When describing the “democracy-enhancing” nature of user-generated contributions (UGC) to online news sites, it is helpful to keep in mind the “political economy” of such content:
UGC provision in mainstream media to a great extent addresses users-as-consumers and is part of a context of consumption.
– says an article from last year by Anna Maria Jönsson and Henrik Örnebring. They created a taxonomy of UGC based on the level of participation (low, medium or high), and on the type of content contributed (information (hard news), popular culture-related, and private). According to their study, high-level contribution (requiring relatively high levels of effort) is uncommon. And when such contribution actually happens, it is likely to happen in the popular cultural domain, as opposed to that of “hard news.” UGC, then, is mostly an “interactive illusion,” rather than the participatory-democratic paragon. “Serious news” remains the stuff of the established mainstream media institutions.
A couple of remarks I’d like to make. (Three, to be more exact.)
1.) J&O’s starting point is what Nip would label “participatory” journalism – as opposed to citizen journalism: the starting point is that there is an organization with the productive (etc.) means, which is clearly in a dominant position in the media-audience relationship. The ideal of citizen journalism presents an (admittedly often implausible) alternative: a medium without a powerful productive centre. (So far as this is even possible.) Consider social news sites: they are largely de-centralized, even if the hosting organization does have certain powers over their users. In other words, what enables them to be democratic is precisely the fact that they are based on what the article’s authors would label low-level cooperation. (Caroline Haythornthwaite would perhaps even label it cooperation of the “featherweight” kind.) In fact, J&O underline this very point themselves:
It is difficult to achieve empowerment within the institutional and organizational logic of mainstream media (the “empowering” work of user-generated content likely takes place elsewhere online).
(Truth in brackets!)
2.) Thus I don’t think that increasing levels of participation could (or should) be associated with increasing levels of democratic impact; the picture is more complicated – even though the particular organizational setting depicted by the authors seems to make the case otherwise.
3.) J&O argue for a strong, if somewhat blurry, dividing line between popular culture and news/informational contents. They note that “[the former] nevertheless have democratic potential in terms not of political influence but instead of cultural equality,” and “UGC could represent new opportunities for representation and recognition for groups outside the mainstream, but based on the evidence of this study it currently does not.” I don’t think this implied division should be so strong in the first place; and I’m also doubtful as to how the study’s findings were meant to back up the authors’ second claim.
Anna Maria Jönsson & Henrik Örnebring (2011): User-Generated Content and the News. Journalism Practice 5(2), 127-144.