“The etiquette of social media”

December 14, 2009

The following article was published last week in the BBC’s staff newspaper Ariel and appears with their kind permission. My original title was “Anti Social Media and the Human Shape”.

Social media. We love it.

I’m making a very good living out of social media myself.

But if you want to be “social” it’s about more than just starting a twitter account. For to be social is to be human. As Steven Fry wisely said recently twitter (and he could have easily said all social media) is “human shaped not business shaped”.

And human beings are strange creatures. Prey to emotions and irrational impulses and yet the only animal that worries “what’s the right thing to do?”

The ethics and morals of social media are still evolving. As everything and everyone goes online, what becomes important is how people behave, not what they’re called or what social tool they are using.

Recently two incidents have brought the ethics of social media and publishing online into sharp relief.

First Rupert Murdoch described the likes of Google as “parasites” and threatened to sue the BBC for using his newspapers stories. A few days later one of Rupert’s papers The Times reprinted a tribute to Edward Woodward from Edgar Wright’s personal blog. The trouble was they had not asked Edgar’s permission first, nor had they paid him. Edgar was understandably annoyed. So who’s the parasite now, cried the blogosphere?

Then the new Chair of the Press Complaints Commission seemed to suggest that the PCC could regulate blogs. There was a tart reaction from blogger Sunny Hundal. Sunny pointed out that when bloggers make mistakes they correct them prominently (one convention is to leave the text online but with a line through the offending section). However one of the long running complaints against the PCC is that some newspapers, when they are grudgingly pushed into admitting error, make sure that any corrections are buried well away from the original story and airbrushed out of history. “Thanks but no thanks. We behave better than you”, said Sunny to the PCC.

So if you think social media is just an easy way to get a “story”, think again.

One man’s story is another man’s personal tweet. Ransacking someone’s social media to get a news angle is like jumping into someone’s garden, stealing their flowers, shouting “I need this for something important” and then jumping back over the fence again. Bad behaviour, unethical even, and not BBC behaviour I would hope.

You’ll also have to behave well while those around you behave badly. Social media can an emotional and partisan thing. I’ve been called a parasite, and worse on message boards. Indeed only this week I was dubbed a “power mad cretin” by some anonymous wit who objected to the fact I removed his comment from the Internet blog. Fearlessness, honesty, humility, a sense of humour and a thick skin are all qualities you will need.

And these are not things you will learn on a training course, or through a new application on your iPhone.

Good luck and see you on twitter!

NB – on digging up the links for this piece I discovered that it looks like it wasn’t Rupert Murdoch who first dubbed Google parasites – it was in fact Robert Thomson. I stand corrected.


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