Tag Archives: democracy

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

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

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

Comment is Free: UGC to a T.


“Comment is free, but facts are sacred,” said former Guardian editor CP Scott back in 1921.

What he didn’t know then was that this would later become the blueprint for the launch of ‘Comment is Free’ (Cif), the Guardian and Observer Group’s way of giving their readership a stronger voice  in 2006.
Taking the website’s 7 existing blogs and adding together comment pieces from the two newspapers, Cif was born.

Screengrab of Comment is Free from The Guardian

Comment is Free set-up

It provides a platform for people and not just journalists to write articles on the current affairs of the moment. With a ‘pool of talent,’ some 700 contributors, from politicians, academics, journalists, to the ordinary man-on-the-street cif celebrates both diversity and inclusion, producing 30 new articles a day. It may not be the only newspaper encouraging us to contribute, but it is one of the best.
Comment is Free is much, much more than simply a comment’s page. It is a near perfect vehicle to encourage user generated content. Of course, commenting on articles plays a large part of Cif to foster argument, debate and opinion but the route from occasional contributor to regular writer is clear. The more you comment (and say something useful), the more well known you become on the Cif circuit, the better chance you have of being able to pitch your own ideas and getting accepted to play a more habitual role within the website.

And the incentives?
• As contributors you get to see your work published in a national newspaper.
• You get to call yourself a journalist (should you want to).
• For The Guardian they get to tap into a massive (and free) resource, important when many national newspapers are struggling financially.
• The Guardian gets to keep their reputation as innovative, progressive and community led.
• It’s cool! The sheer amount of people that write for Cif is a testament to just how well respected it has become; Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Shami Chakrabarti and Terry Jones to name but a few.
As media strategist Steve Yelvington said in 2006, “Editors, please listen. If you’re not rethinking your entire content strategy around participative principles, you’re placing your future at risk”.

The critics
Now of course there has been criticism leveled against Cif. When first launched established journalists expressed their distaste at what they saw as citizen journalism taking over. They argued that with Comment is Free contributors could remain anonymous while saying what they liked. Content wise, some see Cif as provocative because comment is moderated, but largely uncensored.

But this is the beauty of the whole concept, that debate is driven by free speech, “As editors we want to have a broad spread of views on the blog and as far as possible try to give bloggers leeway to express themselves as they want” says the site.
It is this commitment to expression that led to those in charge of Cif allowing contributors to become editors for the day, taking over both the commissioning and writing of the whole site for the site’s fourth birthday in 2010.
They say: “Our aim is to host an open-ended space for debate, dispute, argument and agreement in which users are able to comment on everything they read.”
We say: Bravo Guardian. UGC down to a T.

Click here to go to Comment is Free – Frequently Asked Questions

UGC: What’s in it for you?


‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ has been snapping at the media’s heels for many decades. It’s a clear example of the most obvious reason people contribute to the media – to put forward their point of view, both on the news and the way it’s presented. The outlets for doing this are many and varied, and the potential size of audience beyond Disgusted’s wildest dreams.

Selecting

All mainstream newspaper websites allow online comment to be added to stories, but that’s just the start. The Daily Mail is one of many employing a rating system; comments consistently recommended by other users rise to the top of the list. It is a cunningly democratic way of sorting thoughtful wheat from reactionary chaff, whilst adding all-important kudos to the process; not only can your views be published, but they can also win credibility from other users. The BBC takes this a step further – on their news site, the best comments are often added to the the main body of text, and become part of the ‘official’ journalism.

Critiquing

But there’s more to contributing than simply letting off steam. There’s an opportunity to actually drive a media outlet’s agenda. BBC programmes Feedback and Points of View are classic examples. These are all about discussing audience reaction, based on a selection of positive and negative contributions. The relevant BBC bigwig is hauled in to explain an approach, and often to promise to do better. The corporation clearly wants its audiences to know it cares. The fact it’s openly sensitive to criticism actually drives the audience participation – they know they can make a difference.

Democratising

This, then, is the buzzword, and with it a sense of involvement. Today’s viewers won’t put up with being talked at. Not only do they feel the right to talk back, they also want the right to create. Technology makes contributions easier, but that’s not the only reason behind the sea-change in user-generated content. A vivid eye-witness report or grainy footage from a well-placed smartphone validate audience experience, and give coverage an open, relavant feel. The need for democratisation of good journalism is a popular public sentiment. Disgusted is happy to help.

CARON BELL