The Geospatial Dimension of News

On: October 16, 2009
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About Jelle Kamsma
I am a MA student of New Media at the University of Amsterdam. I have a bachelor degree in Media and Culture. After three years mostly focussing on film and visual culture I've made the switch to new media. Mostly because I'm interested in journalism and how it has to adapt to the new media. I just finished an internship at ANP Video, a Dutch press agency that makes short video-items for different newssites. I'm curious to find out how new media theories will aply to my experiences in the practical field.

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In one of his blogposts Chris Anderson came up with rather expressive metaphor for a phenomena we all experience in relation to news: ‘That our interest in a subject is in inverse proportion to its distance (geographic, emotional or otherwise) from us.’ Anderson calls this phenomena ‘the vanishing point theory of news’. He acknowledges that there is nothing new about this thought but according to him it bears repeating. ‘I’ll start reading my “local” newspaper again when it covers my block.’

Of course a local news paper can never cover only one block. But, although Anderson doesn’t point them out in his post, the Internet and other new media like GPS navigation on mobile phones offer tremendous potential in this respect. One of the initiatives in this domain is the website outside.in which tries to cover the demand for hyperlocal news, the news coverage of community-level events. By mapping all the news from different sources (local bloggers, newspapers, event databases and even Twitter tweets) to a specific location they want to make this possible. This offers the opportunity for a lot of different new interfaces. ‘exploring social networks by place, mapping discussions, triggering email alerts by proximity, mobile applications, and so on.’.

When I began think of a way to proper analyze this phenomena of hyperlocal news I thought of the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. In his magnum opus Sphären he contemplates on the topological question: ‘where and how people are living’. He is in fact talking about networks which he describes by using terms like globes, bubbles and foam. In the third volume of Sphären he talks about foam; the result of the implosion of the ubiquitous sphere. Here Sloterdijk shows himself as a postmodernist thinker and implosion of this sphere can be seen as an analogue to Lyotards End of Grand Narratives. Foam stands for pluralism and the variation that come into being when people are living close together. It helps to originate countless new cells. Sloterdijk sees this foam as something positive. Multiple cells have the ability to resist totalizing tendencies. This dynamic nature of foam exists because nobody can or wants to be the same, yet everyone emulates the other.

This postmodernist view, ‘Stabilitaet durch Liquiditaet.’ as Sloterdijk calls it himself, offers an interesting perspective on hyperlocal news. Sloterdijk sees the crust of houses that covers the earth as the spatial form of foam. Sites like outside.in could then be seen as the virtual form of foam by giving a spatial dimension to blogposts, news articles and Twitter tweets. Another feature of foam is that is permeable, easily accessible. Without the spatial dimension hyperlocal news isn’t easy accessible. As one of the founders of outside.in notes: ‘We can search a million servers scattered across the globe for a specific text string and get results within seconds. But we can’t do a search that tells us what people are saying about the street we’re currently standing on.’ In an era which can be characterized by foam, it is time to change that.

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