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Citizen Journalism Not About 'Amateurs' or 'Pros'
Interview with OhmyNews citizen reporter Ronda Hauben
Heewon Kim (internews)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2006-09-05 12:03 (KST)   
This is an interview with OhmyNews International featured writer Ronda Hauben for the Korean online publication ABC Paper by Heewon Kim, a researcher who received her MA a year ago from Yonsei University in Cultural Studies.

The interview appears in the Aug. 31, 2006 issue of "ABC Paper" in Korean.


Can you write a short self-introduction for the readers? About your main interests and your research? Or just say hello to the ABC Paper subscribers.

As a bit of background, I recently returned from a wonderful visit to Korea. I was invited to attend the OhmyNews International Citizen Reporters Forum in July. After that was over, I stayed in Seoul for several days.

I have a great deal of respect for what netizens have achieved in Korea. (Here I am using 'netizen' in the sense of one who acts as a citizen of the net, rather than the use of the term as any user.)

I am co-author of the book "Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet." The book was put online in January 1994.

During this visit to Korea I met with Yun Young-min, who is a sociology professor at Hanyang University. He showed me his book in Korean about the Internet.

The book is "A Theory of Electronic Information Space: A Sociological Exploration of the Computer Network" (Seoul: Jeonyewon, 1996). It included a number of references to "Netizens." He had written me an email explaining that the book "Netizens" encouraged him to push forward his plan to write a book about cyberspace in Korean. It was quite wonderful to see an actual early reference in a Korean book about the Internet to the book "Netizens."

I am especially interested in the impact of the Internet and of netizens on the continuing struggle to extend democracy, in theory and practice. South Korea is in the forefronts of the world with regard to the spread of broadband access, and has a strong tradition of a democratic movement. Perhaps that accounts for why South Korea is in the forefronts of exploring how the Internet can be a "laboratory for democracy."

I am doing research about the experience of netizens in Korea and have tried to help spread knowledge about these important developments.

I would welcome collaboration with Korean netizens and other researchers.

We know you have researched Internet journalism and netizen participation in Korea for a long time. What was the first motivation to you? Is there any particular event or opportunity which led you to Korea?

I first learned about the important developments in South Korea in 2003 when I saw a reference on the front page of the Financial Times newspaper that the president of South Korea was elected by netizens.

It was fascinating to see both that netizens in South Korea were mentioned on the front page of the Financial Times and that they were credited with bringing about the election of a head of state. This was a significant achievement. I knew it was important to learn about what was happening in South Korea.

In Korea, the concept of 'netizen' seems to be usually misunderstood. Can you explain the exact meaning of it to Korean people?

My co-author of "Netizens," Michael Hauben, did research online in 1992-1993 to determine what impact computer networking was having on the lives of those who had access to the Net. What he observed was that many of the people who responded to some questions he posted online, were excited about what the Net made possible for them. Also, though, surprisingly many of those who wrote explained that the Net was an important development and they wanted it to grow and flourish and to be available to anyone who wanted access.

Just as the French term "citoyen" or citizen, was used during the time of the French Revolution to signify a social identity of an individual who contributes to his or her society, both on a national and international basis, so the term 'netizen' reflects a new non-geographical socially based membership.

The term 'netizen,' as it was originally created, was used to describe people who cared about the Net and the larger world it is part of and work toward building the cooperative and collective nature which benefits the larger world. In this case the word represents positive activity and no adjective need be used.

Another use of the term 'netizen' developed, one which refers to anyone who uses the Net for any purpose. Then the term is prefixed with adjectives, like good or bad.

I reserve the term 'netizen' for those who devote time and effort to make the Net, and the world it is part of, a better place. (Michael described this distinction in the Preface to "Netizens." This is online at www.columbia.edu.)

In addition, do you think netizen participation will be more activated in the near future? Or do you think we have many new obstacles against the netizen movement?

During my recent visit to Seoul, a number of the people I spoke with were concerned about what the prospects were in the near future for the netizen movement.

I think that having a longer term perspective which takes into account the important achievements of netizens in Korea thus far, and also tries to understand how the difficulties in the past have been overcome, would be helpful.

For example, in reviewing what happened with regard to the Hwang Woo-suk affair (i.e. the Korean stem cell scientist), it is important to keep in mind the achievements of young netizen scientists and other netizens who posted online what was wrong with Hwang's papers and spread the exposure on the Internet.

Some felt this would reflect poorly on Korea and Korean science. To the contrary, the ability to uncover fraudulent scientific activity reflects very highly on Korean scientists and on Korea. The ability to counter all the efforts to cover up the scientific fraud was an important achievement of netizens in Korea.

I realize that there were those online who supported Hwang. I am, however, reserving the word 'netizen' for those who were active in the fight for honesty in science.

You did various case studies on grassroots journalism. Especially you are very interested in OhmyNews, and also contributing as a citizen reporter. What do you think of the social effects of OhmyNews?

Part of the concept of 'citizen journalism' is a return to the idea of journalism having a public purpose and responsibility. The Internet has made it possible to reinvent the concept of news so that the real-life conditions of more people and their news and views become part of what is recognized as journalism.

This isn't an "amateur" journalism replacing a "professional" journalism. Rather it is an extension of who is to be able to contribute to what is considered as "news."

In the U.S. there is a great effort to defend "corporate journalism," i.e. a journalism which reflects the news and views of the powerful and the wealthy in U.S. society.

The Internet, however, expands those whose 'voice' can be heard.

The development of citizen journalism where it is not only that readers can discuss what "journalists" write, but where readers contribute as "journalists" is an important contribution to the effort to define a 21st century journalism.

Now OhmyNews became quite influential, so it is regarded as a very successful model. Do you think this kind of model can be successful in other countries? Or do you think there are unique features/background in Korea?

It is not accidental that OhmyNews could be developed in South Korea. It is in South Korea that there has been the confluence of both widespread access to broadband, and the democratic achievements of the 1987 revolution. There is also a continuing commitment to carry on the struggle for democracy by a significant sector of Korean society.

But while South Korea is a special place with regard to these elements, I don't believe it is unique. Instead, I feel that as lessons are learned from the experience of the Korean edition of OhmyNews, these lessons can make it possible to develop other versions of OhmyNews elsewhere.

What is your expectation of OhmyNews Japan?

I wish those who are beginning OhmyNews Japan well.

It is an important effort they are undertaking. I feel that most important will be what goal is set for OhmyNews Japan. When I told a Japanese friend about the effort to begin OhmyNews Japan, he wondered whether it would be able to become a major opinion leader in Japan.

Can OhmyNews Japan champion the voice of the powerless so it will be heard? Can it support those who are concerned with the broader social needs of society and support their efforts for reform?

A while ago, I was told that some in Japan are afraid to speak out using their own names as they are concerned that they will be penalized. If this is a current problem, it would seem important that OhmyNews Japan take this problem into account and communicate with netizens in Japan about what to do with regard to such problems.

Will OhmyNews Japan welcome contributions from netizens in Japan? Will netizens find a way to support and help OhmyNews Japan to develop? These are some of the challenges that I believe lie ahead for OhmyNews Japan.

In the U.S., there are many people who express their political opinion. (e.g. bloggers) It seems to be easy that everyone can make his/her own channel to spread their opinions and arguments. Maybe is this a reason for the failure of Bayosphere? What do you think of the main reasons of the closure of Bayosphere?

I don't know the reason for the failure of Bayosphere, other than the short statement that was posted by Dan Gillmor when he announced he was ending it. In his statement he mentioned that he had depended on startup funding and on trying to find further funding.

Someone posted in response that it would be interesting if a researcher compared the creation of OhmyNews with Gillmor's efforts to create Bayosphere.

I felt this was a helpful focus. When the Korean OhmyNews began, it devoted resources to support the blacklist movement. Also it welcomed netizens and their contributions and even paid them a little for their work. The Korean OhmyNews began as part of an effort to provide an effective counter to the conservative press.

These socially oriented efforts of the Korean OhmyNews provide a basis for support by netizens. I don't know if there were similar socially oriented efforts of Bayosphere when it began.

Even more important, however, is the fact that OhmyNews has welcomed progressive people to contribute their news and views.

This didn't seem to be the case, in my experience, with Bayosphere. Instead it seemed to be focused on a more narrow technical community.

People are starting to enjoy multimedia, not only text, so that many websites like youtube.com have become very popular. We can see similar phenomena in Korea. Do you think this can change the power/relationships of existing mainstream broadcasting media? (As blogs and OhmyNews vs. existing newspapers.)

Sure. Already online videos are providing a challenge to the mainstream media.

Netizen journalism in all forms of media, however, would benefit from having a consciousness of what kind of media we want as the alternative to the mainstream media.

It is helpful to look at what is being developed and to also have an ongoing collective conversation about what is desired.

My view of a netizen media is a media which makes it possible for the common people to have more power over their lives and over the decisions that affect them. This could be part of the needed vision for the development of a netizen media.

Finally, do you have a next plan to visit Seoul again? In addition, what will be your next research?

Yes I would like to visit Seoul again soon. It was wonderful to have been invited to conferences in Korea last year and this year and to have had the opportunity to have discussions with Korean researchers and activists interested in democracy.

Actually I would like to be able to spend six months in Korea so I could do more serious research about the role of netizens in Korean democratization. Spending some time in Korea would help me to become more familiar with the Korean language, which would also help my research. Unfortunately I don't speak Korean so I hope to find a collaborator who can help me know more about the content of Korean language posts on the Internet.

Currently, I am working on a proposal for an updated edition, a second edition of "Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet."

I would like to have a section of the book about the role of netizens in extending democracy. The achievements of netizens in Korea would be an important part of the section.

I have been working on some draft papers about netizens and democracy in Korea.

The papers are online and I welcome comments and discussion of them.

The papers are:
1. The Rise of Netizen Democracy
A case study of netizens' impact on democracy in South Korea

2. The New Dynamics of Democratization in South Korea
The Internet and the Emergence of the Netizen

3. Carother's Critique of the Transition Paradigm and the 2002 Presidential Election Campaign in South Korea
The Netizens and the Conservative Print Media
I also have an outline for a paper about the history and impact on democratic developments of the internet in Korea:
What is the Impact of Netizens on South Korean Democratization?
A version of the book "Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet" is online.

I would appreciate comments and discussion toward doing a 2nd edition of the book. Perhaps there could even be a Korean translation of a 2nd edition.

I would like to see a version of OhmyNews like the original Korean OhmyNews for the U.S. I would want to be part of the staff that helps to provide the editorial direction for such an undertaking. It would be wonderful to have a netizen online newspaper in the U.S., which would collaborate with other netizen media around the world.
The interview here is a slightly edited version of the Korean original.

Both parties welcome comments and discussion of the issues raised in this interview. Heewon Kim maintains a blog at hypercortex.net.
©2006 OhmyNews

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