that said that the new South Korean President had been elected by netizens.

What happened was that in 2002, netizens in South Korea made it possible for the president to be someone from outside of the political establishment. Roh Moo-hyun was elected for a five year term as the President of South Korea.

In 2004 the National Assembly tried to impeach him and the netizens again took up the fight. One of the means of fighting for democracy in South Korea are candlelight demonstrations. An activist in South Korea told us that they had taken inspiration from the candlelight demonstrations in Leipzig, Germany that helped to reunite Germany.

In 2008, there have been over 100 days of candlelight demonstrations in South Korea, which started on May 2.

On May 2, we were there in Seoul. We left on May 3 (we were in South Korea for 9 days). On May 2, a new set of candlelight demonstrations began.

We didn’t go to the demonstration on May 2. But we did have a sense by talking to people we knew while we in South Korea in April and early May about what was happening at the time and it was obvious that something was going to happen, just not when. And so we weren’t surprised. But I think what did happen is very important and if you look at this chart what you see is Candlelight Girl and her army.

The first candlelight demonstration on May 2 was called by middle school girls and high school students using their cell phones and a fan website on the Internet to announce that there was going to be a candlelight demonstration.

The issue was that there was a new president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak who won the election in December 2007. (Internet posts about the election by netizens were the object of censorship by the South Korean government from June 2007-December 2007.) In April 2008, Lee Myung-bak, came to the U.S. and signed an agreement with George Bush to give the beef lobby in the U.S. Congress what they wanted. The agreement ended the former restrictions on the export of U.S. beef to South Korea. It eliminated the regulations that existed to provide precautions with regard to the danger of mad cow disease or other worries about unhealthy beef. Virtually all the restrictions were to be removed.

There was some information about this development in the news in Korea. Middle school and high school students who were already upset about the quality of the school lunches they get, felt this was only going to add to their problem of poor quality food in school. Also there was already an impeachment petition being circulated online as the new president and the program he was promoting led many in South Korea to fear that he would be taking South Korea backwards to its autocratic past. The candlelight demonstrations were a sign that many in South Korea saw the actions of the new president as a difficult problem for their country.

In August Oh Yeon-ho who is the CEO and the founder of OhmyNews gave a talk in the U.S. about the candlelight 2008 demonstrations. OhmyNews is mainly an online newspaper that has committed itself to be a 21st century newspaper.

The Korean edition of OhmyNews combines articles submitted by its regular staff with those submitted by people from around the world, from the Korean-speaking population and then decides which will be put on its front pages. The Korean edition has a substantial regular staff, as opposed to the smaller English edition which is mainly based on contributions of articles by people. The Korean edition of OhmyNews is a major newspaper in South Korea.

There’s been a very proud tradition in South Korea of protest and sacrifice. In 1987 they got rid of the military dictatorship. And it’s been a hard fight since then. But it’s only in the last 10 years that people have felt that they’ve had some minimal level of democracy. In his talk, Oh Yeon-ho explained that people had committed themselves to using the internet to try to guarantee and spread that democracy.

OhmyNews had played an important role in these demonstrations. It started OhmyTV. Because of OhmyTV I was able to watch the demonstrations in my kitchen in the Bronx. I don’t speak Korean but I could have a good idea of what was happening. I could chat using the Internet to talk to a former editor of OhmyNews who is in London. She and I would write back and forth to each other about what was happening in the demonstrations. OhmyNews had 24 hour coverage at times and they provided not only coverage on OhmyTV of the demonstrations, but also articles and photos on their web pages about the demonstrations. Also they had articles in English on the English edition of OhmyNews about the demonstrations. I found the coverage helpful and inspiring.

Though netizen is not a Korean word, it has been adopted in Korea. People use the word netizen to describe when they are active defending democracy using the Internet. Netizens in South Korea took on to broadcast whatever was going on. They would use text messages sent via their cell phones or their laptops. They would discuss what was happening online.

A report on the demonstrations by France24 was particularly helpful. The reporter recognized what was happening. You can see this netizen with his laptop. Even when the police were using water cannons attacking the demonstrators you would see someone with plastic over his laptop trying to film what was going on. People took their cameras, their cell phones and in any way they could, they would broadcast on the Internet what was happening. There would get broadcasts back from other people at other areas of the demonstrations. Along with the OhmyTV broadcasts, there were many other sources of broadcasts, as for example via the Korean online video portal Afreeca or via Youtube. People who weren’t at the demonstration would discuss what they saw and interact with the demonstrators via their computers or cell phones. As one person explained to me, netizens could go with their laptops to the demonstration. They could be at the demonstration and online at the same time. So these two experiences really came together in a lot of ways for a number of people during these demonstrations.

I was told that the demonstrations were different from the prior tradition of demonstrations. In South Korea, there is a tradition of militant demonstrations in the struggle for democracy. The demonstrations in 2008, however, were festivals. There were people of all ages, men, women, and children at the demonstrations. People would bring their instruments. For example, in the middle of the police attacking, some people began to play their accordions. At other times, there would be singing, there would be dancing. There was debating. There was something called a free speech stage that developed. People would line up for a chance to speak. Others would listen and react to the speakers. And the demonstrators became the press, so they were no longer dependent on how their demonstrations were reported in the traditional media.

These were an important set of activities. But in order to understand what happened it is crucial to recognize that South Korea is advanced in terms of the Internet.

South Korea is among the most advanced nations in having the highest number of people connected with broadband access. So it’s my sense that what happens in South Korea represents a glimpse into the future in terms of what’s possible when a large number of people in a country have access to high speed broadband connectivity.

If the Internet can spread and spread widely and if there’s inexpensive wireless available, that is very helpful because if people have the internet and can write about, film and carry on discussions about what is happening in the world, this can function as a watchdog over what is happening, as at times in South Korea during the demonstrations, this proved to be a protection for people from the arbitrary actions of the police.

One such example is demonstrated by the events that took place in Seoul on June 10 and 11. A very big demonstration was planned for June 10th, to celebrate the victory over the military government in South Korea in June 1987. Some estimate as many as 600,000 to 700,00 people were expected and did turn out. What the government did to prepare for the demonstration was to try to blockade the president’s house, which is called the Blue House, to keep the demonstrators from marching to the Blue House. The police put up barriers. They put out a number of shipping containers and filled them with sand so they are said to have weighed 40 tons each. They put grease on them so that people wouldn’t be able to climb over them.

What the netizens did is they named this structure “Myung-bak’s castle”. They made a wikipedia entry for this as a landmark of Seoul.

As you can see they decorated this new landmark of Seoul.

This is a photo of what happened later, after the June 10 demonstration, from 12 midnight on June 11 until 5:30 am. On one side of the barrier is the crowd of people discussing what should they do about the barriers.

On the other side of the shipping containers, there are buses filled with police inside and outside guarding the President’s house.

The photo shows how people had brought blocks of styrofoam to be able to go over the police barricade. There was a 5-1/2 hour discussion with people lining up on both sides of the debate. Through the discussion people decided not to go over the barricade for a number of reasons. People felt it was too dangerous to go over it. Instead several people with their banners went up on the barricade

The people who went up on the barrier did so to show that they could have gone over it if they wanted to but that they had decided not to.

The photo presents the contrast between what’s supposed to be democracy, which is the side of the barricade protecting the President from communicating with the people.

And what is democracy, is the people communicating with each other on the other side of the blockade. People online wrote about how important this all was to them, to see that there could be a discussion where people had real differences. This was significant in two ways:

First, they figured out how to resolve the differences to come to a decision among all of them.

Second, they cooperatively determined how to construct a structure that would enable them to carry out their decision. For me what they did is they took what you could do online and they did it offline.

The discussion and decisions carried out on June 11 were by a combination of people acting as netizens and as citizens. What they did, I want to propose, represents an important achievement and serves as a fitting celebration of the 15th anniversary of the publication online of the “Net and Netizens”.


(1) The “Net and Netizens” is the first chapter of the book “Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet”. There is an online version of the book at http://www.columbia.edu/~hauben/netbook/


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