The terms “citizen journalism” or “participatory journalism” appeared some 30 years ago, being kinds of journalism in which readers participate by helping to make it. They have an active and effective role in collecting, conveying, analysing and disseminating news and information. During this process, they become their own voice and one for those who often are not heard. This is done via sending information to newspapers or other media, with these then checking the content and publishing verified information and discarding any not suitable for publication.
Citizen journalism acquired the news agencies’ trust following the Southeast Asian tsunami in December 2004. The agencies found themselves in a difficult situation, being obliged to rely on “amateurs” for images, video clips and eyewitness accounts to provide them with information about what had happened on the ground in many of the affected areas. In spite of the vagueness of the term at the time, it was viewed as embodying a participatory and optimistic spirit through the contributions of ordinary men and women. These were shown as being able to provide news coverage that reached that of the professionals and offered readers a new kind of content created by readers themselves.
Then the digital revolution came along, making every citizen who uses social media a citizen journalist by necessity. Social-media sites started to appear with names like “the new media”, “democratic media” or “alternative media”, with no professional editors having authority over the contributors. The traditional media took a back seat, and its influence in selecting points of discussion and debate on behalf of the public began to weaken. In the new media, ordinary citizens became the ones who choose the topics they would discuss and argue about and those that would form public opinion.
It is no secret that fierce competition then ensued between the traditional media in its well-known forms of newspapers, radio, and television and the new media represented through social media and companies such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. There has also been competition between the sites themselves.
Further competition has come between the content-makers within the same social media, with millions of users around the world setting up and participating in different kinds of content that compete with each other. Some of these topics attract attention and will then rise up like a bubble and gain the kind of popularity that makes you think that this will almost continue throughout people’s lives. But soon such bubbles explode, the topic’s popularity is lost, and its circulation on social media ends. Another topic then appears attracting people’s attention in a phenomenon known as the “trend”.
When trends surge and decide to spread, nobody and no authority can stop them. Nobody knows for certain why some topics surge and become trends or why some trends then calm down within a few hours. Topics can become the talk of social media due to something new that has occurred or to something old that is being published for the first time on social media.
Sometimes, a trend can be attributed to a post written by someone containing offbeat ideas, whether very reactionary or very liberal. This can also make the post writer a trend. Some tragic accidents may become trends, though much more tragic ones can go unnoticed. Some happy incidents such as victories, or winning national or individual champions can become trends, though sometimes they will not. This is the nature of social media. It is very difficult to anticipate the topics that users will respond to or that will gain the kind of huge popularity that will make them into trends.
Trends can appear without reason and vanish because of a number of factors. The most important of these are that people can get bored of talking about a topic and then abandon it. A new trend can also appear that will take some or all of their attention away from a previous one.
Users of social media can also view a popular trend as a kind of loudspeaker to vent their anger, laughter or fears. This was manifested globally in the #MeToo trend, for example, when actress Alyssa Milano encouraged the dissemination of this hashtag in October 2017 in an attempt to draw attention to the sexual harassment that many women had been exposed to. The hashtag then became a huge global trend, and it was used more than 200,000 times on the day it was released. It had been tweeted more than 500,000 times by 16 October 2017, and on Facebook it was shared by more than 4.7 million users in 12 million shares during its first 24 hours.
According to Facebook, some 45 per cent of US users had a friend who had shared it. Tens of thousands responded to the trend, including celebrities. Many men also responded, including US actors Terry Crews and James Van Der Beek, who participated in the trend by recounting their own experiences of harassment. Others acknowledged their previous behaviour towards women. The trend was transformed into a global feminist movement.
JOURNALISM SUCCUMBS? Reading the present is, of course, a worthy thing in itself. However, it raises a number of important questions in this information age, such as whether journalism is in thrall to trends or vice versa.
The relationship between journalism and trends is a relationship of interchanging roles in which many trends are based mainly on news items, such as the #Hisham_Ashmawi trend that surfaced recently. This trend spread due to a news item on DMC, an Egyptian satellite TV channel, under the title “the Libyan National Army hands over Hisham Ashmawi to the Egyptian authorities”. The item was then picked up via a series of tweets and blogs by social-media users until it became a trend.
However, in most cases, the opposite happens. Most electronic newspapers now follow trends and not vice versa, with many newspapers worldwide sorting their journalistic topics according to trending indicators via Google indicators and Google Trends. The latter service provides an index of the volume of search enquiries that users have put to Google in a certain geographical area, for example providing an answer to the question of what people in Egypt are most searching for now.
Having accessed this information, news sites create reports collected from different sources related to the trending topics so as to make their articles appear at the top of searches on Google. Alternatively, Facebook filters them as among the top topics for users to follow as popular topics at the time. The number of visits to the news site then increases.
Many social-media posts incline to ridicule. This could be seen in the #Once_aBedouin trend that dominated social media in Egypt for several days in February 2019 and in which ridicule was mixed with seriousness. The trend was made up of hundreds of comical episodes and short one-liners that dealt with a mysterious Bedouin. At the beginning of the trend, many users did not understand the Bedouin story that was being ridiculed.
Was it directed to religious heritage in which the Bedouin personality was mentioned hundreds of times? There was anger in Islamic circles after ridicule spread on social media as a result of using expressions such as “a Bedouin came” or “a Bedouin asked”, which are also used in the hadith (sayings) of the prophet or in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).
Some saw the trend as a kind of campaign against the prophet’s sayings. The Bedouin trend created divisiveness, with some seeing it as politically motivated or as a way of attacking the Islamic heritage. Others viewed it as a just a trend that had no other aim except to raise laughter. However, nobody knows for sure. The questions remain of why this Bedouin trend attracted the attention of the social-media users that it did, and why those users devoted such interest to it.
In May 2019, a #Downtown trend similarly swept social media in Egypt, occupying an advanced rank on the most circulated hashtags on Twitter. It started by satirising the clichéd expressions used by people living in Downtown Cairo, sometimes written in classical Arabic to reflect the idea that the speaker is knowledgeable or calling upon expressions used by leftists. Bloggers changed those expressions with others used by the general public to make them seem stingingly sarcastic. Some social-media users added their own touches and exaggerations and started to ridicule practices they had witnessed from persons or groups in Downtown Cairo.
Twitter users criticised this discourse and described it as “haughty”. They also saw the spread of the hashtag as an inevitable result of such people’s being distant from the rest of society, though there were also those who were fiercely against the trend and regarded it as defaming the 25 January Revolution.
CLIMBING A TREND: All of us are subjected daily to a staggering number of advertising messages, with competition among companies on ways of reaching consumers being extremely fierce.
Many consumers are no longer affected by traditional forms of advertising. In spite of the millions of pounds spent on traditional ads, they can be met with disregard and shunned by consumers. This has driven marketers to develop advertising methods that follow modern marketing conceptions and use social-media approaches in promotion instead of traditional billboards in the streets or radio or TV ads. People do not read newspapers or watch TV with the same attention as they used to. In a multi-tasking society, people are not interested in just one activity. The television might be on, but few are watching it, and they may be spending more time with their mobile phones.
With the increasing popularity of digital media, ads have become ever more effective on these same media. All the indicators say that ads on traditional media will not have the same status in the future and will be replaced by ones on the Internet, especially ones drawing on popular trends in marketing. Trends offer a great boon to marketers through their assemblage of people and ideas and their connecting people in a spontaneous way. Some lucky companies have been able to use them.
There was, for example, the “harassment” incident in New Cairo that stirred a big debate on social media after a girl uploaded a video on social-media platforms showing a young man stopping his car beside her and inviting her for a drink in a well-known café. The girl refused the invitation, and he apologised and went away. But the video spread and became a trend. That café chain mentioned exploited the trend in marketing its trademark in a way that roused surprise on social media. “You can visit us at any of our branches and have a cup of the best coffee… and not only in New Cairo,” the company’s Facebook page said.
Mocking comments were directed at this kind of publicity, and criticisms were made of the café for exploiting this “harassment” incident in its promotion without condemning the incident itself.
Something similar happened when Mohamed Salah, the star player of the Egyptian national football team and Liverpool player in the UK, uploaded his image on an Instagram site reading a book written by American author Mark Manson. This made the book a trend on social media and helped to sell it.
The author celebrated this opportunity and uploaded Salah’s image holding his book, saying “lots of love… enjoy!” The Egyptian publishing house that owned the copyright of the book in Egypt invested heavily in promoting it, and it became a bestseller thanks to the trend.
#DONALDTRUMP: The US presidential elections in 2008 were the first experiment in political marketing via social media and the first time in history that it had played a major role, in this case in former president Barack Obama’s successful social-media campaign.
This was not the last time that social media was used for political marketing, however. Since this campaign, politicians everywhere have got used to employing social media for political self-promotion, including when Donald Trump became US president after Obama. Trump did not have the support of most of the mainstream US media, so he used Twitter instead, and he has gone on to use it extensively throughout his presidency.
Twitter is a system for short blogging, with tweets usually comprising a short statement of content in 140 characters or uploaded images or video clips links. The logic of Twitter in communication is based on its main characteristics of simplicity and narcissism. Both are characteristics of the US president, who knows well that this is the age of Twitter.
In November 2012, Trump tweeted, “many are saying I’m the best 140-character writer in the world.” This narcissistic tweet contained some truth, since Trump is a man who knows how to turn the world upside down through a tweet. He knows how to be the talk of the whole world through his use of 140 characters on Twitter. In 2018, for example, he managed to inflame the markets through his various Twitter attacks on countries, organisations and companies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Emergence of the trend