Who are the hyperlocal producers?

I’ve previously touched on some of the different profiles of people who make hyperlocal media in a post I wrote a long time ago. I’ve since been off doing other things that have brought me full circle back to the question of who is making hyperlocal media.

In my PhD project my theoretical framework is strongly influenced by the discourse theory of Laclau and Mouffe. I won’t expand too much on that here, but it might help you to situate that if I told you that it pushes my work deep into post-structuralism and post-Marxism. That leads me to begin thinking about identity and the formation of group identities in particular ways. A useful summary is provided by Marianne Jørgensen and Louise Phillips (2002):

“The understanding of identity in Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory can be summarised as follows:

  • The subject is fundamentally split, it never quite becomes ‘itself’.
  • It acquires its identity by being represented discursively.
  • Identity is thus identification with a subject position in a discursive structure.
  • Identity is discursively constituted through chains of equivalence where signs are sorted and linked together in chains in opposition to other chains which thus define how the subject is, and how it is not.
  • Identity is always relationally organised; the subject is something because it is contrasted with something that it is not.
  • Identity is changeable just as discourses are.
  • The subject is fragmented or decentred; it has different identities according to those discourses of which it forms part.
  • The subject is overdetermined; in principle, it always has the possibility to identify differently in specific situations. Therefore, a given identity is contingent – that is, possible but not necessary.”

Or, to summarise that: a subject never has a fixed identity, rather it can take on a number of subject positions in relation to the discursive structures in which it operates — and those subject positions are not fixed either, because they relate to discourses which are themselves constantly negotiated.

So, a refinement of my previous way of thinking through this is to locate various discourses and various subject positions within them. It then becomes interesting to map how various subjects negotiate the terrain, which subject positions they might take and when — and also how aware subjects are of the turns that they make. So, for example, in the focus group which I reported on at MeCCSA 2013 one participant commented:

“I refer to what we do as community media but if NESTA are talking about giving us money I’ll happily describe us as hyperlocal.”

And this shows a purposeful and conscious reframing of activity in terms of different discourses, taking on different subject positions of ‘community media producer’ and ‘hyperlocal media producer’ because he recognises that there is an antagonism at play that relates to funding for his work. In truth the work has probably changed very little, but the language is adapted to describe it in the hope of deriving positive (funding) outcomes.

I’ve been looking through a number of hyperlocal websites over the past few days trying to select some more case studies for my work. I’ve got some particular criteria I’m looking for that relate to the professional backgrounds of the producers, but the way in which subject positions are articulated within hyperlocal discourse actually makes this rather difficult. For example, one website bills itself as being “brought to you by local residents of [town], [name 1] and [name 2]” and also carries the line “developed and maintained by [company] a [town] business”. The web design company and the local residents are clearly the same people*, but they have taken two subject positions. These subject positions share their relationship to [town], but are differentiated: residents and business. It is important to be associated with place as this is a key moment of hyperlocal discourse: the hyperlocale, the place being represented. What does it mean to be “resident”? This positions the hyperlocal media producers away from professional discourses of media and communication, and connects with ideas of community media or citizen journalism. The local business subject position allows them to market their business within the local frame.

An alternative story, “the website is owned and run by local communications professionals whom you can hire”, is more direct but changes how the production of the hyperlocal content is understood. It is not more truthful, both are equally true, because [name 1] and [name 2] do genuinely hold both subject positions, they are both local residents and local business owners.

So who are the hyperlocal producers? They might be citizens, residents, journalists, business owners, and they might be any or all of these things, and many more, at different times as they operate as subjects of different discourses and as the discourse of hyperlocal is articulated around them. To take this out of all that theory stuff for a second, and to provide a handy tl;dr: hyperlocal media is many things, to many people, and those people are trying to accomplish a range of things (sometimes at the same time) — to give them the best chance of succeeding we need to understand what they are trying to do because the least useful label we have is probably ‘hyperlocal media producer’.

Jørgensen, M. & Phillips, L. J. (2002) Discourse Analysis as Theory and Method. London: SAGE.

* I have decided not to name either the website, the business or the individuals here. My intention isn’t to draw criticism to the website, the business or the individuals (my intention is to use this to illustrate the negotiation of subject positions) but I can’t guarantee that my intention wouldn’t be misunderstood. The link between the individuals and the business can be discerned because both are linked to the same address which is a residential property.

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Jon Hickman

Hi, I'm Jon. I teach and research digital culture, social media and new media practice at Birmingham City University. Find out more about me with this lovely CV: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/jonhickman Find out about my work at the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research: http://interactivecultures.org

  • Dave Harte

    This made me think about the following (which may or may not be helpful):

    Firstly, the taking of subject positions seems to be a deliberate act – is that so? Does that matter? Or maybe sometimes it’s deliberate and sometimes it’s instinctive. I wondered if there was something to say here about the precarious nature of work in this area and perhaps in creative work generally. That switching between subject positions starts as a deliberate survival(ish) tactic and then becomes second nature, so much so that the worker doesn’t realise they are doing it. Shifting subject positions becomes the new normal. Maybe if you’re a worker in TV that might mean needing to be a ‘team player’ one minute and a leader the next (that’s simplistic of course as the working relations in TV-land are no doubt tortuous and politically fraught, I dread to imagine). So is there anything in the creative work literature that might have something to about this? I’ve not read enough but it’s the Hesmondhalgh/Deuze stuff.

    Secondly, does this constant shifting of subject positions change the ‘field’ at all (as in Bourdieu, field of cultural production). And which field? The field of community media? of local journalism? For the better? For the worse? I’m a bit interested in this aspect myself.

    Ethics: surely the policy is it’s best not to name unless they’ve said it’s okay to name. And even then not to name unless naming is clearly integral to the argument you are making. I’ve yet to write an ethics section though!

    • Jon Hickman

      the taking of subject positions seems to be a deliberate act – is that so?

      It can be, I think. What’s more interesting than that comment, which was given in a focus group so with a very reflective mode of talk, is seeing what happens in every day practice. So I’ve seen during field work people switch subject positions quite fluidly as they move from one activity to another. Actor network theory seems to provide a good way to unpick that, I think.

      does this constant shifting of subject positions change the ‘field’ at all

      Yeah I was pretty interested in that sort of direction, but with my theoretical framework going the way it has I’ve got to move away from that. The subjects are articulating the discourse and articulated within it, so they shift the discourse through the way they act in it. It’s sort of the same thing that you’re saying and I’m not too precious about theory to say that’s wrong, but I need to stick within the language of the framework I’m using on the project right now. But that said there’s some Deuze work that I’ve folded into my lit review.

      Yeah, the ethics thing. Thanks for picking that up. Essentially my decision was “could someone think badly of those people as a result of writing this” and I thought they might even though I have no negative opinion of them myself. That blog post sits well outside of my PhD project where I’ve got more formal procedures for things, so I’m applying my general principles. Reads pretty shitty though as a result.