Will Citizen Journalists Take Over the London 2012 Olympic Games?

Two years from now, the London 2012 (@London2012) Olympic and Paralympic Games will draw to a close, concluding what will become known as the first social media Olympic Summer Games.

The city of London is promising to make the city a pervasive wi-fi zone and the British government's move towards a "Digital Britain" (@DigitalBritain) coincides with this period. But, what impact will social media have on how the games function in the long-term? Will the Olympic Games of the next decade continue to be founded on complex broadcast exclusivity, or will the era of freemium and AdSense come to dominate this elite club of transnational corporations?

At the Vancouver 2010 games earlier this year, the International Olympic Committee launched its entry into the new media world, by teaming up with Yahoo! to produce a Flickr meet up. As well, since 2008, the IOC has been broadcasting Olympic content online through YouTube and its Facebook and Twitter accounts now occupy an integral part of their communications strategy. Computer games are even on their radar, thus bringing an end to an era of pretending that computing is somehow at odds with a healthy, active lifestyle.

All of this indicates the IOC's commitment to opening up to new media, but what challenges does this present for them and Olympic fans? Will the IOC be able to retain a strong control of its intellectual property, or will it develop new methods of making money?

For London 2012, these challenges are particularly apparent, as these games have been positioned as the nation's games. Some funding has even been devolved to all parts of the United Kingdom and plans are in place to ensure that the games are celebrated throughout the country notably through an extended body of cultural activity.

This framework provides space for citizens outside of London to critically engage with the games, while also enabling a route towards celebrating the sports. However, the media structures that underpin the games-time period all converge on the Olympic capital, leaving little space for anything else to gain a platform. So, who will hear about these other stories?

One route will come in the form of citizen journalists, an increasingly prevalent character within Olympic community. At a Summer Olympics, around 20,000 official journalists descend on the Olympic capital, while a further 15,000 unaccredited journalists are expected in London.

Yet, it is the blogger and social media journalist that is set to dramatically transform these figures. In Vancouver, citizen journalists self-organized to create independent media centers, covering everything other than sports, from local heritage to critically discussing aspects of the Olympic program and values. One of them, True North Media House (#TNMH), embraced the most liberal approach to accreditation, asking its journalists to download a template media pass, attach their own photograph and laminate it themselves.

These trends towards a more open media environment, promise a different media landscape at an Olympic Games and, on October 4 this year, people within the UK will have their first taste of this alternative future for the Olympic and Paralympic media at an independently funded unconference.

Hosted by the Abandon Normal Devices festival (@ANDfestival, #ANDfest) the #media2012 event will bring experts from recent and forthcoming Olympic & Paralympic host countries, notably Canada, Russia and Brazil into contact with the UK to consider crowd source solutions for the games' media coverage and to find a way of making #media2012 a dominant hashtag for the Olympic and Paralympic period. One clear target is to radically transform the amount of coverage the Paralympic Games receives, which is always the poor relation of the Olympics in terms of profile.

In the aftermath of the Vancouver 2010, where vast amounts of public funding were cut after the games and amid economic downturn, the need for renegotiating the terms by which journalism takes place around mega-events -- and more generally -- is significant. Indeed, in such circumstances, the need for independent media becomes even greater, as traditional media organizations experience diminishing or fragmented audiences and as greater vigilance over governmental decisions is needed. In London, arts and culture are likely to lose at least 25% of government funding and, perhaps up to 40 % over the current administration.

While many citizen journalists will celebrate the games, they are also likely to find space to criticize what it should have achieved, beyond hosting safe competitions. While the accredited journalists are housed in their official facilities, eating McDonalds and drinking Coca-Cola, citizen journalists will own the streets of London, capturing what happens in the Olympic grey zones. Whether or not their contribution will transform the international view of what symbolizes the London 2012 Games remains to be seen. However, with a little bit of organization, there is a good chance that official media may need to become part of this new wave of gonzo journalism to fully do their job of reporting what these games were all about.

Yet, the biggest challenge is not convincing professional journalists that their power is waning or that they need to reskill towards the blogosphere. Indeed, most innovative media organizations are already doing this. Rather, the bigger problem is the public relations officers who have spent years cultivating relationships with professional journalists on the belief that this will get their organizations kudos and coverage. This loyalty to a diminishing power can frustrate collaborations between professional and citizen journalists.

If the hashtag #media2012 fails to dominate social media coverage during the London 2012 Games, or if citizen journalists remain fragmented, then this may reveal its failure to bring about change. That is, unless the concept of a hashtag and Twitter have ceased to exist by then.