Digital Doorstepping: New Worlds, Old Techniques

There’s no doubt that the shooting of dozens of students at Virginia Tech in the US was a horrifying event. There’s equally no doubt that the few seconds of shaky mobile phone footage of the shootings was far more compelling than then endless professionally-shot scenes of police around the site. That nasty, detached part of my brain that allows me to be a journalist was thinking that this tragedy involve US students, and that means that the events would be widely documented, first hand on blogs, social networking sites and the like. And I was right. Robin Hamman has done an excellent job of compiling the first hand accounts of the shootings.

But equally revealing are the online skirmishes that have broken out as journalists pile into these communities looking for quotes and comments, especially from this Livejournal member. This caught my eye in Robin’s post:

A few livejournal users weighed in to pass comment on the media’s clumsy approaches with a user, who posted anonymously, possibly saying it best:

“…I also have mixed feelings about having read your blog. On the one hand, I enjoyed being able to cut through the media bullshit and read about the day from your perspective. I read your entry aloud to my roommates since I thought it sounded so much like what would happen at our house. On the other hand, the only thing sicker than what happened today is the way the news outlets are going about contacting VT students. Although you have a public blog, how were you to know that it would attract so much attention? I am really disheartened by their insincere sounding messages and attempts to get the authenticity that your LJ already has, just by virtue of you being an individual in a truly horrible situation.

There’s no doubt that the hacks piled in thick and fast: CBC, NPR, Boston Herald, MTV, ABC, The Guardian, In Touch and Triple J.

I can’t help wondering if the nature of Livejournal is partly behind the outrage. I’m a Livejournaler myself (here’s my somewhat neglected Livejournal); it was where I started blogging. And the characteristic of Livejournal that triggered the creation of this blog was its community nature. Its system of “friends” and the “friends page” means that most Livejournals are read through Livejournal – it’s for talking to a circle of friends, not to the world at large. Barging into that community and asking for comment feels not unlike barging into a pub and asking somebody for comments.

Now sure, journalism has a long and dishonourable tradition of doorstopping the victims of tragedies. But in the digital age, the communities around the victims have voices to express their outrage at the media’s behaviour – and that’s what we’re seeing here.

  • Adam,

    This whole incident once gain raises the question of how to use “citizen information” especially in circumstances such as this.
    Whilst the actions of some of the media in tying to get information from the online community was inexusable,the bloggers must that their information is public property.

    “Although you have a public blog, how were you to know that it would attract so much attention?”

    How would it not at such a time when the media is looking for information?

    Unfortunately this is going to become the norm when highly public tragedies occur and those either directly or indirectly involved choose to publish material in cyberspace.

  • Livejournal exists in an odd area of quasi-privacy. You can actually “friend-lock” posts, so only fellow Livejournal users whom you’ve marked as friends can see it. Indeed, after bad-experiences many people go on to retrospectively friends-lock their entire blog.

    People who know Livejournal, but who are unfamiliar with the wider world of blogs searches and the like are often genuinely surprised when other people find their stuff, bizarre though that sounds.

    I do wonder what the reaction would have been if one of the media outlets had approached him as a logged-in Livejournal user, rather than an outside commenter…

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