We are told we live in the era of citizen journalism. Reddit is the new CNN, Twitter is our real-time newswire, and that stoned-looking guy with a mustard stain on his Mets t-shirt might just capture some video on his cellphone that changes the course of history. Well peak citizen journalism was reached yesterday, with some random dude wandering an empty office building in Tennessee.
Last night someone uploaded a gallery of 12 photos of an empty office building in Franklin Tennessee to the image-sharing site imgur. Devoid of humans and crushingly dull, the gallery looks like something you might put in a Craigslist real-estate listing. But this wasn't just any empty office building. This was the building from which hackers, or burglars or something, say they've stolen Mitt Romney's tax records.
News broke yesterday of a shadowy group claiming to be in possession of Romney's old 1040 forms. They're holding them for ransom, threatening to release the documents unless they get $1 million in Bitcoins. In a document posted to the hacker document-sharing site Pastebin, the group told an unlikely tale of breaking into the Franklin, Tennessee office of PricewaterhouseCooper on the night of August 25th and copying all of Romney's old 1040s in an all-night copying session. The FBI and Secret Service got involved after mysterious thumb drives purporting to contain the tax documents showed up at the local Tennessee GOP and Democratic headquarters.
The lamestream media has been busy getting the official word from PricewaterhouseCoopers, which denied any breach. But our citizen journalist decided, as he puts it in the imgur gallery, "to take a look for myself." With a few blurry photos, he proved that a random dude was able to access Six Corporate Centre, where PricewaterhouseCoopers' office is located. He walked around the halls snapping pictures of the building directory and a hallway with his cell phone unmolested. He even rode the elevator up to the second floor, the site of the alleged heist, though he apparently didn't get off. The idea is that the building was insecure.
Of course, this doesn't prove much more than the fact that someone has enough time on their hands to spend a good deal of it wandering around an office building. The guy never actually goes inside the PwC office, and his only picture of the second floor was taken from the outside of the building. But the fact that someone even thought to do this and post it on the internet, where I stumbled on it in a thread on a Bitcoin forum about the Romney tax heist—"This isn't Fort Knox, that is for certain"—does offer a fascinating glimpse into the end-point of the new obsession with citizen journalism, stoked recently by Obama's visit to Reddit and the viral videos that fueled the Occupy Wall Street protests.
No longer does citizen journalism consist of citizens who become accidental journalists by happening to be in the right place at the right time. Now we've got enterprising citizen journalists who seek out stories, which sort of negates the whole concept. They form a bumbling Action News Team of random people wielding cell phones who descend on any place that's in the news, no matter how dull the location, or how little they expect to find there. They snap pictures, write unenlightening captions, and just generally be random people there. Thanks to Reddit, Twitter and other online hive minds, their reports can find an audience of other self-styled citizen journalists who will pick over the raw data in an endless feedback loop of speculation and internet detective work.
Citizen journalism, is not in itself a bad thing. The livestreamer Tim Pool offered some invaluable ground-level coverage of Occupy Wall Street as an amateur, for example. But if this sort of thing really takes off, the internet hive mind might begin producing a new kind of anti-gonzo journalism, where a flood of first-person reports from nothingspaces vaguely related to current events bleed into a bland, incomprehensible mush. More than it already does, that is.