Monday, 28 December 2009

Two milestones in the shift in power from old media to social media

There have been a couple of social media milestones during the year which show that old media and new are experiencing a shift in the balance of power.

They concern two big news stories that fit the old media model of an issue on which their readers will have strong views

In both cases the publication sought to chime with its readers views by producing trenchant comment about them.

One was the death of the pop star Stephen Gately The second was about a letter sent by the prime minister to Jacqui Janes, the mother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan.

In the first the Daily Mail columnist wrote that there was nothing natural about Stephen Gately’s death, and linked it to his homosexuality.

In the second it was said that the PM got the dead soldier’s name wrong, and made various other errors in a handwritten letter that was difficult to read. The Sun recorded a phone conversation between the prime minister and the bereaved mother, and published it on its website.

Trad media is used to having just the views of its own readers to worry about.

With social media the views they express are likely – if controversial enough – to reach a far wider audience; an audience that is not programmed with the prejudices that the newspaper confidently presents to its own constituency.

The Gately story was picked up, famously, by Stephen Fry and others on Twitter and Facebook
and resulted in a huge backlash from that community. As a result Moir apologised.

The letter story spread far beyond the Sun’s own readers and it seemed to some that the Sun was using this incident as part of a campaign against the prime minister.

Overwhelmingly, the view among those who learned of the story via social media was that, as a person of partial sight, the prime minister was being bullied. It resulted in a ‘give Brown a break’ backlash.

A majority of the Sun’s readers who commented on the website showed sympathy for Brown, Roy Greenslade reported.

What does this tell us?

Two things.

That newspapers such as the Sun and Mail, which pride themselves on having a finger on the pulse of their readers, can on occasion get things very wrong.

Second, that old media can no longer express views that chime with its own readers but which offend a substantial number of others. Well, they can, but if they do it openly on the web, without pay walls to keep these views from the general web user, then  they will be called to account for them.

This is a profound shift in the balance of power towards the wider community. It shows that social media has very powerful. The wisdom of the crown has been brought to bear in these two instances.

We are used to hearing of the negative impact that unfettered comment can have on the web. Here are two examples of how it can be a force for good.

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