A new app plans to deliver hyper-local news through geo-targeted mini-posts. It may revolutionize citizen journalism - and neighborhood gossip. It could also send the odd "reporter" to court.
The Eureka moment came while Manuel Tessloff was looking down from his Hamburg balcony on what appeared to be the search for a human body. SCUBA divers were lowering themselves into one of the city's canals. Firefighters stood by on watch. Spectators crowded in.
Tessloff later checked the Hamburger Morgenpost newspaper for more information.
"But there was nothing," says Tessloff.
He then turned to Facebook and Twitter.
But since he's not "following" any fire departments or SCUBA chapters, the search went nowhere. "That was the birth-hour of Apparazzi," he says.
Unlike Facebook or Twitter, where users follow people, users of Apparazzi follow places. Typically that would be your neighborhood, quarter or district - Hamburg's Schanzenviertel, for example, or Munich's Schwabing quarter. But also "where your mother lives," says Tessloff.
When someone posts a bit of "hyper-local news" - whether it's the closing of a business or a police car on patrol - a push message is sent to your smartphone. As with Twitter, there's a text-cap. On Apparazzi, it's about 300 characters. Text isn't always the point, though.
"It's about a picture, the story within the picture, a little headline. And if you want, you can add some text to it," Tessloff says.
Established media outlets have been trying to harness user-generated content - such as this - for some time now.
Reuters operates the You Witness portal, where users upload pictures, video, images, audio or text. The company can then use the material on "a royalty-free, non-exclusive" basis. CNN does the same with iReport.
In Germany, the mass-circulation Bild newspaper's 1414 portal offers financial incentives: Fees range from 20 euros for a story "tip" to 250 euros for a photograph that ends up in print.
But these are the kind of arrangements that the German journalists' union, the DJV, tends to frown upon.
Beyond undercutting trained professionals, the content is questionable, says spokesperson Eva Werner. Did the "photographer" actually take the picture? How accurate is the user-generated information? Is it contextualized, or is it misleading? she asks.
The union isn't opposed to all user-generated content, however.
"If we want to know about a tragedy, and we only have [non-professionals] on site, then we wouldn't say, 'We're not going to use that,'" Werner says.
Less news, more gossip
But Tessloff's "news" is the kind few want to touch.
First, it's too local to be profitable in print format - even if, as Tesloff says, demand is high for hyper-local news. He cites the popularity of Prenzlauer Berg Nachrichten, a blog that reports exclusively on that Berlin district.
As his company's name suggests, Aparrazzi's news isn't exactly "news," either.
Tessloff often uses the word "gossip" to describe the information his users post.
"It's a real-time, user-generated mobile tabloid magazine," he says.
But what if a user lies? What about the inevitable online posting of, well, complete and utter nonsense?
"Regulation happens amongst users," he says. "There's a way to report pictures or posts." Repeated infringement, he adds, results in a canceled account. And if there's anything against the law, "We'll definitely take it down."
But for the relatively younger demographic using the service, "taking it down" may already be too late.
Libel and slander 3.0
In Britain, a woman and a man in their 20s were sentenced on January 24 to 12 and eight weeks in jail, respectively, for a number of tweeted threats - including the word "rape" - directed at a British feminist campaigner.
Two years earlier, a 21-year-old student in Britain was sentenced to 54 days in prison for a racist comments made on Twitter.
These cases may be at the extreme end of the scale - they included threats of direct physical harm. But the age of the users is telling.
Many young people seem to believe that anything and everything can be posted online without consequence - and it's a view which is "legally wrong," says German Internet law expert Benedikt Mick at Streifler & Kollegen.
Apparazzi's users are estimated to be between 25 and 45 years of age - the company doesn't ask.
Men tend to post information on police. Celebrity sightings are usually posted by younger women.
But where gossip magazines are well-versed in the art of avoiding libel - the damaging of a person's reputation through untruthful, written claims - young "gossipers" may not. Nor, it would seem, are they trained in the new and internationalized, legal definition of the term.
Many of Apparazzi's users are in the UK. The lawyer Benedikt Mick says the UK has more relaxed criteria than Germany on libel, with the difference lying in the extent to which a celebrity's "personal rights" are protected in each country. Still, a sucker-punch written in the UK and aimed, say, at the private life of a prominent German footballer, could reverberate legally back in Germany - or vice versa.
"Each publication, regardless of whether it's in a conventional newspaper or on the Internet, is subject to the same criminal terms," says Mick.
"That can go to court, absolutely."
Eighteen months after a European court ruling, the search giant has received 348,000 requests to delete personal information. More than 1.2 million sites have been evaluated for removal.
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