Zhou Shuguang, a technician with basic internet skills, has become a public figure in mainland traditional media and among netizens for covering social unrest in the past few years. He tells how he became a well-known 'citizen journalist' by using just simple digital technology.
When and how did you learn your internet skills?
My elder brother was a sailor and was often overseas. In 1999, he asked me to register an e-mail account at Sina.com, saying that sending e-mails would be much faster than writing letters. That was the first time I used the internet. At that time I was in university, majoring in information management in Hunan , which is my home province. I quit school in 2000 and worked as a Web editor with some information technology companies in Guangzhou and Shenzhen till 2006. In fact, school taught me nothing about computer science, such as programming, just some basic technology. I learned on my own how to create websites for enterprises and some other basic internet applied technology.
When did you become a 'citizen journalist'?
The first time I covered a public event was in 2007. I went to Chongqing to interview the owners of the famed 'nail house', who refused to move and bargained with the government and developers for higher compensation when their house was requisitioned for a construction project. I put online everything I saw and heard with articles, photos, and videos.
But I do not want to be labelled a 'citizen journalist', though we have similar behaviour: covering breaking news or hot events as an individual but not hired by any traditional media; uploading all the stuff from interviews online first but not selling to the print industry. I would rather call myself an 'active netizen who is interested in public events' instead.
You don't like the term 'citizen journalist'?
First, the definition of the term is not clear enough. Second, I wouldn't say 'journalist' was my occupation. Sometimes my main purpose - to cover the hot issues - is for fun and respect. It is not difficult for me to earn a living in my hometown or in other big cities as a technician. But since I can easily gain respect from my friends and millions of netizens by successfully covering popular issues, I rather enjoy my 'online reporting'. You will understand me if you know Abraham Maslow's 'hierarchy of needs' theory: what I am looking for are a sense of achievement and the respect of others, not just making a living.
How did you gain your influence on the internet?
Including the Chongqing nail-house event, I covered some big issues starting in 2007. In June 2007, I was in Xiamen , Fujian province , and covered the large protest against a petrochemical project. On July 1, 2007, I covered the democracy demonstration in Hong Kong. I also collected tonnes of documents and reports about last year's Tibetan riots and shared them with netizens using the application Google Docs. Overseas media and mainland netizens were interested in my efforts using different digital tools to follow public events.
Among about a half-dozen big issues I have covered, the most unforgettable one was the Wengan riots in Guizhou province last June. I interviewed dozens of local people and wrote the stories on my blog. With a friend's help, we did live broadcasts from that mountain area by mobile phone.
Can you tell us some important digital tools that you always use in your reporting?
The mini blog Twitter and Fanfou are useful tools to broadcast and follow breaking news. By installing the application, you can send short messages to Twitter and Fanfou with your cellphone, which means that even if you can't get access to the internet, you still can do your online reporting.
It is also important to set up your online social networks by using Facebook, really simple syndication, instant message tools such as QQ groups and MSN groups. They can help us get the information much faster.
Beyond that, I also use Tudou.com, Youku.com, and YouTube to upload and save the videos I take. For the photos, I recommend Flickr and Picasa.
Compared with mainland traditional media, what is the advantage of 'citizen journalists', or, as you say, 'active netizens'?
Though the propaganda authorities can delete or block our online articles and blogs, we do not care about news censorship when reporting online. Furthermore, we are always faster than the newspapers and magazines. As netizens, sometimes we are 'one-person media'. Whenever I cover public events, I do all the stuff by myself: interview, write the story on blogs, take and edit photos and videos. I think that our 'active netizens' can help traditional media cover some very local stories. We can also help the public pay more attention to the people who might have been overlooked by the mainstream media.
You had been an internet technician for about six years before using these digital tools to cover hot issues. So it might be difficult for other netizens who know nothing about technology to copy your model.
No, I think the technology is not the most important factor. For instance, even if we don't know how telephones work, we still can use them to communicate with others. The key is your values and tastes. You must be interested in public issues. You must be a person who enjoys sharing information with your friends and the public. So please don't be too nervous about technology. But of course, the more technology you know, the more efficient your reporting will be.