Mobiles in Citizen Media

What is Mobile Citizen Media?

Mobile citizen media has emerged as a powerful form of citizen journalism. While there are many titles for this new form of journalism, such as mobile citizen media, mobile citizen journalism, and mobile reporting, the basic concept is the same: everyday citizens posting news media directly from a mobile phone to the Internet or people’s cell phones and thus, an online public. The media published usually includes stories and information that is neglected by mainstream media organizations.

Why Does Citizen Media Matter?

Mobile phones are redefining media and citizen journalism. With the evolution of mobile devices and the read-write Internet, the ability to communicate ideas and information has become quicker, easier, and cheaper than traditional communication infrastructure. Mobile citizen reporting is possible with the aid of cell phones' SMS (short messaging service), which allows text messaging exchanges, and MMS (multimedia messaging service), which allows media exchanges such as images, video (recorded and live), and audio. Besides mobile phones being able to post media to the Internet, mobile phones also allow for greater access to information from websites, blogs and even text messages. For example, people living in rural areas often do not have access to Internet information through traditional computer systems, yet with the evolution of the mobile phone, distribution of media and access to the Internet is becoming more available and less costly in underdeveloped areas. This article will explore what mobile citizen media is, why it is effective and necessary, how it is currently being utilized throughout the world, mobile citizen media resources, and how a grassroots organization can develop their own mobile citizen media through mobile blogging.

What is Citizen Media?

Citizen media is everyday citizens collecting and reporting information. Traditionally information is published and made available to the general public by way of the Internet, DVDs, television, radio, print materials, and many other forms. Often citizen media fills a necessary void in reporting news stories that are not picked up by the mainstream media. One example of citizen media via broadcast radio is the independently operated, listener-supported, non-commercial broadcasting organization Pacifica Radio Network. Pacifica Radio Network supports five different independent stations in the United States. Examples of television citizen media include the community channels in Canada that broadcast in the public interest. Internet examples of citizen media include weblogs, podcasts (audio broadcasts online), collaborative wikis, and vlogs (video blogs), and email lists. One example is a collaborative site called Gooh, where Argentineans share stories of human values that do not normally get told by the conventional media in Argentina. Another example is South Korea’s Ohmynews, a full-fledged participatory news site where the citizens report 100% of the articles.

Why Are Mobiles Critical to Citizen Media?

One of the challenges to citizen media is getting widespread participation and dissemination of the information itself, especially to and from people in rural or poor areas of the world. Citizen media does not take place in a vacuum away from everyday activities. Citizen media reporters need to be in the location where the event or events are taking place. In many rural or poor communities this means that local citizens need tools, which allow them to quickly report and collect information when there is limited access to traditional communication tools such as computers, Internet, or landline telephones. In order to report breaking stories, citizens need a device that allows them to instantly publish information to the world. While traditional cable Internet works well for citizen media in developed nations, it is not as helpful in underdeveloped countries. This is because access to Internet is still much higher in developed nations (UNCTAD, 2008). To further complicate citizen media communication in developing countries is the expensive cost of traditional telephone landlines infrastructure (Euromonitor, 2007).

Mobile phones provide a necessary solution to the problem. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development recently found that mobile phones are lessoning the digital divide between rich and poor nations (UNCTAD, 2008). They discovered mobile phones are the most widely used form of information communication technology in developing nations. This is evident by the fact that over the last five years the number of subscribers to mobile phone service has almost tripled in developing countries, and make up 58 percent of mobile subscribers worldwide (UNCTAD, 2008). For example the number of wireless subscribers in India grew 91% and 54% in Africa between 2000-2005 (Wikinvest, 2008). One reason for this widespread growth may be that in many developing nations, building cell phone bases is much cheaper than landline cables. Eric Sundelof, a Reuters Digital Vision Fellow and creator of the grassroots mobile media site, claims, “It’s much cheaper to build the infrastructure for cell phones, and Africa is the most perfect place for launching any cell phone service because it’s so flat you don’t have trouble with the base stations, you don’t need that many” (Glaser, 2006). We see this phenomenon in India where the number of landline subscribers has decreased since 2005, while the number of mobile phone users continues to increase (Wikinvest, 2008).

Mobile phones also assist in recruiting everyday citizens to participate in reporting. Since many web-based resources couple with cell phones for immediate posting of media, local citizens who have cell phone access (they do not necessarily need to own their own, just use somebody’s cell phone) can become citizen media journalists without Internet access. One example would be citizens sending videos from a cell phone directly into a designated YouTube account by using a mobile email address.

What can you use cell phones for in grassroots media?

Cell phones can easily be utilized to collect and broadcast media to the Internet and mobile devices. While some types of mobile media collections are costly, requiring large amounts of bandwidth such as mobile video, others are inexpensive and need little bandwidth, such as text messaging. Although cell phones in developed nations often have high-end features such as built-in MP3 players, video recorders, and even television on their cell phones, there are inexpensive cell phones with basic features created specifically for people in developing nations. These features are usually limited to options that require less bandwidth such as the ability to make phone calls and text message.

For example, Motorola has an inexpensive cell phone that costs less than $30 U.S. dollars targeted at people living in developing countries (MIT, 2008). Cell phone companies have also developed non-electric ways to charge cell phones including using a bicycle or hand cranks targeted at people in rural areas where there is limited access to electricity (White, 2007). Furthermore, cell phone service companies such as CellTel have created pay-per-use cell phones, where people pay separately for each call (as opposed to paying a monthly service charge), therefore prepaying for all calls (Oke, 2008). For example in Nigeria it is possible to make a short phone call for about 4 US cents (Oke, 2008). There are also community pay-per-use options where people can use a community cell phone for a small cost (often from a street vendor). These low-cost options are why 97% of Tanzania’s population have access to cell phones (Eagle, 2005).

While not every citizen will have the bells and whistles on an available cell phone, it is important to explore the types of citizen media reporting that can be accomplished with each cell phone feature. In addition, as cell phones evolve it is likely that it will be common to find “basic” cell phones with features such as video camcorders and Internet access.

SMS Text Messaging

Probably the cheapest and easiest way to communicate news is through SMS text messaging. Short message service usually allows 160 characters or less to be sent per message. In most countries text messaging is cheaper than making a phone call or using voice mail services (Wikipedia, 2008). Outside of the United States, text messaging is one of the most-used features of cell phones; this is because of the reliability and economical cost of text messages. Text messages can be sent to massive amounts of mobile phones at one time and/or posted on an Internet website. (For web tools that can be used to send bulk SMS, see Desktop SMS Campaign Tools.

Cell phones that have text messaging capabilities can be used for “live reporting”. For example, a citizen who is watching a political speech, can text message the speech “highlights” as they occur to a specific online service such as Twitter. In Twitter, Internet viewers who subscribe to that citizen journalist’s twitter page can immediately get the highlights. Since many online services like Twitter also allow subscribers to get updates via cell phone, people without Internet access can still receive the text message highlights on their cell phone. However, Twitter does require web access to sign up initially, and at times can be unreliable.

Besides sending basic messages, short message service also allows for mass mobile voting, polling, billing, googling information, and even chatting. For example in Finland, SMS is being used for Television chat, where people can text their “chat” to a designated number and the chat message will appear on the television screen (Wikipedia, 2008).

Audio feeds: Podcasting

While in most areas of the world cell phone calls are more costly than text messaging, they are still relatively inexpensive. With the assistance of some free or low-cost web resources, a phone call can become a recorded MP3 file immediately published to the Internet as a podcast. A podcast is an audio recording that is broadcast on the Internet, where people can “subscribe” to the feed. There are many global resources that couple with cell phones to create instant podcasts such as Utterli. Utterli allows anyone to call a country-specific number and record a podcast, which can automatically be published on the Internet.

For example, if you are interviewing community members about their livelihoods, you could record the interview on your cell phone and immediately post it to the Utterli website.

In addition to creating podcasts, some cell phones have built-in audio recorders that usually record anywhere from one to five minutes of audio, which can be sent to people in mass mobile emails. Furthermore, audio feeds can become live broadcasts over the Internet with resources such as Talkshoe.

Of course the cost of recordings is that they all take up cell phone minutes, so users need to be aware of their cell phone plans and how many minutes they are allowed. While there are a few newer services that will call your cell phone and record (which will be nice for people in countries like Kenya who often do not need to pay for incoming calls), these resources are not yet fleshed out and are fewer in number.

Photos: Photosharing and Photoblogging

Cell phones that have cameras can use MMS messaging services to send images in mass to other cell phones or post them directly to the Internet. Many popular photo sharing websites allow users to send and publish mobile photos on their sites. For example Flickr gives every account a mobile email address that cell phone users can use to send their photos. Consequently a grassroots organization could give out a Flickr mobile email address to local citizens and ask them to email images from cell phones directly into the organization’s Flickr account. Additionally, photos can be posted from a cell phone directly to an Internet blog, known as photoblogging. An example of this would be the web blog resource Blogger, where anyone can send a photo to and it will immediately create an instant web blog.

Videos: Videosharing, broadcasting, and Vlogging

Mobile video can be one of the most expensive mobile citizen media options and video capture is only an option for those who have a built-in camcorder in their cell phones. However, mobile video can be one of the most effective ways to share important information and current happenings that are not being covered by conventional media. Therefore, people who do have a camcorder in their cell phone can record and send short videos to popular video sharing sites such as YouTube. Videos can also be posted directly to web blogs, which is known as Vlogging (videoblogging). Some cell phones (currently Nokia phones) even have the ability to broadcast live mobile video feeds to the Internet and on other mobile phones using web resources such as Flixwagon. Therefore, citizens witnessing breaking news and events can broadcast the events as they are occurring.

Viewing websites and Retrieving Information

Besides disseminating information through cell phones, local citizens can also use cell phones to gather information. There are web resources (such as Feedm8) that turn almost any website or blog into a mobile site that can be viewed on a mobile phone that has Internet access. Of course viewing websites on cell phones is only an option for people who have access to Internet-ready mobile phones. However, for those who do not there are websites (such as Podlinez) that can turn Internet-based podcasts and web blogs into a dial-in number that can be heard on cell phones. This allows for access to Internet-based information without actually having traditional computer resources.

Why are Mobile Phones so Powerful in Citizen Media?

The Swiss Army Knife of Communication Tools

Mobile phones are an all-in-one media collection and broadcasting tool. Currently cell phones can include a camera, camcorder, audio recorders, and mobile Internet access. Mobile phones are cheaper, smaller, and more portable than other digital communication devices such as laptop computers, camcorders, MP3 recorders, and digital cameras. Therefore one tool allows anyone to record a live broadcast, photograph or videotape an event, conduct an interview, write an article, conduct a survey or poll, all of which will immediately post on an Internet site that can be viewed on the computer or cell phone.

Do not need Internet access to share media

It is more common to find cell phone access than computer, Internet, or landline access in most countries around the world. For example, only 10% of low-income countries and 22% of low-middle income countries have any kind of Internet access (Euromonnitor, 2007). Furthermore, the cost for broadband Internet access and landline telephones in developing countries is much higher than in developed countries. Starting in 2002, the number of mobile phones worldwide outnumbered total fixed telephone lines, and by 2006, the worldwide number of mobile phone users reached 2.5 billion in contrast to the 1.4 billion fixed lines (Euromonitor, 2007). As a result, by using mobile phones to report information, there are more opportunities for the average citizen to report news and participate in journalism. This means that having Internet access is not a necessary component of being able to participate in today’s global world. The mobile phone is the global tool for gathering and disseminating news.

Potential for “real time” citizen media

Most cell phones can send images, audio, video and text articles to the Internet (or to other mobile devices) within a few minutes of capturing the media. However, over the last few years, there are new web resources -- such as Flixwagon -- that allow some cell phones to broadcast live video and/or audio feeds on the Internet. As a result, citizens can report and subsequently broadcast breaking news stories and events as they are occurring. Besides broadcasting feeds as they are occurring, citizens can listen to and watch (those who have video-enabled phones) the live feeds on their cell phones.

Easier to get others to participate

While the mobile phone makes it easier to collect media and post to the Internet, the cell phone also makes it easier for citizen’s worldwide to participate in a global project or activity. Since many people have their own cell phone, know someone who owns one, or can purchase cell phone minutes through a street vendor it is easy for them to call a phone number that records an audio file or send a text message that posts directly to a news reporting or advocacy website. Therefore if a grassroots organization would like citizens to participate in an activity, there are many mobile options. One example of mobile citizen media participation is The People’s 311. The People’s 311 is a citizen-created website that encourages New York City locals to document non-emergency conditions around the city. Coupling with the photo-sharing web resource Flickr, citizens of New York are asked to take a mobile picture of a public nuisance and send it (along with the location) to a public Flickr account. The information is posted publicly on a Flickr map and encourages the local city government offices to get involved with the concerns.

Citizen Interaction: Subscriptions and Feedback

Many Internet sites allow organizations to disseminate information to interested people by way of their mobile phone. People can subscribe to a grassroots website by text messaging a keyword from their cell phone to a designated number. There are many web-based free or low cost mobile subscription services (such as Textmarks), which aid in this process. Therefore, information gathered on a cell phone can be shared in different ways. The mobile media can be sent to an Internet site (such as a web blog) and it can be sent to people who subscribe to updates on their mobile phones. Not having Internet access does not impede receiving vital information. Another benefit of mobile subscription services is that many of them allow the grassroots organizations to use SMS or MMS services for petition signing, polling, alerts, and feedback from their subscribers.

Opportunities in Rural Areas

According to the UNCTAD (2008), an advantage for both poor and developing countries is the lack of infrastructure needed for mobile phone communication compared to landlines. Mobile phones do not require cables or complicated billing systems, because they use satellites or base stations and have the prepaid options (Senge, 2008). Also, the ability of cell phones to send text messages expand the range of cheap communication available to the poor (Senge, 2008). According to the UNCTAD (2008), the decline in the cost of mobile phones has allowed for more widespread use in developing countries and has lead to better livelihoods. For example, in Africa there is an average of 20 active cell phones for 100 people, and has all but replaced landlines in many developing countries. Additionally, the cost of reading the Internet on a mobile phone is often cheaper than computer-based Internet access in rural areas. According to the regional editor of Global Voices for Sub Saharan Africa Ndesanjo Macha (2008), “my brother who is a school teacher in rural Tanzania reads my blog on his cell phone.” Macha claims it is cheaper than using computer-Internet access “because the kind of service he has, he pays only when the page is opening, once the page is open, he does not pay. He can read as long as he wants…It’s cheaper, comparatively speaking…it will allow bloggers to report from places we did not hear from before, such as rural areas.”


What are some of the challenges and barriers of using mobiles in grassroots media?

Financial Costs to Mobile Media Citizens

Despite the cheaper availability of cell phones worldwide, it does not mean that the cost of being a mobile media citizen is always inexpensive. There are a couple of financial costs that need to be considered.

First, there is the price of posting media from mobile phones to the Internet and other mobile devices. While Internet resources that couple with cell phones for web-based posting are often free or relatively inexpensive (such as Youtube), the use of the cell phone for posting can incur astronomical costs. Therefore, the major cost is not the website maintenance, but the cell phone plan itself could be the largest cost to the organization.

While every cell phone plan is different, organizations and advocacy groups need to be mindful of purchasing plans or pre-paid minutes that will allow them to send and receive media without worrying about overcharges.

Second, the cost to the audience; the subscribers to read and gather information on their cell phones in order to be more informed citizens. Each SMS text message or MMS message they receive may incur a cost, although it may be small, constant updates throughout a day or week could end up being very costly.

Dropping Posts

No mobile phone or service is perfect they do occasionally drop calls or lose messages. This means that an audio interview could accidentally be dropped and the post never occur on the mobile Internet site. The same could be true of videos, text message articles, or images. While the cell phone usually will store many media files (which could be used as a back-up), it may be a while before it is realized that the media did not post and by the time it is reposted, the information may not be as relevant. This could be a big problem for mobile reporters who are dealing with time sensitive information. However, some mobile phone networks do allow for delivery receipts of SMS so the user knows when the message has been delivered.


The ability to connect to the Internet from the cell phone, sending large media files (such as videos), or posting articles can take up a lot of bandwidth, which often means more cost. Bandwidth is “the capacity of a telecom line to carry signals. A greater bandwidth indicates the ability to transmit a greater amount of data over a given period of time” (Mobiledia, 2008). The greater the bandwidth the easier it is to send and receive media but it is also more expensive. One solution for citizen media is to use basic phone calls and SMS text messages to get the word out. Especially if one is trying to reach citizens in rural or underdeveloped areas where they probably do not have Internet access and only basic cell phone options to receive information. Additionally, when posting to the website or blog, make sure that it is mobile friendly (no large downloads or big video files) so that it does not take up too much bandwidth for everyday citizens to access or browse the site.


Cell phone text message and voice message spamming is becoming more common, as a matter of fact it is predicted to quadruple in the next year (Alfonsi, 2008). This is a problem for mobile citizen reporters and their subscribers. Spammers are taking up useful text messages and calling minutes with their nuisance calls. This can be costly for citizens who have limited cell phone plans.

There has also been an increase in the number of text messages from hate groups. For example in Kenya, there was a reported 11 million cell phone subscribers receiving hate messages from unidentified groups (Oke, 2008). It is more difficult for governments or organizations to track down who is sending these SMS messages.

While the difficulty of governments being able to track down mobile media citizen reporters is a positive for the use of cell phones by grassroots organizations that are reporting on corrupt governments, it is not so great for people who receive hate text message spam. One solution is for mobile organizations to make sure their web services are keeping cell phone numbers and email addresses (SMS or MMS) private.

Security Concerns

In countries where phone calls and text messages are screened, personal security could become an issue. While it is more difficult to track down cell phone users than landline callers or the original distributor of Internet emails, it is not impossible. Mobile media citizens need to remember that cell phones are not secure in any country. Therefore all text messages and phone calls have the potential of being screened and documented.


Alfonsi, S. (2008). Attack of the Cell Phone Spammers. Retrieved:

Eagle, N. (2005) Entrepreneurship and Education through Mobile Phones in Kenya Retrieved:

Euromonitor (2007). The Global Digital Divide. Retrieved:

Glaser, M. (2006). Stanford Fellow Imagines Every Cell Phone as Citizen Media Outlet. Retrieved:

Goldstein, J. (2008). Blogs, SMS and The Kenyan Election. Retrieved:

Macha, N. (2008). The Future is Mobile (podcast) Retrieved:

MIT (2008). Why Africa? Retrieved:

Mobiledia (2008). Bandwidth Retrieved:

Oke, F. (2008). Inside Africa: Cell phones in Africa. Retrieved:

Senge, M. (2008). Nigeria: Mobile Phones Narrow Poverty Gap in Emerging Markets –

UN Report. Retrieved:

UNCTAD, (2008) Press Release. Retrieved:

White, D. (2007). Motorola’s pedal-powered mobile charger. Mobile Magaziane. Retrieved:

Wikinvest (2008). Mobile Phone Adoption in Developing Countries. Retrieved:

Wikipedia (2008). Text Messaging: Popularity Retrieved:


Mobiles in Citizen Media data sheet 969 Views
Author: Elizabeth Keren
Abstract: An overview of the use of mobiles in citizen media.
Global Regions: Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Australia and Oceania, Central America and the Caribbean, Europe, Middle East and North Africa, North America, South America

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