Story Corps is not your typical citizen journalist website. It is much more structured in that it requires greater involvement and participation on the part of its contributors. A person must make the active decision to have their stories recorded. They must find an audio booth in which to record their story, bring with them the guest they wish to interview (this “close friend or loved one” can be there purely to provide moral support), and devote 40 minutes of their time to recording their story (in addition to the commute time to get to the recording booth and back).

Story Corps makes its reason for being quite clear in its “about us” section, which also seems to serve as the group’s mission statement. They identify themselves as “an independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives,” (storycorps.org). Not only are Story Corps’ stories featured on the group’s website but also on weekly broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition. In this way, pieces that start off as citizen journalism are presented on a professional platform. But judging from their mission statement, the group’s raison d’être is more based on philanthropic reasons than journalistic ones. Nevertheless, Story Corps exhibits citizen journalism at its best because every story and all of its content is entirely user generated.

What does that mean for the quality of stories in comparison to more spontaneous citizen journalist sites? Sites like iReport on CNN require minimal dedication where a simple mobile upload constitutes site participation. With Story Corps, however, a user cannot only have the idea to participate; he/she must take a certain amount of steps to see that his/her idea comes to fruition. At first glance such a process may appear to weed out those participants who are not fully committed to have their stories recorded. But that does not necessarily mean that all worthwhile stories will be recorded. Busy schedules and lack of immediate access to a designated recording booth may deter many from participating.

Participation on the site is considered worthwhile for many reasons. One benefit being that each user’s story is now part of the largest oral history project of its kind. Users also receive a free CD of their interview. A user’s professionally edited story is forever archived and able to be shared with future generations. These are the most obvious benefits for those who decide to contribute to Story Corps. But some contributors may choose to record their story out of narcissism; to get satisfaction out of hearing one’s voice on the radio or on a popular website. However, because the website does not allow commenting, a narcissistic reward is limited. Contributors cannot receive public praise for their stories. What is also unique about Story Corps, in comparison to other citizen journalist websites, is the fact that contributors can only participate once. That is to say, the same person cannot keep going to a recording booth interviewing different close-friends or relatives. This limited participation makes the site less of an example of citizen journalism, which typically encourages that its participants continually post.

Daniel Boorstin would have designated Story Corps’ stories as pseudo-events in that the interviews are staged as an event that exists for the sole purpose of the media publicity. The fact that Story Corps encourages its contributors to review its “great question generator” proves that this type of citizen journalism is not based on actual news events rather artificially created events. Many stories that would otherwise be considered anecdotal (for example, a featured story from last week was an interview with the first African-American student at Louisiana State University in 1953) are converted into news pieces. If these interviews were performed at the time, in 1953 let’s say, then it would be considered news. But because there is no direct relevance to the news today, these stories are restricted to profiles and human-interest pieces.

But herein lies the most powerful aspect of the format of Story Corps’ stories: they are human-interest stories told by the actual people involved. Not only do contributors offer up an idea for a story but also they are then the ones who physically tell the story. Whereas a profile in a newspaper is filtered through the eyes of a journalist, Story Corps’ stories are told directly by those who lived through the experience. When you hear a story directly from a father who lost two sons on September 11th, it makes the emotion behind such words that much more genuine and that much more powerful.
Another part of what makes many of the Story Corps’ stories so emotionally resonant is the fact that Story Corps’ editors tailor each and every story to be as powerful as possible. Each report is approximately three minutes long but the “procedure” section of Story Corps indicates that, when recorded, each interview lasts 40 minutes. Only heavy editing can trim down 40 minutes of recording to a short three-minute report. Even if Story Corps’ staff members do not create the content, they ultimately create the final product – a final product that is unrecognizable from its original recording. The editors therefore repurpose and reclaim the contributors’ content to achieve optimal emotional resonance. With heavy editing, Story Corps’ staff members make a story comprehensible but appealing. In this way, the professionals filter the work of the amateurs. I imagine that many contributors appreciate this access to expertise while others may resent the fact that editors are subjectively “butchering” their content.

There are two different strategies for creating the quality content on Story Corps. First, the group (Story Corps) raises the quality of content generated through its strict procedural guidelines. Contributors must come prepared with a list of questions, most likely generated from the list of “great question examples” provided by Story Corps. Having a designated physical space for the recording also improves the quality of a story’s content. From a technical perspective, the recording booths drastically improve the audio quality of the recording. As stated on the “procedure” section on storycorps.org, a total of five minutes is designated for sound check alone. Also, having a physical location for an interview generates more quality conversations because participants can get comfortably situated. The idea of a “professional” space can heighten an interviewee’s awareness, allowing them to put more thought behind their answers. There is a higher engagement quality in a professionalized recording booth than a simple “do it yourself” project. The second strategy for creating quality content is the idea of editing brutally after the fact. Story Corps, therefore, exhibits the “filter before publishing” model of journalism.

A major difference between most citizen journalist sites and Story Corps is the allowance of comments. On Story Corps’ website there is no space for other users to post their responses after listening to a story. If comments were allowed on the website it is possible, and likely, that users would post criticism. Such criticism would deter people from recording in the future. However, without providing a space to say how users relate to a particular story or how they were moved by a story, it limits the amount of connectivity between users. Story Corps states that part of its purpose is to “strengthen and build connections between people.” I believe that if Story Corps were to allow comments on their website it would do just that. Users would be able to listen to a story and immediately comment on how they can relate or how they were moved. A section for comments would also provide a space for public praise. Public praise would appeal to many users’ narcissistic nature and encourage others to record stories in order to receive similar positive attention. Perhaps Story Corps could try allowing comments as long as users create and sign in with a Story Corps account. This way, the website could weed out a majority of trollers and provide a platform for intelligent conversation and reaction. A more restrictive way of allowing comments would be to give only those who have recorded a story through Story Corps (the website states that there are approximately 30,000) the chance to comment on other stories to ensure the sincerity and quality of discussion.

Both patch.com and storycorps.org provide a platform for citizen journalism. How each goes about featuring that journalism is quite different. Fundamentally, both sites are managed by professionals but the level of professional content varies. Patch asks that users volunteer story ideas. Therefore, both websites have amateurs find the content for stories but the professionals go about altering and providing a platform for that content. To contribute to Story Corps and Patch you do not need to have any professional credentials. However, Patch provides a space for amateurs to blog and in this space, their content is not changed by the professionals who operate the site. Story Corps, on the other hand, does not put up any story on the website that has not been heavily edited by professionals. With Story Corps, amateur content will always be filtered. On Patch amateur journalism and professional journalism lie side by side. On Story Corps, amateur journalism and professional journalism are fully integrated.

In 2000, Michael Wood-Lewis and his wife Valerie were looking for a way to connect with their fellow Burlington, Vermont neighbors. They launched a precursor in their Burlington Five Points neighborhood to what is now Front Page Forum, a platform of “regional networks of online neighborhoods.” Founded in 2006, the concept of the site is simple: “help neighbors connect and build community.”

Front Porch Forum’s mission revolves around integral connections — connecting neighbors, connecting local officials and constituents and connecting local businesses and residents. When first registering for the free site, users must input their address in order to verify their residence within a particular neighborhood. Once verified and if their neighborhood is served, the user is directed to their neighborhood’s page. This page can be utilized for virtually any topic; the site positions itself as a “powerful medium for voters,” but has also been used to help neighbors find missing pets, car keys and even wedding rings and to crowdsource recommendations for local services such as plumbing. In addition, events such as yard sales and park clean-ups have been organized thanks to the site. Although the site may initially appear hokey and bland, the posts speak for themselves. Neighbors are doing something many haven’t done before — virtually meeting their neighborhoods to help foster in-person connections and the community overall. This limitless, open opportunity for discussion is what has propelled Front Porch Forum’s growth as an open, easy way to connect with your neighbors.

Front Porch Forum’s accolades are impressive and can attest its success, especially when considering its limited reach. The site has essentially been recognized on every level. Front Porch Forum has received national innovation awards and cash grants from some of the nation’s most established organizations, including the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Case Foundation, the Orton Family Foundation and the Rural Telecom Congress. In 2010, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration granted the site federal stimulus funds to allow for expansion to 24 additional Vermont neighborhoods as part of the state’s community broadband project, e-Vermont. Its success has virtually been no secret to Vermonters. People want local connections and Front Porch Forum has succeeded in just that and more.

Serving 60 Vermont communities, Front Porch Forum is moderated by four part-time online community managers who are residents of the participating neighborhoods. Wood-Lewis compares their responsibilities to that of an event organizer — they are responsible for not only ensuring that the forums remain civil, but to also put people at ease, encourage attendance at local events and most importantly, promote healthy and lively discussion. Wood-Lewis also noted that it is rare for discussions to become heated and escalate, estimating that moderators usually have to step in once every few months on a discussion. Such bitter discussions usually concern local hot button topics such as school budget and teacher strikes.

A key element, which is perhaps even the most attractive feature, of Front Porch Forum is the participation of local officials. Wood-Lewis said officials first shunned his idea, telling him to go away and that they were not interested at all. There was not even a desire to learn what the site was about. However, once Front Porch Forum obtained a considerable mass of constituents, public officials then began to ask to participate in the forum. As the site obtained more users, it has grown to become a crucial platform for local elections. Candidates have utilized the site in numerous ways to bolster their campaign such as  advertise, connect with constituents and ask questions and participate in debates. Officials from all levels and departments are participating on the site now, including state representatives, city councilors, school commissioners and police lieutenants. Officials’ full titles and email addresses are prominently provided on each neighborhood page. Wood-Lewis says that the site now has more than 500 local public officials participating in their local neighborhood forums.

A perfect example of Front Porch Forum’s success and place in social networking is the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. Residents across in Bristol, Vermont turned to Front Porch Forum to post boil water notices. In St. Albans, Vermont, road updates were posted on the neighborhood forum. And in Moretown, Vermont, neighbors used the site to graciously offer their help. These three examples are just a small sampling of the posts that were made in the moments and days after the hurricane. The outpour of information was incredible; neighbors opened up their homes–washers and dryers, showers, water– as well as time and even pet supplies. Several organizations, including the American Red Cross, utilized Front Porch Forum to notify residents of open Red Cross emergency shelters across the state. In a blog post on the site, Wood-Lewis reveals that the number of Vermonters using the site doubled since Hurricane Irene struck. Without Front Porch Forum, it is hard to say how these Vermonters would have acted otherwise.

With a very simple, clean user interface, any user will find that the site is anything but convoluted. There are no bells and whistles whatsoever. The text box for forum posts features no formatting. By just clicking their official’s name, users can directly email their representative with any thoughts and concern.  Any verified neighborhood resident can easily post anything, any time. Although many may complain that there are too many social networks or that their burgeoning has induced far too many features, one key concept that unites their success — the profile.

Today’s most successful and burgeoning social networks all revolve around this idea of the individual profile and creating your online identity. On Front Page Forum, users simply create an account and are not prompted to submit any additional profile information. When a user clicks on a post’s author, they are prompted with that user’s email address such as when clicking on a local official’s name. By introducing some sort of profile, this may help make the connections more intimate and allow neighbors to put a face with a name. Additional features such as cultural interests and personal descriptions and photos may help prompt and encourage new discussions, as well as allow neighbors to more accurately and quickly identify others for help, events and so on.

Another improvement may be introduce a categorization and organization of the posts for the various uses — local political issues, help wanted, event promotion, service recommendations, missing items, schools, parks and recreation, etc. Upon first joining the site, the objective and nature of the posts is ambiguous and varied — something may which be seen as the beauty or the downfall of the site. Issues can only sorted by neighborhood and date. Allowing posts to be sorted by category or any further organization options is beneficial to all, making the site even easier to navigate and to participate in ongoing discussions.

In addition, direct comment options on posts may help facilitate greater discussion and assistance. If a person posted a claim for local recommendations, their only option is to reply to the user via email. Whereas if comments were allowed on a post, the user who made the original post is more likely to receive a better, more informed crowdsourced post as other users can see comments others have made. The more opinions, the better.

Hyperlocal news site Patch strives to do something different. Bought by AOL in 2009, only a year after its launch, the site strives to deliver “comprehensive and trusted local coverage for individual towns and communities” across the country. Patch employs full-time journalists who either live in or near a Patch neighborhood. The site aims to provide populations of 15,000 to 100,000 people with one go-to platform for local government affairs, education issues and community events. Patch also encourages users to engage in discussion as well as submit announcements, photos and reviews. This recognition of and emphasis on the need for local communication is what makes Patch and Front Porch Forum similar.

Although Wood-Lewis believes news is integral in helping neighbors connect and build community, he does not foresee building in any news source integrations in the future. Instead, he says “Front Porch Forum is more fundamental than news. News doesn’t really matter if nobody reads or cares much. Front Porch Forum gets people to care about where they live, to feel a sense of ownership and, ultimately, to get involved.” Whereas Front Porch Forum strives to build community through direct, open communication, Patch attempts community through trusted hyperlocal journalism.

Today, Front Porch Forum has a waiting list of 2,000 people across North America and beyond. First started in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont which has a population of nearly 42,000, Wood-Lewis says that nearly half of Burlington’s households are now on Front Porch Forum and hopes to see the level of participation grow even more. Although he does not have a clear blueprint for the next five years, he says he hopes to continue to build on the strengths of the site and expand to more and more neighborhoods. The results are coveted: “connected neighborhoods are friendlier places to live, with less crime, healthier residents, higher property values, and better service from local government and public utilities.” For now, Front Porch Forum continues to connect Vermonters and strengthen their communal ties as the rest of us await our own forums.

StoryCorps, an independent nonprofit founded in 2003 by Dave Isay, seeks to provide the opportunity for everyday people to share their story. According to the organization’s website, StoryCorps has archived more than 30,000 stories in the Library of Congress and catered to its more than 60,000 participants at recording centers around the United States. With weekly broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition, in addition to the listen pages on their website, StoryCorps has the unique ability to offer regular people the chance to share personal stories on a national level.

Unlike many participatory media outlets, StoryCorps offers anyone with a story the chance to not only share it in their own words, but to have that experience immortalized in sound for all to hear and enjoy. “We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, strengthen and build the connections between people, teach the value of listening, and weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that every life matters,” the StoryCorps website reads.

There is a level of professionalism in this process that makes StoryCorps distinctive. Those interested in recording a conversation reserve a time at one of the StoryCorps locations that then allows them 40 minutes of uninterrupted conversation in a sound booth. A StoryCorps “facilitator” is on hand at each interview to ensure the process runs smoothly – from filling out the initial paperwork to serving as the interviewer in cases where a person comes alone. Question generators are also available to participants to help get the conversation going and flowing naturally. Ultimately, it is up to the StoryCorps editors to aggregate the best of the 40 minutes – narrowing the story down to about two to three minutes of audio that may also serve as the track to an animated video.

In an interview with NY1 News, StoryCorps founder, Dave Isay, explained the environment his organization seeks to provide. “We created these rooms as kind of sacred spaces, with the lights low, very warm,” Isay described. “But I don’t think it’s the room. It’s this once-in-a-lifetime chance to ask the questions you always wanted to ask, to have the conversations you have always wanted to have.” At the root of it, StoryCorps wishes to provide ordinary people the extraordinary chance to tell a story in their own words. And whether it be a story of triumph, love, or loss, StoryCorps utilizes the power of the spoken word.

It could be assumed that these StoryCorps sanctioned rooms produce a higher quality content than that of a homemade video or audio recording, therefore providing participants with an opportunity that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Also, from the StoryCorps editorial perspective, the professional setting should generate higher quality content, and with less than two of the forty minutes making the final cut, quality is key to producing a “good” finished product.

This same environment, however, could also be seen as intimidating or deterring to the average person. In this sense, StoryCorps has a built in filtering process – only those seriously interested will take the time to set up an appointment and visit the recording booth. This organization requires a significant amount of involvement and participation on the part of the contributor, which is unlike most participatory sites where posting an anonymous comment is about the extent of contribution. Participants have a level of accountability and a personal and emotional connection to what they are doing that is unique to the format of this particular organization.

Subsequently, the listener is really able to feel the time and emotion that went into the creation of the story when he or she visits the StoryCorps website or listens to NPR. For the participant, the high quality product, public access, and ability to tell a story so near and dear to one’s heart keeps contributors interested in service. StoryCorps stories appear weekly on NPR’s Morning Edition, on the organization’s website, through downloadable podcasts, in the various books StoryCorps has published, archived in the Library of Congress, or in the more recent animated videos the site has debuted.

Ultimately, this is an opportunity for an average person to share their story, in their words, in a professional way. Not many other examples of citizen journalism can offer such a combination.
For the non-contributing user, listening to “human interest stories” told by the “human” himself is a much different experience than reading a feature in the Metro section or listening to a reporter on the evening news. There is a sentimentality and realness that can only be captured in listening to people who have lived through the things they are discussing. Hearing children speak of the parent’s they lost on September 11, 2001, or how love blossomed when someone least expected is refreshing in a time where sensational stories of crime and celebrities populates the mainstream media.

After clicking on the “Listen to stories” tab that is located on the left hand side of the website’s homepage, users are directed to a page that highlights three of the most recent contributions and then provides a hyperlink to StoryCorps’ books and podcasts. Users are also given a dropdown box that contains the various categories the stories are sorted into. These categories range from those of a national context like Hurricane Katrina and September 11 to more the more individualized romance or friendship. Users can also search for stories on the site by typing in names or key words.

There is no way to comment or leave feedback on the stories posted, but it is very easy to share stories. The “Share” button is located next to each story for easy access. The lack of commentary, however, is one aspect of the site that could be improved. Other than the “Staff Picks” area, which by nature provides a bit of yardstick in terms of how the organization’s staff feels about a certain story, there is no way to garner any sort of feedback about the content. While the addition of comments and the possibility of naysayers could deter participation, adding the option to comment in a laudatory or commiserating way could help to create a secondary level of participation – one from the contributing user and one from the non-contributing user. Seeing as the content of the site is already heavily in the control of the site’s editorial staff (they control the editing process), monitoring posts on a comments page would not be tremendously burdensome.

Another issue with the site is the lack of access to information about a particular story. A partial excerpt (about half a sentence) and very brief blurb about the piece is offered, but this information does not give the reader much insight into what story will be told. Due to the emphasis on time and accessibility in today’s world, the lack of information could deter many from clicking on the various stories. People are used to an information overload – being told everything they may or may not need to know.

In the case of StoryCorps, where about two minutes of focused and attentive listening is needed to truly appreciate a story, it might be beneficial to provide users with more access to information so they can take the time to appreciate the stories that interest them and pass by the ones that do not. As the site is laid out now, users know very little about the story or the people involved before choosing to listen, making both access and navigation considerably more difficult.

StoryCorps is unique in that it relies solely on user-generated content to populate its various outlets – whether it be NPR broadcasts, podcasts, or books. Without people willing to share their stories, StoryCorps would not and could not exist. While no other example of citizen journalism presented in class provided such an extreme case of participatory media, Patch.com was interesting in that similarly relies on both professionals and non-professionals to create a quality product. The established recording booths, “facilitators,” and editing team are essential to the StoryCorps operation. This staff makes it possible for people to tell their stories in an effective and public-friendly way. Similarly, Patch.com combines professional reporting with citizen journalism in a way that fosters participation, while maintaining a higher standard of content.

The ability for people in the various communities to not only comment on the articles written by the hired journalists, but also to post their own blogs and serve as community “watchdogs” to an extent is well-developed on this site. The frequency of the posts and interest in the content makes Patch.com an effective medium for the so-called “professionals” and “amateurs” to work in harmony with one another. This type of co-existence is also evident on StoryCorps, for without the average contributor the organization could not exist, but without the talent of the editors or the resources provided by the organization, the content created would not be user-friendly. Both of these sites are good at what they do – Patch.com providing primarily hard news and StoryCorps focusing on human-interest stories – and they are able to combine the skills of professionals and the enthusiasm of everyday citizens in an effective way.

StoryCorps priority is to highlight the importance of the spoken word – encouraging regular people to share their common and uncommon experiences. “This is about nothing but the generosity of listening. And when you hear one of these stories, you realize that you’re listening to something real and you’re often hearing humanity at its best,” Isay told NY1 News. “And I think when you’re listening to that sort of story of everyday people – with their acts of kindness and courage that we don’t take the time to honor – you’re walking on holy ground.” StoryCorps is providing a service few others do, and in this ever-changing media landscape, perhaps the future of the “human interest story” lies in the voices of the humans themselves.

Works Cited
Mishkin, Budd. “One on One: StoryCorps Founder Dave Isay Documents Everyday Lives.”
NY1 News. 9 May 2011. Web. 29 October 2011.

Patch presents itself as “your source for local knowledge you can’t live without.” Currently located in twenty-two states and the nation’s capital, Patch blends an combination of both professional journalism and amateur, user-generated content to provide community-specific news. Each location consists of at least an local editor but relies upon contributions from readers and semi-professional journalists to keep up steadily regularly updated content. Patch encourages readers to contribute in a variety of ways.
In the Local Voices section of the News category, Patch publishes stories by non-professional journalists. That is not to say, however, that contributors are not legitimated figures in other fields.

For example, today’s Park Slope, NY page, includes a brief story surrounding the Metropolitan Transportation Authority proposed decision to remove trash cans from stations written by a local councilwoman. Writers also include specialists in the health, business, and education fields. Readers can easily comment on this, and each other section of one’s local Patch site. Readers can also add to the community calendar, post announcements “to everyone,” and send tips to the local editor. Patch solicits video and images from readers. Local business owners can “claim” then edit pages for their organization. Each of these functions requires signing up to Patch, then logging into add to each user fueled section.

For users, Patch provides hyperlocal content, similar to a local newspaper, with great emphasis on reader participation. The site aggregates events, news stories, brief announcements, and opinion from locals into a easily malleable interface. As I suggested, Patch presents the same kind of opportunities, and allure, that a local paper would. Purportedly, the highly specified audience connects postings for announcements about a classical music concert at the local library, or a new burrito joints’ opening events, or classified for looking for new employee to the desired recipients in a very direct way. Readers can both gain information, as well as add their own. Somewhat ironically, Patch equally emphasizes it’s contribution to journalism as professional field as well its grassroots, community centered focus on user generated content. Because the Patch net is cast so wide, with many local branches, it does indeed employ many editors.

What makes Patch worthwhile? As I poked around the Patch Park Slope, the closest site to where I live, it appears as though, for interested readers, the ease with which one can get to the “professional” gatekeepers in this situation. Commenting, on an article or just generally, can happen with one simple entry and click in Twitter-feed like column on the right hand side of the homepage. The comment is published instantaneously, if one is logged in. Because the editorial staff consists of one main editor, and a few peripheral content managers, readers can send tips directly to their local Patch head. For Park Slope, though not all pages do this, the head editor’s email address is one of the first pieces of information readers see once arriving on the homepage. The uber-local nature of the content is another draw for readers to participate. When most of the news and event information happens literally within the constraints of a block radius, as in the Park Slope or Bed Stuy examples, the content gains a level of tangibility and relevancy.

The most obvious comparison for the Patch model if Front Porch Forum. Both aggregate local information, but with a marked difference in the quality of reader participation. While Patch does require signing up to contribute, the splash page for Patch, which features a map of the country highlighting covered areas and an easily navigable list of pages, readers are free to view content without any level of commitment. The very first question Front Porch Forum asks of its potential participants is their address to be verified before allowing entry to the main site. Front Porch Forum also forgoes the attempt to provide news information, like Patch does, instead emphasizing user needs, like getting a new bike or finding a reliable day care center. In this sense, Front Porch resembles the classified section in a more transparent way that Patch, though both services include aspects that speak to that particular need.

A similarity between the two is the use of “community” centric language. Both sites proclaim their “community-building” potential, Patch even includes a non-profit aspect that “gives back” to the various locations. This strikes me as an interesting move, especially for Patch which more clearly aligns itself with “journalism” in the traditional sense. Is a local news service meant to perform this duel function? What could be potentially lost when the people actively trying to change a community and those trusted to carefully critique those changes become intimately conflated?

As I evaluated and explored Patch primarily and Front Porch to a lesser extent, I found the same foundational problem confronting me. Even as a careful and constant consumer of news information, and committed if critical consumer of new media, I found myself asking: would I ever really participate in a local site like these? What service do they provide that is not already filled by other places? In all the rhetoric insisting on the community building potential of Patch, I have a hard time imagining what the user community actually looks like, who takes the most active role, and how the community presents itself in the real world. If Patch provides a community-based aggregation of news information, how is it different from Twitter, where one can very carefully build their specific circle of friends, experts, traditional media sources, and other relevant public voices? If Patch’s announcement and classified section attempt to connect need to solution in a direct way, how does that differ from events or marketplace on Facebook, where my sense of belonging to my supposed community is much clearer? While it is hard for me to think of specifics on how either Patch of Front Porch could change to better fulfill their proposed purpose, instead I keep coming back to the basic question: do we need sites like this?

StoryCorps is a non-profit organization which gives people the opportunity to “record, share and preserve” their stories. According to their mission, StoryCorps exists to “remind one another of our shared humanity, strengthen and build connections between people, teach the value of listening, and weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that every life matters.” By nature of its construct, it allows for stories of American experiences to be chronicled in audio format. Once it is chronicled, it is reduced to a 3 minute clip which is posted on StoryCorp’s website. A few of them are also shared on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” They are all kept in the American Folk Center at the Library of Congress as primary sources of personal experiences throughout history.

In modern media, individuals have limited time to tell their stories. Given each person’s unique human experience there are infinite quantities of important tales which could be told. The site serves the needs of a myriad of individuals – one could say that it does universal good. StoryCorps gives individuals the forum and the tools necessary to record, edit and preserve their experiences. The individual story that they make will be reformatted and repurposed into a slim video, and the messages that were conveyed over the 40 minute interview from which the story content is based will be edited so that the sentiments form the interview are effectively presented. It not only allows people to hear these stories, but, in doing so, it preserves the lost art of listening.

Participation for StoryCorps users is an interesting concept. It is not in itself an interactive site, that is, aside from the fact that it is based on individuals seeking it out and contributing to it through 40 minutes of recorded interview time. The participation is entirely preliminary. Once the initial recording transpires, there is no participation necessary other than viewing the myriad of stories which the website provides. However, aside from this, the site does not engage the participation of its users. The greatest extent to which this site gains participation from its users is by allowing each viewer to share a story through social media, e-mail and blogs. This is the only participation that they can do with the video, as there are no ways to directly comment on the stories, or engage in a dialogue about that which is being shown.

It can be concluded that what keeps participants coming back for more stories is their intrinsic appreciation for human nature, and pure interest in the experiences that its many constituents continue have, and subsequently share. In order to revisit a site like this, one must have a deliberate interest in individuals both similar and dissimilar to his/herself. One must also be able to appreciate media that only engages one of the senses. The fact audio, by itself, is a rather lost/diminishing art form, those who are attracted to StoryCorps must like that type of media stimulation. There is no external reward for this site. It does not allow for public praise in the conventional comment-driven types of participatory storytelling outlets. Participants must possess an intrinsic desire to listen and listen some more.

The area of improvement for the participatory nature of this site is vast. While, at its very core, it is a participatory media, there is not an interactive component to it. With many featured videos on the site, one can easily include a “like” button below the video. There can be a comments section. While the comments could be a difficult part of the site to regulate, perhaps the site can include a section that allows for comments to be submitted, monitored and then posted. While this does not allow for the freest and most equitable form of comment sharing, it is just a more technologically updated version of the “letter to the editor” section of a newspaper. With the same principles in mind, StoryCorps can foster an environment of sharing and also one of appreciation and encouragement.

Participation also comes in the form of viewing and sharing. Some of the stories shared are quite historical and may not resonate as well with younger listeners. While the import of the stories from elder individuals should not be denounced in any way, one can’t help but notice that the topics about which stories are shared – from Alzheimer to personal tales of heartache – tend to be about, and attract, an older audience. To make it more participatory, the site should consider tailoring its efforts to provide a younger listener with more relevant information to his/her needs and interests.
This could be through story content, storyteller, or story designation. The fact that the medium through which the information is conveyed in non-participatory, is focused in history, and is being spread to radio listeners does not attract the youngest participants. The stories are short enough to attract and obtain the attention of 21st century, technology-loving masses. However, the stimulation of more than one of the senses would undoubtedly make the experience of learning about the story much more entertaining. While the content of the stories is overwhelmingly informative, this does not mean that they cannot employ other sensory stimulating technologies. While it is nice to hear the stories of people in a solely audio format, perhaps creating a youtube video with a slideshow of pictures to accompany the piece would be effective.

Ultimately, allowing people to comment on stories that they deem valuable would enhance the appreciation of the “human condition,” an aspect of the StoryCorps mission statement that seems to be effectively accomplished in a myriad of other news outlets.
Front Porch was another citizen-based journalistic endeavor that was discussed in class. Front Porch and StoryCorps are about as different as could be. While StoryCorps employed extreme editing for each story, any member of the Front Porch community could post on the Front Porch message board. To that extent, it can be postulated that Front Porch is not as much of a journalism-driven endeavor, as it is a reincarnation of a town posting area. However, the counter to that argument is that while Front Porch is currently being used as a posting area for lost pets, the potential for widespread and constructive participatory engagement among its members is vast. While Front Porch is focused on small communities in Vermont, StoryCorps is not focused on one particular area. The focus in one particular area is both constructive, and limiting. What StoryCrops allows that Front Porch does not allow is universal access. You need not be a member of a certain town or community to view the myriad of stories that are presented. However, to be a part of Front Porch, one not only has to be a member of the Vermont community, but one must provide a verifiable address in order to access the boards.

However, it is constructive to examine why it is that the information required for entrance and participation in Front Porch is so formal. The reason is this – if people have to provide their personal information, including a verifiable home address, they are less likely to abuse the power given to them by their community. Additionally, by obtaining addresses, Front Porch truly collects a group of individuals for whom a community posting space about a designated area would be constructive. The selective nature of the people allowed to participate not only monitors the information, but also makes the interacting experience more worthwhile for the individuals who can see and comment. They are viewing thoughts relevant to their town and the people who live in it. For this reason, the fact that they must register and be verified to comment makes sense. It indubitably allows for the participation in the site to be more meaningful, however in denying universal accessibility, it is uncertain whether the optimal amount of people are being affected by the site’s existence.
StoryCorps has different strengths and weaknesses. It allows for universal accessibility, however the interactivity ends there. While one may be inspired by a particular story, there is no way for him/her to show it. However, the ability of individuals to make his/her own story is a valuable part of StoryCorps.

Aside from the multitude of differences which make StoryCorps and Front Porch difficult to compare, underlie a few similarities which make them both new and innovative forms of participatory media. Both sites focus on user engagement. While the degree to which the user can actually be engaged differs, both sites would not exist were it not for amateur “journalists.” They both empower their users to take an active role in their information dissemination and retention. Front Porch is more of a news section and message board, whereas StoryCorps covers the features/human interest pieces that would normally go uncovered. While both sites have overwhelming differences in the ways in which they encourage individuals to participate, they both give readers the option to participate. This is an idea, which, up until recently did not have as large of a footing. Both sites are contributing to the future of journalism in both their structure and content. It is safe to postulate that these sites are only an example of the participatory citizen-based forums and news/information organs of the future.

By paying heed to the connotations of the words in the name “Front Porch Forum,” you can get a good sense of the purpose of the website they describe. “Front porch” conjures up images of rural or at least non-urban homes, with covered outdoor spaces in front that may or may not contain rocking chairs, muddy boots and/or old folks shooting the breeze. “Forum” draws to mind the political meetinghouses of Ancient Greece and the sense of democracy that comes with them. Combined, these two locations create an image of a hyperlocal arena for the discussion of political and neighborhood issues. Front Porch Forum is a site characterized by its lack of comments sections and by making its users register with their addresses—two features that, I will argue, are key in maintaining the neighborhood-type vibe that the site exudes.

With the decline of print usage sweeping across every text-on-page media like the black plague, everything from want ads to train schedules have become digitized in its wake. The last place you might expect to see such a decline is the community bulletin board. You know these boards; they’re the ones with lost cat posters, tear-off phone numbers for chess clubs and notices for energy-saving workshops. There will always be people zealous enough about one local issue or another to print flyers and post them around town, right? Ah, but it seems that even the neighbor who used to go door to door trying to recruit you for his crusade to persuade the city to clip the bushes on his sidewalk has moved online. All of the examples I’ve used may seem overly specific, and that’s because they are. In reality, they are posts included in the latest “issue” of Burlington, Vermont’s DeForest neighborhood Front Porch Forum page. These “issues” are an accruement of the previous two days’ posts by anyone else in your neighborhood, from the head of the Parks and Recreation Department to Laura Wojtkiewicz of South Willard, who posted simply to announce her presence on Front Porch Forum. This site exists solely for the spread of information between residents of a very specific area, and thus the information being spread is generally only of interest to residents of that area.

For this reason, it seems obvious that FPF should require its users to register with their addresses. Not only does this measure ensure relevant discussion, but it also helps prevent someone from spamming the entire site. Theoretically, a spammer could do what I did and register under an actually existent but technically false address, but that seems like far too much work to go through with each neighborhood. The address-requirement at login is one of two reasons why this site is worthwhile for its users: everyone else on your FPF site is your neighbor. The other reason is that FPF is organized in a way that allows for easy one-to-one communication and little to no mudslinging. This is achieved by the email-only contact format of the site. If FPF provided an actual forum in the online sense of the word, with users engaging in discussion directly on the site via comments or a board, odds are there would be a lot of unproductive conversations. As Professor Shirky said in class, a message board that included all the residents of an apartment building quickly became littered with the petty arguments that neighbors often engage in. On FPF, each user’s name is a link to their email address, removing none of the user’s ability to communicate with others, but all of the public quality of a message board. For example, issues like a lost cat do not require conversations between more than two people: the owner and the finder. Also, issues such as community meetings would fare better if users saved discussion for the actual meeting, and this is precisely why FPF’s creators designed the site this way. By restricting communication on their site to private, one-to-one interactions within a small community, FPF keeps its site clean while allowing its users the most direct form of contact with their neighbors.

Imagining Front Porch Forum without these defining features makes it a largely unappealing website. Dismissing the address requirement from registration might net some individual FPF pages more traffic, but its goal as a hyperlocal site is not necessarily to increase each page’s viewership. If there is a small amount of day-to-day activity on DeForest’s page, for instance, it is better than a huge amount of generally irrelevant, spam-centric posts that users have to sift through to find real issues. Broadening the boundaries for what is defined as a “neighborhood” on FPF would ultimately result in the same kind of filter failure, with only a small percentage of the posts being relevant to each user.

If FPF allowed communication via methods other than email, the site would lose its city hall-type feel and would probably look more like my local newspaper’s website that I observed earlier this semester. Goskagit.com’s comments sections, if you recall, were littered by the sort of mudslinging conversation that is often fond of racism and opinionated rants. The environment that this sort of discussion creates is not one that fosters the type of community action that FPF aims to stimulate. People are less likely to send offensive emails to one person than they are to post offensive comments on a site because of the extremely personal element of emailing someone. Also, as previously hinted at, the form of a comments page does not fit the content of most posts on FPF. The posts are community announcements, not questions or opinionated statements, and providing a comments section for them would be like providing a comments section on the Weather Channel’s site. Comments like “wow, we’re supposed to get a lot of rain tomorrow,” or “SO EXCITED FOR THE WARD 6 MPA MEETING!!!!” are not productive in the least, and would generally detract from the informative nature of FPF. If a user does have questions about an event, or would like to return a cat, the email address of whoever posted the announcement should be a sufficient mode to respond accordingly. Front Porch Forum is by no means a perfect website (the illustrations are really cheesy, for instance), but it employs two strategies that greatly enhance the user’s experience.

Patch.com is the most logical site to compare to Front Porch Forum, as it also deals with hyperlocal issues. Whereas FPF aims to be an online version of a community bulletin board, Patch seeks to digitally replicate the (also disappearing) local newspaper. This means that Patch covers a lot more content than just community announcements. To make an accurate comparison to the Burlington, VT FPF page, I chose Patch’s Concord, NH page because the two cities have relatively equal populations. Patch does not require a login to view, and it has comments sections on all of its articles. Concord’s Patch page has multiple sections such as “news” and “marketplace,” that each attempt to replicate a section of the newspaper (marketplace=classified ads). Despite this broader scope, most sections appear to accrue several posts per day, a feat that most FPF pages can’t boast at this point. Interestingly enough, the “government” subsection of “events” and the “marketplace” section, the two sections whose contents would be similar to that of an FPF page, are strikingly bare. The only explanation I can find for this is that these sections are meant to include user-generated content, as opposed to the “news” section that relies on a staff to post stories.

The comments sections of most news articles on Patch are also quite barren, with the exception being an opinion article on healthcare that has nine comments. One user, ForThePeople, responded to the story by voicing his agreement with the author and stating that he works for a “mega-corporation.” Rginnh, another user, attacked ForThePeople, questioning his employment status based on the time he spends writing comments on Patch, which prompted Tony Schinella, the editor of Concord Patch, to step in and say “be nice please…” This is not quite in the same ballpark as the off-color conversations goskagit hosts, but this conversation is definitely unproductive to say the least. Even though Patch is moderated to discourage vulgarity and discrimination, there is no effective way to moderate unintelligent or irrelevant comments, and the inclusion of these posts makes Patch less successful than FPF in my mind. While its scope may be bigger, Patch appears to have less of a handle on its site’s content than FPF does, as it is relatively sprawling and difficult to navigate. Also, it’s worth noting that while appearance may have little to do with a website’s effectiveness, Patch’s messy and ad-infested pages pale in comparison to FPF’s clean style. At first glance, Front Porch Forum seemed miniscule and a little hokey to me, but in comparison to Patch, the site is effective in its purpose.

The Syrian Revolution News Round Up is a product of the Strategic Research and Communication Centre. It is an email listserv and Facebook fan page compiling daily news and video from the Syrian revolution. According to the website, “The centre was founded in 2010 to provide high-quality research and media services to media outlets, government departments, academic institutions and research centres.”

The email listserv itself does not allow for any real interaction with the content, readers, or administrators of the Syrian Revolution News Round Up, beyond the technical capabilities of reply, reply all, and forward. The Facebook page is also technically interactive, and some posts linking to the email Round Up do get commented on or shared. In terms of the way that the SRCC broadcasts the News, it is essentially just that: a one-to-many broadcast.

Interestingly enough, the content being broadcast is also broadly gathered. News stories and “international reactions” are linked to from The New York Times and TheHill.com blog posts. News aggregation itself is understandable, especially from media sources like these, and redistributed by means like an email list. But the Round Up also links generously to YouTube videos taken on normal flip cams and phone cameras at rallies, protests, and armed confrontations with government forces.

It is unknown whether most or any of the people uploading their videos taken at these various events and locations know that they are being linked to by the SRCC. This becomes even more difficult to determine because the videos themselves, though apparently filmed by different amateurs on flip cameras and cell phones in different places, are all uploaded to YouTube by user SHAMSNN. This seems to be a part of the editorial process of the newsletter, and probably serves on one level to protect the identities of protestors and revolutionaries. But it also eliminates a level of participation and communication between the people shooting video and the people watching it. However, the purpose of the newsletter isn’t really as much about participation as it is using some of the channels of participatory media to propogate information out into the world that could easily be lost in the political chaos.

In lieu of getting a sense of satisfaction from interaction with other users, it is the daily updates of breaking content and analysis that keeps people subscribed to the list and Facebook page.

Obviously, the Syrian Revolution News Round Up couldn’t work under a model like Front Porch Forums, which puts municipal government officials on the same level as citizens. But something Patch.com-like could be interesting, with the SRCC maintaining its editorial role. In this situation, the amateur videographers could possibly upload their videos to an SRCC site anonymously while maintaining a connection to it that allows them to interact with viewers and commentors.

This would be an ideal website for the SRCC to create to support the SRNRU: an interactive portal for the latest video, news, and analysis. As it stands currently, the Round Up does not really allow for any participation, though it uses media like email, YouTube, and Facebook. The current format wouldn’t support anything beyond the above mentioned built-in capabilities of those sites, but a radically new site could. What would be the benefits of such a site, and would they be worth the SRCC’s time, effort and money? The fact that the SRCC already translates the SRNRU into English illustrates that one of the motivating forces of the news letter is increasing its global audience. Fostering participation and interaction among the recepients of the Round Up would work to this end by giving readers a sense of community that extends to the revolutionaries taking and uploading video. Connecting readers to producers in this way would make everyone more invested in the process and community, making them more likely to participate and invite others into the fold.

Story Corps perhaps revolutionizes the production of an industry-favorite: the human-interest story. The website has amassed a growing collection of over 30,000 three-to-four minute audio stories intimately narrated by the everyday people who actually experienced them, as opposed to a third party (i.e. a reporter) with little emotional investment in the events to soulfully relate them to the viewer. While the site does not do the best job in encouraging user participation, it stands in stark contrast to websites employing a similar “citizen journalism” model because of its democratic policy of promoting regular users’ content for the whole world to see.
The Basics

Story Corps is plainly intended for entertainment-seekers who have the spare time to listen to others’ personal life stories. A mysterious account about someone who managed to meet J.D. Salinger after the renowned but reclusive author extended an offer to said individual to enter his home and weather out the rain. Another about a man severely grateful he had the privilege of delivering a heartfelt “I love you” to his two sons before they passed away serving at Ground Zero when the Twin Towers collapsed.

Meaningful, these human-interest stories are emotionally resonant by sheer virtue of the fact that an actual participant in the story is the one demanding the “human” interest from the listener. But ultimately, Story Corps does not exist to provide an avenue for everyday users to inform an audience about urgent, newsworthy events—in the vein of warnings of “hurricane” Irene or allegations of corporate fraud. Unlike most typical “citizen journalism” initiatives, namely CNN’s iReport or BBC.com’s request for story “tips,” these stories are not there for the purpose of expounding upon what’s making the headlines by providing an outlet to regular citizens who may have, say, rare video footage of an unfolding event. An iReport, in the form of a camera phone video, could be used to verify the details behind former Libyan leader Colonel Ghaddafi’s supposed death. But Story Corps’ concise, three-minute heartwarming (or devastating) reports exist for those who want to take an entertaining break from their quotidian affairs to be enchanted by one man’s discovery or grieved by one woman’s loss—campfire tales disguised by new media. Though all the focus should not be placed on the viewers: Story Corps obviously caters to those eager to share their experiences with others, sitting down for the reportedly 40-minute interview with a facilitator that will eventually be trimmed to a condensed three-minute package of “human interest.” Their mantra could be: why limit one’s self to a campfire when modern media allows for a story to be broadcast across the web? And because the stories are all stored in the Library of Congress, Story Corps could prove a fascinating resource when today’s news becomes recent history, and scholars will want to consider the emotional impact of what will then become historical events.
Why Sit Down for the 40-Minutes?

While the incentives that draw in viewers have been clarified—to entertain—the incentives for outsiders to participate by traveling to the physical recording booths to provide the Story Corps with the free content on which it subsists probably has more to do with acquiring recognition than anything else. The front page of the site features a flash-based module with four separate pages that highlight content available on the website or news about the Story Corps itself. And the right hand bar of the site prominently features an actual audio story. Moreover, it’s recognition acquisition (i.e. fleeting internet fame) that incentivizes users to record their stories for Story Corps, not to mention the possibility of being featured on NPR’s Morning Edition. Further incentive is guaranteed storage of the participant’s edited story in the U.S. Library of Congress. But in essence, it boils down to temporary fame, which seems to have provided enough motivation to prompt 30,000 people to record their life’s stories in physical booths over the last eight years.

Yet, for a site that encourages users to participate and go out of their way to travel to the recording booths and provide Story Corps with free content—content that keeps the gears of the sites running—it comes as a mystery why that same participation is not encouraged in the form of user feedback. Wouldn’t user reactions to a prominently featured story act as incentive to potential storytellers to interact with “fans” now that said user experiences this temporary fame? And wouldn’t the increased response from fans in turn incentivize further participation from the site’s chief content-creators—the storytellers or interviewees or citizen journalists themselves?

This could be true—that increased audience-storyteller interaction could further aggrandize the temporary fame that comes with being featured on the front page for having a compelling story and thereby encourage more users to record interviews with Story Corps. But perhaps the site’s creators were considering the flipside: users comments will not necessarily be laudatory. While the inclusion of a commenting mechanism could heighten the sense of fame storytellers experience and by consequence, encourage more people to create raw, human-interest content for Story Corps, by the same token it could dissuade potential participants from telling their stories. If users encounter negative criticism of certain stories on the website—and any Internet frequenter knows that negative comments run the gamut from rational criticism to outright offensive and racist remarks—they might not be willing to withstand such a deep blow to their self esteem. Hence, they will be reluctant to record their story in the first place. And anything that inspires reluctance on the participant’s part in an initiative like Story Corp, which runs entirely on user contributions, must be avoided by any means necessary.
A New and Improved Story Corps

But changes can be made to the site’s structure to encourage greater user participation. For one, the largest bottleneck stifling the website’s expansion is its insistence on recording in physical booths, some of which are permanently built in big cities like New York, others of which temporarily park themselves in a sizeable urban areas. Indeed this approach has its benefits. It ensures top-notch sound quality considering the professional equipment each booth comes equipped with, the presence of a facilitator in each booth to guide the interview (either between two participants, or between the facilitator and the storyteller), and lastly, it acts as a covert filter, making sure only the participants with worthwhile stories will make the trip to the booth out of their own free time. That said, the glaring disadvantage is if Story Corps were to allow users to submit their own interviews using their own recording device in their own homes, the website would have significantly more content than it currently does. More content means more Story Corps-employed editors, and also more viewers as well. Perhaps there would be so much content that users would discuss amongst themselves how to structure their audio stories and standardize equipment specifications. This way, social forces might act as quality control as opposed to a facilitator and an expensive mobile studio. To its credit, Story Corps is experimenting with this idea via its “National Day of Listening”—a day when users can submit amateur self-recorded stories. But it remains to be seen if the site will expand that into an everyday affair rather than an annual one.

Another issue is that while the right-hand bar of Story Corps’ front page is reserved to highlight notable audio stories, it’s relatively little space to devote to the crucial content the site would cease to exist without. The same can be said about the center-stage module as well—which probably attracts even more attention given its prime location right in the center of the browser, with large images to go along with each page. While most of the content featured in the module seems intended to promote the site and events its management have coordinated (such as “National Day of Listening”), it would be an even wiser move to weave in a few more audio stories into the center module. The point is to increase the visibility and by proxy “fame” of the featured storytellers’ stories so as to motivate those on the cusp of contributing to Story Corps to follow through with it. The more value is ascribed to users and the crucial content they provide that fills the site’s empty bones with marrow, the more content users will, in theory, create.

The implementation of a user rating system, along the lines of “likes” could stimulate participation. If the most “liked” stories are ranked, fans will effectively have a say in determining which stories are featured in the site’s most visible spaces. But only “likes” should be permitted, no “dislikes”—again, in order to avoid discouraging potential storytellers who may be turned off by the negativity. As mentioned earlier, the site’s designers must cautiously tread a fine line to avoid discouraging sensitive potential contributors whose names, voices, likenesses, and reputations will be tied to the ever-personal stories they share with the world. By contrast, camera phone videos on iReport are largely anonymously filmed footage that cannot be traced back to the videographer.

After the site undergoes some of the above changes and begins to grow at a faster rate as a result of heightened participation and interaction on the part of users, it would be wise to consider permitting users to submit multiple recordings, as currently, storytellers (or a pair of storytellers) can only submit one. A hierarchical system of “likes” will undoubtedly lead to certain members of the site developing reputations. Sure, those reputations may be on the basis of who is the most “liked” likeable person (à la the child-rearing technique of positive reinforcement wherein a child is never subjected to criticism during his or her early formative years). But the sensitivity of the user, as mentioned earlier, is a make-it-or-break-it factor that cannot be ignored given Story Corps’ circumstances. Anyway, those reputations will lead to greater demand from particular users to record more stories.

Just the other day, the Village Voice ran a story about a Brooklynite florist who happened to be pen-pals with Muammar Ghaddafi, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Harry Truman. This man had no involvement in politics, but by chance managed to endear a diverse crew of world leaders and revolutionaries to correspond with him. Someone like this would be a perfect candidate for multiple Story Corps recordings.
Story Corps Against the Others

Comparing Story Corps to one of the websites discussed in class, the most suitable comparison appeared to be one with Patch. While the comparison of Story Corps and Patch could be the topic of a lengthy essay itself, there are a few key points that will be mentioned here.

The principal difference lies in the differing aims of both websites: Patch is indeed hyper-local, but it is still a hard news operation, informing neighborhood dwellers of the occurrences in their immediate surroundings. This includes causes, events, new restaurant openings—all of which can be labeled as practical news. In other words, if a user wants to know what’s going on around town and why there’s snow sitting atop their neighbor’s car, Patch will provide the details. Meanwhile, because this has been explained ad nauseum before, Story Corps, by contrast, churns out entertaining human-interest stories that have no practical use, and instead serve to entertain.

But beneath the surface, the differences run deeper into each site’s respective ideology governing user participation. Using Brooklyn’s Park Slope page as a reference point, it appears that there are many more restrictions on user participation than initially noticeable on Patch. The authors of the news stories are regulars, meaning Patch has hired them as “professional” local journalists. No random community member can simply write up a news story, submit it to Patch for editing, and expect to see it featured prominently on the front page of the corresponding community to which it pertains. Contrastively, Story Corps’ more democratized structure means if a user has an interesting story, her or she has just as much a chance as anyone else of being featured on either the site’s front or “listen to stories” pages.

So perhaps the blogs, as mentioned in class, are where the local everyday members of the community can chime in and be heard. But Patch’s Park Slope blog posts were mostly written by reputable officials or noteworthy professionals, not by ordinary citizens such as teachers, laborers, bar tenders, stay-at-home parents, office workers, or local business owners. A quick scan reveals the following people blogging for Park Slope on Patch: District 39 Councilmember Brad Lander, District 35 Councilmember Letitia James, Nation writer Peter Rothberg, and Democratic State Committee member Chris Owns. There is nothing particularly “local” about this list. Again by contrast, there are no celebrities or officials to speak of on Story Corps. But whether the site actively prevents this or whether online social forces have repulsed them from the site is not clear. Admittedly, beneath Patch’s blogs there is an icon that reads, “Want to Blog on Patch?” and upon clicking it, users can sign up and submit a blog. But if their voices are drowned out by people that have full PR-teams behind their backs or work for publications with national readerships, blogging seems a futile effort. These blogs don’t seem to offer recognition, and by proxy incentive, to the everyday citizens that would post them, and instead favor established figures. When there’s no incentive and not even a slight guarantee that one’s work will be featured prominently on the site so as to attract readers, what’s the point in writing a Patch blog? Why not then just write a blog on one’s own personal site?

That said, users on Patch can comment on stories—a feature now incorporated into most highly trafficked websites—and post “events.” But the incentive to participate is, based on this author’s assessment, nowhere near the degree of Story Corps with said site’s editors prominently featuring average-Joe user-created content on its various pages for all the Internet to see.

The website that my group selected last week as an example of citizen journalism was Syrian Revolution News Round-ups, a project run by the Strategic Research and Communications Centre. The website puts out (near) daily updates of the uprising in Syria, linking to YouTube videos, selected news stories, and upcoming events in support of the uprising around the world, as well as providing a summary of the day’s events in both English and Arabic. The News Roundup is one of several websites providing daily commentary and selection of videos, SyrianRevolutionDigest.blogspot.com being chief among the competition.

The group exists as a way to provide its readers a running commentary on the events in Syria. As the country is shut off to reporters, very little footage or information is leaking out of the country. This has resulted in Syria’s almost total disappearance from the front pages of newspapers and websites. In order to make up for the lack of coverage, individuals and research groups have undertaken their own reporting of events coming from the embattled country.

The News Roundup serves the interests of several parties; first, it raises the credibility and prestige of the Centre putting out the research; second, it provides an outlet for Syrian activists to draw attention to the uprising; third, it satisfies the curiosities and needs of those observing the situation in Syria. The London-based Centre putting out the Roundup, like other organizations, must have a hard time getting ‘reputable’ news out of the country. However, with contacts in the country and access to user-generated content, it is in a better position than most to create a news round-up that covers the events taking place in Syria. For a small-size research organization (its core is made up of four members), it is an excellent opportunity to not only increase readership, but to also establish contacts in government and large news organizations. I saw this first-hand while working at CyberDissidents.org – the Arabic Affairs Coordinator is a Syrian dissident who was invited to speak on (among other organizations) Al Jazeera and Bloomberg, and even had the chance to brief Hillary Clinton on events taking place in his home country.

The second group to benefit is the activists and protesters in Syria. With few reporters daring to enter the country without explicit government permission, there are few outlets through which Syrians can tell their stories. Fortunately, enough Syrians have access to camera phones that sending videos out of the country has become as easy as uploading them to YouTube. However, considering the total number of videos uploaded to YouTube every day, and the fact that most are in Arabic, few would actually be seen by more than a few individuals if it were not for groups like the News Roundup to publicize and provide context to the videos.

The third group that benefits from the News Roundup are the readers. Those interested in learning about Syria’s uprising have had to rely on non-traditional news sources to keep up with daily events. Though in some ways the News Roundup, with its videos coming directly from the Syrians, is more accurate, it also provides a very limited snapshot of the revolution. While there are links to news articles and a summary of the day’s events, there is less analysis than most news articles would provide. While the News Roundup is, indubitably, meant to be read as a supplement to in-depth analysis, its relative lack of context and analysis is likely to turn off those looking for more traditional coverage of the Syrian uprising.

Still, with so few traditional journalists reporting from Syria, the role of non-governmental organization is expanding to producing works of journalism. The News Roundup is an excellent example of the shifting definition of journalism. No longer is it only journalists’ job to liaison with sources, compile factual information, and back up their words with factual evidence. The fact that the Centre putting out the News Roundup is made up of “researchers, journalists and translators” (emphasis added) can be seen even in the decision to put out a daily recounting of events.

As the News Roundup is published to Facebook, there is (at least the potential for) participation from both the ends of production – the Syrians ‘making’ the news and the readers consuming that information. For the Syrian dissidents, participation means that their stories, demands and version of the news is able to be read, heard and seen outside the country. This is a powerful incentive and one that was largely unavailable in years past, especially in Hama in 1982, when thousands of Syrians were killed almost silently, with Damascenes learning of the massacre only weeks after it took place and only after it had been distilled through the state’s propaganda machine. The fact that the Centre acts as an intermediary between the Syrians and their audience means that there is translation and at least some validation of the Syrian dissidents’ narratives and there is wider readership.

For the audience, participation means that readers are able to express their own opinions, suggest stories to fill the gap in analysis, interact with like-minded individuals, and suggest events for the News Roundup to feature. There is very little reader participation on the News Roundup’s Facebook group, however – and most is done by a group of several committed individuals who do not seem to share a common language. The majority of comments are limited to people advertising like-minded groups (“Join my group ‘ we hate bashar el asad ‘”, “we need your support.please click Like and forward”) or providing links to news stories about Syria. The people making the News Roundup do not take these comments into consideration – they have not ‘Liked’ any of the groups asking for support in the comments, nor do they use the articles posted in the comments in the Roundup.

Thus, there is almost no satisfaction for the readers in participating on the group’s Facebook page, reflecting the group’s traditional (one way) journalistic roots. In order to change this, I would change the way the site presents itself to users. Currently, there is nothing that encourages users to leave comments. With almost eight thousand people who have ‘Liked’ the group, there is no reason for it not to have more than just comment or two per post. The group does not allow users to leave wall posts, only comments on the News Roundups; there are no polls for users to think about and answer; user participation is not reflected in the Roundups; and the Facebook group’s administrators do not respond to users’ comments. In order to change this, I would open the wall for comments by users and create polls relevant to the day’s news. Though neither of these are likely to drastically increase direct user participation, they will make the group appear more receptive to user interaction and discussion, which will encourage more overall user contribution to the website. Unfortunately, it will be impossible to eradicate the problems posed by the language barrier among the News Roundup’s readers as it is put out in both English and Arabic. However, these problems can be lessened by creating polls that are in both English and Arabic – as long as possible answers are written in both languages, the responses will count together, creating a sense of unity and collaboration among users who are potentially thousands of miles apart.

Although the News Roundup does not closely resemble any of the other websites we looked at, it does share some characteristics with all of them, and, I believe, the most with Patch. One big difference is the platform the News Roundup uses – it reaches its audience through Facebook, while Patch has a unique URL. This makes it easy for users to find the Facebook group, but it does not really allow for any flexibility in the daily operation of the Roundup. However, as it uses a set pattern for its publication, it makes sense that it did not choose to create a new website for its Roundup. Another difference between the websites is the amount of user participation they invite.

As I mentioned earlier, the creators of the Roundup do not really encourage comments or reader input. Patch, on the other hand, provides several ways for users to not only interact with, but to improve the website by letting readers add events, running contests for the readers, showing the comments that are being posted to articles on a town’s ‘home’ page, and providing several ways for users to become involved with the website (advertising local businesses, volunteering, uploading pictures, blogging, etc.). Perhaps the biggest similarity between the two websites was their location-based information. Both advertised events taking place in different cities, and both separated news by location, though it is much more apparent in Patch, as one has to select a location before seeing any news.
Though the News Roundup relies heavily on user-generated content for production of news, it does not take full advantage of the potential benefits that it can get with more reader participation. By paying more attention to its readers, it could potentially create a more devoted audience, find new sources for information, and increase its readership.

In 2000, a college student named Jake Nickell entered a t-shirt design contest hosted by Dreamless.org, a (now defunct) online forum for web programmers and graphic designers. The winning design would become the official t-shirt of a Dreamless event in London. Out of about 100 entries, Nickell’s design won the contest.

Jacob DeHart, another college student with a passion for design, also entered the competition. Though his design didn’t win, he and Nickell (who had met through the forum) began to talk about how much fun it was to participate in the contest. “Dreamless was all about art and design and a lot of artists on there had ‘battles’ and shared/critiqued their work with each other,” wrote Nickell in a blog post entitled ‘Threadless.com: The History’. “It was all around a very creative environment for hobbyists and professionals alike to unleash some creativity in their free time.” That got the two thinking: what if they held an ongoing design contest where the winning t-shirts would go on sale? Soon, Threadless was born. (Nickell)

Initially a contest for the Dreamless community, Threadless quickly expanded into its own entity. Nickell and DeHart, both college students with full-time jobs, each invested $500 to start skinnyCorp, a technology company. At this point, making Threadless profitable wasn’t really a priority. In fact, they didn’t envision Threadless as their primary venture; it was a side-hobby supported by skinnyCorp’s web development work. “For those first two years, every dime we earned from selling tees just went right back into printing more of them,” said Nickell. “We basically used Threadless as proof that we knew how to build e-commerce websites.” (Nickell)

Whenever they could, the two Jakes gave back to the Threadless community: from the very beginning, winning designers received a few shirts with their designs printed on them. In 2002, when Threadless started to generate a bit more revenue, they began to award $100 to winning designers. By the end of 2004, after Threadless acquired its own office space and began hiring actual employees (including Nickell and DeHart themselves; for the first few years, they didn’t earn a salary), that figure jumped to $400 plus a $100 Threadless gift certificate. Unlike the early days, Threadless can now afford to generously compensate its talented community: operating as a 50-person company, the site bagged nearly $30 million in revenue in 2009. As it stands presently, winning designers — there are typically seven each week, picked from more than 2,000 submissions — receive $2,000 for their work in addition to a variety of other extras, and sometimes even more for special contents. (Burkitt)

Though it’s certainly a nice perk, prize money is only one of several motivating factors to participate on Threadless. Others include the opportunity to foster one’s creative talents, the potential to take up freelance work, and a general adoration of the Threadless community, notes UNC Chapel Hill journalism professor Daren C. Brabham in his article ‘Moving the Crowd at Threadless: Motivations for participation in a crowdsourcing application’. An additional theme also emerges throughout his interviews with 17 Threadless community members: an actual addiction to the participating on the site. (Brabham)

So what can Threadless members do on the site? Besides submitting one’s own designs and slogans, there are thousands upon thousands of t-shirt designs and slogans to browse and rate on a five-point scale. Members can leave each other encouragement and criticism in a comments section below each submission. To earn $1.50 in store credit, they can photograph themselves in Threadless shirts and upload those photos to the site — which, of course, members can browse and comment on. And naturally, they can purchase Threadless shirts that appeal to them. Given that the Threadless community is so vast, diverse, and artistically endowed, it’s actually quite difficult to browse the site without whipping out a credit card — it doesn’t take long to find a t-shirt or hoodie that you just have to own.

Threadless is not a replacement for an online social network, but it has certainly taken a lot of inspiration from such sites over the years. Each member profile on Threadless feels like a social hub, with the ability to link to Flickr photos, Last.fm play history and other sites — not to mention complete listings of an artist’s Threadless design catalog, printed designs, slogans, gallery photos, blog posts, critiques and votes. Real name or otherwise, a fully featured Threadless profile feels like a genuine online identity, akin to a Facebook profile without the ‘wall’. The site also features a community forum where members can chat all things Threadless, art, culture and so on. “Overall I have won eight times, that is six normal competition winners, one 12Club and a select tee,” wrote member Samuel Hernandez in his blog post ‘5 Years of Threadless!’ “Threadless has been a great place where I’ve [met] many people from all around the world, many to whom this day I call my e-friends. I am lucky to be around a group of so many talented artist[s] out there.” (Hernandez)

To Threadless founders Nickell and DeHart as well as the rest of the Threadless team, the site is its community. “We’ve got a close-knit group of loyal customers and have worked hard to build that,” said Cam Balzer, vice president of marketing at Threadless, in an interview with Forbes. “The people who submit ideas to us, vote and buy our products aren’t random people, and they aren’t producing random work. We work closely with our consumers and give them a place on our site, the Threadless forum, where they can exchange ideas with one another — ideas that go beyond designing t-shirts. … People who do that aren’t jumping into a random crowd. They’re part of the community we’ve cultivated.” Though many would consider such careful community building to be a type of crowdsourcing, Balzer believes the concept of crowdsourcing is actually “antithetical” to what Threadless does, since it doesn’t involve a ‘random’ crowd.

There’s little about Threadless that needs changing. Sure, it could use a better forum interface (more like vBulletin, with private messaging and a search feature, as presently it’s just a series of links to blog posts), but that’s quite possibly the only aspect of the site that’s technologically outdated. As far as improving the participatory element of the site, Threadless should allow anonymous submissions for users who don’t want to compromise their identity or who feel their designs won’t be fairly judged based on their status in the community. But again, those are minor, minor elements that probably don’t largely affect the company’s bottom line.

To put it simply, Threadless has perfected the ‘prosumer’ model: its community both produces and consumes its own content. All that’s left to do is keep the community happy — to be fair, this is not usually as simple as it sounds — and generally foster creativity with original, fun design challenges.

So how does Threadless, a global e-community, compare to digital representations of actual, physical communities? Front Porch Forum (frontporchforum.com) is a digital ‘bulletin board’ open to 50 Vermont towns. In stark contrast to Threadless — which anyone on the web can browse — Front Porch Forum requires a login attached to an actual Vermont address to read, keeping unmotivated web browsers at bay. This is intended to cultivate a sense of trust and familiarity that would be shattered if it were easy for anyone on the web to peruse. Obviously, Threadless and Front Porch Forum appeal to hugely different audiences: Threadless to artistic, trendy designers and consumers; Front Porch Forum to Vermont residents who want a safe, easy way to communicate with their neighbors.

Realistically, Threadless and Front Porch Forum are immensely different entities, but they do feature a few similarities. Like most online communities, both have professional moderators to maintain civil and constructive discussion. And despite the fact that that Threadless is a global operation and Front Porch Forum is regional, both communities are capable of fostering long, lasting friendships. Whether they’re across the ocean or just across the street, people can forge very real relationships through online communication, irrespective of platform.

Works Cited:

Brabham, Daren C. “Moving the Crowd at Threadless: Motivations for participation in a crowdsourcing application.” In Information, Communication & Society. Published August 17, 2010.

Burkitt, Laurie. “Need to Build a Community? Learn From Threadless.” Posted January 7, 2010.

Hernandez, Samuel. “5 Years of Threadless!” Posted June 5, 2007.

Nickell, Jake. “Threadless.com: The History.” Posted June 6, 2007.