Citizen journalism was one of the great dreams of the mid-2000s internet.
Just as blogs had given anyone with an internet connection and a keyboard a platform, media companies like AOL and CNN hoped that cell phones and high-speed internet would transform an army of private citizens and online hobbyists into freelance, oftentimes pro bono writers, videographers, and reporters.
As a result, these investigations seem to grow increasingly conspiratorial and reckless.
They've adopted their own aesthetic that Sam Biddle at Gawker recently coined as "Chart Brut," a "simple, unrefined, urgent, ominous, striving to be informative, and utterly incomprehensible...digital middle-ground between the string-and-thumbtack cork-board flowcharts favored by premium-cable obsessives like Rust Cohle and Carrie Mathison, and the meaningless tangles of agency responsibilities beloved by security-apparatus bureaucrats, and it's emerged as the defining folk aesthetic of the 2014 internet." This style perfectly describes the investigative phenomenon that gave it life: It's often childish, convoluted, at times impressive, slipshod, obsessive, and slightly frightening.
At its very best, it gives voice to the disenfranchised. The first time I really, truly noticed it was around 4 a.m. I'd come home from a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises to news of a tragic movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado.
I watched my Twitter feed, which was moving feverishly, considering the hour, spitting out information at a rapid clip.
This same acknowledgement — that the media no longer owns the story — has simultaneously provided momentum to the internet's growing legion of amateur detectives and uncredentialed investigative reporters.
The internet's uncanny ability to add fuel to the fire of our cultural obsessions no doubt plays a role as well.
While the Boston bombing Reddit disaster tempered media optimism toward of the online citizen investigative complex, its high profile was a clear signal to the anonymous practitioners of vigilante "journalism": True or not, their voices were a dominant part of the greater media landscape.
As my colleagues here at Buzz Feed wrote in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon manhunt, the media had to grapple with the notion that it doesn't own the story anymore; that "it's time for the press to start guiding readers through the sea of information — and stop pretending there's only one narrative."It's this mentality of addressing all corners of the internet's reporting machine — even its deepest, darkest, and most conspiratorial — that has given way to the rise of the viral debunk, a new breed of fact-checking for a breakneck news cycle with any number of unvetted sources.
Social media, often fueled by citizens on the ground, has proven itself invaluable during breaking news for years, and role of the citizen journalist is likely to play an increasingly visible role in the current media ecosystem for some time now.
Social media will continue to give oxygen to new events and movements like Ferguson, which may never have reached the greater public without it.