Following recent comments made by BBC journalist, Andrew Marr, we were asked to come up with a suitable response to refute his statement in the form of a letter. Seems an antiquated form of communication but here goes…
Dear Andrew Marr,
We felt compelled to write to you in light of your recent comments on bloggers in an attempt to explore your viewpoint, motivation and hopefully to persuade you that not all of us are angry, ranting, social misfits.
It is our intention to do this by considering the cultural aspect of new media, what may have motivated you to make these comments and also to look at some examples that may present an alternative view of blogging as a force for social change. By the end, we hope that you may have changed your position or at the very least be better informed.
Firstly, let’s look at the cultural aspect of social media and how it compares to that of the traditional media set to which you belong.
Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact. Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings. Every human society expresses these, in institutions, and in arts and learning. The making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery, writing themselves into the land. The growing society is there, yet it is also made and remade in every individual mind.
Williams, (l989a) Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism
You are from a time-honoured tradition of stable, measured disclosure. Your reporting relies on robust journalistic principles, well researched and presented. It is true that this may be a far cry from the potential anarchic or, heartfelt viewpoints of so-called ‘citizen journalists’ but yours too is but a single perspective, however well researched and balanced, a view that cannot be completely free from subjective bias.
A key difference between an article written by you and that of a blogger is that there is little opportunity to challenge your statements, explore your arguments in detail and arrive at a consensus – it is a one way communication. The beauty of social media, is that it is collaborative in its nature, allowing the exploration of an idea. Ultimately the reader will still arrive at their own conclusions but in the case of the blog they have often also taken part in the debate.
It is this participative nature of the social web that sets it apart. Whilst traditional media offers a certain safety for the reporter – there are rules and conventions that have to be followed – it can also be limiting, often closing down the debate rather than stimulating it.
And perhaps the advent of blogging offers a new model for journalism; it seems people are no longer content to be mere bystanders, passively receiving their news in traditional formats. Indeed, perhaps distribution is now just as important as reporting – why else would more conventional forms of media be jumping on the new media bandwagon?
More and more producers use social media to encourage participation (you can Tweet during BBC Question Time). In the case of readers, there has always been a ‘right to reply’ but blogging offers something more. Indeed it is more often the case that citizen journalists are not only contributing to but actually breaking big news stories.
As online journalist, Paul Bradshaw notes (on his blog we might add),
The blogs of September 11; the camcorder images from the Asian tsunami; the mobile phone images of July 7; the Facebook pages of Virginia Tech. If you needed to read about any of these major events, you could do so – if you wished – without opening a newspaper or watching TV.
The fact is blogging offers something different from conventional journalism, not something inferior, just different and it’s those differences that should be celebrated rather than berated,
In fact, that’s precisely the beauty of them. In the old days, if the Guardian or Telegraph rejected our rantings, the world would probably never hear them. Now we have created our own medium to get our brilliant insights out there. And of course some blogs may be true, and some may even nod to objectivity and balance, but the blogosphere would be a sadly diminished place if every view expressed had to be balanced, fact-checked, sub-edited and all those other peculiarities of good journalism. In other words, blogs work to a separate set of rules.
The irony is that it’s often fans of the blogosphere who end up balking at its extremes and calling for new ways to regulate the web or separate out responsible, accurate blogs from the irresponsible ones – a major preoccupation for those who care about science or public health.
But these calls take us full circle, to why we need something called journalism – perhaps now more than ever. Regulating and policing the blogosphere would kill everything that is good about it. We should simply accept that there is the blogosphere, and there is journalism, and the more sound and fury on the blogosphere, the more need for journalism to do its job – to select, verify, correct, edit, analyse, balance and all those old-fashioned things that journalists are trained to do.
Fiona Fox, BBC College of Journalism blog
So what led you to make these comments? Is it about a need to have control in an environment where you perceive there to be none or perhaps it is control of the agenda that you fear losing. With no editors or sub-editors to ensure the strictest ethical standards are maintained how can you bring order to this chaos? But wait, what about sites like Wikipedia or Metafilter?
Although Wikipedia is based on an openly editable model that anyone can access, it is moderated. Information remains only if “it fits within Wikipedia’s policies, including being verifiable against a published reliable source.”
Similarly, Metafilter members discuss and share web content. They are permitted to make one post to the front page per day, which must feature at least one link. The website is moderated and posts which do not meet the community’s standards for quality are removed and authors banned. This practice of self-policing ensures a high level of quality is maintained.
You may wonder what relevance all this has to your comments about bloggers. Well, what we are trying to establish here is the social context of the web as well as the power it has. And maybe therein lies the point – perhaps your comments are a quite deliberate ploy to strategically carve out a web presence following a realisation that, online your light doesn’t shine too brightly.
As a journalist you live in the relative comfort of the ‘corporate’ model of news delivery. Grasping at the web in this way has exposed a naivety, a clumsiness in your understanding and navigation of the online world. You are Leadbeater’s external actor – trying to make the space fit your experience, trying to bend the environment to your own will.
The web will encourage us to see everyone as a potential participant in the creation of collaborate solutions through largely self-organizing networks. But that will only come to pass if we can organize our shared intelligence ourselves.
Leadbeater, We Think, Profile 2008, Ch 1, p 8
Leadbeater’s web is ‘a messy place’, lacking the formality and structure with which you are comfortable. However, it is naive to think that you can change that or simply become a part of it by marking out your territory with choice comments that give you a foothold on Google.
Instead you should endeavour to join the conversation, offer your valuable opinion and insight and encourage a debate in the true spirit of the ‘We Think’ paradigm. Far from snubbing what you think to be a new medium that threatens the media status quo you should look to embrace what is actually a very ancient practice. For social media harks (or indeed hacks) back to practices of the ancient campfire, of stories told and retold and of lessons learned.
Common platforms and peer-to-peer working allows innovation to emerge from a community. Communities of innovation are all the rage on the web but once again, they are very old. Community and conversation is the root of creativity.
Leadbeater, We Think, Profile 2008, Ch 1, pp 15
So what of professionalism and research ethics?’ we hear you cry. Let us point you towards the excellent work of Darabi, a contemporary in the sense that she writes for the New York Times, yet part of the new revolution in the sense that she blogs on social media strategy.
Hers is not the anonymous “spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night.” By her own admission “She is constantly aware of her followers on Twitter, she researches and knows her audience.”
Say you’re an author, a book aficionado. Most [of your followers] have tagged music as a passion. You might want to throw them a bone about your favorite song. There are a lot of Venn diagram overlaps in this community. It’s to your advantage to be as much as part of a community as possible which means engaging with people’s interests.
I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience, Alice E. Marwick and Danah Boyd Page 13
The article describes the effort required in researching an audience, something so important that Darabi’s company has even developed a tool to assist the process, Twittersheep.
And the reach of micro-blogging doesn’t end there. From multi-national corporations to sole traders business is bolstering its web presence through blogs, micro blogs and other social media applications. If business is the new rock and roll, the social web is fast becoming the drum to which it beats.
Hopefully by now we are all agreed that there is a place for blogging but what of those angry people you mentioned?
We would say that whilst angry people do exist, it would be wrong to mistake passion or belief for anger. Blogging provides an opportunity to bring people together around themes that they care about rather than the ones that are perceived to be ‘newsworthy’ by a relative minority. This, as mentioned, often shapes the debate and crosses over into mainstream news providing professional like you with your bread and butter.
[The] more connected we are, the easier it is for small groups to cause enormous disruptions, by spreading viruses real or virtual. The web enables small dispersed groups to collaborate in ways that were previously impossible. That might be great for the small community that trades car parts for old Citroens, or for those who want to play poker against one another.
Leadbeater, We Think, Profile 2008, pp. 5
Yet it goes far beyond hobbies and games. This kind of participation can be a huge driver of social change. This was evident in the MAC/Rodarte controversy where comments and discussions on blogs actually reshaped the entire corporate campaign of a global retailer.
US cosmetic giant MAC (part of the Este Lauder group) used the impoverished Mexican city of Juarez as the inspiration for their new collection.
This enthusiasm wasn’t shared by the female residents of a city with one of the highest murder rates in the world where many of the victims were women and children. The result of an internet backlash was that the collection was ultimately cancelled – no mean feat for a small disorganised group of bloggers.
And there are plenty of similar examples of how small groups with a shared interest have captured the imagination of the world through their blogs, wikis and social networking.
However in case the views of a the socially inadequate fall on deaf ears, perhaps the only way you will ever change your opinion is by listening to the views of your contemporaries.
What’s most dismaying about Marr’s broadside is that he’s evidently still labouring under the unbelievably outdated notion of bloggers as anti-social geeks. The reality is quite the opposite. Blogging is infinitely more “social” than writing for the print press, for the simple reason that it’s not over when you click publish.
Luke Lewis, deputy editor, NME writing in the Telegraph
What a shame. Marr has given in to the very things he protests against – irrational attacks based on little or no fact; over-emotive one-sided vitriol and ultimately an immaturity which does neither him nor the BBC any credit as media organisations look to align themselves (and they must!) with social media and evolving channels of communication.
Will Sturgeon, the media blog
To those of us who spend our time reading and contributing to the blogosphere, this attack on our skin condition and relationship status hit home hard. But wiping aside the tears, I feel that Mr Marr doesn’t really know what he was talking about.
A blog is just a format for writing in the same way that a review or a feature article is a format. Blogs just happen to be well suited to the internet – and to the experience of reading on a computer. They are personal, yes, opinionated – often, but good blogs tend to deal deals with one particular topic in a clear way with regular updates and they are often bang on time because they can be published easily. Blogs can be a very useful source of information, and the personal character fits with the experience of reading on a computer – a one-person, one-screen interaction which works with a more conversational tone. Blogs can also be funny, enjoyable and interesting – it’s possible.
Anna Leach, The Independent writing on Shiny Shiny
In the hope that some of this has sunk in we leave you, once more, with Leadbeater.
As the web shapes and colours many more aspects of our lives, it will provide us with a new way of thinking, a set of reflexes for how we should organise ourselves. For the generations growing up with social-networking sites, multiplayer computer games, free software and virtual worlds, the reflexes learned on the web will shape the rest of their lives: they will look for information themselves and expect and welcome opportunities to participate, collaborate, share and work with their peers. The web will slowly reframe how we see the more material aspects of our lives fitting together.
Leadbeater, We Think, Profile 2008, Ch 1, pp 7,8
And so if it does turn out to be the case that we can organise our shared intelligence ourselves, and if you don’t want to take part in the dialogue of collaboration, where does that leave you Andrew Marr?
BCU Social Media group