Citizen Journalism Social Media



A new Protestify service connects citizen photo- and video-journalists with media companies so that they can be compensated for their work, but will media companies pay?

  • While observing the Arab Spring from afar, Christina Hawatmeh became frustrated that photos and video taken by protesters were getting lost on social media. In 2013 she founded a company called Protestify—a portmanteau of protest and testify—that helps media companies visualize and analyze social media activity around hot-button hashtags. This year, Hawatmeh is rolling out a new Protestify service that connects citizen photo- and video-journalists with media companies so that they can be compensated for their work.

    Compensating citizen journalists is an idea that has been tried before, mostly unsuccessfully. If it works this time, it will be because Protestify has other revenue sources, and because, on top of content, they promise curation based on big-data analytics that media companies might not be able to replicate in house.

    “I didn’t expect to build a tech company,” Hawatmeh tells Civicist, “but I wanted to solve [this] problem and it turned out to be a tech problem.”

    The problem, as Hawatmeh sees it, is the “the disconnect…between mainstream media and people online.” While studying at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), she began building a service to help media companies better analyze, visualize, and acquire breaking social media content.

    Protestify sold their first images last month but they are only now getting around to automating the copyright agreement. Now, citizen journalists can simply tag their photos or videos on Twitter with “#protestify,” signalling their interest in selling the material. Protestify then sends them a copyright agreement and puts the photo up for sale on the website. Although the pricing is a bit variable, Hawatmeh says they are comparable to Getty images, averaging $200 per photo. The money is split fifty-fifty between the photographer and Protestify. Their service offers citizens a “more equitable way to contribute to the news,” says Hawatmeh.

    Prior to launching the “#protestify” feature, the company practice was to reach out to individual photographers about selling their work. Hawatmeh says that they have a 90 percent response rate from users, generally within one or two minutes.


    Screenshot of the Protestify content feed in the United States.

    Screenshot of the Protestify content feed in the United States.

    Without a doubt there is demand for user-generated content: A recent study by Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism found that, in seven of eight television newscasts, an average of 11 pieces of user-generated content (what could also be called citizen journalism) was shown daily. More than 70 percent of that content was not properly attributed or identified at citizen journalism. The real question is whether news outlets will ever pay for photos and video when there is an abundance of free material.

    In 2005, media observer Steve Outing wrote a piece for Poynter headlined “It’s Almost Time to Pay Up for Citizen Journalism,” in which he predicted that photos would be the first thing media organizations would buy from citizen journalists. He cited three then-new online marketplaces for citizen content: Scoopt, Spy Media, and Cell Journalist.

    None of the three are still up and running: Scoopt was acquired by Getty Images in 2007 and subsequently shuttered in 2009; Spy Media was sold in a private deal in 2007; and Cell Journalist was acquired by ScribbleLive in 2014. According to a ScribbleLive spokesperson, “there was never any compensation for submissions.”

    When reached for further comment, Parker Polidor, who helped launch Cell Journalist and is now a ScribbleLive employee, wrote in an email to Civicist: “We were thinking about paying subscribers (at the beginning phases of the company), but never went forward with any of those plans.”

    Thomas Quinn, the founder of Spy Media, tells Civicist that citizen content is a tough sell because the “internet is a massive cloud where everyone can go in and get anything they want.” He adds that verification of ownership was a challenge, and that media companies are afraid of using material from unknown, and therefore less trust-worthy, sources.

    Steve Outing, who still covers media news, says that a surplus of content is an additional challenge. At any given event, he explains to Civicist, “there will probalby be enough people there that there won’t be one person that has the single best photo.”

    Outing adds that “perhaps there is space [in the market] for curation.”

    That is what Christina Hawatmeh is counting on. “Our domain expertise is how to find this content and organize it together,” she says. To that end, Protestify employs four hashtag researchers in addition to the development and design team.

    Protestify has been enlisted by one agency to build an election-centered visualization around a hashtag that the organization will encourage readers to use, so users can “be a part of the process all the way through.” The end result will incorporate photos, videos, comments, and a livefeed will run on the media website.

    Although Hawatmeh isn’t ready to announce any specific partnerships yet, she tells Civicist she has spoken with representatives from the Associated Press, Reuters, and the New York Times. She adds that Protestify currently is “user testing with a smaller, younger agency and a large enterprise client.” They plan to release details this month.

Civic Tech Smart Cities



Though much of our experience of civic tech to date has happened in the placeless plains of cyberspace, the next great frontier will be crafting the relationship between citizens and their connected urban habitats.

To kick off our coverage here at Civicist, we asked our contributing editors to share their thoughts on “What is civic tech?” We’ll publish their answers as they trickle in, and look forward to continuing the conversation in the weeks and months to come.

I recently spent my spring break devouring Red Plenty, Francis Spufford’s 2012 novel set in the 1950s Soviet Union. It is a tale of cybernetic utopia—the dawn of a might-have-been perfectly-planned industrial economy controlled by computers—where the physical world and the digital world are linked together in scientific synchrony. As I read, it became clear to me that the same trends will direct the future of the civic tech movement, bringing both a new scientific sensibility and a decidedly physical dimension to its computations.

Science has been a stranger to civic tech, despite its deep roots in human efforts to deal with the challenge of cities. Take the term “civic” itself. In civic tech, we use the contemporary meaning of “the rights and duties of citizens in relation to their community.” But in the late 19th century, the first urban planners used a different meaning as a call to arms. For them, “civics” described the application of new social science methods to the wicked problems of the industrial city. Civics was about better management, not mass indoctrination.

In the middle of the 20th century, the promise of digital computing breathed new life into these ambitions. Almost as soon people invented the idea of computers, they started fantasizing about using them to predict and control the behavior of society. Early theorists like Vannevar Bush, who oversaw the Manhattan Project, understood that these applications would in fact drive the evolution of the technology. As he wrote in 1945, at the dawn of the information age, “There will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things.”

Fast forward to the early 21st century and cities and computers are again evolving together. As the pace and scope of global urbanization accelerates, computing is moving off of our desktops and into the buildings, vehicles and streets around us. Though much of our experience of civic tech to date has happened in the placeless plains of cyberspace, the next great frontier lays in crafting the relationship between citizens and their connected neighborhoods. The social web of our cities is about to get plugged into the internet of urban things.

I’m not alone in my hope that new knowledge gained through science can help us build better cities. An archipelago of laboratories spanning the globe has spun up in the last decade, from Boston to Mumbai, to invent the technologies and do the research to understand how cities work, and how to get people to live safer, more productive, more sustainable lives in them. Their approach? Deeply quantitative and heavily computational investigations into the processes of how cities grow, thrive, stagnate, and decline in response to human actions. Behavioral science has made huge strides in public policy recent decades. But we haven’t seen anything yet.

Civic tech will indeed be transformed by the lessons of this new urban science. But it will also push back against its technocratic urges. Civic tech’s pioneers have figured out how to thrive on decentralized participation and collaboration, which will be key to understanding and innovating in a messy and fast-changing urban world. The Soviets tried to create a remote control for the entire industrial economy, to control all the factories from the Kremlin. The smart city’s scientists will need to learn to know when to loosen the reins. The civic tech movement will show them when and how.

Civic Tech organizing



Civic tech requires believing that the technology of today can usher in a better tomorrow.

To kick off our coverage here at Civicist, we asked our contributing editors to share their thoughts on “What is civic tech?” We’ll publish their answers as they trickle in, and look forward to continuing the conversation in the weeks and months to come.

When Aristotle concluded “man is a political animal,” he identified a core tenet of human nature. People want to be seen and heard. People want to feel connected to one another. I became interested in the opportunities for technology to enhance democracy when I witnessed the 2007 Iowa caucus. Much of the civic learning at the time came from face-to-face participation, in-person dialogue, and deliberation with new people. I realized digital tools could potentially reduce the barriers to entry in this arena, but realized that in the noisy ruckus of people coming together, some speaking and listening would inevitably be lost. I left Iowa believing in the potential as well as the perils of digital tools for political participation.

I was inspired to study this further after serving as an organizer for the Obama campaign. It was there that I got to experience the rush of trying to mobilize, organize, and galvanize people. The campaign brought out all types of people who were unified in working towards a better future. But what happens the day after the election?

This is where civic tech comes in. Civic tech provides an opportunity to engage citizens in governance beyond simply voting every two to four years. Civic tech promises a more egalitarian public sphere. Civic tech is about deepening democracy. This definition is much more expansive than efficient public service delivery. It also relates to the deeper reason that people agree upon democratic governance in the first place. Of course, the promise of civic tech is tempered by the reality of people, politics, and institutions.

How do we grapple with political incentives and technology in real life? This is again where civic tech comes in. One dimension of civic tech is being realistic about human behavior. People are social beings. People want to do meaningful work and will participate in governance if it is structured well, if it is a social experience, and when they see results. Possible outputs can include new relationships with neighbors and government officials. Outputs are not as simple as the metrics of page views or clicks; engagement should not perfunctory. Furthermore, the follow-up from participation needs to be viewed as a vital component of participation from the outset. The life cycle of civic tech requires iterative two-way communication.

On the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” events that took place in Selma, Alabama, President Obama said:

Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.

Of course, this is not confined to America. It applies to all governing institutions that try to represent “we the people.”

Civic tech is not about the tool or technology. It’s about working towards the type of society we want to live it. It has to be aspirational because so too is the democratic ideal. The very idea that a single federal government can govern 300 million people takes faith. So too does civic tech. Civic tech requires believing that the technology of today can usher in a better tomorrow. Though time will tell, the very interest and investment in civic tech presupposes that people have faith.

Debates Election 2016

Taking Debate Questions From YouTube Creators

Taking Debate Questions From YouTube Creators

The media is still figuring out how to push political candidates beyond their comfort zone while also remaining an editorial gatekeeper and profitable debate partner.

  • In 2007, televised presidential debates reached a new milestone: CNN included questions from the public submitted via YouTube.

    “We’re out there to actually see how people who want to be president think and handle issues and questions and people that are slightly outside of their comfort zones,” David Bohrman, then-CNN’s senior vice president, said at the time.

    The move was both welcomed as a step in the right direction and criticized for not going far enough, as it was still up to CNN to determine which questions would be posed to the candidates. Four years later, when Fox News teamed up with Google in 2011 during the primary debates to gather questions from the public, users voted up their favorite submissions for Fox to consider, another small step.

    But a year later, despite the Commission on Presidential Debates announcing a digital coalition with Google, AOL, and Yahoo to engage the public, there was no guarantee that questions submitted online would be used during the 2012 presidential debates.

    Fast forward to 2016, and the media is still figuring out how to push candidates beyond their comfort zone while also remaining an editorial gatekeeper and profitable debate partner. The difference, as we saw this past Sunday during the NBC News-YouTube Democratic debate in South Carolina, is that questions are now being asked by members of the public with social media followings and audiences that rival those of major media companies. 

    The last Democratic debate before the Iowa caucus included questions from four YouTube creators: writer/actor Franchesca Ramsey (220,000+ subscribers), author and lifestyle entrepreneur Connor Franta (5.2 million+ subscribers), tech reviewer Marques Brownlee (3.1 million+ subscribers) and MinuteEarth (1.2 million+ subscribers), a group channel that creates animated videos about science and environmental issues. 

    Steve Grove, director of Google News Lab, said this week that the first debate involving YouTube in 2007 was “not necessarily as democratic as it could have been,” because CNN ended up choosing the questions, “but we thought it was a great step forward for getting voices from outside of the Beltway reporter class into these discussions.”

    Now, the goal is not only to include new voices but to bring in new audiences as well.


    “One of the phenomena we’ve seen evolve over the past five or six years,” said Grove, “is the strength and power of online YouTube creators to really marshal extraordinary audiences on their channels, and who can bring new people into political discussions if they themselves get politically involved.”

    So instead of looking for well-known creators who cover big-P politics, Grove said YouTube and NBC sought to include creators with interests relevant to debate questions who could also “bring an audience that might not otherwise pay attention.” 

    Diversity, along with audience size, was a key consideration, especially with the debate taking place near the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where a young white shooter killed nine black worshippers in June 2015. Google worked with NBC to compile a list of potential YouTube creators to choose from, with NBC making the final call.

    The debate was watched by 12.5 million viewers across all platforms, including 10.2 million who watched live on NBC. It was the second most-watched of the Democratic debates and the only debate of this election cycle so far to livestream on a network’s YouTube channel, among other digital platforms. 

    The decision to work mostly with creators who are up on current political topics led to questions that reflected a sophisticated understanding of the issues. That has not always been the case, in part because the media tends to pick more strategy-driven questions. 

    Ramsey, who often blends social commentary with comedy, particularly around race and LGBT issues, asked one of the most pointed questions of the night: 

    I believe there’s a huge conflict of interest when local prosecutors investigate cases of police violence within their own communities. For example, last month, the officers involved in the case of 12- year-old Tamir Rice weren’t indicted. How would your presidency ensure that incidents of police violence are investigated and prosecuted fairly?

    Debate moderator Lester Holt, host of NBC Nightly News, directed the question to Sen. Bernie Sanders. He responded with specifics: 

    This is a responsibility for the U.S. Justice Department to get involved. Whenever anybody in this country is killed while in police custody, it should automatically trigger a U.S. attorney general’s investigation. Second of all, and I speak as a mayor who worked very closely and well with police officers, the vast majority of whom are honest, hard-working people trying to do a difficult job, but let us be clear. If a police officer breaks the law, like any public official, that officer must be held accountable. 

    And thirdly, we have got to de-militarize our police departments so they don’t look like occupying armies. We’ve got to move toward community policing. And fourthly, we have got to make our police departments look like the communities they serve in their diversity.

    As to the first point, Aaron Blake of the Washington Post called Sanders’ response “a concrete proposal on a question that usually leads to platitudes,” and his colleague Janell Ross wrote, “Many people and organizations—namely police unions—do not agree with this idea. But, it’s noteworthy that Sanders offered up a specific policy/practice reform that if elected, his administration would advance.” In response to Sanders’ third point about demilitarization,

    In response to Sanders’ third point about demilitarization, Ross offered more commentary and links for further reading. These comments, and others, appear in the Post’s annotated debate transcript—a terrific feature.

    During a post-debate interview with MSNBC, Ramsey praised Sanders’ response, yet added she was disappointed the question was not addressed to other candidates. She made the same point in the comments on her video. Asked why the question of police violence was of importance to her, Ramsey referenced Sandra Bland and said:

    I worry at times that doing the right things and being law-abiding citizens really isn’t enough if we live in a country where unfortunately people of color and black people are criminalized and seen as a threat, and then our lives are not taken seriously when and if something happens.

    Of course, good questions do not guarantee nuanced responses. Brownlee’s question about encryption technology and privacy vs. security failed to elicit the sort of conversation one might have hoped for. Time magazine’s Haley Sweetland Edwards wrote that none of the candidates “appeared to understand the controversy over encryption technology that, in recent months, has pitted top national-security officials against the CEOs of Silicon Valley’s biggest tech firms.” 

    MinuteEarth’s video about climate change and America’s energy future sparked more digs against Republican presidential candidates than detailed discussion, but it wasn’t MinuteEarth’s fault; the candidates weren’t pushed on the issue. Still, the video, along with the candidates’ responses, has attracted more than 171,000 views on MinuteEarth’s YouTube channel. 

    Viewers can also watch an alternative video on greenhouse gasses that MinuteEarth said it created at NBC’s request, in case the candidates had already addressed the first question. That video has received more than 137,000 views since being posted Jan. 19.

    Franta, 23, who has the most subscribers among those selected, raised a question about reaching out to younger voters. (Note to all candidates: A tweet from Franta encouraging his followers to watch the debate was retweeted more than 2,800 times.)

    “I know Senator Sanders is pretty popular among my peers,” Franta asked, “but what I want to know is, how are all of you planning on engaging us further in this election?”

    It was the least political question asked by any of the YouTube creators, but Holt directed it only to Clinton (who led off by congratulating Fanta on his 5 million viewers). As if the horse-race aspect Holt set up wasn’t already clear, he included a follow-up: “Why is Sen. Sanders beating you to 2 to 1 among younger votes?”


    Throughout the debate, Google provided snapshots of search trends—such as a graphic showing a 175-percent increase between 2004 and 2016 for “how to fix Washington”—along with real-time updates of trending (or spiking) questions about each candidate and the top-searched issues. (Google today announced it’s teaming up with Fox News for the next Republican debate on Jan. 28. and will integrate these same tools.)

    You can still view data for the most-searched candidate by county, and follow search interest in candidates for each minute of the debate: 

    Moderator Lester Holt at one point noted that Google searches for “black lives matter” had surpassed searches for “civil rights movement” in 2015 and had become the top trending political issue in South Carolina. 

    Search trends over time are obviously useful to both the candidates and the media, said Grove. The data can also help voters understand which topics matter most to people in their state or across the country.

    “I think the unique thing about Google Search is that it is an unvarnished look at the curiosities of people,” said Grove, “and we’re able to anonymize and aggregate that data. These are not public social media posts that are a sort of manicured version of what you want people to think you care about—this is what you’re actually curious about.”

    During a post-debate interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, Daniel Sieberg, global head of media outreach at Google News Lab, noted that Sanders was the most searched-for candidate during the debate, but it was impossible to know if the searches reflected positive or negative attitudes. Goldman Sachs spiked around 10 p.m. when Sanders referenced big banks, and there was a lot of interest around Iran, healthcare, and gun control.

    The real-time data not only highlights the types of issues that spark interest, but it also shows that debate viewers are doing more than just watching—they’re researching. Grove said that gives him hope that people really do care about the issues, even though we’re conditioned to think elections are built on controversy and conflict.  


    Two days before the Democratic debate, another trio of young YouTube creators—Destin Sandlin, Ingrid Nilsen, and Adande Thorne—interviewed President Obama. The video posted to the White House YouTube channel has been viewed more than 1.2 million times in six days.

    The wide-ranging discussion, which streamed live, drew on both the personal and the political, from terrorism to Kendrick Lamar’s new album and the “luxury tax” on menstrual products. The young interviewers followed their passions, drawing Obama into lively and occasionally poignant conversations. While there’s some overlap with issues that are part of the national discussion, there’s also a refreshing unconventionality.

    “The press corps that follows the president and follows the election has a very important role, because they have all the context and know what happens every single day in the campaign, and they can leverage that accumulated knowledge to ask important questions,” said Grove. The flip-side, of course, is that “outsiders aren’t bound to those same conventions.”

    This marks the seventh—and likely the final—YouTube interview at the White House with Obama. The video kicks off with a historical review, hosted by Grove, that reveals how much technology has changed and, with it, our expectations for access and authenticity. In 2010, it was the top-voted video questions. In 2012, it was Google Hangouts. In 2016, it’s #YouTubeAsksObama, with famous creators assuming the role of the press.

    The same is true, kind of, on the campaign trail. Grove noted that YouTube creator GloZell Green interviewed Clinton last month (Green also interviewed Obama at the White House in January 2015), and he predicted that we’ll see more YouTube interviews throughout the election cycle.

    “These creators have enormous audiences—audiences, many times, that dwarf those of cable news stations. So a hit with a Swoozie or an Ingrid or a Destin can be, in some ways, even more valuable than a hit on cable news,” said Grove.

    “If you’re a candidate in today’s political environment, you’d be smart to pay attention to it,” he added, “because it’s a real opportunity to engage with a whole new audience, often times a younger audience, around topics that matter to them.”

    And who knows better than a YouTube creator how to thank fans and draw attention.

    connor franta tweet


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