The BBC Social Media Summit: storms in teacups and cultural divides

My, oh, my. I can't remember the last time a small journalism event with only 30 attendees created such a fuss. But today's first leg of the BBC Social Media Summit has done just that, with particularly strident criticism from Jeff Jarvis on the #BBCsms hashtag. The event is being conducted under Chatham House Rule, meaning we're seeing what's being said, but not who said it.

Jeff is, pretty much, the high priest of openness amongst journalism bloggers. And any man who can talk so openly about his erectile problems following prostrate surgery is walking the walk as well as talking the talk. And I have a great deal of sympathy for the points he's making. Having a public body holding a summit about interaction with the public in private creates more than a little cognitive dissonance.

I would suggest that the criticism is rather missing the point. While the values of openness and transparency in public discourse are to be valued, not all of the participants are from public bodies in the way that the BBC is. More to the point, many of them are from organisations who are still uneasy with social media, and who are fighting internal political battles with people who would rather see them withdraw rather than engage further. A closed session really does give them an opportunity to discuss things that they just can't in a public arena.

The mistake, if anything, was in being CHR rather than closed. The partial tweeting of the event just makes it more clear that people are being excluded. And people are sensitive souls, sometimes. The restricted information flow creates an unintentional air of "nah, nah, we're here and you aren't" that is probably more at the heart of some of the criticism that people are making than they would admit, even to themselves.

But, actually, I'm more interested in the factors behind the people who were included than I am the whole CHR business. As I tweeted earlier:

Looks like those at "closed" #bbcsms day are all national media - no startup or specialists that I can see... Conscious choice?less than a minute ago via Twitter for Mac Favorite Retweet Reply

 

Organiser Claire Wardle responded:

@adders Was a conscious decision....by me! Happy to talk about why tomorrow. Here's my justification http://bbc.in/dWlWMBless than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

 

A quick look a the BBC College of Journalism blog posts suggests that the chosen few are:

mainstream social media producers

(Claire)

national and international news organisations

Matthew Eltringham

The second is more specific, if not actually accurate; I don't see anyone from international specialist news organisations there, for example. You have to combine the two to get to the reality: this is a closed group of national and international general interest news people, from broadcast, web and print.

  • No specialist media - even if they're international (like many of our titles are).
  • No startup media.
  • At least one academic is in there, mixing things up. Update: Sue Llewellyn clarifies that the academics are there as "scribes for blog posts to go up later."

Now, the second day - tomorrow - is open to a lot more people, and I was invited along to that a few months ago. But that rather begs the question - why do the people on day one need the protection of CHR but not the people on day two? Is our opinion (or our job security...) less important than those on day one?

Intentionally or not, the impression is that those of us in other forms of news reporting are somehow lesser than those in the national and international general interest press. And that does actually make me a little sad. One of the strongest and most enjoyable elements of the journalism blogosphere in the last five years has been the fact that local news journos, national press hacks, broadcast stalwarts, specialist reporters and startup innovators have shared discussions and ideas as peers who can learn from each other. The artificial barriers between the different forms of journalism have eroded, largely because every page on the web is pretty much equal to any other. And this seems a step away from that.

None of this is intended as criticism of the event, really. It's the BBC's event and they can do exactly as they wish. And, in the end, it'll be the results of the two days combined that will define its success or failure. I'm hoping for success.

But there are some very interesting issues around the way journalists perceive themselves buried in the underlying assumptions around the structure the BBC college team have chosen that actually, to my mind, strike at the heart of some of the difficulties journalists have in using social media effectively.

Boy, am I looking forward to tomorrow. :-)