In a discussion with some colleagues recently about the role of NGOs in creating media, someone said, in reference to material being posted on a website by someone other than a journalist, something like “but what if the person who writes the story is, well I don’t want to say ‘amateur,’ but what do we call them…” Our host jumped in with “People. They’re called ‘people’ now.”

Defining these terms is part of my project here at Berkman, and so far the results are not good. It’s too bad the word “amateur” has negative connotations, especially since it originally means “lover,” but I don’t think that people for whom writing or making podcasts is not their primary source of income are going to change that. For the record, I personally rate the chances of the bloggingetcetera community claiming “amateur” the way the gay community claimed “queer” at slim to none.

So what is the best term? “Volunteer” sounds OK in phrases like “it’s an all-volunteer site” but make less sense in the context of one-person “publications” (another word that badly needs replacing). Who are you volunteering for when you write for your own satisfaction? It’s my understanding that the open source software people (to whom non-professional journalists are so often and so inappropriately compared) by and large DO make their money in a related industry, which to my mind makes them absolutely different from community news site contributors, bloggers and others. What about people who are paid to know a lot about the subject they’re writing about vs. people who are reporting or commenting on it as outsiders?

I do think it’s an (not the only) important aspect of this kind of work whether people are paid to do it. I also think there are interesting differences between people who are usually paid to do it but also do it some of the time for free and people who never get paid to do it. Amateur doesn’t really help define either very well.

So I don’t like the word but for now I have no alternatives to offer. Anyone who does, please speak up!

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