Hard News by Russell Brown


Going Social

About 90 minutes after the terrible news broke from Pike River, someone at 3 News set up a Facebook page under the name "Support the Pike River miners". More than 100,000 people have now, in the painfully restricted vocabulary of Facebook, clicked "Like" to follow and lend their symbolic support to the page.

When Wikileaks launched its massive release of US diplomatic cables yesterday, it already had its social media branding worked out, advising visitors to its "cablegate" page (yup, they took no chances and named their scandal in advance) thus:

Pick out interesting events and tell others about them. Use twitter, reddit, mail whatever suits your audience best.

For twitter or other social networking services please use the #cablegate or unique reference ID (e.g. #66BUENOSAIRES2481) as hash tags.

When the Beatles finally arrived on iTunes on December 16, the great bulk of the custom that sold two million songs in the first week came via Facebook and other social services.

And from the MTV Video Music Awards to the cricket, Twitter is driving a degree of real-time engagement with television that broadcast professionals probably assumed had gone for good.

Point being: that these (by any traditional measure) new social platforms are already wrapped into our media lives, threaded into the most trivial and the most profound events.

And now, of course, we have the rather good film that various cultural commentators have been scrambling to invest with generational heft:

There are sceptics, of course. Most notably, the author Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote this doubting essay in the New Yorker, scorning the idea of social media as a platform for social and political change:

In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”

Actually, they did tweet in Farsi, and some activists certainly did use Twitter to organise. There was a prosaic reason for it -- the regime hadn't yet worked out how to block Twitter traffic the way it did ordinary web and email traffic, so it was, at least temporarily, a relatively secure channel: one made more so through the use of anonymous proxy addresses fed by Western internet users. I passed on a couple of proxies myself. It happened.

Gladwell also forgets or ignores the story of Neda Agha-Soltan. We would have known nothing of her and less than we did of her cause had her death not been depicted in a harrowing video that found its way to YouTube, which was a global social platform before Facebook was. Yes, many commenters overstated the role of social media in the would-be Green Revolution in Iran -- but it's equally incorrect to dismiss it as myth.

Another doubter "father of the web" Tim Berners-Lee, offers more robust criticism of Facebook in particular, and rightly frets that the growth of Facebook as an application threatens the universality of the Web. But even he gets it a bit wrong on another front:

You can access an “itunes:” link only using Apple’s proprietary iTunes program. You can’t make a link to any information in the iTunes world -- a song or information about a band. You can’t send that link to someone else to see. You are no longer on the Web.

Well, actually, you can make a web link to any item on the iTunes Store -- that's how all those people got there from Facebook and other forums to buy their Beatles songs last week.

Anyway, we're looking at all this on Media7 this week, with Noelle McCarthy (who wrote an insightful column last week about the tensions between Facebook "friendship" and the needs of real friends), gadget geek guy Ben Gracewood (clique!) and Press gallery reporter John Hartevelt, one of a crowd of mainstream journalists to have started scooping themselves on Twitter in the past year.

We'll see where the discussion takes us, and you're welcome to join us for the recording tomorrow to listen in. We'd need you at the Victoria Street entrance of TVNZ by 5.30pm. Try and drop me a line to let me know you're coming. Because, like, we're all friends, right?

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