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OhmyNews, Wikipedia: Two of a Kind?
Online pioneers debate the future of citizen media at the Berkeley School of Journalism
Cynthia Yoo (cloudatlas)     Print Article 
Published 2007-10-19 10:06 (KST)   
Online pioneers, Oh Yeon-ho of OhmyNews and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia created two distinct, but highly influential media vehicles for unlocking the "collective wisdom" of the masses. Last week at Berkeley, these two met and discussed their latest projects and critical issues facing citizen media.

"Every Citizen is a Reporter"

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Oh Yeon-ho often refers back to his childhood, growing up in a tiny Korean village of some fifty households. This small village was always full of news, as Oh remembers. Each villager was an active participant in community news gathering and delivery. Oh wanted to capture this idea of interactive, participatory citizen journalism in the now-famous motto of OhmyNews -- "Every Citizen is a Reporter."

Among the multitude of online citizen media sites and blogs, OhmyNews is in a category of its own. OhmyNews' army of "guerilla reporters" number about 60,000. Since 2000, these citizen reporters, working with some 60 professional reporters and editors, have substantially influenced Korean society and politics. OhmyNews is even credited with influencing the election of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in 2002.

"We Make the Internet Not Suck"

Like Oh, Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales also grew up in a small town, but in Alabama, where he was educated in a small private school run by his mother and grandmother. His book(s) of choice in that one-room school was the World Book Encyclopedia. Then some 20-odd years later in 2001, Wales started his groundbreaking experiment to create a free online and open-source encyclopedia that anyone can contribute to and edit.

Within the past six years, Wikipedia has grown to over two million articles in English, which account for about a third of the total. This self-governing, citizen-operated Wiki-world includes 130 languages with at least 1,000 articles in each. What excites Wales most is the growth of Wikipedia in the languages of the developing world. He cites for example, the tremendous growth in languages of India and even in African languages of Swahili and Afrikaans.

The Next Stage

One common factor between these two is that neither of them has made the millions earned by other online entrepreneurs, say of Google or Facebook fame. Personal wealth was never a goal for Oh. Recent investments from the Japanese conglomerate Softbank have been plowed back into a complete overhaul of the website and for a new school for citizen reporters.

Wales says that he makes more money from his public speaking engagements than from his companies. His for-profit-venture, Wikia's new main project is to create an open-source search engine in direct competition to Google and Yahoo.

Despite similarities, Oh and Wales are driven by differing visions of citizen media. At heart, Oh is a journalist and social activist. OhmyNews innovations were created to promote journalistic independence and support more diverse and creative story-telling by the public, free from traditional journalistic practice.

While Oh's focus in on the content of news and story-telling, Wales is at core a social scientist who looks into the structure of social interaction and communication. Wales is cited quoting Hayek and Rand, and his wiki-projects are studies into those incentives -- social norms and rules -- that facilitate the production of information.

This past Oct. 11, before a packed audience at the Berkeley School of Journalism, Oh and Wales engaged in a conversation moderated by Dan Gillmor and Bill Gannon and the following is a part of the Q&A:

Describe updates to your projects:

Oh: "This year, we have introduced some exciting new applications. We have started OhmyTV 2.0 which feeds live video webcast 24 hours a day. There is a column of live-readers' comments and our staff reporters summarize the videos in text. You can see the video live, or go back to the beginning. We call this our "time-machine function."

"We began in 2000 with the motto that every citizen is a reporter. Now with the launch of OhmyNews E our motto is also that every citizen is an editor. On this Digg-like platform, our citizen editors can post links to articles with their own commentary and readers can rank the articles and comments."

"Here is the Forest of Citizen Reporters platform which is a community-tagging system. You can see the profile of every citizen reporter who posted an article in a certain month. It has a social-networking function as you can message them to become friends with them."

"We are excited by our new Tag Network platform. Here, the tag in the centre of the screen is linked to other related tags, related OhmyNews articles, related photos and videos, other netizens who have tagged the specific tag and even to editorial notes and commentaries by netizens.

"We have invested into these innovations to create a deeper OhmyNews network and to help our 60,000 citizen reporters interact with each other more vividly and actively.

Wales: "The basic update is that the Wikimedia foundation is moving to San Francisco. I have a for-profit-company Wikia that's already in San Mateo.

"Wikipedia has over 2 million articles in English but the important thing to understand about Wikipedia is that English is less than one-third of the total work. There are over 130 languages now that has at least 1,000 articles. One thousand articles is not much of an Encyclopedia obviously, but that's the number I use to measure when there's an actual community there. Normally with that many articles, there's five to 10 regular users, 20 or 30 others, they get together to know each other and discuss how to expand and attract more people to their project.

"The thing I'm interested in is the growth of Wikipedia in the languages of the developing world. In the last year we've seen really strong growth in the languages of India, some of the languages of India. It's kind of uneven there, if you look at the successful languages, it would be Kannada which the language found in Bangalore, which is the high-tech area and Bengali which is a traditionally literary language. Hindi even though it's spoken by much larger population, it's actually quite small.

"Then in Africa, the interesting thing is that of all the languages of Africa, we only have two languages that have at least a thousand articles, Swahili and Afrikaan. The reason for Swahili is that we have this one guy who writes for Global Voices, he's Tanzanian but lives in the U.S. and he single-handedly brought about the community. Now they have several thousand articles in Swahili.

"The other project for Wikia is the search engine project. The idea here is a freely licensed search engine, all open-source software, transparent algorithms, strong component of community control, competing directly with the major search engine sites such as Google and yahoo in building a popular mass-market search engine. But the difference is that in a traditional search-engine, the software is proprietary, the algorithms are all secret. You really have no idea how they rank anything and the editorial control is behind closed-doors inside the company.

"So what we're looking at is how to design it so that it's public, open and that the public has many different ways to participate. So the editorial decisions can be verified and audited by the public in many different ways. That's obviously a huge project and everyone thinks it's crazy. Well, think back to 2001, imagine that some guy named Jimbo said: let's open up a website and let everybody edit it and make it the largest encyclopedia in the world."

Q: Is it vital to invest a lot of time and work to build community or is it about giving the community the tools for them to do it themselves?

[Ed note: there has been some edits to clarify Mr. Oh's statements]

Oh: "To sustain a community, one important practice is education. Not by one-way education, but two-way education. A good education organization for OMN citizen reporter is the OMN website itself. We have a readers' comment system at the bottom of each article...A very active comment system is part of the everyday life of the OMN community...

"We have other systems to educate and facilitate our citizen reporters. One is off-line education. Our citizen reporters get together every month to share their articles and evaluate each other's articles. And in November, we're opening up a Citizen Reporter School in a small village one hour's drive from Seoul. The school was a deserted primary school and we have a ten-year lease on the school, and we have invested $400,000 and this is a huge investment for us.

"Also we have an online clinic center. You can ask an OhmyNews doctor if you feel that your writing skills should be better. Twelve doctors, two staff reporters and 10 star citizen reporters. The doctors will suggest improvements. So far this was online but starting November, there will be a physical doctor's clinic in the school."

Wales: "The question was is it spending a lot of time personally to build community or giving the community the tools for them to do it themselves. I spend a huge amount of time interacting with the community, thinking about policy, about social questions within the community. Those norms and values that we set out very early on in the project have to be continuously communicated outward, into all different languages.

"Sometimes it's a great challenge through times of rapid growth. But a big part of it is that the community has the tools they need to police the site and police themselves. In many ways, it's like thinking what you need from a good city government. You don't want to run everything that everyone is doing, but you want to provide a certain social infrastructure or legal framework. When can you be banned from the community? When can you be penalized in some way? What are the reward mechanisms? All those kinds of things are really important to a healthy productive community.

"For a long time, the Internet had the reputation of being a very hostile place with bunch of flame wars. But it turns out that most people really want an environment where there is free debate, open dissent but in a respectful way. You can't get banned for disagreeing with someone, but at the same time, you can't endlessly troll and cause trouble without getting kicked out. And that kind of balance has to be achieved socially."

Q: Are the norms and values of your projects translating across different cultures?

Wales: "A lot of the social ethics involved in being a good online collaborator or good Wikipedian are pretty universal. Trying to be kind and helpful to others. Don't be abusive and mean. In terms of detailed policies though, it can vary substantially from community to community. For example, in many languages there's an arbitration community to hear disputes. But in the German Wikipedia, which is the second largest after English, they've never had that. They've public voting on who's getting banned which I think would lead to killings in English Wikipedia but it seems to work for them.

"But there are other social norms and customs that are unique to different cultures. But there has been no conclusive research on that to show to my satisfaction. The Japanese Wikipedians report about themselves that they're much more likely to discuss something endlessly on the talk page, find a consensus and someone will change the article. Whereas in the English Wikipedia, someone will change the article and fight about it.

"But it's not clear if that's true. Statistically speaking, the number of edits to the talk space and the article space are about the same in Japanese and English. Of course their claim is not about the total number of discussions but is about the time-ordering. But that may be a stereotype that the Japanese have about themselves.

Oh: "It's been a year since the launch of OhmyNews Japan and during that year, it has gotten 4,000 citizen reporters. They post about 30-40 articles a day but that is below our expectations. We expected 10,000 citizen reporters per year. Furthermore, the influence of OhmyNews Japan in the Japanese media market is below expectation.

"So I noticed there are several differences between Korean and Japanese societies. Right now there is a presidential election in Korea and the major hits in the Korean site are about politics. But political issues are not considered hot issues in Japan, recently there has been a new Prime Minister but the Japanese say that won't change politics.

"Another difference is between the citizens' attitudes. Koreans are very willing to voice their opinion because they believe that social and political issues affect them individually. For example, every Korean young man has to serve in the military so defense issues and the military system affect them personally. In contrast, there is no conscription in Japan.

"Furthermore, Koreans are willing to write comments by their real name. We ask Korean citizen reporters to register by their real name. But in Japan, we allow them to use pen names.

"Korean citizen reporters are not reluctant to see even negative comments on their articles, but Japanese citizen reporters are very sensitive to critical comments and decide not to join OhmyNews because of the readers' comment system.

"Another issue is the national identification number. We request Korean citizen reporters to register with their national identification number and so it allows us to fact-check their articles much more easily. But there is no such system in Japan and so we cannot contact our Japanese citizen reporters. This goes to the issue of credibility

"However, I think OhmyNews Japan is important because in Japan, internet speech is undervalued as compared to mainstream media. We try to bring citizen journalism awareness to Japan to make internet journalism more fruitful.

Wales: "We see similar issues in Wikipedia. Japanese wikipedia has a dramatically higher number of people who prefer to edit without even logging in. They don't even want a pen-name or a user-page. They want to participate completely anonymously. And that percentage is three times the number of any other country."

Q: What are the main obstacles to the sustainability of your projects? Are intellectual property laws an obstacle?

Wales: "Intellectual property law is bit of a mess everywhere. In general, there were some bad laws passed and there has been bit of a holding pattern for sometime. I feel like the tide has turned in a favourable way. As an example, Italy has just changed their law on the right of panorama. If you're outside and happen to take a photo of a billboard with a copyrighted image, is that a derivative work and you need to get permission or can you just take that photo and distribute it? They allow right of panorama now.

"And in the debates, Wikipedia was mentioned as an example of the reasons why this is important. Ordinary people are doing the journalistic work and so the kinds of issues that might not have restricted professional journalists, ordinary people are bumping into it all the time now."

Oh: "Sustainability became a big issue for us. After OhmyNews, there has been huge growth of small news sites and portal sites and there is much more competition. In South Korea, the portal site news is the main source of news for Korean youth. The portal site news is not linked to the independent news site. That is a big problem. That's why we innovate to give a unique colour to OhmyNews in order to attract netizens. We have to keep innovating.

"Another obstacle is money management. We pay do our citizen reporters. If they write a headlining article they are paid about 50 dollars. Also, we have a tip jar system. They can receive tips from the readers through internet banking or mobile phone payments. One tipping-record is a professor who received in tips, the equivalent of an average Korean annual salary."

Dan Gillmor: "This is a real innovation. This is the first example of a tipjar where the payments go to citizen journalists. No one's getting rich on this, but it says [their work] has value."

Oh: "About 70 percent of our revenue comes from advertising, but only 20 percent is content-related, we sell our news to other news sites. And ten percent is from education-related events. But I hope this will change to 50-50 where at least half comes from content-related revenue. Reader-related income should be more than advertising.

"From the beginning, in Internet space, news is considered free. But managing news organization is not free. That is a big contradiction. In order to sustain independent internet news, we have to create a culture where we, the readers, pay for good articles.

"Without making this kind of culture, independent news organizations will not survive. Only the big portal sites, or big conglomerate websites will remain. Then we lose diversity and creativity."
OhmyNews citizen reporter Cynthia Yoo reported from the Berkeley campus.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Cynthia Yoo

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