Guardian Witness and “Hack Day culture”

Guardian Witness and “Hack Day culture”

The ethics of the Guardian’s new Witness platform have sparked a lot of debate, but actually the project’s origins in hack day culture may be one of the most significant things about it.

Yesterday the Guardian launched Guardian Witness, a platform for calling for, collating and curating photos, video and text from users. Mind you, from the tone of some of the comments underneath the blog post announcing the launch you’d think the Guardian had said they were replacing the printed edition with cat gifs.

Guardian Witness

A lot of people feel queasy about the prospect of the Guardian sourcing content for free rather than paying freelancers, particularly freelance photojournalists. There is definitely a legitimate debate to be had about this, and the Guardian’s own editorial stance on unpaid interships makes it particularly problematic for the paper. It should be noted, however, that the BBC and Sky News have had similar “send us your reckons” functionality embedded into their iPhone apps for simply ages, and the sky has not, as far as I can tell, fallen on our heads.

BBC & Sky News apps

I think it is another interesting example where we still find ourselves looking at our traditional media organisations as competing for scarce picture and text resources with other traditional media organisations, when in fact they are competing for attention in a digital world where there is an over-supply of content. Companies like BuzzFeed and HuffPo, competing for the same eyeballs and ad dollars as the Guardian, would scoff at the idea of “paying NUJ rates”. Still, plenty of people will write plenty of words about this particular issue, so I needn’t add to the internet’s over-supply on this point.

What does interest me is the role that hack culture has played in developing the idea. Former colleague Alastair Jardine posted an old hack day story card for “Guardian Contribute” and some of his wireframes from the project, whilst Guardian designer & developer Chris Cross tweeted a link back to when the project idea was part of “Discovery Week”a week-long product development hot-house that the Guardian’s tech department ran as an extended “hack day”. The “Discovery Week” piece quotes the Guardian’s Joanna Geary saying of potential contributors:

“Many of these people are very happy to advise or point journalists in the right direction on issues. We also know that, with 60 million unique browsers per month, there are almost certainly many more of them than currently exist in journalists’ contact books. So, how should The Guardian make the most of that and — a concern of many — how can we make sure they find the experts, and not necessarily those with the loudest voices?”

Joanna Geary has also been interviewed about the project by Adam Tinworth.

Bigger, older organisations are often being told they should act more like the fleet-footed digital upstarts they share the web with, and it was interesting to note that Guardian Witness launched the same week that The Verge were reporting that Facebook’s new Android Home product started as an out-of-hours hack too.

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