Rory Cellan-Jones

Close to you?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 18 Nov 08, 11:17 GMT

I wrote this piece for the BBC's in-house newspaper Ariel. But it feels appropriate to reproduce it here because it's about you - the audience - and whether broadcasters who try to get closer to you by using tools like blogs or social networks are wasting their time.

Are broadcasters who use social media tools - Facebook, Twitter, blogs - really getting closer to the audience? Or are they just on an ego trip? That was the theme of a discussion at the recent Radio at The Edge conference and, as one of the panel which debated this weighty issue, I can confidently say yes - and oh definitely.

As Fi Glover got the debate underway I found myself being barracked by another panellist, the comedian and radio presenter Iain Lee, for "Twittering" live from the stage. I will admit that Twitter, which involves sending out short messages to a circle of "followers", is fast becoming an addiction. To someone who has hitherto had little contact with the audience, apart from the odd insulting letter, it's very satisfying to receive instant feedback. Around 1,300 follow me on Twitter, and they are a very engaged audience, with strong views on technology and ideas about how it should be covered.

When I said in a "Tweet" last week that I was looking into addiction to online games I immediately got useful replies, including one which sent me to a psychiatrist at the Tavistock who became the key figure in my story. Then, minutes after I did the story on Today, I got more Twitter messages attacking me for being unfair to gamers. I was then able to point them at a blog post I'd written with more detail and that became a forum for a vigorous debate about the pros and cons of online games.

So a social network and a blog provided a lot of added value and did indeed get me "closer" to the audience. But which audience? The 1,300 people in my Twitter community know a lot about technology but if I devote too much time to them, then I'm in danger of letting down millions of viewers and listeners who will never go near a social network. Then there's the fact that small pressure groups can hijack these networks - open source software groups are well-organised but should I listen to them more than Windows or Mac users?

And there's another danger in the process of self-revelation that Twitter in particular involves. A writer from an internet scandal-sheet who was at the Radio At The Edge debate wrote "the more of themselves media people reveal, the more the public sees them as clueless, self-referential and narcissistic." He then went and searched my Twitter updates and found plenty of embarrassingly banal messages, including this one:"Just had my first go at washing the dog - she's looking at me with big sad eyes." Evidence, according to the writer, of "your licence fee at work".

I still think that experimenting with everything from social networks to YouTube to blogs is a useful way for broadcasters to get into conversation with the audience. But better keep the dog out of it.


  • Comment number 1.

    HI Rory

    I also work as a TV and radio reporter based in the Rep of Ireland and we've had some interesting discussions in my media organisation about using blogs etc to access our audience. There has been enormous resistance to it because people feel it's adding unnecessary work to an already heavy workload. I was so interested to happen upon this piece because you mentioned that you got a useful contact name from somebody who responded via Twitter.

    How much time do you spend on a daily basis updating your profile on social media tools?

  • Comment number 2.

    Far from seeming clueless, self-referential and narcissistic, your Twitter messages are informative and induce positive dialogue.

    Furthermore, your own prescence on Twitter introduces a new level of 'transparency' between the BBC and the public; something which I greatly value.

  • Comment number 3.

    Well sure, you're a tech reporter, so having all these tech ideas pumped at you day-in-day-out can only be a good thing.


    I know that I, for one, constantly 'tweet' at you with ideas and suggestions.. and I can see parts of them included (in this article, for starters).

    However, as a BBC journalist you also have a responsibility to millions of others, to cover things that matter to them.. like the operating system that THEY are likely to use in the future, Windows 7.

    Meh, you're updates on twitter aren't often, just frequent, and given the amount of time it takes to write a 140 character message, I think anyone complaining that that is a waste of license fee money is a massive joker. I imagine most of the time you're actually 'tweeting' when you've nothing better to do.. such as taking a cab.. or giving presentations to BBC colleagues :)

  • Comment number 4.

    Great post, Rory. This issues you raise apply not only to the BBC, but to businesses and other organizations, too. While no one can afford to not be paying attention to social media anymore (clearly illustrated by the Motrin experience in the past few days), it should be part of an overall strategy, not a jump-on-the-bandwagon tactic. Clearly, you're utilizing it to engage and listen -- one of the best uses. But I don't think you have to be worried about including tweets about your dog. That's not "clueless, self-referential and narcissistic," it's human. While social media seems high-tech, it's much more personal that most other forms of mass communication. You're spot-on in connecting with people at a personal level.


  • Comment number 5.

    I would just like to support what Killerspam said.... I too find the added level of "contact" with you via Twitter / FriendFeed really helps me to feel connected. In fact the only reason I'm reading and responding to this blog post is because I saw a tweet about it on Twitter ... so for me, long may your tweets (about dogs, tech, or life in general) continue :)

  • Comment number 6.

    I agree with you're concern regarding the communities.

    The technology itself is no problema nd it can be used for very good feedback, but as you said you have to remember that that feedback is going to be garnered fro a maximum of 0.01% of your audience, so even though the desire is to follow any advice or critique that is offered it has to be metered somewhat.

  • Comment number 7.

    Twitter is also pretty useful for flagging interesting articles - I would have completely missed your response to the Warcraft article if I hadn't been following you on Twitter.

    My main beef with news on this old intermaweb thing has been that if you buy the Tech Guardian, you can easily read it cover to cover - but if you read it, or the Beeb online, you'll miss a zillion stories, because it's not all in front of you. To some extent, twitter can fill the gap by alerting you to stories you might otherwise miss - because you can tinyurl to them as soon as they get printed.

    I think twitter is useful for 'media types' - although there is the danger of over twittering on inane things. Course there is, we're human. But the flip side is that it adds a human side to what could be a very automated process - you're a real person with a dog who doesn't like to be washed.

  • Comment number 8.

    Erm ... the dog that is, not you. I'm sure your personal hygiene is completely flawless.

  • Comment number 9.

    I think the issue (or not) here is what you are Tweeting and why.

    Are you Tweeting from a BBC tech correspondence perspective? Or from a personal perspective (- part of which includes your job like everyone else)?

    So, a message about walking your dog or whatever - that is surely you and your update. A Tweet about technology - OS v Google or whatever - is a BBC "work" one.

    Some people Tweet "business" only, others personal only. As long as it is clear to you what you are doing, you're fine.

    If your followers are there to hear about tech related news from a trusted BBC source and you post about washing your dog, it is very easy to ignore it - sorry if that damages your ego....

  • Comment number 10.

    Rory, I want you on Twitter as a regular guy Tweeting his life; I don't want you on Twitter as a BBC exercise in getting to know me (and the audience at large) better.

    When a large organization starts an official Twitter account, I find it rarely adds value to my interactions with that organization nor my experience on Twitter.

    When an individual posts on Twitter about their life, part of their posts will include their work. And that is very interesting. I'm as much about following your work life as I am following your personal life on twitter. One adds balance to the other.

    And the occasional tweet about your home life helps me better understand your reporting and your areas of interest and expertise.

    One thing that bothers me to no end on the BBC News website is the distinct lack of by-lines on reports naming the author. Without knowing who wrote the report how can I tell from which perspective they are coming from.

  • Comment number 11.

    I think it's a great idea for broadcasters to get closer to their audience via social networking.

    I'm currently following you on twitter, you could always put a disclaimer on your account.

    There was no need for the writer to comment about the licence fee, it seems to me the writer in question just doesn't grasp what social networking is all about.

    I think you should carry on.

  • Comment number 12.

    Thanks for the excellent item!

  • Comment number 13.

    The job of the BBC is not to provide a "social network", any more than it is to run a chain of pubs or bingo halls - two other social networks.

    Sack the Twitterers and give us some real news and expertise. Rory does not appear to be the man to give it to us.

  • Comment number 14.


    I think that the media is getting close to you, as you pointed out in your remarks...

  • Comment number 15.

    Twitter is a hollow new media cult, pursued with zealous energy by journos who have a belief that they are guiding people along a path of discovery and enlightenment. In reality what comes out includes self-indulgent pap from the likes of the tiresome Jemima Kiss.

    Rory, you even provide the evidence that you're being sucked unwittingly into the blinkered vacumn that is undying Twitter allegiance. Your article describes subscribers to your posts as 'followers'. Cringe.

    And (classic Twitter behaviour here) you describe someone who makes a mildly critical appraisal of your embracing of twittering as someone who works on an 'Internet scandal sheet' before being rather selective about their article.

    You do mention the sub-groups who have narrow interests that are pushed at others with rabid fervour. A common trait for the dogmatic and myopic. Perfect Twitter fodder, but it doesn't make it attractive.

    At least you published a link for people to read. Sadly, fellow Twitters have a documented history in herd mentality and I fear they will be unable to both read and digest the article properly. I have visions of followers in your community puce with rage Rory.

    Or, as, Andrew Orlowski put it, 'groupthink compliant'

    NOTE: By the way, the author of the related article wasn't remotely as caustic about Rory as you may be led to think. And the publisher - The Register - is sometimes rubbish, sometimes it's a nailed-on cracking read. But they do have a field day about the Twitter fanaticism, and deservedly so.


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