Tuesday, July 31, 2012

...and the Gold, Silver and Bronze goes to: Twitter

Picture: LOCOG
London 2012 has become the Twitter Olympics. Careful scrutiny of the crowds attending events - where seats are filled, obviously - reveals an abundance of smartphones and iPads in employ as the information-hungry devour as much as they can of the 26 sports and 39 disciplines taking place over the 19-day games.

I doubt that it was intended that these Olympics would became so dominated by the social network, and if it was, I'm sure LOCOG would have manacled Twitter to a lucrative sponsorship deal.

In the first four days, however, it has probably been just as well: first there was the suggestion that Twitter overload or, at least mobile network overload, led to a slowdown of information reaching broadcasters covering the cycling road races. Hmm... I may know a little about this sort of thing and I find it hard to understand how a mass video upload of Lizzie Armitstead scurrying up Box Hill would have caused that sort of outage.

While all that was being digested rumours emerged that Apple had discussed with Twitter investing "hundreds of millions" in the service. The story first appeared in the New York Times, citing "people briefed on the matter," (code for "this is the closest we actually get to naming names), then the Wall Street Journal reported that, according to "a person familiar with the talks", discussions had taken place, but over a year ago, and that the talks weren't taking place now. OK - everyone as you were, nothing new to see here.

So just as one non-Twitter story was fizzling out, and we were returning our attention to the beach vollyeball, came accusations of heavy-handedness by Twitter for suspending the account of Guy Adams, a Los Angeles-based contributor to The Independent newspaper in the UK.

Along with a large number of Americans, Adams used his Twitter account to savage the coverage of Friday night's opening ceremony by NBC, the US national network with exclusive rights to broadcast London 2012. However, Twitter's ire was drawn by Adams' publication of the e-mail address of Gary Zenkel, the NBC executive in charge of the network's Olympics coverage.

Twitter have maintained that Adams had breached their privacy rules, but being a journalist, especially one writing for a national British newspaper, much froth has been generated.

In particular has been the charge of censorship by Twitter, a medium that has contributed more than its fair share in the democratisation of citizen journalism, not least of which during the events of the last year or two in the Middle East.

The crux of the critics' argument was the fact Zenkel's e-mail address was in the public domain - online - so in taking Adams' account offline smacked of over-zealousness at the very least. What gave the issue a distinctly darker tone is the fact that NBC have a commercial arrangement with Twitter for the duration of the Olympics.

It is, it must be said, too early to say whether this affair has taken Twitter across any particular rubicon, but it has, nonetheless, brought home the fact that the impact of this simple medium is immeasurable. And complex.

The media, though, love nothing more than a story about their own, especially when their own's freedom has been curtailed, and even more when some corporate monster is involved. "If what NBC is saying is true," Guy Adams is quoted in the Daily Telegraph saying, "it undermines everything that Twitter stands for and is an absolute disgrace and will aggravate many millions of its users. Their whole corporate ethos is that they never interfere with the flow of tweets. Something has gone very very wrong here."

Adams' account has since been reactivated, and the whole affair may yet turn out to be an 'oops' PR moment by Twitter, but it is something the service could do without as questions remain over its long-term viability and money-making capabilities.

It is, however, easy to forget just how powerful Twitter is: bulletin boards, chat rooms, Facebook and other online platforms may have given 'ordinary' individuals a voice that had hardly existed before (short of owning your own newspaper or becoming a broadcaster). By, essentially, turning SMS text messaging into a mouthpiece for anyone with anything to say, at the moment they want to say it, and regardless of what state of mind or alcoholic refreshment they find themselves in, Twitter armed a social media-literate generation with a gun of particularly lethal potential.

Professionally trained journalists will be extremely familiar with the laws of libel and slander, as well as breaches of copyright, privacy and a list of other conventions governed by the statute. Blogging and social media have continually pushed the boundaries of these codes. But Twitter has repeatedly pushed them the most.

Which brings us to the latest - and unlikely to be the last - piece of Twitter news: another 'troll' abusing both Twitter's relative anonymity and its relatively immediate access to celebrities, to criticise Tom Daley, following the British teenager's fourth place yesterday in the Olympic diving pairs.

The individual concerned - @Rileyy69 - had posted a message - including Daley's Twitter handle - telling the teenage diving prodigy that he'd let down his father, Rob, who died last year from brain cancer. Daley responded by posting: "After giving it my all...you get idiot's [sic] sending me this...", forcing a flurry of counter-trolling by other Twitter users - including the likes of former Arsenal striker Ian Wright - condemning @Rileyy69 in no uncertain terms.

The tweeter issued a grovelling apology: "I'm sorry mate i just wanted you to win cause its the olympics I'm just annoyed we didn't win I'm sorry tom accept my apology", though it should be pointed out, after he had continued to vent like a cranked up crystal meth addict.

Today Dorset police arrested a 17-year-old in connection with the case and on suspicion of making malicious comments. Daley, for his part is, according to Sir Clive Woodward, Team GB's Deputy Chef de Mission, taking the incident "in his stride".

Whoever @Rileyy69 is, this turd will be sweating: a precedent was set earlier this year when student Liam Stacey provoked revulsion with comments made on Twitter while Bolton Wanderers' Fabrice Muamba was suffering cardiac arrest during the FA Cup tie against Tottenham on March 17. As Police were inundated with complaints, Stacey was quickly traced and arrested, ending up being jailed for 56 days.

The sad fact is that despite the deeply unpleasant judgement applied by both @Rileyy69 and Stacey, we must resist the temptation to apply censorship to social media. The case of Guy Adams has exposed the dangers of social media organisations, in their inevitable necessity to generate profits to repay their investors' faith, applying muscle to destroy the very freedom they created in the first place.

Celebrities put themselves on Twitter in a way they have  have never before allowed themselves to be accessible. Whether they choose to read the replies, RTs and comments in quoted tweets about them is up to them and, no doubt their egos. Some seem to be perfectly comfortable with engaging the public in the sort of one-to-one dialogue that would have previously been screened by managers and PRs or metal fences, enforced by hired security at a stage door.

Pointlessly, Debretts - the self-appointed regulator of good manners - has published its guide to social media etiquette in a flimsy exercise to help those who actually give a damn about such behaviour. This is about as useful as publishing instructions on how to drive a car through Rome during rush hour. "Make it a general rule that you will never say anything online that you wouldn't be able to articulate directly, face to face," it says. OK, sensible. 

"Do not use the technology as a shield," it goes on "masking your true feelings and personality. So always write polite emails, and never send messages (on social networking sites, chatrooms, SMS etc.) that contain intemperate language or sentiments that you would never normally express in your everyday life," before reminding us "Don't be an online bully: threatening and haranguing people you can't see, who can't fight back."

All very sensible, you will say, but a voluntary code of conduct, all the same. Voluntary, of course, until you find a member of the local constabulary knocking on your door to invite you down to the station for a few questions...

1 comment:

  1. i am great view and read your blog simon poulter, its really nice and informative,