Want to send a postcard via Twitter?

I’m a big fan of blurring the or crossing the boundaries between online and offline materials.Take, for instance, the fantastic Newspaper Club or the simply outstanding The Iraq War: A Historiography of Wikipedia Changelogs. So, why has it taken so long for someone to create a ‘Tweet to postcard’ service?*

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The agency Brands2Life have done just that as part of their work with at800 – the organisation raising awareness of the issues the 4G network might bring to Freeview users. Their email informs me that if you send a tweet with the hashtag #at800postbox at800 they will print the personalised message onto a traditional postcard and deliver it by post for free.

Really nice idea, although as it’s been described as a “PR stunt” by one Twitter user I suspect that it won’t be a permanent service. Shame really.

* I’m sure I’ve read about a similar service sometime in the past few years

#ukriots and the limits of traditional media (and what it means for democracy)

This post started out as a few immediate thoughts about the way the #ukriots played out across the media.

By the time I'd got around to tidying up what I'd written it'd been superceded by a wealth of good analysis – some focused on media, some not.

Having written something I felt it worthwhile adding my own initial reactions to the debate, particularly from a media perspective given the political role the media has within liberal democracies.

I end the post with some next step ideas about what this all means for democracy. Something I'll hopefully return to a later date.

As mentioned above, recommended wider reading would include: Zygmunt Bauman's article on the consumerist context for the riots; Critical Legal Thinking and Schnews' account of the broader neoliberal capitalist project as cause of the riots and the London Review of Book's historical perspective.

I wanted to capture some of my thoughts around the limitations (and failings) of the media during the worst of the rioting, which may be useful for my ongoing research.

The guiding theme for all the points I jotted down was how the liberal media has possibly reached its limits for effective and adequate reporting in the 21st century.

This is partly due to the emergence of networked media powered by the internet and increasingly networked mobile technology; however, it is also down the wider structural limitations of liberal democracy within which the media plays a central role (see Louw, for a good overview of how the emergence of liberal democracy has gone hand-in-hand with the media).

Networks/Technology
During the worst of the riots social media gave access to multiple sources of information enabling anyone with internet access to gather information and build their own real-time stream of news.

Fascinatingly, the BBC was urging people not to use social media (Twitter in particular) to interpret events.

They told us: Twitter was full of misinformation, conflicting accounts and unverifiable information. Stay tuned to the BBC for verified and authoritative coverage.

Importantly, this random, disparate and admittedly sometimes misleading information flow of Twitter was the reality of the situation.

Gathering real-time streams of information and content from social channels and augmenting it with mainstream media coverage or official sources allows individuals to build their own personal news feed using multiple, heterogenous sources.

The flaw in the BBC's argument is that live streams of social information are much more reflective of the reality of the situation and allow individuals to create a flexible, open-ended picture of what's happening.

The role of the BBC (and other traditional new providers) is to crystallise information into "news" whereas following events through social channels recognises the fact that "news" is never created as a fixed reality, rather it allows us to infer a complex and ever-changing picture of events.

It can be suggested that this problem arises from the industrial model of news production where the gathering of information has to result in a completed, finalised and sellable product.

The BBC's idea of Twitter being misleading and unreliable is also a flawed argument based on the fact that it fails to recognise any other mode of editorialising except their own, professional news-production.

For example there are a number of filtering, accrediting and editorialising information using peer networks as Yochai Benkler has examined – see chapters 6 & 7 in The Wealth of Networks for an exploration of the different models of peer-to-peer information gathering and filtration.

As an example, I relied mainly on my own Twitter and Facebook network for gathering information about events, turning only to the #riot and #londonriot hashtags to verify what the BBC and mainstream media was reporting.

And as James Cridland has pointed out in a great blog post, when it came to gathering useful or verifiable data on the riots, traditional media – including the BBC – was reporting inaccurate information on events.
 
So, the BBC's attempts to warn people against using social media was telling: if anything, it reveals the real power of social media.

That the nation's public service broadcaster needs to try to convince people it has better information than the people on the ground suggests the game may soon be up for traditional, top-down, authoritative media.

(an ironic foot-note to all this, most forward-thinking mainstream media are actually seeking to build on real-time, social reporting as articulated by by the emerginging concept of "ambient journalism" according to Alfred Hermida.)

Reinforcing the argument that social media is over-taking traditional editorialising was the quality of the BBC and Sky's rolling news coverage.

Throughout the night, as I skipped from the BBC News channel to Sky News all I saw were news anchors repeating a variation of the same information drawn predominently from official sources; largely inane commentary from the paid-up commentariat or politicians and police sources who simply maintained an entrenched position that arguably created the socio-economic situation that gave broth to the riots in the first place.

The real voices of people involved or pragmatic analysis by individuals perhaps better qualified to talk about what was happening – people on the streets, sociologists, political economomists and the rioters/looters themselves – went unreported.

In fact, the news coverage on Sky went further than not offering real voices by actively seeking out and then mis-preresenting real voices.

Reporting on being told by one looter that they were looting because they paid taxes and got nothing in return, the correspondent reported this saying: "But I wouldn't say that's a political response. This is all just opportunistic."

If these points are political and cultural reasons why mainstream media has become inadequate in reporting news then there are also arguably institutional reasons as well.

For example, once the sun went down or rioting become too intense, dangerous or moved to perceived unsafe locations, such as housing estates, both BBC and Sky resorted to reusing aerial footage of burning buildings or footage recorded earlier.

No doubt this is to protect the health and safety of reporters, but it further reveals the limits of the media's ability to tell the full story.

Just as the textual/spoken reporting was limited to a repetitive set of 'known' or 'verified' information so too was visual reporting limited to unhelpful long-range or out-dated scenes.

There was arguably some 'citizen reporting' via Sky and the BBC – but this itself brought about an interesting blurring of boundaries between social and institutional reporting.

With many of their own correspondents living within areas subject to rioting and looting, Sky and BBC brought their reporters into live broadcasts on the phone.

Similarly, many were reporting events in real-time via Twitter. These off-duty reporters were reporting on local events from a personal persepective: remember almost all of these individuals have a "tweeting in a personal capacity" disclaimer on the accounts, plus by reporting through Twitter their coverage isn't limited to Sky subscribers or license fee payers.

Their actions were arguably blurring the role between being a professional reporter and a personal or citizen reporter. 

Limits of liberal democracy
The limits of the media can be extended, I'd argue, to an analysis of the increased decline in liberal democracy and its hold over people's lives and society as a whole.

Firstly, which is the demographic consuming least traditional media? Young people of course. And what was the core demographic of rioters? Young people – although, of course, with exception.

Young people as a whole crude homogenous lump don't consume mainstream media. On the one hand this is causing advertisers and media companies sleepless nights, but on the other it also means that the media's role in performing its rational, liberal public information or watch-dog role is being undermined.

Added to this situation is the established – and growing – disenfranchisement of young people by other structural elements of liberal democracy, such as government policy, political parties and the police.

For example, see my post on the March 26th demo and how so many of the young people I saw were serious about fighting back against police brutality meted out at the last year's student demos and a government which has made only too clear how public policy is dictated by the market by u-turning on student fees.

As a result, you have a liberal democratic mechanism of managing public opinion which is no longer effective among the emergent population (not to mention further exacerbated by the ongoing economic effects on quality of life and perceived life chances).

Then there is the content of the media and the role it plays in liberal democracy.

At a normative level the media is meant to help us rationally debate and discuss events in the public sphere and form reasoned, democratic responses upon which our political institutions will act.

However, the trend over the past decades has been an increasing sensationalism and populism among the broader, mainstream media.

The public – and in particular those who consider themselves liberals – who pay particular attention to the media to stay abreast of topical issues – are failing to recognise or discover the nuances and complexities of what is happening.

The public appears almost unanimous in adopting the sensational language used by politicians and media commentators and most importantly the predominently white, middle-class news readers who themselves are guilty of reinforcing this media "restyling" by adopting media stereotypes, e.g. referring to looters as animalistic, feral, etc.

There's no space in this type of traditional media coverage for critical debate. Suggestions that the government's strategy of destroying communities by cutting its funding and increasing levels of unemployment is parallel to destroying a community through the physical violence of trashing shops go unheard.

Arguably, the strategy is the same; the tactics differ. The government has the upper hand and can destroy communities through policy-decisions and structural means; young people adopt much cruder approach

And this allows us to glimpse a subtle and potentially crucial failing of the traditional media in what we might term 'end-stage liberal democracies'.

The government and the wider political institutions in a liberal democracy (of which the media is one) are used to controlling the media and shaping coverage.

Young people realise this. Many refused to become part of the media spectacle by attacking journalists or refusing to be interviewed – which further inflames the media's democratically privileged position and response.

Of course, social media's operational relation to this is not unproblematic. While social media can (but doesn't always) cut through the manipulation of media coverage by dominant interests, it can also incriminate people committing criminal acts.

As if to reinforce how important the traditional media's role is in supporting or facilitating liberal democracy – and social media's potential to disrupt and challenge established ways of working – as I write this endnote David Cameron is stood in the House announcing plans to censor social media during public disorder, effectively legislating for an enforced reliance and dominance of traditional media when liberal democracy is faced with 'legitimation crises'.

As none of the proposed knee-jerk respoens are likely to identify or attempt to fix the underlying causes of the #ukriots I expect we'll see more legitimation crises.

#tweetbike: my part in a social experiment

Massive thanks to @Paul_Clarke and his phenomenal #tweetbike.... on Twitpic

Today I had the serious pleasure of being part of Paul Clarke's social experiment, #Tweetbike.

Here's the backstory…

So I'm heading into London with a connecting train to catch and reading with abject horror about the total chaos the Tubestrike is causing (solidarity to the workers!).

I'm starting to panic about how the hell I'm going to get across town in time for my train when I see someone tweeting the hashtag #tweetbike and a twitpic of a fetching black motorbike.

To my delight I find Paul Clarke using Twitter and the #Tweetbike hashtag to co-ordinate lifts around London on his shiny motorbike.

One quick tweet and I've booked myself a ride. Fifteen minutes later and we're weaving in and out of gridlocked traffic and I'm on time for my train.

On the face of it, it's an awesome idea. This MacMillan Open Dictionary definition defines it perfectly. 

But it also opens up loads of exciting possibilities. #Tweetbike is simple, pure and effective collaboration utilising widely available and easy to use mobile tools. But it also mixes online, virtual collaboration with real-world outcomes.

As Paul explained to the BBC last year, #Tweetbike is:

"an exercise in how fast and how little effort it takes to make something happen in this situation. It has also helped me get a deeper understanding of how social media can work. It's a sort of mashup with my bike and Twitter."

But let's not forget that at the heart of this project is social capital.

Paul told me as I got on that someone had just tweeted how #Tweetbike was a murder waiting to happen which he found odd. What this perspective misses is that #Tweetbike isn't a pirely transactional service – it is driven by a deep social trust that Paul has built up through his personal network – both online and in the real-world.

And it's this element that is key to the success of this – and potentially similar projects. The one drawback is that this kind of trust is difficult to scale in a mass marketised world.

But that's a good thing because hopefully it will lead to more specialised, socially powerful, rewarding initiatives like this one.

 


Daily Mail snoops on people online and steals their content

A few weeks ago the Daily Mail caused a bit of a brouhaha by accusing brands that monitored social media to help identify and solve customer’s problems of “snooping” and “spying”.

I really can’t get anywhere near the level of hysteria generated by the article not even if I attempted a Brasseye-style spoof. Basically you should go and read it, although you actually shouldn’t as it’ll increase their site traffic.

Anyway, while there’s been enough discussion of this particular incident online I wanted to follow-up with another story of the Mail’s disgusting audacity and hypocrisy that happened to a friend.

Now, just imagine if a company was to trawl through the Internet – not unlike those companies that snoop on customers. But imagine if instead of helping people, this company used the Internet to steal things that belong to Members of the Great British Public.

Then imagine that when an aforementioned law-abiding citizen tells the company that it has broken the law and stolen something the company (or a representative of said company) was to deny it and attempt to cover up the crime by offering desultory sums of money to buy the victim off.

Just imagine if that company was none other than the Daily Mail itself!

Yes. That’s right. The sanctimonious Daily Mail was trawling the web on election night for pictures of voters across the UK reacting to polling stations being closed without all voters being able to cast their vote.

Friend and film-maker, Emily James, just happened to be in one of those polling stations and snapped away on her phone, uploading the images to Twitpic.

While other media outlets saw the images, requested permission to use, credited and paid Emily for her work the Mail simply lifted the images then claimed they were in the public domain which meant they could use them with impunity.

Emily, knowing her rights, asserted that Twitpic’s T&Cs copyright remained with the photographer and invoiced the Mail for a reasonable amount.

What followed was a series of exchanges with the Mail’s Pictures Online Picture Editor, Elliot Wagland, and the Mail’s Group Managing Director, Alex Bannister.

I’d urge you to go and read the full saga over at the Just Do It blog as it unfolds and savour in the sheer hypocrisy of the Daily Mail that on the one hand criticises companies for using the Internet to help its customers while on the other hand is happy to steal content from people. Part 1 is here and Part 2 here

Aside from the audacity of the Mail it’s also slightly worrying that its Online Pictures Editor fails to grasp the basics of copyright in relation to key social media platforms.

However, as Martyne Drake observes on his blog about this particular story, although the Mail’s Group Managing Editor  claims this was a one-off

given the number of times I’ve seen them [Daily Mail] attribute copyright wrongly and use pictures from Twitpic and other services (which retain the original copyright of the photographer), it’s not so much an incident that’s happened by accident or carelessness, but downright arrogance.

Enjoy!