The rise of citizen content

Person of the Year: You.A few days ago, I asked whether libraries are mainstream. I pointed to popular culture to try to make the point that libraries are no longer considered to be the penultimate (oops) source of knowledge and enlightenment (insomuch as the everyman seeks enlightenment these days). That locus resides elsewhere in the minds of our population.

I was at the doctors office the other day and while I was in the waiting room, I was half-heartedly watching the TV in the corner–the Ellen DeGeneres Show. I wasn’t paying much attention. The sound was off and closed-captioning was scrolling by on the screen. Then I noticed she now has a segment on viral video–selections plucked from the tamest of the tame (dogs doing flips, or some shit). Then I thought about the idiots down in Texas who filmed themselves as they coerced a two and five year-old to smoke marijuana–a video that is in wide circulation both online and in the news (I refuse to link to it).

It’s an entirely new flavor of discourse when video of children being abused like this percolates into our consciousness.

The debate over whether the video should have been released in the first place is, by and large, a journalistic one (and I’m not so sure there is any debate to speak of anyway). Libraries have, however, along with journalists championed the open, transparent flow of information and media. So, perhaps we need to accept the horrifying along with the bizarre, intelligent, and the hilarious. If that’s the case then are we completely divorcing ourselves from content and grafting ourselves to a new model of distribution?

I’m not sure how to answer that, nor do I really know how to answer the question, What does it mean for us? Well, first, I think the job of disseminating and housing the data is taken care of as well as it possibly could be. So what remains? In this feedback loop of viral content and network effects, are there needs being left unattended, are there gaps in the experience where libraries can reside? There are some practical changes to be made, for sure.

The blog, Picturephoning, came onto my radar several weeks ago and since then it’s been holding my attention firmly. Not because of the videos it links to, but because the stories it covers begin, over time, to reveal some very interesting characteristics of this new media and, thus, the profound implications they have for our society and media. The stories range from the superficially humorous to the horrific. All reported with stark impartiality. It’s a gem of a site if what you’re after is a pulse to put your finger on.

It’s from there that I was referred to the Mail & Guardian online who, with their new service, The News in Photos, have begun to actively solicit photos from their readers. Their reasoning?

“This is our most visible step so far to embracing audience participation in the news,” says Vincent Maher, the newly appointed digital media strategist at the Mail & Guardian Online.

“As the power to crystallise reality shifts away from traditional media towards social construction by users of the Web, our role as a media company is shifting from one as a provider to one as a facilitator,”

Bingo. Shifting from provider to facilitator. I mentioned that there were some practical things we can do if we choose to participate in this media, and this is it right here.

I’ve written before that no matter how fabulous our collections are, they will ultimately be unremarkable. Our capacity to allow our users to engage in this new media is what will cement our position as a vital community resource, going forward.

That means many things, like providing the equipment and expertise to let them participate. But it also means, somehow, providing a sense of appropriateness and propriety that befits our institutions and the dignity of the human condition.

I realize that a statement like that flies in the face of library neutrality, but I do feel that we have a responsibility to not just connect our users to this new layer of content, but to also advise them in their endeavors so that they can produce content that is significantly richer than average. We also need to be prepared to stand by them when we will be, inevitably, called to account for what they do.

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