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Count the Rolufs family among the lucky ones. They escaped New Orleans before hurricane Katrina devastated the city. But many of their friends and neighbours had no idea what had become of the family, which traces its local roots back several generations.
So Matt Rolufs, a computer specialist, did what many survivors and evacuees have done: he posted notices on several websites that popped up almost overnight to help victims and family members share information and find each other.
One of the sites Mr Rolufs used was the “Katrina information map,” a service generated by two Texas software programmers who harnessed Google Maps technology to create a graphical bulletin board providing information about people’s locations and the condition of houses and neighbourhoods.
“After 9/11 we saw so many people posing notices on brick walls. (This time), everybody went ahead and created their own websites on the fly,” says Mr Rolufs.
The Katrina information map, as well as dozens of other bulletin boards, disaster zone maps and people locators are the latest and most poignant examples of the creativity that is rapidly turning the internet into a collaborative force of unprecedented influence.
With access to tremendous raw computing power and high-speed connections, hundreds of millions of internet users around the world are writing web logs, participating in citizens’ journalism, developing collaborative reference materials, engaging in social networking, remixing and sharing music files, or creating emergency bulletin boards.
This collaborative innovation is starting to dissolve the distinction between producers and consumers of content – between “us” and “them”. This new content is challenging the hegemony of traditional businesses and, as with the Katrina bulletin boards, fulfilling needs typically met by the state.
For a glimpse at the potential of collaborative media, take a look at South Korea’s OhmyNews, which has an estimated 2m daily readers and is considered one of the country’s most influential media outlets. It was widely credited with helping elect progressive president Roh Moo-hyun and has captured the attention of government officials, corporate leaders and the mainstream media.
Founded five years ago by a veteran journalist, OhmyNews’ 26,000 registered “citizen journalists” can publish anything they want once the material is reviewed by professional editors. The citizen journalists, who are paid a tiny stipend per story, must provide their true identities and assume full responsibility for their content.
Traditional media outlets are responding. The Los Angeles Times in June launched a “wikitorial,” an online editorial that readers were invited to rewrite. The aim was to create a “constantly evolving collaboration among readers in a communal search for truth.”
That experiment was quickly cut short when readers began posting pornographic material on the site but other experiments continue. CNN, for instance, encourages citizen videographers to post their work on the cable network’s website.
“Less than a year ago bloggers were thought to be natural combatants to the regular media. Now the media bends over backwards to include (bloggers) as contributors. A lot of the major outlets think of it as a place to showcase citizens’ work,” says Lee Rainee, director of the Pew Internet American Life Project.
Reference publishers are taking note as well. Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia that boasts more than 1.5m entries written in almost 200 languages by volunteer experts around the world, draws more than 5m visitors a month.
But how can anyone be sure that collaborative content available on the internet is credible? This is one of the key issues that bloggers, citizen journalists, traditional media outlets and readers must confront amid the explosion of collectively created online media.
So far, it appears that the internet is swarming with people who watch out for inaccuracies. But the potential for grave damage is far too great to be left to chance. Internet experts believe the proliferation of user-generated content will inevitably give rise to a variety of mechanisms to assess a writer’s reputation, much in the way that eBay allows users to rate those with whom they have conducted a transaction.
Collaborative creativity presents other vexing questions. Who owns online content and how can it be used and distributed? And when liability is an issue, who is responsible for it?
The recording industry has the most experience grappling with these issues. It has for several years battled to suppress tens of millions of internet music pirates that use peer-to-peer technologies to illegally swap music files.
Recent court cases have gone against online services that encourage file sharing but case law is far from settled, and the issues are sure to become more complex.
Another concern is the potential for “social balkanisation”, a reference to the fact that technology is allowing people to live in an “information bubble” that they have created and shut themselves off from news, advertising or other data they choose not to see.
Some experts have been warning of such a scenario for several years. Cass Sunstein, professor at the University of Chicago Law School, noted in an opinion piece four years ago that technology was enabling people to create a “Daily Me” newspaper which included topics and views they wanted to encounter and excluded material considered boring and irritating.
“Democracy is undermined when people chose to live in echo chambers of their own design,” he wrote.
But Mr Rainee at the Pew project says there is no evidence of balkanisation at this time. The evidence so far suggests that the collaborative creativity on the internet is a powerful equaliser for the masses, even as it poses serious legal, economic and societal challenges both for “us” in the establishment and “them” (the consumers). Both parties must resolve these issues, because if the story of the Rolufs teaches one lesson, it is that this phenomenon can only grow.