Broken guitar, broken website

Friday 24 July 2009, 17:37

Charles Miller Charles Miller edits the College of Journalism blog and produces documentaries for BBC History and Business. Twitter: @chblm

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In case you haven't heard, when the guitar of a Nova Scotia musician got broken on a United Airlines flight and the airline refused compensation, it set off a chain of events that must have cost United far more than the $1,200 its passenger was claiming.

Dave Carroll's YouTube video of the protest song he recorded (the first of three he's promising) has been seen by 3.8 million people - and that doesn't include the millions more who have seen or heard it during the many US and international media appearances he has made (such as BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday.)

As a media event, the quirky story from the web has become a staple - today's equivalent of the 'and finally' item at the end of news bulletins, which was typically a local paper story that had made it to national prominence.

The big difference is that, where formerly being 'picked up' by national media was something that just happened to someone at the centre of one of these stories, today's protagonist is much more in control. Carroll's own video is the definitive statement rather than any package a news organisation makes about him.

And the audience has a new role, too. Where it was once a passive recipient (nobody went to the trouble of finding out whether anyone was interested in a particular 'and finally' story), today the public are a big part of the story - turning Carroll's song from an amusing aside into a 'phenomenon'.

The media can no longer just tell its audience what's happening - because too many of them already know. News organisations are left telling the more distracted and less online-savvy parts of the population about goodies like the United story they may not have caught up with.

As more and more people spend more and more time online, media institutions will struggle to keep up. When the BBC reported on the government's new swine flu website yesterday (no point in linking to it, as I'm sure you've been there by now), the story was that so many people had logged on that it had crashed. By the evening, news about the site itself was already redundant.

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