UGC five years on
is editor of the BBC College of Journalism website. Twitter: @mattsays
Exactly five years ago, a group of us were sitting in the BBC News website newsroom wondering just what we should be doing.
We were a small team set up to test the idea that there might be some value in tapping into the audience's growing ability to use their mobile phones to send us pictures and texts of potentially significant news events - and then find ways to incorporate them into the BBC's own journalism.
The idea for the project had come from our experience of the tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, when the BBC had received thousands of - largely unsolicited - emails, pictures and videos that were testimony to a dramatic and tragic story.
The proposition - to set up a User Generated Content (UGC) Hub - had met with some scepticism from senior quarters in BBC News and very nearly didn't happen.
But the events of 7 July 2005 proved to be a turning point.
The story infamously started off as reports of a signalling failure or electrical fault on the Tube. We were experienced enough to know that we should start asking the audience if they were caught up in it and, if so, to tell us what they knew. So we 'stuck a postform' on the first take of the News website's story and waited to see what would come in.
Within minutes our email inbox was out of control - it was clear that something was happening, but we had no idea how to manage the huge number of emails we were receiving and the information they were giving us.
Then, slowly, pictures also started to come in. I remember opening one email, late morning, with a picture that was to become one of the iconic images of the day - the picture of the passengers walking down a dark tunnel towards the light (below). I rang down to News 24 to tell them we had this amazing image, only to be told 'no thanks, we've got one like that already'.
By the end of the day we had received several hundred images and videos along with several thousand emails. It was only with hindsight that we were able to make sense of them and the impact they were likely to have on our journalism.
Later, when I analysed what the audience had told us about the momentous events of that day, I discovered we had credible intelligence of every single one of the four bombs by 9:58am - including one that told us of the Tavistock Square bomb by 9:55am; just ten minutes after it had happened. At that time the BBC, and the rest of the media, were still reporting that there had been some kind of signalling or electrical fault. These erroneous reports moved one eyewitness, Lou Stern, to send in his pictures of the bus bomb because, as he put it, it clearly wasn't a signalling fault.
Five years on and much has happened since that day. One of the most iconic images, that to my mind defines where the balance of power now lies, is of a defiant anti-government protester holding up a placard in Tehran in June 2009 (below), warning the Ahmadinejad government that, while they could ban international media, they could not ban "our cell phones and cameras".
And that's the point. Was what happened in Tehran a Twitter revolution? Of course not: no-one ever seriously claimed it was. But mobile phones and social media - in particular Twitter and YouTube - gave the protesters a voice and a platform on which to speak to the global media and tell their story.
For the BBC, that pilot project of five years ago has turned into a 20-plus person, 24/7 team that has developed an incredibly sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the 'who, what, when, where and whys' of 'social newsgathering' or, put another way, 'finding good stuff on the web'.
It's been, at times, a rocky road. We've made a few mistakes, but established some key principles that guide our decision-making when using UGC and working with our audience.
We always check out each and every image, video or key contact before we broadcast them, to make sure they are genuine and to resolve any copyright issues. When it's impossible to do that - such as with content sent from Iran or Burma - when contacting the contributors is very hard to do or might put them in danger, we interrogate the images, using BBC colleagues who know the area and the story to help identify them.
We have stopped many potential contributors from putting themselves at risk in gathering material. In June, we told several people who were planning to go into the danger areas in Bangkok that we would not use any material they sent us if they did, and persuaded them not to go.
Now of course social newsgathering encompasses not just trying to get our own audience to share their material with us, but searching social media and the rest of the web whenever a story breaks.
When the UGC Hub started, social media hadn't taken off, and the focus of our work was exclusively on building links with our own audience. But the power of Facebook and YouTube first became apparent with the Burma uprisings in September 2007 and was reinforced by the role that YouTube played as a global noticeboard during the Iran protests.
Today, as I have written previously, Twitter is an essential tool for breaking and researching stories. Frequently, a story will break on Twitter before appearing a few minutes later on the 'traditional' agency wires.
And in case there was any doubt about how important social newsgathering has become, Peter Horrocks, Head of the BBC's Global News division, reinforced the point earlier in the year when he said controversially, but not inaccurately, to journalists:
"This isn't just a kind of fad from someone who's an enthusiast of technology. I'm afraid you're not doing your job if you can't do those things. It's not discretionary."
He's right of course: the key skills shouldn't just rest with a core team. The BBC is spending a lot of time training its journalists in these skills, as are other news organisations like Sky and Channel 4.
But what about the other side of the equation: the audience, or users, or social networkers, or even 'citizen journalists'?
Citizen journalism was always a difficult term that described everything from eyewitness accounts or accidental journalism, to bloggers. The latest manifestation is the growing hyperlocal movement, or community journalism, or news bloggers - sites like Pits 'n' Pots in Stoke, or the Ventnor blog on the Isle of Wight.
They are building a loyal following in their local communities by reporting on local events and stories, providing a service that many would call journalism. But most of these hyperlocalists angrily deny they are journalists, perhaps understandably not wanting to be put in the same category as some of Fleet Street's finest.
So where are we five years on? The BBC College of Journalism has just published a series of films within its guide to Starting as a Citizen Journalist, offering advice and guidance on how to engage in 'citizen journalism' effectively.
The films cover technical and practical issues as well as legal and ethical ones. They are not designed to tell journalists what to do, but to give them something to think about when they go about their journalism, in whatever form it takes.
The bottom line is that the web and now social media have given everybody the power to tell their own story. That doesn't mean mainstream media is redundant, far from it, but it does mean it has to adapt.