STUDENTS & GARDEN GNOMES: MESSING MASHING UP THE FUTURE OF ONLINE JOURNALISM

ABSTRACT Experimental Media is a master module in the Communication and MultimediaDesign course at the Limburg Catholic University College. In the academic year 2007-2008 the module focused on the future of online journalism and the students were asked to develop experimental concepts and prototypes to deal with journalistic input and output. In this paper we will first briefly sketch the contextual background of changes in online journalism: changes that affect the processes of news gathering and creation, news selection and the publication platform for news. Secondly we will look at the specific content material that was offered to the students to start working with: the garden gnome as an example of folk culture. In a third part the technological platform for the students will be introduced: a developer version of the Flash Media Server combined with smartphone technology and mobile connectivity. On a contextual and content level the students succeeded in the set up of the expected experiments. A detailed discussion of the technology used in the student's projects however, reveals the student's eagerness to work with and combine existing online technologies and applications which contrasted with the presumed student's adoption of the technological framework offered in the context of this Experimental Media module. KEYWORDS Online journalism, mashup, new media education.

BACKGROUND: COMMUNICATION & MULTIMEDIADESIGN
Experimental Media is a master module in audiovisual and fine arts. It aims to create usable cross media concepts and applications by using the possibilities of existing and dreamt opportunities of future technology. This practice-based research module combines theoretical concepts and practical competences from communication sciences, information technology and audiovisual design. Researchers and practicioners stimulate the students in out-of-the-box-thinking within a certain context, from a specific content angle and using a technical framework. The module Experimental Media is one out of seven modules within the Belgian master course Communication & MultimediaDesign. The educational program Communication & MultimediaDesign (C-md) is a 4-year Master Program at the Limburg Catholic University College (part of the association of the Catholic University of Leuven). This course was initiated in 1998 and jointly developed with partners from the Netherlands and Germany. The educational concept of C-md is primarily based on the research findings of Helen Kennedy (published in 2002). In her analysis of European multimedia programs she identified key features which set the outlines of Communication & MultimediaDesign both from a conceptual as well as a pedagogical point of view. C-md is a humanity-driven course. We conceptualize and design interfaces which form both usable and emotionally rich answers to the wants and needs of users. The course trajectory crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries by combining graphic design, marketing, ICT, communication and audiovisual design. In this process students, alumni, lecturers and practitioners are part of a learning community of which collaborative group work and shared knowledge are fundamental attributes. As part of this process we encourage the use of net-supported & open learning environments such as wikis or social bookmarking tools where discovering, creating and sharing are the key concepts.

1. CONTEXT: THE FUTURE OF ONLINE JOURNALISM
The digital media landscape has fundamentally changed news gathering & creation, news selection and news publishing. The rise of 1-click online publishing tools, always-on connections and powerful mobile appliances led to a shift of power in the news gathering & creation process (Rosen, 2006). According to Gillmor (2004), news therefore no longer is a lecture, but rather a conversation. As a result, we see the emergence of produsage, a portmanteau from production & usage. In produsage “the user acts as a hybrid user/producer, or produser (…). Produsage demonstrates the changed content production value chain model in collaborative online environments: in these environments, a strict producer/consumer dichotomy no longer applies” (Bruns, 2005). Alongside this evolution are the rise and popularity of user generated content (Lenhart, Horrigan, & Fallows, 2004) and collaborative networked environments for news creation. These so called participatory journalism or community/citizen journalism projects (Bowman & Willis, 2003) make use of the social online media as an added value in news creation and news gathering. Besides the changing role of the audience in news gathering, there is a shift in power in the news selection process. A social bookmarking site like Digg.com lets its users ‘digg’ articles they find interesting, or ‘bury’ those which aren’t worth reading. This open news selection system challenges the traditional gatekeeping processes, focusing not on news creation but on news selection and dissemination (Journalism.org, 2007). Bruns (2005) depicts this process as gatewatching, “the observation of the output gates of news publications and other sources, in order to identify important material as it becomes available.” Forms of gatewatching can also be seen in the ‘star rating’ of content online and even in the complex distributed/networked moderation or content creation systems of Slashdot.org or Kuro5hin.org. The internet as a publishing platform for journalism holds an added value on three levels (Bardoel, 2002): (1) the journalist can choose to combine a variety of media forms to tell the story (multimediality), (2) the audience can participate in the customization, the modification or even the creation of the content (interactivity), and, (3) a story can be linked to other stories and thus via a process of virtual collage create a meaningful hypertext environment (hypertextuality) (Landow, 1999). Paulussen (2004) argues that in combining all three attributes of the digital media, online journalism will be able to find its own media logic. Dahlgren (1996) refers to media logic as “the particular institutionally structured features of a medium, the ensemble of technical and organisational attributes which impact on what gets represented in the medium and how it gets done". Making use of all three attributes (multimediality, interactivity and hypertextuality) online journalism will be able to differentiate from the media logic of print, radio or television journalism. By combining these three challenges and opportunities the digital age has set forth for journalism, we confronted our students with the following contextual project framework: create a digital platform which enables and triggers user participation in the news gathering & creation process, where the selection and moderation processes are (partly) in the hands of the user, and which takes full advantage of all the attributes of the internet as a publishing platform.

2. CONTENT: THE GNOME INSTIGATOR
For the project work of the module we zoomed in on community journalism, within the Belgian city of Genk. There are two main motivations to justify this local approach. Firstly there is a tendency to revalue the importance of local news (Meyer, 2004). A tendency that can be noted both in the world of tradititional print newspapers, which appear with lengthy local editions, and in the 'breakthrough' of online experiments in local grassroots journalism (Glaser, 2004). Secondly, the Experimental Media module functions in the broader perspective of De Hybride Stad (The Hybrid City) (Huybrechts, 2007), the general cover for the seven different master modules in the C-md curriculum. The aim of the Hybrid City project is to explore through technological research and experiment the different layers in the city of Genk. Where Experimental Media specifically focusses on the layer of folk culture, other modules zoom in on the historical aspects of

the city, the imaginary potential, the cultural dimensions and the various information systems present in the city. To introduce the students to this local setting we used the fictitious character of Xavier the Garden Gnome as an unequivocal symbol of folk culture. The garden gnome derives its symbolic value from ancient folk tales where it is often depicted as the hard-working little creature with an eagerness to help wherever necessary (De Meyer, 2004). Combined with the gnome's very down to earth point of view, the link with grassroots journalism can easily be made. In the tradition of the tongue in cheeck Garden Gnome Liberation Fronts that have sprouted in places all over the world (see e.g. http://www.gnomeswithouthomes.com, http://www.flnjfrance.com/ or http://www.malag.it/) we produced a video about the failed abduction of Xavier the Garden Gnome (see http://www.xavierdetuinkabouter.be/) as an entry point to the module Experimental Media. In the final scene Xavier is depicted alone in the streets of Genk, left there by his forgetful abductors. He is now ready to explore the city on his own account. This storyline functioned as a frame story to trigger the student's imagination for their own projects. The highly recognizable symbol of the garden gnome in folk culture seemed especially appropriate to explore the various dimensions of a contemporary 'Hybrid City'. Fictitious elements from folk culture can start leading a life of their own as is proven by the presence of real garden gnomes in the city. Fiction and reality have mingled in some kind of hyper-reality (to use the notion of Baudrillard) where offline and online content are mutually inclusive. It was the students' task to intervene in that blurred city setting to produce or instigate compelling stories.

3. TECHNOLOGY: FOUNDATIONS FOR A MASHUP
As a backbone for the module we presented the student groups – six in total - with a technological platform that they could explore as their playground: a developer version of the Flash Media Server. Reasons for choosing the Flash Media Server (FMS) as a 'preferred' development platform were threefold: Since the advent of Flash MX & MX 2004, Flash uses the proprietary .flv format for video and has good video support, offering very high audio and video quality, a small installer, and advanced possibilities for building interactivy. A second reason was the present shift in perception of video as being ‘content’: video is being used more and more as a transparant and unobtrusive webmedium, and especially in journalism related contexts it is becoming a supplementary infosource next to the traditional written word, and this for both more traditional press and UGC press. The third and decisive argument to propose the Flash Media Server as a platform is the rise of YouTube, as thé killer video application of this moment, as icon of UGC, and as symbol of the 'napsterization' of video. We provided the students with smartphones with UMTS,Wifi,... to enable them to experience and explore the possibilities of mobile applications for gathering & creating and publishing local news. A smartphone combines amongst others camera functionality, easy note taking, audio recording, connectivity,... and on top of that comes its portability, thus facilitating "the newsroom in your pocket"-idea (Bentley, 2006). This mobile aspect also enhanced the possibilities of exploring and mapping the city both in reality and in a virtual publishing setting. By providing the students with this technological playground, developing applications such as webconferencing and videoblogging, based on built-in functionalities of the technical platform, and asking them not to forget the full plethora of Web 2.0 and its possibilities (O'Reilly, 2005), we wanted to trigger them to build working applications, prototypes, and not limiting themselves to hypothetical contraptions.

THE PROJECTS: FRACTAL MASHUPS AND LESSONS LEARNED
After 9 weeks of lessons, guest sessions and project work, the module resulted in six group projects that experimentally dealt with input and output of journalistic content. The evaluation criteria were based on the challenges set forth on a contextual, content and technological level. The table below gives a concise overview of the main features of the different projects.
Table 1. Main features of student projects Group Name Group 01: Kabouter Manifesto (gnome manifesto) Context use of user generated content (UGC) for main content; mobile news gathering; immediacy (all uploaded content is visible); interface experiment using a time metaphor; map-based; mainly still images; triggering manifesto Group 02: Antikabouter Terreurfront (anti-gnome terror front) use of UGC as comments on uploaded content;

Content Technology

mobile upload possibilities via Shozu; Wordpress-blog as backbone; Mashup of own platform, Shozu-application & Wordpress-blog. Group Name Group 03: Talibouter (Replacing the 'ka' in the Dutch 'kabouter' with 'tali' and thus cunningly refering to a taliban warrior.) Context 3 different publishing platforms: (triggering contest site, traditional reporting site, mobile platform); rating system for content selection; Content triggering videos; contest as trigger; Technology YouTube-upload; mobile entrance point for the textual content. Group Name Group 05: Alfred de Kabouter (The Gnome Alfred) Context limited use of UGC; mobile news gathering; mapping as an interface-experiment; Content Technology map-based content; triggering videos; own upload & compression system; mobile upload possibilities.

still images as well as video; underground trigger video & sequels; Wordpress-blog interface; YouTube-upload.

Group 04: K.Boutre

limited use of UGC; mobile news gathering;

scenario-based content; triggering videos; own upload & compression system (silverlight streaming beta); mobile upload possibilities. Group 06: Kabouter Spotting (Gnome Spotting) limited use of UGC; using the social network of facebook as news gathering tools; mobile news gathering; mapping as an interface experiment; connecting with a social network using facebook; Google maps; facebook group; YouTube.

On a contextual level we can see three groups (group 01, 05 & 06) that use mapping techniques to visualise and structure the available content. Group 05 created their own map of the city of Genk. They marked interesting spots on the map and used the story of the limited perspective of the garden gnome to attract users to add better versions of the gnome-made videos as a way of exploring the city. Group 06 used

the interface of Google Maps in a garden gnome spotting application. The user can signal garden gnomes on specific spots in the city, upload photographs, descriptions and videos of the event and by doing so add material to the user generated database. The most innovative project interface was realized by group 01, combining a central Google Maps interface with - at a second level - a more metaphorical spiral interface: each marker in the Google Maps interface leads to the second interface which combines all the available visual materials for that specific marker. The newer the content the closer it is rendered to the centre of the spiral. In this system all newly added content is immediately available and visible to the user. What struck us on the content side was that the students kicked off their projects with a triggering frame story, as we did ourselves at the start of the module. Except for having this nearly identical initial concept situation, the groups adopted different approaches when further developing content. Group 04 went for a closed content solution. Through the use of short video fragments they presented a more or less finished story in a linear fashion. Users can upload videos to fill in the gaps in the narrative, but the rather closed frame story limits the user's freedom. Opposed to this closed content solution the other groups adopted a more open structure. Group 02 went for a semi-closed content solution; triggering user generated content as comments on group-generated content in a blogging system. They used the setting of an underground activist group that tries to track down the evil garden gnomes in the city of Genk. Group 03 also offered a nice example of such a semi-closed system. They created a competition to trigger the user to collaborate. They presented a story in which Xavier the garden gnome is taken hostage. The user can participate in the race to free Xavier. In order to proceed he has to complete tasks (making video reports of specific events, etc) and gain credits. This game-like approach of the project served as a trigger to generate additional input for a more traditional news website. All three groups mentioned here - 04, 02 and 03 - explored each in their own way more traditional narrative possibilities for triggering UGC. The other three groups used an intuitive narrative approach based on maps where photographs and videos are geotagged. Starting from this map interface the user constructs his own narrative by navigating through the visuals. For other examples of such geonarratives, see works of Ashauer (2004) or Chatonsky (2006). With regard to the technology the students' research immediately brought forth some problems and limitations: • • • • • inability to access the camera of the smartphones to enable direct uploading of moving images and sound smartphones being limited to the possibilities of Flash player 7; Flash Lite not working with the FMS server platform version 2; Flash Lite 3 being announced as being able to work with FMS version 3, but not rolled out yet during the module; ...

These problems, which were reflected in questions such as Do we HAVE to use the Flash Media Server? MUST video be streaming, or CAN it be progressive download? etc, were constitutive for the development of the projects. One possible approach was to completely reject the Flash platform offered and to look for a self-devised solution. Groups 04 and 05 for example designed their own upload and compression system (building on open source FFmpeg code) combined with the beta version of Silverlight Streaming. The approach adopted by the other groups was to use existing Flash-based technology in combination with other tools at hand that accommodated the needs of the concept. Group 01 for instance combined the Shozu platform with a Wordpress blog as the technological backbone for their project. Group 06 went even further on this route by integrating YouTube into google maps, and looking at possibilities of future Facebook extensions. In this Experimental Media course the outcome of our experiment in online journalism was especially striking in the field of technology: None of the groups used the platform offered. When Flash was used as a platform or as part of the platform, students fell back on existing solutions such as YouTube, or used Flash as progressive download video, being served from a standard http server. Other groups chose to develop a platform from scratch and set up a Silverlight Streaming service - a beta version at that time. In that context we got remarks such as: Why do we have to reinvent YouTube if it already exists? The students were right of course. The Flash platform we offered functioned as a trigger for the students to see the

potential of a solid technological backbone. The idea is not to reinvent, but to learn from seeing and experiencing how such a platform works, how the individual constituant elements work together to form one whole. In this way one might become aware of "the fractal structure of new media" (Lev Manovich, 2001). This was the major lesson learned for us. To further stimulate this awareness we set out some very concrete goals for next year's module: • • • • • • • offer information about state of the art applications as much as possible in the first few weeks of a module; invite as many experts as possible to cover a broad field of knowledge and competences; record and archive sessions of expert speakers to build a corpus; schedule a media market halfway the module where students can exchange code and ideas; institutionalize peerreviews of group-projects as part of the learning proces / learning community; expect students to not use the technological platform offered; stimulate students in messing with existing technologies and thus creating ad hoc mashups which serve their specific needs.

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