The power of blogs and the perils of email

I originally wrote this article on 13th April 2009. Although the story that inspired it is no longer news (although the problem it relates to, about losing data, hasn’t gone away), I think that the interplay and rivalry between “mainstream media” and blogging is still interesting. This has been brought into sharp focus by the withdrawing from blogging by two political bloggers (see “Related articles”, at the bottom of the post).

I think when investigative journalism is done well, such as Watergate, the Expenses Scandal, it is second to none. But increasingly I find myself frustrated by “flimsy” reporting in the press.

Anyway, there’s plenty to discuss with your students here.

One of the great things about living in Great Britain is that ICT teachers can often rely on someone in high places to do something daft with email, and then to be exposed the mainstream media or in a blog. Such occurrences make it nice and easy for teachers to find up-to-date examples to use in their coverage of the wider effects of technology in society.

There have been plenty of stories about the cavalier way in which data is treated by people who really should know better, so it’s refreshing to have something new to chew over. However, whether it really is a victory for blogging, or for mainstream media, is a matter of conjecture.

For those living outside the UK, here is a summary of the story.

So, does all this point to the power of bloggers? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, the existence of the emails was first exposed in the Guido Fawkes blog (an hilarious must-read blog which is required reading for any Brit with dangerously low blood pressure).

On the other hand, it was first reported by the press. You can read more on this view of the situation in Janet Daley’s article.

So what we seem to have here is an interesting kind of collaboration between the blogosphere and the mainstream media. Although Daley regards the situation as proof that blogging sees itself as the poor relation of mainstream media, I have to ask aloud: would the story have broken so quickly had it not been a well-known blogger who first acquired the evidence?

One important side effect of the story is a kind of how-not-to-blog article by the politician and blogger Iain Dale. In referring to Derek Draper’s Labourlist blog, Dale gives us, in effect, a list of things that can help a blog to thrive:

  • If you’re going to have guest articles, then draw on people from a variety of viewpoints, not just those who agree with you, or who are in your contacts list. I’m pleased to say that I have always observed this rule on this website and also the newsletter Computers in Classrooms. It can be difficult to approach people who are not on your contacts list, but it’s worth the effort because it helps keep the thing alive and vibrant. I think all bloggers should welcome guest bloggers in order to bring even more variety, discussion and perhaps even controversy to their websites.  
  • Don’t insist that all articles are ‘on message’. This is an extension of the first point really. What’s the point of getting someone else to say what you can perfectly well yourself? I actually think this is what makes a lot of school websites and council websites boring. When all messages have to be filtered through the Public Relations department, they all start to look the same, just with varying degrees of blandness. I’m not suggesting that official websites should be hotbeds of internal wrangling brought into the public gaze, but having the occasional slightly off-message or tongue-in-cheek post probably does more good than harm.  
  • Deal with disagreements professionally and courteously, rather than having public spats. There’s a difference between a difference of opinion and washing your dirty linen in public. That’s why I tend not to respond publicly when people make public attacks on me (which is, thankfully, somewhat rare).

Of course, one of the key points which is reinforced by this whole business, which teachers can make use of not only in ICT lessons but also in discussions of netiquette and digital citizenship is this:

Making unfortunate and, from what some people have been saying, defamatory comments is bad enough, but making them in an email is pretty careless. Not only are the emails dated, they are also time-stamped, stored in several places, retrievable forever (in theory) and can easily be forwarded on to thousands, even millions, of people in next to  no time.

It’s somewhat worrying that people whose job it is to advise governments don’t always appear to have realised this simple fact: the best way of staying out of hot water is to not do anything online that would be likely to get you into trouble offline.

After writing and publishing the above, I came across this excellent post on the Perils of Email. Read it. If you’re interested in UK politics, and following what MPs think and say, check out Tweetminster.