News analysis: social media

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Vicious online bullying, resignations and law-suits… social media just got serious. Chris Losh looks at a medium where content is often secondary to speed

The tail end of last year saw a period of a few days in which my thoughts seemed to be assailed on all sides by stories relating to digital media.

First there was the unedifying sight of chef Claude Bosi responding furiously to a blogger on Twitter, backed up by a squadron of fellow chefs, all clearly enjoying the sight of a reviewer being skewered live in front of them.

It coincided with a big wine bloggers’ conference in Turkey, attended by a number of booze hacks, in which ideas were exchanged, and talks given. The common theme seems to have been that print is a) stuffy, b) boring and c) dead, whereas social media (complete with videos and instant feedback) is the future.

Finally, as my Twitter feed was being bombarded by angry chefs and smug bloggers, there came the news that the BBC had dropped hints on Newsnight about a paedophile at a Welsh children’s home that were picked up on the Twittersphere, ending with Lord McAlpine being falsely accused of child sex abuse.

Serious consequences

Within a few days, Bosi’s food blogger, James Isherwood, was trolled off his Twitter account; George Entwistle, the head of the BBC, had to resign his £450,000 a year job; and the understandably aggrieved Tory peer threatened to sue anyone who had defamed him on Twitter, taking six figure sums from ITV and the BBC in a fortnight.

It was all proof that while speed of posting is a large part of social media’s appeal, those ‘top of the head’ Tweets and blogs can have a serious long-term impact. An impact, moreover, that is rarely considered at the time of writing. Why? Because social media is not journalism.

Anyone can create a website and write a blog or join two and two to make five on Twitter. Not anyone can write a column in The Times or, for that matter, Imbibe. Whereas we allow our bloggers to post directly on our website with no editorial intervention, any print columns are carefully vetted.

To write for established media, you have to be good. Your opinions carry the de facto endorsement of the publication. The same is not true of the vast majority of bloggers.

There is, in any case, a big difference between a researched article or a column and a blog that may be conjecture or pure opinion. For the last decade, it’s been possible to say things in social media that the authors would never dream of writing in print.

I’m pretty sure, for instance, that Bosi would never have used the language he did against the hapless Mr Isherwood in any of the drink or restaurant magazines.

The point, in a sense, about Twitter and, to a lesser extent, blogs, is that they’re instantaneous. It’s a medium for gut reaction, not considered thought, and it can mean that sometimes Twitter followers can head off vigorously in the wrong direction, egging each other on with all the critical application of brainless sheep. It also means many bloggers favour the inflammatory rather than the reasoned, since that’s how they get the most referrals, followers and retweets.

Learning the ropes

It is hard to get into writing for magazines or newspapers. That’s why people study it, start at the bottom and work their way up – so by the time they’re in a position of influence there’s a good chance they actually know what they’re talking about.

Such apprenticeships don’t apply to the web. The internet may have democratised writing – and on one level I rather like that. People have a voice now who would have remained unheard before.
But the ‘open access’ of the web also brings problems.

Anyone with an opinion and time to forward it can do so, unfettered and unedited.While there are some great bloggers, who I would classify as journalists, and some journalists who now practise mostly online, there are a lot of people chucking opinions around who might be better off staying silent – at least some of the time.

The fact that you have an opinion doesn’t make it right. The fact you have eaten a nice lunch, or tasted a good bottle of wine does not make it interesting.

In traditional media, it’s the job of a third party (editors) to sort the wheat from the chaff. When we’re all our own editor, is it any wonder the decision-making process on when to hit the ‘post’ button and when to bin something is so often wrong?

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