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Citizen Journalists Poised to Reinvent Olympics 'News'

Crowd-sourced 'social media' may swamp corporate coverage at 2010 Games.

By Geoff Dembicki 23 Mar 2009 |

Geoff Dembicki is a reporter for The Tyee with a focus on the run-up to the 2010 Olympics.

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'You cannot stop people from recording': Raincity's Robert Scales.

Robert Scales stands on a bustling Chinese sidewalk and waves a thin, greenish stick in front of the camera. "We're at the street food market," he says. "And this is snake."

He takes a bite. Strings of white flesh stretch taut from his mouth. "It tastes like squid almost, or something."

During the Beijing Summer Games, Scales walked the streets with cameras in hand, capturing the sights and sounds of a city gripped by Olympics frenzy.

He shot dozens of YouTube videos, wrote a fan diary for the BBC and uploaded daily photos to Flickr. He wanted to share his experiences with the world.

When Vancouver's own Olympics hit town next year, the self described "gonzo journalist" and head of locally based social media company Raincity Studios wants to do it all again.

But this time around, Scales will be part of a phenomenon on the verge of breaking huge.

Internet rules more lax than in China and a rapid proliferation of recording devices and open-source websites could mark a turning point for social media -- a prospect that has some of Vancouver's most active new media pioneers counting down the days.

"2010 is the junction," Scales told The Tyee. "I'm a fervent believer that that moment in time is going to change how we play this game."

What is social media?

In the shift from traditional media forms to something entirely new, crowd-generated content is everything. On sites such as Facebook, Flickr, and Blogspot, hundreds of millions of people connect daily to share personal experiences and document the world around them.

Kris Krug, a colleague of Scales' who blogged the Olympics in Torino and Beijing, said the idea of social media is as old as the Internet itself -- and changing just as fast. He traced a clear line through pre-Internet bulletin boards to community forums in the '90s -- from the first wave of blogging in the early 2000s to multimedia platforms such as YouTube. And most recently, the real-time updates of Twitter and Facebook.

If today's numbers are any indication, the trend is growing exponentially. Technorati has indexed 133 million blogs since 2002, Facebook boasts over 175 million active users and YouTube draws enough Americans each month to dwarf domestic Superbowl ratings.

The open source explosion is being fueled by an abundance of smart phones -- advanced mobile devices often featuring Internet and video -- which have made it simpler than ever to enter the public dialogue.

"Things are getting easier, cheaper, faster and more ubiquitous," Krug said. "If you can publish a video report to your blog in real-time you essentially have a television station in your pocket."

Why Beijing wasn't a turning point

When Krug and Scales attended the 2006 Games in Torino, the world of social media was just awakening to its potential. High-speed Internet and record bandwidth allocation made it possible to publish videos of informal street hockey games and informal interviews with Canadians abroad.

But the technology and the amount of people using it wasn't quite advanced enough to propel social media coverage into the mainstream, Krug said.

In the years to follow, a Wi-Fi boom and the wide-scale adoption of mobile units such as the iPhone -- which has sold roughly 13.7 million units since its 2007 debut -- blew the door open for real-time events coverage.

As the Beijing Olympics approached, it looked like social media could be poised to transform the way big events are documented. The Summer Games did see an unprecedented level of amateur coverage, but Internet restrictions limited its impact.

Bloggers, podcasters, cell phone videographers and social network users were dismayed to find that China blocked platforms such as Wordpress and Blogspot, while Facebook access was unreliable, Krug said.

"They crushed the infrastructure which the social media movement is built on," he said. "While the technology had advanced from Torino, and the amount of people doing it there had advanced from Torino, I don't think we quite saw Beijing fully harness the power of the age that is available."

A new model for news coverage?

Four years ago, Vancouver local Michael Tippett started with the goal of building the world's largest news organization. These days, his site is a global locus of citizen journalism, with 170,000 members and up to 60,000 contributors each month.

The concept is a mix of social and information networks, where amateur news creators armed with their own recording technology share videos, photos and written reports from all corners of the planet.

At its best, this sort of coverage is more timely and visceral than traditional outlets can offer, Tippett said. When armed extremists gunned down tourists and residents in Mumbai last fall, live Twitter updates and on-the-scene footage brought the carnage to the world. In its 2008 wrap-up, NowPublic ranked the attacks as the most important user-generated news story of the year.

"You're finding that stories as they break are being told by people on the ground," Tippett said.

During the 2010 Games, anyone with a personal-recording device and an eye for breaking news can upload content to NowPublic. The site will also feature the sort of coverage Scales and Krug have helped pioneer for the past two Games: tourists experiencing Chinatown for the first time, on-the-street interviews with family members of competing athletes. "There are no limits," Tippett said, "as long as it's quality."

"What happens to the overflow?"

There's no doubt come 2010, Vancouver will be a media circus. On top of the 10,000 accredited media anticipated by VANOC, a further 3,000 "unaccredited" passes will be issued by the British Columbia International Media Centre.

Scales was accepted into this second group, and plans to show up at Robson Square Plaza each day for official briefings and meetings with other reporters -- though he'll be barred from all Olympic venues. As thrilled as he was to receive access, he's concerned that untold legions of bloggers, citizen journalists and tech-savvy spectators won't benefit from the same resources.

"What happens to the overflow?" Scales asked. "Are they not entitled to cover the same stories? Are they not entitled to have a space to collaborate?"

For the past few months, Scales and Krug have participated in talks aimed at starting an alternative media centre. The True North Media House is still a work in progress, but could see 500 Games-time passes issued to everyone from international broadcasters to figure skating bloggers. Scales and Krug envision a social media hub where pros and amateurs trade sources, avail themselves of speedy upload technology and gain access to First Nations, protest and cultural groups outside of conventional channels.

"There's going to be all these people who aren't sports journalists who are here to figure out what Vancouver's about," Krug said. "The centre is about harnessing all these individuals doing alternative or outsider coverage of the Games."

Up against the IOC

Advocates of social media often portray citizen-led coverage as a phenomenon that takes place outside traditional outlets. But come Games-time, official broadcasters still get to call the shots.

This year, the CTV-Rogers Olympic consortium caused jaws to drop when it paid the highest price in Canadian history to broadcast the 2010 Olympics. For $90 million (U.S.), the group secured exclusive rights to air events and results in Canada -- and a squadron of IOC lawyers.

In the lead-up to the Beijing Games, the committee released a set of blogging guidelines -- to be updated in April -- that recognized the legitimacy of the medium, but placed restrictions on its scope.

"The dissemination of moving images of the Games through any media, including display on the Internet, is a part of the IOC's intellectual property rights," say the rules.

"The IOC reserves the right to take any and all other measure(s) it deems fit with respect to infringements of these Guidelines, including taking legal action for monetary damages and imposing other sanctions."

If material coming out of the True North Centre falls into IOC crosshairs, Scales will be quick to comply with official orders. But given the realities of today's social media landscape, the IOC may end up fighting a losing battle.

"You cannot stop people from taking pictures with their cell phones, you cannot stop people from recording," Scales said. "It's too much. There's no way they'll be able to monitor it all."

Support social media, boost ad revenues

Rather than limit the amount of social media coverage coming out of the Games, the IOC and official broadcasters should encourage it, argued Michael Geist, a leading expert in digital policy and law based at the University of Ottawa.

His reasoning is simple. Networks need viewers to sell advertising, so the more people engaged with the Olympics, the more potential revenue.

"They ought to recognize that there's great opportunities to increase interest in their broadcasts," Geist said.

The main argument against them is that amateur recordings could erode the Olympic brand and steal viewers from rights holders. But Geist countered there's little chance a grainy cell phone video of a Games event can compete with the official high-definition footage broadcast from coast to coast.

So instead of wasting resources in a broad clampdown, he said, organizers should push athletes, spectators and bloggers to document their own eye-level Games experiences, and aggregate the content on an ad-friendly platform.

To date, VANOC and the IOC have been unreceptive to a Games-sponsored social media website, Scales said. But the social media phenomenon is gaining so much momentum, he thinks it's only a matter of time before organizers recognize the inevitable.

"The trend is going to be massive," he said. "Just as was the adoption of the cell phone and the microwave and the automobile."

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