Hypernews, Hyperreaders and Beyond
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Key to any understanding of online journalism is the nature of its readership, as in, the ‘hyperreaders,’ and this paper will argue that they are as important a consideration as the medium itself in that they play a part in how it operates and is disseminated. Key to this is an understanding of Reader Response theory, which argues that it is the reader who defines the meaning of a text, while conflicting political and methodological views on this process must also be taken into account. The paper will also argue that readers are increasingly blurring the difference between themselves and journalists, via blogging and the growing use by established media of images and testimony provided by members of the public. The paper will then conclude that it is this presently unusual relationship between readers and journalists, undermining the traditional hierarchy of news production and consumption, which defines hypernews.
I. What is a Hyperreader?
A hyperreader is someone who uses the online environment to give as well as to receive. He or she has a more sophisticated reader-text relationship than traditional readers have with text. Hyperreaders are willing to engage and contribute to the work on the screen, blurring the roles in the reader-writer relationship. They do not just react to what they read; they bring new ideas, new facts, and new approaches, almost as if they are co-authors of what they read. Anyone can click on links and proceed through a text in a random or deliberate manner, but hyperreaders take this further: they are not only selecting the pathways, but are shaping and influencing them. This paper explores the role of the hyperreaders in hypernews.
Root of the Term
Hyperreading is not a new term. Nicholas C. Burbules, for example, used the term in 1996 to describe how hypertext “involves the reader making connections within and across texts, sometimes in ways that are structured by the designer/author (for example, following footnotes or quotations), but often in ways determined by the reader.” Yet this early definition is too simplistic, reducing the process of hyperreading into a process of picking random paths through lexias in accordance with a reader’s or writer’s whims.
Instead, what unites all news hyperreaders is their shared interest in and motivation towards news media, their access to appropriate technology, and the process through which they are able to progress from the passive role of textual readers to active participants in the presentation of information. We are now in an age of reader-writers, and this paper’s primary goal is to explore the nature of this active reader participation in the journalistic process. To begin, how did it evolve?
II. The Evolution of the Hyperreader
What Hyperreaders Aren’t
First we need to define what hyperreaders do not do. They are not passive; they interact directly with journalists on news web sites through forums, chat rooms, feedback forms, and blogs, and through direct contact via e-mail. News sites recognise this and provide feedback sections, or—more commonly now—blogs by the editor or reporters to address areas of concern. These allow hyperreaders to almost immediately provide feedback to the news site (and often receive a response as quickly). Hyperreaders are not just passive recipients of information; they can make their opinions known and can become part of a general feedback system that the site generates. That general feedback system is hypernews.
What Hyperreaders Are
Even before there was a web, textual critics developed theories of reader response that are useful for our understanding of how and why hypernews is developing in its present direction. Hans Robert Jauss wrote in 1982 that texts that eschew conventional narrative structures follow the formalist principle of ‘evolution’: they are the product of a slow development that reflects and is caused by natural selection. Had hypernews functioned as Jauss predicted, it would today be a flat, non-reflective, and banal ‘official’ narrative:
The alternation of the canonization and automatization of forms...reduces the historical character of literature to the one-dimensional actuality of its changes.
To view the reader–text relationship as one strictly based on a progression from a simple form to a complex one ignores the other novel factors of hyperreading. For example, the reporting by reader-writers of the 7/7 bombings was largely facilitated by new technology such as camera phones and the complexity of the user/computer relationship that developed. (I will return to this in greater detail later.) Jauss got closer to what actually happened when he wrote:
The “new also becomes a historical category when the diachronic analysis of literature is pushed further to ask which historical moments are really the ones that first make new that which is new in a literary phenomenon.”
An example of this would be the coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the damage it inflicted on the south coast of the United States. Here the traditional media predominated, in particular television news, but also photojournalism-driven print media. They provided the majority of the coverage, giving hyperreaders little room to add to what had already been provided, at least in terms of actual reportage and the production of images. Indeed, the web helped some mainstream news outlets to report on events, either through its immediacy or because it worked when all other means of delivering news had failed.
In Katrina the hyperreader’s task was difficult. The hurricane’s flooding, the evacuations, and the risk posed by looters and even wild animals entering the city through the breached flood barriers made reporting almost impossible for anyone but well-funded, well-resourced large media corporations.
Nevertheless, the medium itself still gave hyperreaders an opportunity to make a contribution. Ironically, by blurring the absolute distinction between reader and writer, hyperreaders acquire their own hyperreaders. If individual bloggers couldn’t venture far from their homes, they could at least describe the altered conditions of a flooded city that had lost power and even police force, and their reports could be augmented by other hyperreaders who described the conditions they saw. Together these individual reports created a patchwork that covered the story. The descriptions provided by these house-bound bloggers had curious echoes of Defoe’s Diary Of A Plague Year, first published in 1722, which itself was an example of a new kind of journalism and provided descriptions of lives lived under siege through anecdotal material culled from eyewitnesses.
Some bloggers reported on the whereabouts of friends or relatives who were caught up in the hurricane; some wrote about how Katrina had affected the lives of those not directly in the path of the hurricane, but who could witness or were subject to its repercussions. Similarly, in the case of the 2007 terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport camera phones provided the main footage of the event and added an immediate vox populi from the scene.
For those outside the New Orleans area, blogs also allowed journalism of a sort. Bloggers could collect and list links to other news stories. Their sites bridged news portals and village notice boards; they provided details on the whereabouts of missing persons, and allowed friends and families to reunite. Hyperreaders were able to stay informed and able to report and update events, even though they were constrained by the disaster. To a certain extent, these restraints gave hyperreaders an immediacy and personal dimension that mass media news could not offer unless it, too, had sought the same first-person approach.
Why Hyperreading Started When It Did
It is instructive to review the origins of this new immediacy. In 1994 two thirds of homes in the United States did not have access to a home computer, but the Southern California Earthquake of that year prompted an early form of online reader response, with discussions on Internet formats such as bulletin boards and early e-mail systems. The notion of readers interacting with news quickly followed, as the New Jersey Online experiment in 1999 demonstrates. New Jersey Online did not just provide readers with news reports online, it also provided interactivity and a means for readers to respond to news stories and even contribute their own. The experiment was successful partly because it provided interactivity and partly because it allowed readers to put news into a personal context—they could now use the web to report on issues and events within their local communities. Journalists who had served as the traditional gatekeepers or middlemen providing news had become the ‘enablers,’ those who were now instructing and assisting readers in newsgathering. New Jersey Online provided overall editorial oversight by a community producer. This approach was limited to community news, rather than news intended for a larger audience.
Learning to Hyperread
As events show, readers have evolved alongside online news, in effect becoming as interactive and responsive as the medium itself. The relationship between the online writer and online reader has become complex and symbiotic: as one half develops or adopts new concepts, so the other responds and in turn adapts. For example, the line between reader, writer, and contributor at Fark.com is considerably blurred. Many started as readers and then commented, before fully engaging and submitting news stories they culled from the web. All the while they remained readers and commentators.
How Technology’s Limits Influence Hyperreading
Hyperreaders are as much defined by limitations in the development of technology as by their ability to use it. In 1996 hyperreaders did not have the online technologies they have today. E-mail was not used by large numbers of people, so readers could seldom contact journalists in the electronic environment. The public’s understanding and grasp of new technologies such as digital photography and mobile telephones was equally limited. As such, hypernews was first defined by users who were not yet fully able to exploit an emerging technology and so establish the common language and online practices now taken for granted. The effectiveness of hypernews increased as the common ground between it and its users has grown with the technology. Readers have learned to communicate better within the web medium over time, and the web itself has become common ground by becoming more interactive. Its ability to receive and handle multimedia files grew with a generally willingness among producers and consumers to entertain these close connections. That is, hypernews has adapted its readers in some ways while in turn adapting to that readership. In addition, the means required to put material on the web has become more widely disseminated, as the need to know programming languages has decreased while user-friendly interfaces have become common.
How Hyperreaders Have Responded to Innovation
Another major shift between 1995 and 2008 has been in terms of intensity. In 1995, online newspapers were sold on their novelty, the lack of physical limitation that would have been the case with newsprint, and their continuity with an existing print journalism tradition. Hypernews in the first decade of the twenty-first century, by contrast, markets itself as interactive and not only able to respond to readers but able also to allow them to play an active part in its creation. In this regard, hypernews and the hyperreader inhabit common ground. This can be seen on web sites such as the news portal Topix.net, which in December 2005 introduced its interactive features to attract more readers. The portal allowed participants to join or set up forums that discuss the various news stories linked from the site, to contribute stories, and to reflect upon the news in a public arena.
The Fark Experience
Another successful model of interactivity on a news portal is the offbeat site Fark.com, where readers can submit and comment on stories. The site’s attraction is its shared sense of humour and scepticism (or cynicism) that ensures a sense of community. Its shared values are both sarcastic and provocative. Though it may seem to be a truism, the potential to be a reader-writer does not necessarily translate into every online reader becoming one. For one thing, not every interactive site is for everyone. On Fark.com, the common ground is a specific bias that attracts users of a particular subversive attitude. Other news portals, like Topix.net, Digg.Com and StumbleUpon, are more diverse or non-specific. The latter sites provide a large variety of news stories culled from the web; their aim is to be broad. Yet inviting readers to express opinions, or to comment on the items, is antithetical to that universality in that it narrows, rather than broadens what the site can offer without clashing with reader input. Digg.com solves the problem by allowing registered users to rate or ‘digg’ web content and housing a large number of users who splinter into smaller groups based on particular interests.
Jauss and Iser were on to something, yet did not grasp entirely what would happen. On the one hand, a variety of factors are involved in the development of the reader/writer relationship. For one thing, there is a consensus among active participants that interactivity and ‘democratised’ roles in online journalism are the main goals at present. The trial and error involved leads to a sort of natural selection: attempts that fail are abandoned, and readers move on to the next expression of the relationship, and the next technology to support it. On the other hand, while the pursuit of common ground has long been agreed upon, it does not necessarily mean that a site whose readers disagree or have little in common is inferior to one that does.
How Readers Learn To Be Hyperreaders
Much in the way that the history of early online journalism was typified by an uncertain process of trial and error in learning how to publish news on the web, so the narrative of hyperreading’s relationship with hypernews is defined by an equally uncertain process in which readers and online journalists learn how to communicate and interact. In the realm of the online newspaper, BBC News Online’s ‘Have Your Say’ section is constantly evolving. A less-monitored, more easy-to-use version was introduced in 2005 to allow a greater number of contributions to be made. Members can register, log in and make contributions as they see fit. Posts are moderated by journalists, or at the very least, junior staffers. This was a departure from the previous design, whereby readers would send their comments and opinions to BBC News Online and the journalists would pick a few and post them on the site, much like an electronic version of the newspaper’s letters to the editor. In such a way, hypernews evolves from traditional journalism, and hyperreading evolves from traditional reading. How, then, do we gauge this new kind of reader?
III. Tracking the Hyperreader
Where to Find Hyperreaders
The first benchmark in tracking hyperreaders is the number of ‘hits’ each site receives every day. This obviously establishes how many times the site is accessed, but also indicates with what frequency and so, its popularity. This method is somewhat limited by the fact that the news sites do not always publish such statistics. Moreover, it is possible to manipulate hits, allowing some sites to display a false picture of the data they present. Nonetheless, this method is useful in that it can provide a broad range of data as long as these provisos are borne in mind.
Tracking by Registration
A more advanced version of reader tracking is the example of the online editions of the Sacramento Bee and Star Tribune which in 2007 both adopted a new system for tracking their readers that required readers to subscribe to the web site at no cost. The technology was able to track these registered readers as they accessed the site and note which stories they tended to favour. The prime aim of this application was to increase profits through advertising: tracking a reader can reveal a great deal about their habits and preferences. The site may supply this data to advertisers, who can target those readers with specific advertising relating to their apparent interests on the site. This system does, however, also have the advantage of allowing a newspaper site to gauge how many readers it has and how they relate to certain features on the site. Therefore, while the impetus for registered readership is mainly commercial, registering readers can also reveal a great deal about what readers like.
Other web sites have adopted similar methods of tracing their readers. For example, the New York Times online edition could accurately report having 10 million readers per month by 2002, 20 percent of whom were international—a fact that could not be discovered at the time without registration. (Today the technology leaves traces, and can trace users to their home cities and even neighbourhoods.) The media section of Guardian.co.uk, MediaGuardian.co.uk introduced a registration system in 2004. The site’s editor, Emily Bell, said that free registration would give the publisher useful information about trends that it could sell to advertisers. Later the site dropped its registration requirement for reading its material; registration is now used to control who can and cannot post comments on the site’s web blogs, to help control bad behaviour on the part of some participants.
The audience for print news of any kind is getting progressively older. By 1998, five years after the first news sites were launched onto the World Wide Web, only 29 percent of younger readers read the print edition of one newspaper, down from 50 percent 26 years earlier. Surprisingly this downturn in the use of news media by younger consumers can also be seen regarding online news. In June 2005, the Pew Research Centre, which studies trends in the US press and the public that consumes it, reported that while 36 percent of younger readers between the ages of 18-29 were most likely to use the World Wide Web as a source of news, they were almost matched by the demographically larger 30-39 and 40-49 age groups, at 31 percent and 29 percent, respectively.
This is significant considering younger readers have grown up while the World Wide Web was becoming popular, whereas older users can remember a time when news sites were unavailable, yet in practice not one of these three age groups prefers online news by more than 7 percent. Moreover, the percentage of 50-59 year olds using the World Wide Web to read the news at least once a day was 24 percent, as opposed to the 23 percent of 18-29 year olds who did so. Meanwhile, 33 percent of 30-39 and 27 percent of 40-49 year olds went on line once a day to get news, actually exceeding the time of the youngest group.
More recently, in 2007, research in the UK demonstrated that on the one hand young Web users now spend longer online than watching television, but choose primarily to download music or video clips, rather than consult news coverage. These figures seem to reveal the decline of the traditional news media: it is becoming a pursuit of the mature and the old. This will not in itself make news irrelevant—it appears that younger web users do develop an interest in current affairs when they are older, more established, and more likely to be concerned with their surroundings, as a research project by The Pew Research Center in 2006 demonstrated. This does of course also reflect a truism—younger audiences for news are as a rule smaller than older ones.
Hypernews Compared to Other News Sources
However, if we consider this in terms of the hyperreader, we find other sources for this difference. According to The Pew Research Center, by 2005 those who read news online were more likely to have a university education than those who read the print edition. Nearly half, 48 percent, of online news readers were likely to have a degree as opposed to 27 percent of print readers . Online news readers are also slightly more likely to be male (57 percent) than print news readers, who have a small majority of female readers. This picture of the average online news user, while useful, may obscure the importance of other factors. For example, many news sites try to recruit younger readers, since from a marketing perspective the 18-29-year-old demographic is of paramount importance. It is among the most influential consumer groups, especially for the media companies themselves as they try to engage the readership of the future. One ongoing narrative behind the rise of online news is the attempt to ensure profitability in the face of falling interest. This has led many news providers to develop a more youth-friendly approach in their online presentation, notably in the form of a certain aesthetic and the streaming and streamlining of content.
Young hyperreaders are less orthodox in their habits than older readers. As Trombly noted in 2003, they prefer to use news portals and surf through news stories on various sites rather than using one news source exclusively. This personalised, flexible, and fragmented approach proved to be at odds with the more formalised and linear approach of many online newspapers of the time. The success of the Chicago Tribune’s entertainment web site Metromix in 2002 had already suggested that news sites that combine interactivity—in this case, reviews posted by readers—and information targeted at specific readerships, such as nightclub listings for those aged in their 20s, would successfully attract younger readers. Such specificity can come at the cost of a general readership, so niche readerships are required. Once established, Metromix’s web impressions rose 3.8 percent between November 2006 and 2007 to an average of 1,707,646 visits a day. The basic principle behind Metromix, namely its hyperreader relationship with its audience, has now become widespread. Metromix itself has been franchised to nearly 60 cities in the US, and the Guardian.co.uk’s film site, which encourages readers to contribute reviews and play a part in structuring the site, depending on the role they choose for themselves, has set a standard for the UK.
In summary then, hyperreaders can be traced, weighed up, and categorised (ultimately via IP addresses), and general characteristics can be surmised.
Firstly, hyperreaders seem inherently international in nature. The BBC web site, for example, attracts readers from across the world. Whenever the global media now covers an event, such as in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, readers are drawn to particular sites that they deem to be most reliable at the time, which can be dictated by the nature of the situation. In many cases, this was BBC News Online or CNN.com, but the New Orleans Newspaper, the Times-Picayune, also received many more hits than usual, not least because its printing presses were under water at that time and so its readers had to use the online edition. It also received hits from international readers looking for a local perspective. Sites such as Fark.com, can direct international readers to stories in a localised context (e.g., the site’s ‘Florida’ sub-category) that would otherwise be unavailable or unlikely to be broadcast or printed outside of their own regions.
Secondly, hyperreaders rely strongly and specifically on hypernews for their information. This can of course be demonstrated in how many times readers reload a news site every day, returning to their preferred web site. A news site that gets a high number of returning visitors seems to have attracted and maintained its audience.
Thirdly, hyperreaders are not passive, and interact directly with journalists on news web sites via forums, chat rooms, feedback forms, and blogs, and through direct contact via e-mail. Hyperreaders can supply feedback en masse and at once, with the opportunity for serious discussion (and an equal opportunity for rants).
Are Hyperreaders Journalists?
While hyperrreaders can provide news and data, this does not mean that hyperreaders are professional journalists. Most lack the skills required. Some hyperreaders feel they now can counter the media that they believe excludes them, but they are in reality dependent on the mass media for the information they are reacting to. Also, they are unaware that journalistic skills serve practical purposes.
IV. What Hyperreaders Do
Role in News Production
Hyperreaders can play an active role in news production, potentially serving as assistant writers, editors, fact-checkers, and correspondents, despite (in most cases) a lack of formal journalistic training. It is this in particular that marks out hyperreaders as unique from any news audience that preceded it. In that sense, the relationship between hyperreader and hypernews is akin to that described by Peter J. Rabinowitz in 1987 on the relationship between readers and reading:
There can be no reading without a reader—but the term reader is slippery, not only because all individual readers read differently, but also because for almost all of them, there are several different ways of appropriating a text.
Definition of Hyperreaders With Examples
The notion of the reader even within a narrow medium such as a canonical literary text can be multi-faceted and complex. Indeed, the notion of a monolithic entity known as ‘the reader’ is misleading. ‘The readers’ is far more appropriate, not only applying to a plurality of readers but to a plurality of each reader’s experience and roles. If this is the case for books, then the nature of participation on the World Wide Web is far more diverse. Hyperreaders exist in a paradox: they are defined by a shared medium and approach, but this allows such a diversity of opinions and controversies that the notion of consensus is impossible. For instance, in the debates online following the death in December 2006 of General Augusto Pinochet, the former President of Chile and dictator, diversity proved the rule irrespective of the supposed political outlook of the site. The Daily Telegraph is considered a more conservative publication. One reader on the Daily Telegraph’s web site described an article as “well deserved...for both Pinochet and Mrs Thatcher, who brought honour to Britain's dealings in the world. What a contrast to the superannuated student activist Jack Straw who was so keen to lock Pinochet up in the most dishonourable manner.” This might seem typical of the views outlined on the site, but in the same comments section another reader wrote: “I note here that people feel Pinochet was ok. This is not the case. He was a monster, he tortured and disappeared [sic] people. He came to power illegally and nothing but nothing can undo those facts. Some people here conveniently forget these facts. The US was involved in overthrowing a democracy, which shows where they are. I am not a Marxist Leninist. I oppose them, but I oppose torture and disappearing [sic] of people, but for Thatcher and her ilk, that's okay as long as they are right wing. God help us. Shame on you Mrs Thatcher, and shame on the people who supported Pinochet.” Such a range of views reflected both the controversial nature of the incident and also the inherent diversity amongst hyperreaders.
On sites such as Guardian.co.uk, views likewise ranged from the predictable to the surprising. The Guardian is a more left-leaning publication than the Daily Telegraph, and it was common, given how Pinochet was despised by many in the UK left, to see comments like, “there is no justice for the thousands murdered and tortured by this 'thug.'” Yet once more there was diversity; another reader argued that “history’s judgement will see him in more dimensions: as the man who indeed saved his nation from the horrors of Allende's [...] eurosocialism; as a man who did not shy from brutal, violent, abhorrent tactics in his pursuit of victory; as a man who respected a democratic plebiscite, stepped down, and thus reinvigorated democracy in Chile; and as a strongman who amassed questionable wealth.” Evidently hyperreaders are willing not only to read news sites that may contrast with their own views, but also engage others in debate on those sites.
Such diversity of opinion is especially common in online newspapers, which are by definition open in the sense that a broad audience can both read articles and discuss them with one another. There are limits to this approach. Some of the more partisan news blogs such as Daily Kos and Little Green Footballs show few divergent views expressed by their readers, apart from those deliberately provocative and contrary web users known colloquially as ‘trolls’ who seek out sites where people share beliefs and values, and provocatively challenge them. Rabinowitz describes readers the way we might describe hyperreaders, generally as diverse and unpredictable.
“First, there is the actual audience. This consists of the flesh and blood people who read the book. This is the audience that booksellers are most concerned with—but it happens to be the audience over which an author has no guaranteed control. Each member of the actual audience is different, and each reads in his or her own way, with a distance from other readers depending upon such variables as class, gender, race, personality, training, culture, and historical situation.
How News Sites Define Hyperreaders
For any website there is the problem of catering for a varied and diverse audience; for news sites that emphasize the notion of reader not as a passive recipient but as an active agent within the process of communication, sites enhanced by the nature of hypernews, the problem goes further. The events that are being recorded in hypernews are changed by speedy feedback from hyperreaders. In the 2006 US Congressional mid-term elections, news bloggers and citizen journalists encouraged the reporting of irregularities and flaws in the voting process, not just to assist registered voters to take part, but to counter propaganda circulated by Republican and Democrat party workers. During the 2008 Democrat primaries these bloggers began to report on events that were deemed ‘off the record’ by traditional journalists. The ability to participate in a narrative as a reader is based on engaging with the rules within a text. Yet the proactive role of many hyperreaders in not just following but making the rules is an inevitable result of the interactive relationship they have entered. As Rabinowitz notes:
If we do not pretend to be members of the narrative audience, if we misapprehend the beliefs of that audience, we are apt to make invalid, even perverse, interpretations. For instance, the narrative audience of Cinderella accepts the existence of fairy godmothers (although the authorial audience does not share this belief). A reader who refuses to share that belief will see Cinderella as a psychotic young woman subject to hallucinations.
When Hyperreaders Stop Hyperreading
A similar perversity awaits readers who do not hyperread. To not engage is becoming increasingly rare. Alternatively, hyperreaders may engage in another perversity, by no longer participating in online debate but seeking simply to provoke others, undermining the very interactivity—the discussion between readers themselves as well as gatekeepers, journalists and writers—that gave them a chance to communicate in the first place. Such users are seen as rogues by most communities and are commonly banned by moderators and site owners whenever they are deemed to have committed a particularly onerous offence, even placed in special lists of banned users, complete with insulting commentary, as a sort of public humiliation as well as to make examples of them.
Rabinowitz identifies the importance of the reader, but he does not take into account that they are not important in themselves, but rather it is the role they have chosen to adopt. It is plain that when Rabinowitz was writing in 1987, a decade away from the first online news sites, that the role of the hyperreader simply did not exist. For instance, Rabinowitz argues that a reader’s lack of interaction with a text is the result of his or her limitations as opposed to an active choice not to engage with the text:
One reason why strict Socialist Realist texts seem virtually unreadable to many contemporary American readers, in fact, may well be that their central concerns simply do not seem vital.
What counts as interesting, of course, is in part socially determined, and therefore varies with historical and cultural context. On this point, as in so many others, actual audiences may therefore not start out where their authors expect them to.
What Hyperreaders Don’t Do Well
Readers may well be incompatible or uninterested in certain texts, and, as Rabinowitz’s example shows, this may be due to the incomprehensible nature of some texts, and not reader ignorance or small mindedness. So despite evidence of diversity, hypernews is a good example of how the freedom to interact carries with it the freedom not to interact. Hyperreading contains personal volition as well as interactivity. An increasingly common measure of this is typified in a sidebar on the Daily Telegraph’s website which ranks the currently most popular news stories, by page impressions. Here the readers’ interests become plain, with serious news and comment competing with amusing or sensational articles for the readers’ interests.
V. Hyperreaders as Reporters
How Hyperreaders Act as Reporters
Hyperreaders have already begun to use the possibilities offered to them by the medium to not only receive hypernews but to produce it as events happen and either present their own journalism or assist professional journalists in their own newsgathering. In July 2005 (or “7/7”) in the wake of the terrorist bombings of the London underground, the hyperreader contributed in two main ways. Firstly, eye-witnesses, and even survivors of the bombs, used camera phones to take images of the attack and then sent them either to news journalists, such as those at the BBC, or to blogs. In some cases these witnesses also posted these images on their own blogs. This allowed images direct from the event to be displayed and disseminated rapidly in a short period of time; the Internet and multi-function mobile telephones allowed this material to be produced. Indeed, the main images of the aftermath of the explosions came from camera phones.
By the end of the first week after the bombings, BBC News Online alone had received around a thousand camera images and many video files. This became news: the mainstream media discussed the rise of a ‘media savvy’ public that could view, record, and present the world almost as well as the press. Yahoo’s photography file sharing site, Flickr.com, was also inundated with images within hours of the attacks. Eye witnesses and survivors soon expressed concerns that the many people turning up at the scenes of the explosions to take pictures had not only disrupted rescue efforts, they had also competed to take the most gruesome pictures possible. A citizen with a camera phone may be at the scene of an event much faster than professional media, but they are not bound by the journalistic ethics that professional journalists claim to follow.
How They Do It Badly
The paradox then is that citizen journalists are as limited by their status outside the journalistic establishment, as they are liberated by it. A population with camera phones has greater opportunity to find and gather news, but is also likely to be distracted by its own voyeurism, amateurishness, and inability to discriminate between what is useful in telling a story and what is superfluous. The aftermath of the July London bombings created a great many images and much video footage that would not have otherwise been possible without advances in personal technology and the use of the World Wide Web. However, it is also significant that the bulk of these images were not used, either because they lacked quality or were simply repetitions of an image already taken and used. While the potential quantity of citizen photojournalism is its chief advantage, this also limits its quality. Nevertheless, by late 2005 at least three agencies dealing exclusively with amateur photojournalism have opened for business online in the UK and the USA, each claiming to have stringent ethical standards to weed out any unethical or faked images.
Hyperreaders and Their Testimonies
The other significant way hyperreaders contributed to the coverage of the 7/7 bombings was through written or, rather, textual testimony, which was either posted on weblogs or ‘have your say’–style bulletin boards where readers can post messages and replies. E-mail allowed readers to send their first-hand experiences directly to journalists. While the notion of contacting a newspaper or television station with one’s own eyewitness account is not in itself new, in the case of the July bombings, people could use technology to directly communicate, in detail, either with other news gatherers or with an audience. This was repeated in the subsequent bombing attempt on July 11, 2005 and the press coverage that emerged in its aftermath.
Summary of How Hyperreaders Act as Reporters
July 7 was one of the first examples of direct electronic contact between audiences and journalists in the UK. BBC News Online launched a new service allowing readers to contribute to the news coverage on the day of the attacks, and a selection of eyewitness reports was subsequently uploaded as news stories in their own right. The BBC found one victim who was willing to document her experiences anonymously via an ongoing weblog. The mainstream media and its public had begun not only to communicate with one another but also to cooperate.
What Can The Example of NIK.co.uk Teach Us?
The online coverage from hyperreaders came in three forms. Firstly, in the form of news blogs, such as that of Nik.co.uk, which provided first-hand experiences of a commuter who narrowly avoided being caught up in the bomb blasts, and Pff.co.uk, wherein the author described his experiences as an uninjured survivor of the attacks. Secondly, in the form of citizen journalism. Wikinews launched ongoing news coverage within four hours of the first explosion, and local community news sites such as the Londonist, combined traditional news reporting with weblogging technology to constantly update its coverage. Finally, there was the first-hand testimony provided by witnesses and survivors sent directly to news sites via e-mail, such as the testimony encouraged by Guardian.co.uk, when it provided a dedicated 7/7 e-mail address.
Nik.co.uk covered the explosions in the first person and in an informal manner, echoing similar testimonies in America during the aftermath of 9/11. This is an example of how news blogs have developed their own conventions for communicating with the audience. They employ subjectivity, rather than journalistic objectivity, as the source of their authority. Like other blogs, Nik.co.uk was a combination of the personal and the observational. At one point, the author describes events in a formal tone:
“It is obvious that this was a well-coordinated attack. They are saying the explosion on the bus by Russell Square was a suicide bomber, although whether that is true, or it was simply a bomb that went off too early, remains to be seen. Whether it is an anti-G8, or anti-UK-in-Iraq campaign, though, has yet to be confirmed.”
Yet at the end of the post, he concludes with the line “I feel very distracted”—a combination of gallows humour and personal comment that would not be entertained by traditional journalism, though it has begun to be adopted by some journalists in personal blogs. (It should be noted here that the blog’s author, Nik Rawlinson, is himself a journalist.) Here the hyperreader is making his own voice heard, uninhibited by detachment. This was further compounded by the great number of readers’ comments posted on the page, in which the blogger’s audience communicated directly in an informal, communal atmosphere: they posted a combination of comments that ranged from congratulating him on his reportage, to personal messages of support. This fusion of the private and the public, the journalistic and the personal, shows not only that hyperreaders are producing news coverage but also that they are commenting on and reviewing each other’s work in a sort of informal peer review or editorial process.
How Hyperreaders Did It Wrong
The experience of blogging as a combination of trivia and current affairs is made even more evident by a post by the Nik.co.uk blogger detailing his personal thoughts regarding London’s successful bid for the 2012 Olympics, complete with images, and a subsequent post that described going shopping with his father. Other weblogs demonstrate similar wild contrasts. Adam’s Weblog gave eyewitness descriptions of the disruption caused by the attacks and the aftermath, followed by a post discussing the limitations of Ceefax. If the London bombs demonstrated how news blogging could be successfully applied to breaking news, it also showed how capricious and inconsistent in perspective this new medium, and by extension, the hyperreader, can be.
Hyperreaders As Bloggers
In news blogs the personal intermingles with the journalistic. Other posts ranged from messages of support for Londoners to complaints regarding the effect the explosions had on public transport and taxi services. Again, the hyperreader demonstrated the desire to emulate the professional journalist, but without the latter’s inhibitions regarding personal thoughts and informal conversation with the readership.
The Wikinews Experience
"The hyperreaders displayed a proactive awareness of themselves as authors as well as consumers."
The coverage by Wikinews, already the most established and contentious source of online information, was defined by both its pursuit of contemporaneousness – being up to date - and also the internal dialogue between registered users in the so-called “wiki” news community. In the wake of the 7/7 bombings, the site reported its traffic had increased eight times, but the events also drew attention to the site’s still-nascent methodology in regards to news reporting. Wikinews cared more about original news reporting than about validation by at least one other source, as was the case with its sister site, Wikipedia. On Wikinews hyperreaders were not only reporting the news, but were also debating both its implications and the methodology applied. The site’s discussion boards were replete with the latest information and reports, and also with discussions regarding the veracity and accuracy of the information.
The information discussions on Wikinews included cross-referencing with other professional sources, such as German news media. The final confirmed number of explosions was verified through reports from news organisations such as the BBC. Information also came from eyewitness reports on rescue efforts at the scenes of the attack, yet there were also complaints that images lacked proper captioning. The online medium allowed hyperreaders to not only produce news, but also to examine its accuracy and begin a process of elimination and refinement. In that sense, the Wikinews contributors were developing their own newsroom conventions, similar to that of traditional journalists, independently of conventional media and in a public sphere as opposed to the exclusive and segregated confines of the professional newsroom. The hyperreaders displayed a proactive awareness of themselves as authors as well as consumers.
Hyperreaders and Wikinews
Hyperreaders on Wikinews also raised concerns that some of the reporting on the site was not original, and so lacked both integrity and reliability. Complaints included style as well as substance: One contributor wrote that the use of journalistic clichés, such as ‘rocked,’ was “completely inappropriate” and “ridiculous”; another agreed, saying “I think ‘Four bombs explode in London’ is a good title—factual, succinct and not sensationalist.” Style affects perceptions of credibility, they suggested, arguing that not only the methodology of online news should be discussed, but also the broader issues. Arguments regarding the use of clichés and whether journalists had a moral obligation to describe the events as ‘terrorism’—a loaded political term that continues to cause controversy between those who seek objectivity and those who believe this denial of personal opinion is in fact an immoral distortion—had become as important as updating the hyperreaders with the latest information.
As was the case with news blogs, the personal intermingled with the journalistic, as other posts ranged from messages of support for Londoners to complaints regarding the effect the explosions had on public transport and taxi services. Again, the hyperreader demonstrated the desire to emulate the professional journalist, but without the journalists’ boundaries regarding personal thoughts and informal conversation with the readership.
The Limited Role of Hyperreaders in Hurricane Katrina
The coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the damage it inflicted on the south coast of the United States was less of a breakthrough for hyperreaders. Katrina coverage was dominated by the traditional media, in particular television news but also photojournalism-driven print media. Hyperreaders could add very little to what had already been provided, at least in terms of actual reportage and the production of images. Indeed, the web actually helped some mainstream news outlets to report on events, either through its immediacy or its availability: it continued to function when other communication streams had failed. Hyperreaders were limited to reporting what they saw out their windows, or passing along messages and reports from elsewhere.
VI. The Anatomy of Hyperreading
While this paper has so far addressed the behaviour of hyperreaders, a main goal is to establish the new relationship between reading and writing or, rather, the melding of such into a spectrum of participation. To this end, the following chart is offered:
This graphic is based on the relative degrees of reading and writing each category involves, proceeding from a theoretical ‘pure writer’ to a ‘pure reader’. I should also note that these roles are not necessarily fixed: a hyperreader may move between categories and even to the extremes, and may in fact share traits with many of the categories shown. Following is a glossary to help explain this taxonomy; it also demonstrates in descending order the level of writer and reader in the above hierarchy:
The pure writer is embodied, in the context of this thesis, in the form of either the dedicated sub editor, who processes news copy with a much reduced or minimal degree of contact with any audience, or the journalist who specialises in pure data, for instance a reporter who processes and reports on stock markets or economic data. In both cases, the pure writer is remote and monolithic.
Traditional Print Journalist
The traditional print journalist is for the most part remote from his or her readers in gathering, processing and writing news. His or her work is a professional endeavour; the reader serves as a mostly passive audience. Nonetheless, print journalists are more ‘interactive’ than the pure writer, as he or she must regularly interact with other agents and indeed the public itself occasionally.
Broadcast journalists, like print journalists, provide an authoritative form of news that is intended for consumption by a passive audience. However, because the medium requires constant speech, the broadcast journalist must, as a rule, actively communicate with outsiders, be they interviewees, other journalists or listeners or viewers. These recipients can in turn communicate with the journalist and, in talk radio, with other listeners via the telephone.
The professional online journalist operates like a print journalist in procedures and in the fact that he or she typically does not interact directly with site visitors. However, online journalists are directly accessible to readers, via e-mail or ‘Have Your Say’–style discussion forums. Online journalists actively encourage this interaction, often providing their e-mail addresses to begin discussions.
These are journalists who, through unplanned circumstances, find themselves in the midst of an event that warrants reporting, albeit in an improvised, often personalised manner. While they retain their professional methodologies, their direct involvement with the story introduces a personal and openly subjective element to their reportage.
Semi-Full-Time News Blogger/Citizen Journalist
This variety of online journalist may occasionally provide hypernews as part of an ongoing blog or engage in hypernews in a part-time basis.
Full-Time News Blogger/Citizen Journalist
Both full-time news bloggers and citizen journalists produce subjective, often discursive, and frequently non-mainstream journalism on a daily or semi-daily basis. They may do so for money or as a public service. News bloggers are far more common than citizen journalists, because they have a ready-made format to make use of and do not need to directly compete with traditional media. Often they pillory traditional media and establish themselves on the basis that they are not part of it.
The least active of online journalists, in that they only occasionally produce news or comment. Conversely, they also read extensively and so occupy a mid point between the pure reader and pure writer.
‘Accidental’ News Blogger/Citizen Journalist
Much like their mainstream equivalents, citizen journalists may find themselves in the midst of an ongoing news event. This is less journalistic, in the traditional sense, by definition as, partly, the citizen journalist may simply be a member of the public who blogs or provides news as a result of events and may not continue afterwards, but also the online news commitment may only reflect the present preoccupations of a private individual who may then move in other directions as time progresses. Nonetheless, the category can also contain full and semi-full time online journalists depending on their circumstances.
The Occasional News Blogger/Citizen Journalist
This group represents infrequent but still active contributors who occasionally provide hypernews or commentary, but not so much compared to the above categories.
The forum regular is a registered member of an online forum or discussion board who actively posts, often about news events. His or her journalistic credentials emerge from an active interest in news and its dissemination, and limited but focused discussion of news events.
The committed lurker is a less interactive version of the forum regular. Committed lurkers use forums or discussion boards on a daily or semi-daily basis, but prefer to read what others have written rather than write themselves. However, they may also, on occasion, make posts of their own.
Infrequent users of online media, media loyalists are instead defined by their regular preference and engagement with some other form or forms of mass media, such as newspapers, radio, or television news. This limits their ability to interact and write online, but they may occasionally use the web to respond to articles or news reports they have heard or read. Many broadcasters and publishers actively encourage them. Their commitment also makes them less passive than the categories that follow.
These users of online news are mostly passive, in that they mainly read news reports but make no other contribution other than actively and frequently forwarding stories on to others. Again, many sites actively encourage this, and often compile lists of the most popular stories. The occasional distributor is therefore active in that he or she chooses what news to disseminate, and to whom.
Many forums and blogs attract passing visitors who read the material onsite but otherwise make no contribution. However, they may occasionally leave a comment or rate news stories if such a function is available.
Occasional News Follower/Reader
Many readers read now as they have done before, and do not make any contributions. Indeed, their passivity is such that they do not even read the news regularly, but may occasionally keep informed of the news agenda. This makes them more proactive when compared to the pure reader, and because they go to interactive sites, may on rare occasions interact further.
The pure reader is broadly apathetic and unmotivated, neither choosing to interact nor to even find any news to begin with. Any understanding of current affairs occurs either by accident or through casual exposure to a pervasive mass media. As such, they make no contribution to hypernews in any meaningful sense. Their passivity is indeed their defining factor.
A Broader Definition of Reader
Several conclusions emerge here. Firstly, even before hypernews, the difference between reader and writer had already begun to be blurred by technologies such as television and radio. On the web, and most especially in relation to hypernews, the relationship is complicated so much so that a new relationship is created—that of the hyperreader, who is always potentially able to contribute as a writer, editor, or assembler. These roles are fluid, not fixed, and can apply to professional journalists as much as to what were once defined as users or readers of web material. A new dynamic synthesis between reader and writer is emerging, with extremes and with other roles in dialectic.
The Personalization of News
Such a synthesis is not just the result of improvements in online technologies, but has emerged from other contemporaneous factors as well. For example, the notion of reader-writer journalism was established by the rising prominence of a more personalised and coloured form of journalism, where the writer’s personal opinions are as important as the subject he or she chooses to write about. Cultural antecedents for news blogging and online interaction are in print examples such as the provocative British columnists Julie Burchill and Richard Littlejohn or American equivalents such as PJ O’Rourke. They are not only subjective observers of news and news events but indeed are defined as such, and aim to justify their access to a public platform, by their often iconoclastic subjectivity. What online news has allowed, however, is the possibility for many more of these subjective voices to emerge and, in doing so, grant them a greater freedom to elaborate with less editorial restraint. Julie Hobsbawm in 2008 argued for the importance of this as a means of dealing with the complexity of the contemporary world:
If the best anyone can do is to make a stab at relaying reality it is no wonder that in these ultra competitive, Technicolor times those that do it with colour and flourish and rhetoric thrive in print and online. Columnists are the new kings of journalism, bringing what Andrew Marr calls "a higher form of reporting" in an industry that the veteran columnist and Daily Mail diarist Peter McKay admitted in the British Journalism Review, is often driven to "feats of hyperbole."
In a diet of news, facts can become toxic if fiddled with too much, like trans fats in processed food: call them "trans facts." A far healthier option, then, is to know what your information content comprises. And comment is of course increasingly interactive. Mainstream commentators have their own blogs and the posts on sites such as this are on the whole fresher and more egalitarian than the rather arid—if well intentioned—readers' corrections sections, which all too often are where apologies for inaccuracy get put for news errors, rather than real dialogue and two-way discussion.
The area of comment that interests me most is its impact on politics and public affairs. Editorial Intelligence and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism will shortly co-publish a report entitled The Power of the Commentariat, which takes the first detailed look at the relationship—both tangible, or as Donald Rumsfeld would say, "known unknown" influence of comment over political direction.
Can Hyperreading Reinvigorate Journalism?
Hobsbawm sees the rise of hyperreaders (though she does not employ this term) as not only a means of reinvigorating existing journalism but also as a means of engineering social and political change. In that sense she makes the same mistakes that some advocates of online journalism do, in that to a degree she sees hypernews as a means to an end as opposed to an end in itself, but conversely she also appreciates its ability to reinvigorate journalism. Here the journalist is assisted by the reader or, at worst, is now able to be potentially reproached or critiqued directly by his or her audience. Additionally, the smart phone and similar technologies will further advance this altered relationship by creating new spaces in which the hyperreader can operate. All of this still takes place within a context of reading and writing, and even though it has moved from print to screen it still represents the interactive versus the monolith.
What Hyperreading Can Now Do
Hypernews is not merely innovative in its own right, for after all we have only had access to news media on the World Wide Web for less than 15 years. It is also innovative in that it, out of all the narratives of the World Wide Web, most of all grants new options to reader and writer and so problematises issues of professionalism which have previously defined news as essentially things written by working journalists. Journalists are not necessarily obliged to become more readerly any more than the reader must become a journalist. The hyperreader does in fact have the potential to be both at once, defined by an ability to choose to what extent this shift fits the particular context. That is to say, the hyperreader is now able to define self by their level of involvement, rather than by the clearly allotted roles once granted by opening a newspaper, tuning a radio or proceeding to the right channel on television. Hypernews allows us all to be writers, but more importantly, it lets us all become hyperreaders.
Let us then draw concrete conclusions. This article has demonstrated that Hypernews grants new options to news readers and writers. It certainly raises questions of professionalism in journalism. Furthermore, hyperreaders can be both readers and journalists: They can all create hypernews regardless of whether that is their primary vocation. Indeed, if hypernews can be summarised as anything, it is citizen-created journalism.
The implication, therefore is that news on the web is more than a recital of the facts as discovered and reported by journalists, it is an opportunity for the news readers to add to, change, and respond to the news, making the news reading experience richer. This interaction turns readers into what I call hyperreaders, news into what I call hypernews. The increased intensity of participation gives readers a choice: they can engage fully, or remain disengaged the way they were with traditional newspapers and television and radio broadcasts. Readers who thus enhance the news are hyperreaders, and the news they enhance is hypernews. And the reverse is equally true and equally significant: hypernews allows us all to be writers, but more importantly, it lets us all become hyperreaders.
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Alexander Hay recently graduated with a PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of Southampton, UK. He presently lectures in Media Ethics & Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, and has furthermore taught widely in the field of English literature, ranging from Computing in the Humanities to Victorian, Modern and Early Modern literature. His research interests include hypertext, reader response, and journalism. He has also written extensively as a music journalist and has had several pieces of short fiction published. Nice people may reach him at email@example.com.