Page last updated at 12:51 GMT, Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Social media challenges social rules

The US flag flies at half mast in front of the Army"s III Corps headquarters at Fort Hood, Texas
There has been criticism of the use of social media after the Fort Hood shootings

Old social rules don't seem to work online, says Bill Thompson

Last week I sat around a large table on the top floor of Bush House in London with about 20 other people while we talked about the ways radio is changing and tried to imagine how English-language programming on BBC World Service could take advantage of the online, multimedia world that is emerging around us.

I was invited because I appear on Digital Planet each week to think out loud about the impact of technology on our lives, but this was an internal BBC meeting rather than an open seminar, and the discussion was never intended to be made public.

That didn't stop one of the other attendees, BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, from recording a segment of the introductory remarks that Ben Hammersley, the associate editor of Wired UK, made and posting it online via AudioBoo. And it didn't stop several of us tweeting about our presence, or me posting a photo of Rory at his end of the table on yfrog.

Nominet audience
A 'panel-eye view' of the Nominet event

None of us revealed the substance of the debate, and the online activity was in some ways just a good way of making the point that the world has changed, but we could easily have crossed the line with an ill-considered tweet.

It wasn't the only time that week that I broke the implicit social rules at an event. On Tuesday I was one of the fortunate few to have acquired a ticket for Boffoonery, a benefit event for Bletchley Park that featured great comics like Robin Ince and Robert Llewellyn performing for a cause that is dear to my heart.

During the show I was taking photos, updating my Facebook status and twittering away in a manner that would have got me kicked out of the National Theatre but seemed entirely appropriate for an event that began with geek pin-up Simon Singh showing us a real enigma machine.

Audience reach

I did it again the very next day when I spoke at a conference organised by Nominet, the company that runs the .uk domain name registry. During a lively panel session I tweeted about the event, posted a photo of the "panel-eye view" and even used Google to look up the details of the ENUM service that translates a VOIP telephone number into a domain name so I could answer a question.

At the end of our session the chair, broadcaster Sarah Montague, expressed her surprise that we been checking our mobile phones so openly. Wendy Hall, Michele Neylon and I all loudly protested that we hadn't been reading e-mails but engaging in debate with the audience, although I'm not convinced we persuaded her that we weren't just being impolite.

Bill Thompson
Behaviours developed for the industrial age simply cannot cope with the new possibilities for information sharing.
Bill Thompson

Thanks to the easy connectivity provided by smartphones and the growing number of people connecting online through social media sites it is now possible to reach out to the audience at an event or people anywhere in the world while talking on a panel, speaking on stage or sitting in an audience.

The shift in the boundaries was in the news this week for much more serious and sombre reasons. On Friday Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, shot dead 13 people and wounded many others at Fort Hood army base in Texas.

Once the military authorities realised what was happening, the base was locked down and information was provided through a US Army spokesperson. But one of the soldiers caught inside Fort Hood, Tearah Moore, used her cameraphone to tweet and upload photographs throughout the incident.

Tearah Moore has been widely criticised for doing this. Much of what she said was incorrect, as although she was present she did not actually see much of what was happening, and she seems to have posted without any consideration for the feelings or privacy of those affected.

'Real-time ethics'

One of the most trenchant criticisms of this "social reporting" came from Paul Carr on the technology blog Techcrunch UK, where he argues that "her behaviour had nothing to do with getting the word out; it wasn't about preventing harm to others, but rather a simple case of "look at me looking at this'".

Carr also notes that: "For all the sound and fury, citizen journalism once again did nothing but spread misinformation… and breach the privacy of those who had been killed or wounded. We learned not a single new fact, nor was a single life saved."

The contrast between me tweeting from a conference panel and the tragic events at Fort Hood is of course enormous, but it shows the range of situations now being affected by the new social media. The challenge posed by easy access to online tools and services affects everything.

Paul Carr doesn't believe we can or should try to stop this or censor what is published, but thinks that "we need to get back to a point as a society where - without thinking - we put our humanity before our ego".

It's a point echoed by Kathryn Corrick, one of the shrewder observers of the social media scene.

In a typically eloquent blog post on "the ethics of real-time social reporting" she points out that "gossip and news has always travelled quickly. What's different is the reach and speed now possible and the wider and deeper impact".

Today our social rules seem to have been overloaded by our always on, always connected culture. Behaviours developed for the industrial age simply cannot cope with the new possibilities for information sharing.

We are clearly going to see a lot more inappropriate use of social media before new rules emerge.


Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.



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