Tuesday 18 November 2008

Networked contacts: Rory Cellan-Jones, social media, and Bob, the imaginary pre-Internet journalist

Rory Cellan Jones, the BBC's technology correspondent, has written a blog post about this:

"Are broadcasters who use social media tools - Facebook, Twitter, blogs - really getting closer to the audience? Or are they just on an ego trip?"

He highlights two criticisms of using social media tools:
1. "So a social network and a blog provided a lot of added value and did indeed get me "closer" to the audience. But which audience? The 1,300 people in my Twitter community know a lot about technology but if I devote too much time to them, then I'm in danger of letting down millions of viewers and listeners who will never go near a social network."

2. "And there's another danger in the process of self-revelation that Twitter in particular involves. A writer from an internet scandal-sheet who was at the Radio At The Edge debate wrote "the more of themselves media people reveal, the more the public sees them as clueless, self-referential and narcissistic." He then went and searched my Twitter updates and found plenty of embarrassingly banal messages, including this one:"Just had my first go at washing the dog - she's looking at me with big sad eyes." Evidence, according to the writer, of "your licence fee at work".
It's good to reflect. Important in fact. But really, anyone who gives more than a moment's thought to this can see that these criticisms of Rory Cellan-Jones use of Twitter etc just don't stand up.

Let's demonstrate by comparing Rory's methods with an imaginary old world pre-Internet TV journalist called Bob.

Point 1:
Bob is an experienced techonology reporter who has built up a number of good contacts over the years, through personal friends, acquaintances, relatives of friends of neighbours, people who have helped him on other stories, people who work for companies, officials, other journalists etc.

But in order for Bob to get stories from these sources they have to phone him up or write to him or Bob has to phone them up or meet them etc. This takes time. Also it means that if he wants to get different views on stories he has to spend more time phoning round his contacts or meeting them. So for any one story he is limited on the angles he can consider.

Rory has access to all of Bob's sources but he also has 1,300 people on Twitter that he can tap into. And countless scores of other people that these Twitterers themselves are tapping into. For no doubt each of the 1,300 has online and offline connections that might result in stories, new information or different points of view.

Ok, so if Rory gets all his stories from Twitter then just maybe he might miss other stories that are in the public interest that his Twitter following has not picked up. And yes Rory has to be aware he might get a story from his other contacts or look out for things that might not crop on Twitter.

It's worth noting that a one-to-one conversation with a contact gives you much greater depth than what you can achieve in 140 characters, but then Rory still meets people. He hasn't forgotten how to meet people. And all of this doesn't take much awareness. Does it?

What's more Rory has access to the sort of networked contact book that Bob could only dream of. The number of contacts and angles that Rory has on offer to him and the fact that he can potentially access them in rapid time gives Rory a distinct advantage over Bob. (But by all means if you want to try to tell me that Bob was closer to his audience than Rory is, please give it a go in the comments...)

Point 2:

So let's drop back in on Bob. Bob has a story. He decides to phone up one of his contacts to get some more information. When his contact answers the phone, his contact asks Bob how his weekend has been. Not wanting to be rude, Bob says he spent some time with the family.

In passing he mentions that he washed the dog on Saturday afternoon for the first time, before asking his contact what she got up to at the weekend. Bob's contact says she had a good weekend, noting that funnily enough she took her cat to the vets. When she's finished talking, Bob turns to asking her about the story.

When Bob talked about his weekend was he wasting the licence fee payer's money in the same way that Rory Cellan-Jones is apparently wasting money by tweeting about washing his dog. Or were they both just doing their respective jobs?

So in my "clueless, self-referential and narcissistic" opinion, it would be unwise to suggest that cultivating a relationship with what is probably a highly informed specialist audience is a waste of time as a journalist. And frankly even more ridiculous to point the finger at a technology journalist of all people.

Oh and if you thought TV journalist Bob was on an ego trip and didn't like it, then you could switch off the television. If you think Rory Cellan-Jones is on an ego trip on Twitter then stop following him.


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