The Ghosts of Citizen Journalism: Remembering Sean Smith
Chris Peterson joins CMS on leave from MIT's Office of Undergraduate Admissions, where he spent three years directing digital strategy and communications. In addition to overseeing all web and new media activities for MITAdmissions, Chris liaised with FIRST Robotics and had a special focus on subaltern, disadvantaged, and first-generation applicants.
Before MIT Chris worked as a research assistant at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and as a Senior Campus Rep for Apple. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Coalition Against Censorship, as a Fellow at the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, and as the sole proprietor of BurgerMap.org. He holds a B.A. in Critical Legal Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he completed his senior thesis on Facebook privacy under Professors Ethan Katsh and Alan Gaitenby. He is interested generally in how people communicate within digitally mediated spaces and occasionally blogs at cpeterson.org.
The Ghosts of Citizen Journalism: Remembering Sean Smith
Last night, U.S. Embassies in Cairo, Egypt and Benghazi, Libya were attacked. Early reports indicate that the impetus for the attacks was the independent film Innocence of Muslims, a religious and political polemic produced by Americans Sam Bacile, allegedly a Californian real estate developer (some report this is a pseudonym or alter-ego), and promoted by Terry Jones, a Florida pastor who had previously made headlines by organizing burnings of the Quran.
According to a comprehensive account in the New York Times, in July 2012 a trailer for the film was posted to YoUTube. It was later dubbed in Arabic. Early last week, the trailer was amplified after a segment was broadcast on Egyptian television. A wave of resentment erupted.
This wave crested yesterday with the attacks on the embassies. While Egyptian riot police were successful in defending the Cairo embassy, the Benghazi defenses were not as robust, and the demonstrators more heavily armed. Rocket propelled grenades were fired into the embassy. Some combination of the blast, the fire, and the smoke killed four American envoys, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, and Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith.
I learned of the attacks not through CNN, or the Times, or even through Twitter. I learned of them through the SomethingAwful.com forums, because that is how I knew Sean.
SomethingAwful might most accurately be called a comedy site, and its forums are among the largest and most active on the web. I am a former staff writer for SomethingAwful, and have been a member of the forums since 2005; Sean was, until yesterday, a moderator of the Debate & Discussion / Current Events forum, and a member since 2002. He was also a diplomat and leader of Goonfleet in the game EVE Online.
I've been a D&D regular since I registered. It is, by the admittedly low standards of Internet political discussion forums, a very good one. It is fairly active (there are presently 1697 people browsing the forum at noon on a Wednesday), and blends decent discussion with the subversive and irreverent humor which characterizes SomethingAwful (such as when the horserace thread in 2008 ordered Joe Biden a pizza).
I never met Sean - or "Vilerat", as his handle was - in person. But over the last seven years I've corresponded with him thousands of times. In his ten years in the Foreign Service he spent time on the ground in The Hague, Baghdad, and Benghazi. He reported back from all of them. Over the better part of a decade we both changed dramatically in our political and philosophical worldviews, moving in tandem not only to the left but more accurately and meaningfully towards a more cosmopolitan, empathetic, complex understanding of the world, far away from our provincial and sheltered roots. The SA forums, imperfect as they were, have always been the most important form of "Civic Media" to me, allowing me to think and discuss and iterate with others, and Sean had been a feature of that media for a long time.
We also shared a love of football. His avatar - his visual identity on the forums - was a creepy smily face wearing a Chargers helmet. When I'd be home alone on a Sunday watching football in the fall, we'd hang out in "Gameday Threads" and bullshit about whatever we happened to be watching as it happened.
This morning, when I woke up and checked the current events forum, I noticed that the title of one of the threads had been changed to "Middle East Wars: RIP Vilerat." I initially laughed, thinking it was an example of the morbid, black humor for which SomethingAwful is (in)famous. After all, this was the forum which had produced tribute.wmv - a movie of the Twin Towers collapsing to the tune of "Yakety Sax" - and posted it not long after September 11th. It was not until I saw a stickied thread which read "Goodbye to a friend" that I realized what must have happened.
(12:54:09 PM) vile_rat: assuming we don’t die tonight. We saw one of our ‘police’ that guard the compound taking pictures
He'd sent countless messages like this in the past from Baghdad and Benghazi, whistling past the graveyard:
only this time, he didn't make it through.
There are a lot of intelligent things to be thought, written, and said about this event. I look forward to reading the analyses which deconstruct and attempt to explain the incredible ecosystem of media production, dissemination, and production which enabled these events.
At the moment, however, I feel like I've been punched directly, not only in the gut, but also in the brain. As I said, I've never met Sean physically, and "Internet friend" is the ultimate backhanded qualification. On the other hand, there are relatively few people with whom I have had an almost daily dialogue about the issues that are deeply important to me and embedded in my life. Now one of them has died, and not only died, but died after a series of events tied deeply to my professional and academic interests.
Henry Jenkins talked a lot about "convergence culture." I don't think this is the sort of media convergence he meant. But when the SomethingAwful forums, the Civic Media email list, and CNN were all talking about the death of the dude I spent a lot of time talking politics and football with, it felt like my entire world had been compressed into this one extremely small and incredibly loud space.
We in Civic Media are used to thinking metaphorically about "old media" as "dying" and "new media" as being born. But when the "citizen" of a "citizen journalist" dies, it's reality. And the silence of a person's voice, rather than an institution's, is a hell of a lot hollower and harder to swallow.