Mainstreaming of the social web and instant personal content: It’s (all) not pretty

A couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation about trends in the social web for 2010 to our clients at iCrossing in the UK.

Predicting anything about the web is a fool’s errand, but one somehow many of us can’t helping running anyhow. However, the main, underlying trend that it is hard to see being undone or even slowing down for some time, is what I called the “mainstreaming of social media”.
The image I jokingly used to illustrate this was a Daily Mail headline from early 2009: “How Facebook could raise your risk of cancer


Image: Daily Mail Facebook cancer slide

If the Daily Mail says it gives you cancer, I reasoned, it was something that had become part of everyday life in Britain.

Ho ho ho…

There is a darker side to mainstreaming of the social web, of the putting into the hands of every single person the means of production and distribution of content. And the realtime element that Twitter and mobile devices brings makes that instant personal production and distribution.

Create. Capture images. Publish to the world in a moment.

Today I read thoughtful posts from both Paul Carr and Euan Semple about some of the “citizen journalism” that came out of the Fort Worth massacre last week and of other examples of where people have behaved in questionable ways using Twitter and the web while those around them suffered. Questionable…

Euan rightly talks about our sense of right and wrong needing to catch up with the technology. Absolutely: the next decade will see the emergence of new social norms (and doubtless some laws too) about what behaviours that are enabled by instant personal content.

Is it your prerogative to tag me in a photo of a party is the low end of the social conundrum. What about images of my children? What about tagging my house on a Foursquare map?

Are you being criminally negligent if photograph me bleeding in the street instead of instantly trying to apply a pressure bandage. How about if you photograph me being beaten up and don’t intervene? That might help me. How about if you photograph me being beaten by a police officer and pause to publish it to the web to ensure your device isn’t confiscated with the evidence before coming to apply a pressure bandage?

In situations like this where is the line between egotism (hey guys, check my citizen journalism style and also how edgy a life I am leading) as Carr would have it, and being useful by bearing witness? Where is the line of taste, legality and responsibility to be drawn.

We don’t know yet.

In my early days of blogging there were a lot of debates about responsibility. Were we citizen journalists? What did that mean? What interests did we need to declare, how did we ensure there was some fact-checking.

Two things have happened since. Creation / distribution of content has sped up – whether it is Posterous or Twitter or just much improved WordPress, the means of doing this stuff just gets easier with every passing day.

And the other thing that has happened is that social media tools have spread. The original disruptors, look almost conservative when presented with the mass of people all experimenting and familiarising themselves with the realtime social web. Most people have no reference points around the journalistic profession, other than journalism as they often see it practiced: intrusive, trivial, exploitative, voyeuristic

We’ll work this out, this social web thing. And there will be horror-shows, mis-steps and calamities along the way. But the fact that everyone can create and publish is here to say. Social media’s not something you can be for or against…