The BBC still doesn’t understand social media

February 12, 2010

An investigation carried out by the BBC shows that despite the multi-million investments on web-based business, the corporation still doesn’t get it

A BBC investigative reporter cut himself off from mainstream media this week. He was attempting to investigate claims of the power of the internet as an alternative to traditional news media. From the start, the exercise was grounded in a poorly-formulated assumption. After a week, it only confirmed that the BBC culture is hopelessly mired in its increasingly obsolete mindsets.

To test the power of the internet, the journalist imposed a ban on all contact with news from traditional media – including his own organization, to see whether access to the internet would be a substitute or even be something better. The motivation was stated to be a remark by a tweeter that she doesn’t need to find news, because important news will find her.

That’s a promising start, and offers a testable hypothesis. But the conditions introduced by the investigator could hardly be more flawed. He decided that he would use only his active surfing to substitute for his normal informational diet. While he would get to twitter, for example, he would not follow-up any links on the tweets he found, on the grounds that such actions would lead him back to stuff originally generated by traditional news media such as the BBC.

Now what sort of experiment is that? One which tries to avoid any reflection of how the internet media works. It’s naïve or disingenuous to treat it as a substitute for a person’s normal flows of information. A far more meaningful investigation would consider how long it might take to have gone beyond the start-up stage and get to a reasonably stable set of links. How those links add value. Whether added value was found. Where it comes from, and so on.

At the end of a week of self-imposed apartheid system of information management, the journalist concluded that the social media offer a poor substitute for the news generated by institutions with proper journalists like himself.

A contrary view is one shared by the experiences of personal acquaintances who, having become involved in the process of news gathering on some professional or technical issue, are disillusioned about the outcome as their comments are reinterpreted into a news story. Now that’s a story worth investigating. But don’t bother to wait for the BBC to do it justice.