Social media: threat or opportunity?


Paul Bradshaw has a really interesting post on the Online Journalism Blog, focusing on the interaction between ‘traditional’ and ‘social’ media. In short, BBC News’ education section published a piece on the threat of “tech addiction” to learning. As it turned out, the paper the article was based on contained no academic references or detailing of research methodology, and had been written by a pair of management lecturers rather than psychologists or education experts. This cast a certain degree of doubt on the claims in the BBC story, but it took a GP, AnneMarie Cunningham, to bring the matter to light.

Although AnneMarie’s blog post has been widely circulated, there’s been no opportunity for these comments to be fed back into the original article, as like nearly all BBC News stories, there are no means to comment on stories.

Paul takes the BBC to task on not allowing user comments and writes up his email conversation with Gary Eason, the BBC website’s education editor. What piques my interest most was this quote from Paul:

Speaking to Gary further, he said that he was aware of some of the criticisms but does not tend to address online discussion unless they were libellous towards his journalists, “otherwise I’d spend all day doing something else”.

This chimes with something I noted in another blog post I wrote on social v. traditional media, witnessing at least one journalist declaring the basic standards of a social media policy should be those of the libel or defamation laws. Here again, another journalist is only considering readers’ contributions with misinformation or abuse primarily in mind, rather than thinking that it can in any way enhance or improve their content.

The story in question still sits on the BBC News website, uncorrected and unimproved, damaging the BBC’s reputation. Which itself is unfair on much of the efforts in other departments – the BBC is a colossal organisation, with a wide variety of people and projects, and so while it may suffer in some areas, and in many others it’s been great at getting social media right – from getting its staff to blog from the shopfloor to pooling the buzz around its programmes. But by not being social across the board it risks further damage and ammunition for its detractors.

That said, merely adding user comments to news stories are not a panacea – free-for-all anonymous commenting can lead to stories being swamped with irrelevant content, endless groupthink or just plain trolling – examples of how bad conversation can drive out good (a Gresham’s law for the social web?) are outlined in an interesting post by Mark Pack, using the Daily Mail as a classic example.

Merely adding social functionality to your site is not enough to help you get the best out of social media. You need to find the venues where the constructive conversations are happening; you need the right tools to help filter through the chaff; you need to consider the right policies and interventions to ensure communities around you remain civil and constructive.

And to get all of these right you need to start from the right place to begin with – not with a negative mindset, worried that every comment or blog post is going to be libellous or a threat, but with one that is open to the ideas and opportunities that social media offers to improve your content and your brand.