Rory Cellan-Jones

Causing offence by accident

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 11 Mar 09, 14:26 GMT

I had one of the biggest shocks of my journalistic career the other evening - though I speak as someone who has led an unusually sheltered life - and my experience raises a few issues about the trust we put in new web services. I'd been touring various BBC studios, talking about a breaking story, the YouTube row with songwriters which led to the blocking of music videos. In each studio, I took a picture on my phone - and then uploaded it to Twitter using a service called Twitpic. An activity that some of you, no doubt, will regard as fatuous - but part of the way I keep a record of my daily activities and share it with anyone who is interested.

Phone cameraAll went well, until I uploaded a third picture - of the BBC news channel set - and returned to my desk to find various startled messages on Twitter:

"Think that might be a wrong picture Rory and you might want to look at it ASAP." "Are you really sure about that photo?" "Please tell me twitpic has confused your photo with someone else's?" "You might want to check that last link!"

So I did check that last link - and instead of an inoffensive picture of a BBC studio, it was a shot of a young woman wearing nothing but a smile, in a pose that can only be described as extremely post-watershed. I let out a startled yelp, and went into a flurry of action, deleting the "Tweet", and the offending "Twitpic", and changing my passwords, assuming I'd been hacked. Then I set off to find out what had happened.

A number of other people contacted me to say they too had uploaded pictures to Twitpic, only to find that someone's else's shot had appeared - though they had all been innocuous images. Twitpic, it turns out, is nothing to do with Twitter - it's a third party application which has latched onto the expanding population of Twitterers, giving them a quick and easy way to link to photos. It's integrated into various "tweeting" applications, like Tweetie and Twhirl, which makes it all the more popular. It was used to upload the most famous Twitter picture to date, the shot taken by Janis Krums of the plane which landed on the Hudson.

I managed to track down the man behind Twitpic, Noah Everett. He was, as you'd expect, extremely apologetic. He explained that I hadn't, as I'd feared, been hacked - but instead had been the victim of what he described as "a random bug" that sometimes gets a user's photo mixed up with someone else's.

I hope the bugs get sorted out. I had been planning to use it to raise money in the Red Nose Day appeal, taking shaky phone pictures of various BBC personalities, and getting Twitter and Facebook users to guess who they are. In the circumstances I'm using another application - mobypicture - to upload the pictures. (Head here if you're interested).

But yet again I'm putting my trust in a social web application, which is obviously a risky thing to do. I've long realised that social networking is a public activity and you can't put anything online - thoughts, images, jokes - without assuming that you are giving that data to the entire world. What I hadn't realised is that you could be at risk of showing someone else's data, however offensive, on the web in your name. And that is really very frightening.


  • Comment number 1.

    Does that mean someone else thought they were posting an x-rated image, and instead found they'd linked to a photo of the BBC News set? Wonder which one of you was most shocked!

  • Comment number 2.

    It was a horrible episode and I find the Twitpic explanation more worrying than if you really had been hacked. I had a similar problem with Twitter's own flash badge. I embedded it in a school website to feed in the school's tweets, only to find someone else's feed appearing. So instead of gentle tweets about assemblies and school trips, we had some American's hangover tale broadcast from the site. Luckily, it was obvious as soon as the page went live, so I took it down before anyone saw it, but it is a worry.

    Good luck with the RND fun and games.

  • Comment number 3.

    As I tweeted @ Rory, it seems that if one uses lots of online applications and different social sites to and from which you upload and download, eventually one becomes a victim of some bug or deliberate ploy, leaving one with no confidence in whichever app or site was the accidental culprit. Depressing.

  • Comment number 4.

    I've had the same experience with Twitpic - on one occasion. I'm still using it. The question is, how can you be sure that mobypicture is any more secure than Twitpic?

  • Comment number 5.

    Everyone is on a 'learning curve' in life as in a graph.
    During a lifetime everyone offends accidentally when they are ignorant of the other persons experiences in life which if dealt with correctly by an apology at the time with an explanation in empathy will result in understanding and no offence at all.
    Deliberate offence is totally different and that is seen when the person who has offended someone finds it all amusing when the offence is not pardoned and a spiral of action takes place until it is understood and apologised for or the offended person remunerated and has forgiven.
    On the global scene, no one can know everyone else's history of happiness, grief, trauma, loss that has made them the person that they are. Consequently, any inaccurate information given about anyone has pandemic response by those who hear and see it which results in action which can not only affect the person but also everyone around and associated with that person to the detriment of their life and work life, status and reputation.
    A reputation takes years to build up with long hard acheivement and a person is usually either trying to amend their mistakes that they have learnt from and naturally aims to please if they have any ambition to do well in life.
    No matter how good a person's reputation was in the past for whatever successes it is all lost in a minute with the production of a newspaper or programme and a totally unbalanced view of that person and associates is formed.
    People only know what they know and not what they don't know so they only concentrate on what gets their attention in line with their beliefs and standards. This is where complete misunderstandings arise with the viewer or reader suddenly thinking that they know all about it and liable and slander happen at a local from national level.
    More research by journalists and researchers is needed before some picture and story is sent for a deadline and on a daily basis there is not time to research a person's life history and sometimes even the facts are not checked out.
    Money has taken priority over people!
    For every joke there is a sufferer and even though what may be a simple picture of a 'nobody' seems like an editors idea of appropriateness can and frequently does have fatal consequences in the vulnerable especially if they are already stressed for some reason. Just a simple mistake can be taken as a personal offence and needs to be put right immediately if possible, or within a very short time so that offence does not spiral out of control.
    One generally finds in this world that the ones who have been offended the worst are the very people who do not offend anyone else because they know what it feels like and they wouldn't wish that on anyone as the pain is shared.
    Hence one learns along that long long learning curve of life - Hopefully sooner rather than later.

  • Comment number 6.

    I don't know what caused your problem on Twitpic but I'm afraid it's the sort of thing that can VERY easily happen.

    Another website I use sends some of it's pictures to be hosted by CDNs and there have been lots of problems recently with pictures getting switched (until, and I quote, the support staff go and thump the CDNs with a heavy lump of wood till they pick up the right picture!) The really scary thing there is that I can be looking at the right picture but others are seeing something completely different and I onlt know if they tell me!

  • Comment number 7.

    Thanks for the warning, Rory.

    Assumiong it is only a one-off bug that is affecting Twitpic, I'd be hesitant to stay clear until further notice.

    Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are effectively public in the sense that anyone can see your postings. For this reason I'm always careful of what I post

  • Comment number 8.

    No article is complete without a picture... so where is it???

    hehe only joking... keep up the good work

  • Comment number 9.

    Did your number of 'followers' increase or decrease as a result of this?

  • Comment number 10.

    Oh how I laughed !!

    Serves you right for diving into the Twit pool without verifying it was shark-free !!!!!!

  • Comment number 11.

    Hi , I am a HI-tech Crime Investigator and have recently finished using social networking sites. too many details are given out without any thought as to what personal information your really giving away.

    I advise those who post to think what info your giving out and who is going to look at it.

  • Comment number 12.

    That's the problem with all the myriad of social software, fee tools and applications that become an integral part of our lives, and even used regularly for work purposes.

    You have to trust that the people behind it can keep it going and reliable in order to honour the faith we put in by signing up.

    Twitter has become a valuable tool for news producers: at my paper we have a Twitter feed that also powers our facebook status, and if that became buggy like in your experience or stopped working it would impact on our audiences perception of us well as the tool in question.

  • Comment number 13.

    Ha! this happened to me with @bombardier_beer twit pic but no offence occurred. Put it down to one of life's experiences. I don't look at newspapers with Page 3 damsels, but spent many hours as an Art College student of the 60's in Life Drawing classes. The real thing inures one to titillation I've found, one just acknowledges the human form has many representations. Oh for the day when one's intellect precedes one's form........

  • Comment number 14.

    Rory...tut tut! And you seem like such a gentleman too! :P

    I guess our lives are just getting too complicated in this mess of social networks.
    It seems quite frightening to see how we put ourselves out there without realising how vulnerable our personal security can be.

  • Comment number 15.

    Every application has bugs, it is to be expected. While I can understand your fear behind this particular bug it wouldn't stop me from using the application however I suppose I am not in a position where my career can be affected by such things. In any case I would have found it humorous and sorted it out as best I could.

  • Comment number 16.

    Does this really have anything to do with social networking? Isn't this just good old buggy software?

    Bugs etc seem to be something that Twitter users have an extremely high tolerance of Twitter is frequently down, or over capacity, or just plain broken. Given the amount of services that use its API and have a similairly high profile - is it any wonder that they too are as flakey?

    Mind you it says a lot about Twitter (et al) as a brand that its followers don't generally seem to complain.


  • Comment number 17.

    What strikes me as truly disturbing about this tale is that our society has become so over-sensitive and prone to knee jerk reactions that an innocent error risks damaging someone's reputation.

    We really need to relax.

  • Comment number 18.

    The chances are that there's a mistake in the code, but one that only shows up when certain things happen near enough at the same time.

    Very hard to detect or reproduce during testing, but when there are multiple live users, the chances of it happening become much greater.

  • Comment number 19.

    What a twit.

  • Comment number 20.

    This is like an email ending up in the wrong inbox, despite being correctly addressed.
    [Or undressed in this instance : - ) ]

    But what if what 'accidentally' appears in a third party's else's stream was information that was genuinely damaging to someone, or was commercially sensitive material?
    There are deeper implications here.

  • Comment number 21.

    Some countries have or are planning laws to control the internet.

    What happens if an accident such as this breaks one of these laws? Or someone in one of those countries decides to use the accident to discredit the BBC? Will you be arrested the next time you go on your family holiday or to report on a technology conference?

  • Comment number 22.

    "21. At 5:16pm on 12 Mar 2009, WolfiePeters wrote:

    Some countries have or are planning laws to control the internet.

    What happens if an accident such as this breaks one of these laws? Or someone in one of those countries decides to use the accident to discredit the BBC? Will you be arrested the next time you go on your family holiday or to report on a technology conference?"

    That's the exact reason countries as a whole (basically any of their authorities) should not have control over the internet.

    They rarely understand how it is used by the wider public and they certainly won't listen to you if you protest your innocence when such a bug occurs.

    "19. At 12:22pm on 12 Mar 2009, blogward wrote:

    What a twit."

    Someone who thinks that blogging about a bug in an app that caused an embarrassing incident is noteworthy. Must have been a slow tech newsday...

  • Comment number 23.

    Yes I uploaded a picture of a shepherds pie and it turned into someone elses dog

    It was truly weird

    I did exactly the same and deleted it and re tweeted a new twitpic

  • Comment number 24.

    The photo service I use is

    my photos are here:

    I like that the file size is larger (less compressions) and image size is larger (better picture) than other free photo services.


  • Comment number 25.

    I cannot help but feel that the cause of this blog entry is completely over embellished. Fair enough if TwitterPic has its' inaccuracies, and I agree that it definitely should be justified in this medium particularly as a journalist, but to be fair, a glitch happened. Instead of your picture, something else was displayed. A splash of nudity. Are people so sensitive that this causes such offence? Such humility?

    "But yet again I'm putting my trust in a social web application, which is obviously a risky thing to do. I've long realised that social networking is a public activity and you can't put anything online - thoughts, images, jokes - without assuming that you are giving that data to the entire world. What I hadn't realised is that you could be at risk of showing someone else's data, however offensive, on the web in your name. And that is really very frightening"

    This is, in my opinion a ridiculous statement. You, the author, obviously don't have the trust in social networking because you fear that if you make one opinion, joke or otherwise that causes any offense (something that inevitably happens in these days of over-the-top political correction and sensitivity), you will not be able to make a logical argument for justification.

    This is utter bull. This is the mass overhype of sensitivity that only morons are over reacting to that is what I despise. So what, tits get displayed on a journalists' twitter account by error and a good reason such as technical error is presented in a BBC blog to justify it -- This does not make social networking "very frightening", this makes the world of people who actually take offense to such stupidity "really very frightening".

    Even as an only slightly related point, we are all human and thus are naked beneath our clothes. We all see and know our own bodies. In our life time we all see and know other peoples' naked bodies. I do not understand how people can cause any uproar when presented with a picture of someone else’s' naked or semi naked bodies. It is human biology; we are born this way, this is how we are as a species, let us know and understand this.

    I lose faith in humanity reading articles like this, truly I do, and I’ve suffered enough knocks in my faith in this world already by now as a nineteen year old.

    And let it be known that there is a strict difference between the term "data" and the term "information" (which is the word you should have used in place of "data" in this article).

    Thanks, bye.
    - Jonathan Whiteford.

  • Comment number 26.

    COOL! Sounds better than alchemy. I have boxes full of old photos that I would like to have converted. Did you say that this is a free app??


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