It is a peculiar feature of 21st Century life that there is no longer one set of events that we can call ‘the news’.
There’s the Proper News, the kind that is delivered by grim-faced men with mildly interesting ties, bracketed by the sonorous headlines (in strict order of importance) and all-important weather forecast.
But Facebook and Twitter – that’s my real connection to the outside world and has been for – well not for too long actually. And this isn’t just certifiable phone addicts like me, either; this week The Real Legit News told us that one third of the population checks Facebook every day.
(Though the other thing the Real Legit News told us this week was that going on Facebook makes us unhappy. I have some things to say about that ‘news’ too, but another time.)
Now I am not apologising for accessing my Personal News through social media. I am not convinced that there is something sacrosanct about receiving the news agenda of Sky, of CNN, of inherently biased newspapers like The Guardian; even the ‘unbiased’ BBC has certain priorities, which I may or may not share.
All news channels are making assumptions about what the viewing public cares about. And there are a lot of things I DON’T care about – new royal babies, royal weddings, basically anything at all with flag waving and a crest on it.
And there are times when I just don’t turn the TV or radio on for a few days, for the sake of my blood pressure and sanity – like after the death of Thatcher (to avoid nausea/ burst blood vessels in the eye) or during the Olympics (to avoid extensive bafflement and tedium).
My Social Media news, on the other hand, is well-tailored to what I want to know. On Facebook I like to read about what my ‘friends’* have to say – 350 intelligent, interesting people from all walks of life, across the age, race and class spectrum, from all over the world; if I listen to what THEY care about today, then I can be pretty sure I am covering a fair bit of ground.
If you ‘like’ and ‘follow’ a good range of individuals and groups, then the Real News, the democratic news, the word on the street – it will all come to you via a couple of easily accessed channels, usually from a number of different perspectives, often with a few good jokes thrown in. (Often, to be fair, the same jokes repeated over and over again. In several different languages and degrees of crudity.)
On a really good day, participating in social media can be very much like standing in the bar of a really buzzy pub. Listening to the gossip, drinking it in, with your elbows resting soddenly on a boozy beermat.
I loved hearing about the new Doctor Who in this way, just waiting for the name to drift into my ears, cresting on a wave of offensive language and Tartan pride. Much more satisfactory than any hyped up tedious announcement with faked suspense and the viewers’ reactions channelled along appropriate lines. After having received this news in a pleasingly organic way, I can slot back into the mainstream, and read the BBC website after all the faked drum rolls have faded away.
But sometimes the segueway between the Real Legit News and the Virtual Taproom is more jolting, more shocking.
Like yesterday, for example. The Social World was abuzz with a story about a young woman being photographed performing a sex act at an Eminem concert in Ireland. My instinct was to inform myself, quickly, such was the force of emotion on all sides in this discussion. But the Real News wasn’t reporting anything about #slanegirl – and why would they? It wasn’t actually ‘news’. Girl has sex with boy – even in The Village, this wouldn’t be newsworthy.
The way the story progressed over the course of the day will probably become part of the curriculum for a course in New Media very soon – hell, maybe it already is. A photo is shared, jokes are made, the photos and the ‘jokes’ go viral. Memes mushroom. The public – by which I mean, me and all the other social media guppies out here in internet-land – divides into two camps – one slut-shaming, one pity-patronising. Within minutes, a third camp appears to point out how the first two camps are so so simplistic and – now three hours have passed since the story broke – this blogger now has a more balanced view to sell.
Many broad assumptions are made and aired – in the case of #slanegirl that all women who behave like this have no self-respect, that this is clearly a ‘mistake’, that the girl should be (MUST be) ashamed, but the boy is a legend who can’t be expected to say no.
While facial expressions and body language from this now widely-shared photo are being scrutinised and firm conclusions drawn, it is so tempting to make those few key strokes and become more ‘informed’ – but my hand wavers, hesitates.
Am I condoning if my intentions are merely to become more informed about a situation which – bottom line – is absolutely 100% none of my bloody business. Public interest isn’t prurient interest, and I wouldn’t buy a newspaper with that kind of photo printed in it.. but while I am participating in soggy liberal hand-wringing, the ‘news’ story is galloping away.
And then by the afternoon, tweeters, bloggers and commentators on all sides offering analysis and condemnation, support and dissection, and before the last piece of scaffolding from Mr Eminem’s lovely stage is chucked into the back of a van, the story is already starting to eat itself.
By the time the Legit News has something to report – Twitter Storm over hashtag thing – it’s hardly ‘news’ at all.
And this is the seedy underbelly to that lovely buzzy Social Media News Bar – the tap-room where the Neanderthals scratch their crotches and share rape jokes and call women bitches and the men who humiliate them ‘legends’.
The dingy basement bar where the drunken dregs get a kick out of knocking back a little sanctimonious and/or misogynistic vitriol alongside their lurid shots. Is it helpful to know that, for many people in the Twittersphere, that is ‘just what that slut deserves’? I am not sure. Having the right to hold an opinion yes – but then to express it, not privately but rather to broadcast it – this brings consequences, not just for the person who might be on the receiving end of mockery, ridicule and shaming.
And then those people hearing that opinion who are emboldened to express their own hateful opinions – mockery, ridicule and shaming gets doubled, squared, spreads in the cliched metaphor, virally. And it spreads, even, to the legit media, who can’t be expected to show restraint either in this desensitised culture.
And this, I would observe, is what happens once the news agenda is out there, in the not-so-safe hands of us all.
Sure, we get a broad perspective. But you can’t expect – you don’t get – restraint, or taste, or even decency. If you let everyone believe they have the ability to make the news, then they will upload they kind of photos that have, it is reported by the legit media, caused a teenage girl so much distress that she had to be sedated.
When we are all, like the hive, buzzing out the news, then individual responsibility gets diluted, even lost.
There is a meme I saw recently, celebrating the fact that for those of us in our forties and above, we enjoyed something we didn’t understand was precious until we lost it – a youth in which we were able to behave badly, indiscreetly, without the internet and the unforgiving hive to judge and condemn us.
And if no one in the hive is responsible for remembering that just because you put a hashtag in front of a person, doesn’t stop her being a person, an individual with a family and friends and emotions, someone who has to go back to school in a fortnight – then maybe there are no limits to the cruelty and power of the news-hungry mob.
*I do know that the word ‘friends’ has taken on a new meaning in this context, before anyone jumps in. I think there might be a whole blog on the subject of friendship in the Social Media age, in fact.