Author Archives: Caron Bell

Tweeting in the Commons?


The journalist’s pot of UGC gold looks likely to be enlarged after the Commons Procedure Committee decreed that MPs should be allowed to tweet in the Commons chamber. After they were initially banned in January, the committee recommended that smartphones and tablets should be allowed (but not laptops as they take up too much space), provided that they are on silent and used in a way which does not ‘impair decorum’. The Commons will vote on the measure within the next two months.

Objection!

The move hasn’t been without controversy. James Gray, Tory MP for North Wiltshire, argued that excessive use of electronic devices would lead to a ‘worrying change of atmosphere’ in the chamber, in which members weren’t properly concentrating on the debates. But the potential effects for MPs and journalists (who can tweet from the public gallery) could run far deeper than that.

Where does it go from here?

According to the report, 225 MPs now use Twitter. One of the committee’s main supporting arguments is that it will bring parliament a whole new audience, in the form of hundreds of thousands of MPs’ Twitter followers. Moreover, it seems likely that many more MPs will feel compelled to begin tweeting; if so many are communicating with their followers/constituents directly, those passing up the opportunity will appear increasingly distant.

Rich Pickings

This means that a huge new source of UGC material becomes available – MPs may tweet their reaction to others’ comments, and conversely may respond to journalists’ tweets questioning their behaviour. Useful too will be the large amount of constituent-MP tweeted discussions during an actual debate which might have a significant influence on the MP’s vocal comments and eventual voting.

Potential Pitfalls

An example of Twitter hosting co-debates was seen in the Australian parliament, where MPs have always been unrestricted. Back in 2009, a row flared up between the Speaker and MP Peter Dutton, in which the latter tweeted criticisms about the Speaker’s apparent favouring of the opposite party. (The Speaker warned that tweets were not covered by parliamentary privilege).

Shifting the Debate

This shows that Twitter has the power to lift a debate from the chamber and into cyberspace, allowing anyone – MPs, lobbyists, journalists – to join in.  Again it is another example of the traditional top-down media role being undermined. Should the committee recommendations be adopted, parliamentary reporters will have to pay as much attention to the cyber debate as to the Commons floor itself. This raises tricky issues for a Speaker trying to adjudicate without looking at his/her own device. But as a whole new world of co-debate, involving anyone and everyone, is invited into the chamber, there are rich UGC pickings indeed. Truly democratic, and virtually uncontrollable, no journalist worth their salt will be able to ignore this new dynamic.

CARON BELL

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Tablets and UGC


This week Kerry McCarthy became the first-ever MP to read her speech off a tablet computer during a Commons budget debate. They seem to be slowly embedding themselves into our society, but what of tablets’ contribution to UGC? Of course, their portabilty enhances the opportunity to interact with news while on the go, and at the source of the action.

But it’s not all smooth sailing.

Integrated UGC

I have an HTC Android Desire phone, which has a camera/video camera and voice recorder. The Android Sky News app I’ve downloaded has a direct UGC facility. Should I happen to capture something juicy, I can touch the app’s ‘Your Report’ tab, which enables me to send the material straight to Sky News, with the option of adding a comment. Fast. Free. UGC.

The Missing Element and its Knock-On Effects

But the much-vaunted Sky News iPad app – launched on March 17th 2011 – lacks this capability, principally because the first iPad lacks that integral part of our online experience: a camera. The iPad apps for CNN and BBC are therefore similarly constrained. New though they are, all have yet to be updated to fit the more sophisticated iPad 2 which, thank goodness, has front and rear-facing cameras. Yet other tablets have had cameras from the beginning, like Samsung’s Galaxy Tab. This means their users can take advantage of the Sky News for Android app’s ‘Your Report’ feature, as well the CNN ‘iReport’ function which is very similar.

The Reasoning

The first iPad then was focused around the consumption of media, rather than the creation of media, and the limiting effects are still evident in its apps. So, why did Apple take this seemingly regressive step in the first place? Well, when announcing the coming of the iPad, Steve Jobs was very clear that it wasn’t supposed to be just a beefed-up version of the iPhone. (Because actually it’s more a beefed-up version of the iPod Touch). Nothing wrong with vehicles of traditional, mainstream media of course. But for £399 I can’t help feeling those early iPad pioneers were short-changed.

Since the iPad still holds 73% of the tablet market (according to an International Data Corporation report in the last quarter of 2010), its lack of camera represented a significant dint in the progress of UGC. Now that this big drawback has been addressed, let’s hope the apps catch up!

CARON BELL

User Generating Children


Newsround has always had a tricky brief: making world news accessible to children who would probably have preferred it if CBBC had left the cartoons on. So UGC has been the programme’s key way of engaging the naturally narcissistic young; remember watching some lucky child’s Press Pack report back in the day? Fast forward fifteen years and the bustling Newsround website has given the programme a host of extra strings to its audience-engagement bow.

Keeping it Young

Some of the UGC is very distinct to a young audience…

The chatrooms too are buzzing, and host not just discussions on major news stories, but also other threads more immediately relevant to the programme’s target audience of 6 to 12 year-olds:

As with adult sites, children are invited to send in pictures and clips, comment on articles, add personal music reviews, vote in polls. And yes, the Press Pack tradition is still going strong. (For the uninitiated, this is an opportunity for children to send in their story ideas. If picked, they get to present a report on their story which is then aired on the main programme). The site, in short, is positively dripping with opportunities for child-friendly and child-directed UGC:

Why it Works

Is it that children are just greatly inclined to engage with the media in the hope of seeing their name on the screen? Well, no, actually. Whizz over to the online home of Young Times, the Times newspaper’s children’s section. Like Newsround, no one could accuse them of lacking child-friendliness:

But, riveting though this issue is for 6 to 12 year olds, no one has taken up the offer of leaving a comment. In fact, out of the seven stories featured on YT’s front page, only one has a comment. Of course, the comparison with the Newsround site is not strictly fair: the latter is part of the national child psyche, and many more children will visit its website. But that’s not the only difference.

What the Times, and other similarly underused children’s pages such as First News have tried to do is foist drier, adult-style UGC opportunities onto a young audience, and it doesn’t work. Children evidently demand more scope to direct the content themselves and thereby make an adult site their own. Any hint of top-down management and the site takes on the fatal whiff of a homework project. Children’s UGC can play a bigger role than in adult news, but you’ve got to put them in the driving seat.

CARON BELL

Happy 5th Birthday Twitter!


We came across the word ‘twitter’, and it was just perfect. The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information,’ and ‘chirps from birds’. And that’s exactly what the product was.” – Founder Jack Dorsey

Conception

It’s five years ago this weekend that developers at the Odeo podcasting company in San Francisco began work on their new project: an SMS service allowing individuals to communicate with a small group. On 21 March 2006  Jack Dorsey published the first ever Twitter message:

“just setting up my twttr”

The Early Years

Originally a service for Odeo employees, Twitter went public on 15 July, 2006. But its lucky break would have to wait another year – for the South by Southwest (SXSW)  film, music and interactive festival in Austin, Texas, held in March 2007. During the event, delegates’ tweets were streamed live on prominent plasma screens by Twitter employees, and the service quickly became flavour of the conference, with overall daily tweets increasing from 20,000 to 60,000. By February 2010, that number was 50 million.

Twitter Today

Its breezy name belies a medium that’s shown huge social and political strength. Although the majority of messages posted are indeed banal chit-chat, some of the traffic has had a big impact. The most obvious example is the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, in which Twitter was deployed by protestors to rally and communicate with each other on a mass scale, and to subvert the authorities’ crackdowns  by enabling protestors to share information directly with journalists.

Twitter at five has certainly remained true to its roots: unlike Facebook it remains resolutely a fountain of ‘short bursts of information’. But many are far from inconsequential.

CARON BELL

The Rise of UGC – a Timeline


Check out a timeline I’ve built on Dipity charting the growth of UCG and associated technologies since the mid 1990’s. It all happened so quickly! (And in the true spirit of UGC, if I’ve missed out any massive milestones, let me know!)

CARON BELL

Changing the Nature of Protests


There have been protests almost as long as there have been people, but how has the rapid expansion of UCG technology changed the way we make our point? Certainly, tools such as Facebook and Twitter can impact on the speed of a protest and its contageous potential, but they have also brought about a far more fundamental change.

Changing Leadership

Speaking at the Frontline Club on 15 February, BBC Newsnight’s Economics Editor Paul Mason argued that protests have now gone horizontal. New technology has allowed a peer network to replace hierarchies – no longer do people have to cluster around Scargills and Pankhursts to make their voices heard. As with the Middle Eastern protests, people on the street now communciate powerful ideas to each other – across streets and across international borders, without traditional leadership.

The End of a Tradition

Indeed, attempts to preserve conventional power structures in recent protests have failed miserably: the NUS (a traditional, top-down organisation) had planned an A to B march on 10 November in protest at the tuition fee hikes. It started well enough, but as people found their own multi-media voice the march began to break up, with the protest at Millbank taking on a life of its own. As glass was smashed, NUS leader Aaron Porter’s leadership collapsed: people were organising themselves outside of the traditional hierarchy.

New Roles for Journalists

This UGC-inspired de-centralisation poses new challenges for journalists. No longer can we turn up to a violent protest and ask to speak to the person in charge. The Middle Eastern protests of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya lacked any such leadership even at the start, and consequently lacked traditional narrative. With myriad people taking to the streets, journalists are left to contruct their own story, which requires a new respect for authentic voices. Suddenly we need to engage with the grassroots community. Any new hierarchies emerge democratically and ephemerally on the likes of Twitter – and journalists have to keep up with the hashtag deluge, just to make sense of the situation. Political activism has become open-sourced – and journalism a whole lot harder.

CARON BELL

Seeing is Believing: the Value of Transparency


Ask a media organisation about their motives for encouraging user interactivity, and they will mention such worthies as democratisation, reciprocity and authenticity. But the evolution of UCG was partly a consequence of, and important contributor to, a growing desire for transparency in the journalistic process.

The Workshop

Going are the days when news is handed to you on a plate at set mealtimes, well cooked and prepared behind the kitchen door. These days, there is no shame in letting the consumers see the work in progress. On the contrary, it’s an advantage: the consumer is then able to credit the source for themselves. It’s a trend that began with the addition of newsroom offices into the background of news studio sets, and continues now in the overt and relentless requests for first-hand information.

Dealing with the Complicated

In covering a large, chaotic event like the student fees protests in December, the BBC was criticised for patchy and delayed coverage (most notably regarding the apparent assault on wheelchair user Jody McIntyre) – its viewers had myriad feeds of alternative eye-witness information from a young, technically alert protest body, and understandably the BBC couldn’t keep up with it all. But its delayed response was also testament to the aforementioned mindset of yore – that reporting the news means churning out a series of finished, pre-validated products, albeit products sourced from new media.

Looking Busy

But the trend of transparency means even the process of basic fact-checking can be an open, interactive one. Had the BBC dealt with its complex task by focusing its work on validation through witnesses using Twitter and other media, it would have quietened the howls of criticism. If rumours are circulating, the BBC needed to be discussing them. It’s the only way to maintain journalistic credibility in the face of a social media avalanche; official journalistic bodies no longer have the monopoly on information. As modern consumers become more used to having their journalism built before them, they will increasingly come to assume that if they can’t see it, it isn’t happening. It will be interesting to see if the student fees protest is the last time the BBC does itself such an avoidable disservice.

CARON BELL