When it comes to most apps, you’ve got power users and you’ve got passive users. Passive users might download an app, sure, but they only lurk there from time to time; maybe they forget the app exists on their phone altogether. The power users, though, help shape what an app ultimately is. They spend hours engaging with it, creating and sharing content for free, and contributing to the kind of commentary that keeps people coming back. That’s true on social media apps, and it’s especially true on something like Citizen.
Citizen is an app that encourages people to live-stream incidents occurring in their neighborhoods. Trained technicians hired by Citizen listen for official emergency dispatches, then send alerts to users through the app. Some power users even listen to police scanners themselves, hurrying to the scene to film whatever’s happening. While some of the events are relatively benign, others might be dangerous or violent—and Citizen users are there, right in the middle of the action. People have used Citizen to livestream gas leaks, fires, hit-and-runs, and knife fights. And, while the app has been around since 2016, earlier this summer it got a fresh wave of attention when people started using it to stream live video of street protests happening in response to police brutality against Black communities.
For the inaugural episode of the Get WIRED podcast, we wanted to go deeper. We wanted to understand exactly how the app works. We wanted to get a better sense of exactly what Citizen’s mission is: Is its goal really to make the world better? Or does it thrive on chaos? And we wanted to understand what motivates the app’s most prolific users.
We were fortunate to be able to go behind the scenes with one of these avid Citizen users. Before the pandemic had us all sheltering in place, WIRED contributor Boone Ashworth started following Anthony Goblirsch as he monitored police scanners, chatted with his family, and ultimately, headed out into the streets to livestream an incident in his neighborhood. Anthony’s contributions to the Citizen app are especially remarkable when you consider that he’s just 12 years old, and that he’s essentially growing up in a world where various forms of neighborhood surveillance—and all of the complex interactions that come with this—are just a few taps away.
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