STOMP: The New Public Sphere

As Wikipedia puts it, most contemporary discourses and conceptualizations of the public sphere, are based on the Jürgen Habermas ideas in the book “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere – An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society“.

The idea of the public sphere may be conceived as a realm in social life where private people come together as a public to engage in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor. (Habermas, 1989)

With the understanding of how a public sphere should function, here are some of them I have identified, in Singapore:

  • the almost defunct Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park

(many still have the impression that a permit must be obtained before ‘demonstrating’ with posters and banners not knowing that since Sep 2008, the management of the Speakers Corner has been handed over from the Singapore Police Force to the National Parks Board, hence many of the restrictions that the area once had, are lifted. see channelnewsasia article: Singaporeans can demonstrate at Speakers’ Corner from Sep 1)

(one just needs to be a registered user to participate actively, comment and contribute, in the discussion forums. However one can still browse freely, if he (sic) is just interested in observing. Looking at the number of topics generated and the activity on the site, it seems like the online version of the Speakers’ Corner has taken off better than the actual space)

(It is a platform which encourages advocacy journalism, championing causes and values like civic participation, open government and free media, reflecting the views and opinions of ordinary Singaporeans like myself who are concerned about issues that affect us as citizens)

(readers basically comment on what they feel about the articles published, or air their thoughts in these forums. these online versions fulfill more of the criteria of a public sphere as they allow interaction and more discussion space as compared to the print counterpart of the Forum Page)

Does STOMP fit in then? (see: Navigating through STOMP & A Social Media Community in the making?) Can an indigenous social media community be the public sphere, as what Habermas (1974) summarizes in his encyclopedia article, for Singaporeans to engage in debate, conferring in an unrestricted fashion, as how (Habermas, Lennox, Lennox:1974) expressing their opinions about matters of general interest?

I say aye.

Well you might argue otherwise, especially since the quality of news and contributions on STOMP is often highly debated/questioned (see: “News Quality” on STOMP). However, understanding that a public sphere merely provides the conducive space for interaction without the strict enforcement or close scrutiny over the type of topics discussed, the idealist expectation of its activity has to be lowered/readjusted.

Besides Habermas (1996) did go on further, in his later work, to segregate the different levels of the public sphere, according to the density of communication, organizational complexity (Habermas, 1996, cited in Burgess, Foth and Klaebe, 2006) to differentiate the “Hard” and “Soft” subjects as various discourses, and included popular culture and everyday life encounters and connections that are ‘accessible to laypersons‘.

A public sphere’s ‘success’ ultimately thrives on the participation of the citizens. It needs the citizens to come together to discuss about issues, to engage in conversation, even beyond Facebook’s and Twitter’s capabilities. Not that Facebook is incapable of functioning as a communicative space, however its intricate design is such that one mostly only engage discussions with friends within the network and more often than not about private affairs. Whereas Twitter allows one to ‘follow’ and be ‘followed’ by a global audience, from private individuals to public companies, hence reaching out to any stranger with a Twitter account.

Since the term ‘public’ connotes ideas of citizenship, commonality, and all things not private but at the same time accessible and observable by all (Dewey 1972, cited in Papacharissi 2002) Facebook and Twitter therefore would not qualify as the public sphere that we have come to understand.

Hence if we were to analyze STOMP’s interesting structure,

  • the fact that the registered users, STOMPers are all private citizens who contribute their news stories, observations (through citizen journalism, as the site promotes itself to be) in a public communicative space
  • at the same time have these active participants engage in discussion (through feedback and commentary on articles posted in the more engaging section, Singapore Seen And the actual discussion forum of Talkback and other commentary on other sections of STOMP) on matters of interest

a melting pot of social media networking tools and features and elements of citizen journalism (to encourage interaction and participation from citizens as on the ground/’grassroots’ reporters) STOMP seems to be emerging to be the new public sphere, for Singapore Youths to ‘step out’ and start engaging in matters that concern them.

Even though brought up many times in various debates and discussions over the triviality of subject topics in STOMP by both academics and citizens alike, if a public sphere’s primary objective is to encourage participation from citizens (not judging the content’s quality) wouldn’t STOMP triumph as The New Public Sphere. After all it is by far one of the most accessed and talked about communicative space amongst Singaporeans, especially the youths.

References:

Burgess Jean., Foth Marcus., Klaebe Helen., (2006) Everyday Creativity as Civic Engagement: A Cultural Citizenship View of New Media, in Proceedings Communications Policy & Research Forum, Sydney. Queensland University of Technology, Australia. QUT ePrints. http://eprints.qut.edu.au

Habermas, J. (1989) The structural transformation of the public sphere. An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society (T. Burger with F. Lawrence, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work published in 1962)

Habermas J., Lennox S., Lennox F., (1974) The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article (1964), in New German Critique, No. 3 (Autumn, 1974), pp. 49-55, Duke University Press and JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/487737

Papacharissi, Zizi (2002) The virtual sphere: The internet as a public sphere, in New Media & Society 2002 4: 9, DOI: 10.11777/1461440222226244, Sage Publications http://nms.sagepub.com/content/4/1/9.refs.html

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Participatory Fandom in STOMP

We have learnt that fandom is the social structure and cultural practice created by the most passionately engaged consumers of mass media properties. Combining this concept with participatory culture, it becomes a group of zealous followers involving in broad participation in social media productions which start at the grassroots level.

The participatory fandom in STOMP has grown to centre around many areas of human interests and activities. Fans are typically interested in details of non-mainstream Singapore happenings. Spend significant portion of their time and energy  on STOMP, often as a part of social network. The subjects of fan interest vary widely – from celebrities, to hobbies, fashion, everyday sightings or even neighbourhood grapevine.

In the past, members of a fandom associated with one another by attending fan conventions and publishing and exchanging fanzines and newsletters. Communication was done primarily on print-based media. However with the emergence of Web 2.0 has migrated this interaction online.

There are 19 sections under STOMP. You can browse through most sections without having to register as a STOMPer. However, if you want to participate in terms of leaving comments, submitting information/ tip-offs, etc.,  in other words, attain full access,  you will need to become a member, by registering with your unique Singapore NRIC number. This is to prevent creation of pseudo accounts. STOMPers are then accountable for their words and behaviour on this website.  

An exclusive local community is thus formed.

Each of the 19 sections contains areas of interests across different fields.  It is almost impossible for a Singaporean to not be able to find one that appeals to him/her. Let me lift some examples.

MOVIE CLUB – For movie lovers/goers:

  • Receive movie reviews on the latest big screen titles
  • Watch movie trailers
  • See quotes from stars in the latest movies
  • Enter contests to win movie tickets

CLUB STOMP – For party-goers:

  • Check out the latest/newest and most popular night spots
  • View party pictures
  • Check out the hottest party outfits/attires
  • Sign up for Club STOMP card and receive perks

COURT ROOM – For the more intellectual individuals (who aspire to lawyers?):

  • Keep up to date with the progress of the latest court cases, all over the world

TALKBACK – For the attention seekers:

  • Voice out on any issue you feel strongly about
  • Leave comments if you agree/disagree

LOVE-IN – For the singles/romantics:

  • Read about love stories
  • Make new friends
  • Take part in blind dates/ speed-dating
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STOMP Bonds and Teaches

A nation building tool that affects positive change for the greater good of the public. Yes, we are talking about STOMP. There have been various controversial reviews on the site of late following its recent success. Nevertheless, let’s look at two possible schools of thought that sum up the collage of views out there.

1) STOMP’s a platform for tattlers who have nothing better to do than take pleasure in the way others goof themselves.

2) STOMP’s a platform for constructive speech that helps iron out the rough edges in a society known to lag behind its economic exploits.

Like all sociological case studies, there can never be a ‘clear cut’ solution, or some might say, explanation to the intricacies of human behaviour. Every individual is unique. However, individuals can be united under a singular ‘unique’ cause and bind themselves under a common identity – something which we habitually refer to as a ‘community’. I’d say that in STOMP’s case, it is the ongoing participatory culture that ‘forges’ these bonds which have gone on to make the site what it is today.

There was a full page article today in My Paper (3 December 2010) – probably a biased written one given that it’s also a subsidiary of Singapore Press Holdings – citing “10 Reasons Why Stomp is No.1”. Bias or not, the site did reach a record breaking 60.8 million page views in the month of November alone. That’s almost 12 times the current population residing on our tiny island. If you were to compare it with the rest of the local online portals then yes, STOMP is No.1.

I couldn’t help but smile when writer, Kenneth Tan, jotted down Reason No. 6 and 9.

Reason No. 6:  “STOMP EFFECTS POSITIVE CHANGE – Through STOMP, readers can be sure that their concerns will be heard by the relevant agencies and businesses, as well as other Singaporeans.”

Reason No. 9: “LEARN AS YOU STOMP – STOMPers can browse through thousands of queries and answers, and submit their own questions, in educational features like English As It Is Broken and Ask Libby…”

Reason No. 6 sums up the positive side of user generated content on the site.

Reason No. 9, on the other hand, talks about a learning culture where exchanges with one another on the site can actually help boost one’s intellectual capacity.

It really depends how one takes a stand when it comes to scrutinising STOMP but no one can deny its voracity and influence as Singaporeans take on Web 2.0.

References:

Tan, Kenneth (2010) My Paper: 10 Reasons Why STOMP is No.1, Singapore, Singapore Press Holdings, pp. A19, 3 Dec.

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STOMP = Participatory culture of Singaporean Youths?

Participatory Journalism as according to J.D. Lasica is simply defined as individuals playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, sorting, analyzing and disseminating news and information- a task once reserved almost exclusively to the news media.

As defined by Henry Jenkin on participatory culture:

  1. Relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement,
  2. Strong support for creating and sharing creations with other,
  3. Some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices,
  4. Members who believe that their contributions matter, and
  5. Members who feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

Taking STOMP as a case study in making comparisons and analyzing similar STOMP-alike sites created in other countries that will enable us to further determine if STOMP is sync attuned to the participatory culture of today’s Singaporean Youths.

Citizen Journalism in India

India is a country that hosts many citizen journalism websites, for instance Merinews.com, Whitedrums.com , Mynews.in, South Asian Citizen Reporters Network (Sacrn.com), Purdafash.com and Rediff.com, just to name a few.

Whitedrums.com is a good comparison example to our local Citizen Journalism website, STOMP. The various functions/sections available within Whitedrums.com appear analogously similar in STOMP as well.  Likewise to the objectives and role of Whitedrums, in a way or another it encourages citizens to participate and submit news/ their thoughts. However, the participatory culture within their citizens from these sites in India as mentioned above reports more on the serious issues like Climate change, health topics, politics, environmental problems and etc. As compared to STOMP, the news contents contributed by STOMPers are considered ‘softer’ and less serious.

With the simple comparison and analysis made above, could we then depict the participatory culture of Singaporean youths (the main target audience of STOMP) works in its own unique Singaporean way?

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Struggles & Compromise in a Free World

‘Freedom of expression’ is a term one would normally associate with Americanisation or some, the spread of democracy across the world in this post-cold war era. With the influx of foreign media content – rich in western ideals – being consumed at an appalling rate on Singapore’s shores, it is no wonder that we now perceive ‘freedom of expression’ to be an individual’s right, or so we think it is. Herewith lays the power struggle.

From a young age, we are brought up with values that draw close links to Confucianism, stressing the importance of filial piety and a respect for authority. To go against an ‘elder’ or to even talk back would be a mini-abomination in itself.

So on one hand, we have present-day influences which tell us it is our right as human beings to be able to say and do what we want. Whereas on the other, we are brought up with values that are… total contradictory.

It seems in STOMP, we have the next closest thing to a utopian scenario of compromise – a public sphere where everyday people bridge the barriers of professional journalism to play it, only but from a citizen’s standpoint.

Talking about ‘uncritical populism’ (McGuigan:2005, p.11), McGuigan cites the absence of passivity and the power of choice among participants in public spheres. The key is convention. STOMPers engaged in active exchanges on STOMP – a form of public sphere – display their own unique rationale. Putting it in other words, the common man wisdom approach.

We need to note that although STOMP seems a ‘soft’ channel where heartfelt stories are showcased, there is still some form of regulation involved. Content deemed racially, religiously or politically controversial will never make it online – given the many sensitivities a multiracial nation like Singapore has to take into account in order to keep the peace.

That is the beauty of participatory culture in the context of this public sphere. While fellow STOMPers engage online with one another, forging bonds and identities, they do not realise that they are part of a bigger plan. A plan of ‘integration’ among the different ethnic groups in Singapore. Something the government has been rather adamant of enforcing following the racial riots in the 1960s, only that now, the initiative’s been taken to a whole new platform in Web 2.0.

‘Freedom of expression’ can actually work to the greater good of the public in an Asian context if we look at what is happening with STOMP at present. It is more than a tool to voice out, it is a nation building one as well.

References:

McGuigan, Jim (2005) The Cultural Public Sphere, London, Sage Publications, pp. 11

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“News Quality” on STOMP

A contemporary specialist on Shakespeare, Frederick Gard Fleay, had earlier (1874) written: “If you cannot weigh, measure, number your results, however you may be convinced yourself, you must not hope to convince others.”

There has been various discourses with regards to the concept of “news quality” however, due to its subjective nature, there hasn’t be a unanimous vote on the definition.

For the purpose of this project, how should we define news quality then?

John Zaller (1999) believes that high news quality generally include information about matters of general political or social significance that will help citizens in their role as democratic decision-makers as well as to construct their knowledge and/or understanding of the larger world.

But what about information/news such as:

  • the user interface of the latest Football Manager 2011 game (this helps me decide if i should get this for my brother this Christmas)
  • how to use the different modes on my newly bought digital camera (the pictures i take from now are definitely going to look so much better..)
  • Facebook acquires Fb.com, Set to Launch E-mail Service (does that mean that i’ll soon be holding… let’s see… five!! different email accounts. need to think about how to manage all of them efficiently)

Who is to say that the above are unworthy of the quality news title?

The various topics were after all covered in detail, with accurate and credible information provided. They were written for a real audience, though possibly smaller and more fragmented. Instead of being fixated on assigning a tangible ‘value’ to the various news genres, it seems more appropriate to classify them into the following two categories; “Hard News” and “Soft News”.

“Hard News”: synonymous with seriousness, covers important issues such as politics, economics, crime, war, and disasters, as well as certain aspects of law, business, science, and technology.

“Soft News”: generally focuses on the less serious subjects such as arts and entertainment, sports, lifestyles, ‘human interest’, and celebrities (gossip).

The emergence of the Internet as an alternative communicative space brought about the greater accessibility and variety of “Soft News” topics that are usually sidelined by the mainstream media.

Considering the low barriers of entry to the Internet to produce and/or consume news and information, it doesn’t come as a surprise to see the growth of specialized websites, focusing on special interest topics, each attracting the attention of its own tiny audience segments.

Not wanting to lose out to these specialized websites, we see established media organizations finding their “space” in the internet realm, establishing their online presence, dedicating more resources to “soft news” to cater to the preferences of their audience (BBC, CNN etc.).

Singapore Press Holdings’ came up with two very different online websites, Straits Times Interactive and STOMP.

Straits Times Interactive is the online version of its existing print counterpart. Hence one can deduce that its existence serves the primary role of making its news available to its existing and/or potential target audience who are probably too busy to read the full articles in the print version. The only “extras” are, blog posts by selected journalists as well as a discussion space for netizens to express their views and opinions, to engage in any online debate(s) on issue(s) that they feel strongly about.

STOMP however, has a very different target audience all together. As mentioned in other blog posts, STOMP’s primary target audience are youths. However it is interesting to note that the platform also allows registered users try their hand at journalism, basically to share their sightings on what’s happening in Singapore (also known as Citizen Journalism).

As many would observe that the “news” shared on STOMP – Singapore Seen (by the STOMPers) seem to be mostly on trivial matters, from “the inconsiderate singaporean who did not give up his seat on the mrt” to “college students in uniform made out at multi-storey carpark for 2 hours”.

To be fair to STOMPers who share, there are also other good information provided such as “Warning: This iPhone glitch allows others to bypass your passcode“, “19th century staircase in US chapel remains a mystery even today“. However if you were to take a closer look at the number of views of these articles, you will realize that these sort of “quality news” doesn’t seem to appeal as much as the often labelled “trashy” news.

Could we draw a conclusion that the STOMP audience seem to prefer “trashy” news over “quality” news?

All writers want their works to be read (journalists, novelists, theorists). Just like us writing our blog posts for this module’s project, at the very least, we would like for our fellow group mates to give them a quick read. Who actually likes writing for a non-existence audience?

Given the demographics and psychographics of youths of this time, we know that we all want to be heard, that’s what social networking sites and social media communities are set up for (to share, to be seen, to be heard). Hence if a fellow STOMPer (remembering that one has to be a registered user before any actual participation can take place) was to report or share something “trashy” just because he knows that it will be read, should we then fault him for his choice of news or should we fault the audience who keep coming back for more?

*Note: i think that the “trashy” news on STOMP, actually come under the “soft news” category, – lifestyle, human interest, gossip (minus the celebrities in this instance).*

 

References:

Zaller, John. (1999) Market Competition & News Quality, UCLA, paper prepared for American Political Science Association, Atlanta

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A Social Media Community in the making?

A follow up to my previous post, Navigating through STOMP, can STOMP actually fall under the category of social media community instead of “the citizen journalism website” as SPH had claimed?

In an article published in Social Media Examiner, Michael Birto, V.P. for Edelman Digital, revealed three tips for building and managing social media communities. If we put STOMP into context, “social media community” does seem to be a more appropriate description. 

Tip 1: Embed within your community

STOMP Team plays the role of community manager where they embed themselves within the local community context and facilitate the content creation (to a certain extent) by STOMPers in Singapore Seen. They are able to generate contents which are of latest interest to the Singaporeans in sections such as Court Room and TalkBack. These contents allow interactions through comments and feebacks from the community.     

Tip 2: Don’t just focus on monetizing

Nevertheless, STOMP is still considered to be a relatively young web portal (4 years old!). The focus seemed to be building the community and trust of its community’s members before injecting mass advertising messages into the website: advertising spaces are subtly emplaced within some sections in STOMP.

Tip 3: Don’t just listen, get the community involved

By offering the platform for community to voice their concerns or interest, STOMP is able to get the community to engage in various issues that are of great interest to them. Will this simple act of “platform provider” enhance STOMP’s reputation as the most trusted voice in local news media? It remains to be seen, but the numbers of STOMPers are certainly on the rise.

It would be biased to simply base on Michael Bito’s tips alone to deduce STOMP as a social media community. But the structure and the concept of a melting pot of social media elements and citizen journalism do, to a certain extent, show glimpse of social media community in the making.

Reference:

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