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Getting Back What You Put Out

image“I’m guessing this was this particular photographer’s very last photo session ever. Now that the nutria appetizers have been pretty much consumed, the caimans are once again ready for the main course. So be careful out there as you walk around the water in the shadow of the Legislative Building.”
—stevenl’s blog
May 20, 2006

Site operators report that citizens often mirror the content they find on sites by posting content that is similar in nature or tone. That is not to say posters don’t discuss substantive and newsy issues on lighter bulletin board sites, or that they don’t announce church fairs or joke around on issue-driven sites. OlyBlog, which teems with the political back-and-forth enjoyed by the activists of Olympia, Washington, also has a bizarre joke running through many posts about a lizard called a caiman. Mentioning a caiman is an in-joke, a way to signify a poster’s community membership.

Tonal deviations aside, many posters take their cues from what they find on a site. Everyone was posting pretty pictures of scenery to the Daily Astorian‘s until someone sent a family photo. Soon the site was filled with pictures of sand-covered kids. Recipe submissions beget more recipes, obituary tributes spur more of the same. Site operators have noticed similar trends when they add video and audio capabilities. Once attention is drawn to the first audio or video posts or links, the spigot opens.

An exception to the copycat rule is that, on sites built around professionally produced posts, citizens tend not to respond with items that incorporate journalistic conventions such as third-party interviews. As at other sites, they contribute brief items or commentary or take their thoughts to site discussion forums, comment threads or the blog column.

On sites built around professionally produced posts, citizens tend not to respond with items that incorporate journalistic conventions such as third-party interviews.

Village Soup founder Richard Anderson calls much of the citizen discussion on his site “pretty low grade. ... It’s a bit why we’re skeptical of the long-range future of building something based on citizen journalism.” At Village Soup a full-time staff of a dozen journalists covers two Maine population centers, each with about 50,000 people. The busy hyperlocal site is animated by online polls, directories, a weather report and prominent classified and billboard ads.

Voice of San Diego, which also publishes pieces produced for the site by professional staff, is experimenting with reportorial interactivity through its “This Just In” column, a breaking news blog fed through the day by staff members. Citizens are invited at times to be “legs,” to send in tips and pieces of developing stories. “People get engaged and feel they’re part of the process,” said editor Scott Lewis. At other sites, such as Baristanet, contributors don’t wait for an invitation; they have developed the habit of posting or blogging what they know about developing issues.

Discussions emerge in forms as varied as the sites themselves. Some site operators guide discussions by posting daily questions or by highlighting featured blogs with comment threads each day. At sites such as Free New Mexican practically all discussions key off links to stories from the paper. At Nashville is Talking the site operator often chooses a hot issue and creates a “blog round-up” to highlight what local bloggers are saying.

Toledo Talk is more free-form; posts appear in order of arrival under each day’s date. A critique of a column in the day’s Toledo Blade may be followed by the announcement of a rib-eating contest at the fairgrounds, then a complaint about someone’s DSL bill, and then a question tossed out by a poster who wonders if both minor league teams should share an owner. 

Elected officials dip in and out of discussions on many sites or post their own blogs on citizen sites. In Watertown, J.D. Donohue, one of the nine elected town councilors, posted a 10-question poll on H2otown asking citizens to comment on the quality of city services, whether to recycle and other issues. Several sent lengthy, serious replies. 

Sites reflect the interests of their towns. After “Town News,” the second most popular section of ibrattleboro is “Politics,” followed by “Activism,” “Opinion,” “Questions & Answers.” WestportNow is laced with photographs of old homes about to be demolished.

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