Friday 24 November 2017

Social media 2012: the good, the bad and the Taylor-made...

'Social media is now part of the fabric of who we are. It is part of all of our lives," said the University of Limerick (UL) this week as it unveiled plans to teach social media on its journalism courses.

The university is simply recognising the reality. For Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest – and the rest – this year was seismic as the media world continued to shift on its axis.

The sheer ebb and flow of opinions, news, vulgar abuse, humour, hope, inspiration, negativity and creativity unleashed through social media in 2012 was almost overwhelming.

This was the year when social media became the news, and cemented its status as the undisputed king of instant public opinion.

Rabid social media user or behind-the-scenes lurker, just think how many times you saw the Twitter hashtags for just some of the biggest stories of the year: #Savita, #Leveson, #Obama2012 #Euro2012 or #Budget2013.

Once upon a time, one waited for an opinion poll to see what people were thinking. Now the wait is over – for good or bad – within seconds of a story breaking on a social media platform.

In Ireland alone, according to, there are 2.3 million Facebook users, signifying its use by 49.9pc of our population. Twitter is a little further behind, but with a still huge 570,000 users here.

By far our most popular tweeter is a 20-year-old boyband singer from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, making him, in terms of social media clout at least, the most influential Irish person on the planet.

Niall Horan of One Direction has so many Twitter followers he's in the world's top 50 'most followed' people and organisations, according to Twitaholic, which tracks the numbers.

An astonishing 8.2 million people hang on Horan's every word, more than follow The New York Times (6.7 million), the TV news network CNN (6.6 million), the Pope (who tweeted for the first time last week) and the Dalai Lama (5.6 million).

Even if Horan's musings include banalities such as 'X-Factor was great tonight' and 'at home watchin TV', millions of people use social media to keep in touch with what he has to say.

An entire generation can now no longer conceive of not having access to a Facebook page or Twitter account, making online connectivity, for some, almost preferable to human contact.

The game changer in #2012 was the surge in smartphone sales and tablets; the devices that allow users to interact like never before with intuitive functionality and integrated social media.

A global report from Citigroup estimated sales of smartphones will be up by 45pc this year and climb further in 2013 as the quality of the technology improves yet again and prices tumble.

And the technology is already staggeringly impressive. You can shoot a movie in HD and screen it in seconds; you can watch live TV on a train; you can gatecrash noisy debates and challenge orthodoxies. You can literally change the world without the need for expensive equipment or anybody's permission.

As UL says, the world of media is no longer linear. It has become a two-way street with everybody involved in the gloriously chaotic but democratic creation and sharing of content.

Just ask Jason Russell, the maker of an internet film that called for the arrest of Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony.

In April, he thought that his 30-minute Kony 2012 video would be watched on YouTube by a couple of thousand people.

Just weeks later, Russell had a nervous breakdown after his movie became a social media sensation, racking up nearly 80 million hits.

His film sparked debate across the globe but led to a firestorm of vile personal attacks. Kony is still a free man and the fickle social media audience have long ago moved on.

That's the thing with such a fragmented audience. Everybody can be a publisher, columnist, film-maker or photographer at the push of a button. But not everybody knows or respects the law.

The list of this year's spats, blunders, triumphs, defeats and victories spans a huge number of events, both planned and spontaneous.

#2012 was dominated in the summer by the London Olympics – Usain Bolt and Ireland's gold medal heroine Katie Taylor.

"All of IRELAND Raise A Pint for Katie Taylors Gold Medal Russian beatdown!! @SamuelLJackson"

Yes, that was the Hollywood actor giving his view as Twitter reacted to Katie's victory with a tsunami of congratulatory tweets.

The gold medal win was the perfect example of social media in motion and the power it now holds; people across Ireland watched the bouts on TV, tweeted their reactions, exchanged notes, pictures and memories on Facebook and shared the journey with each other in a way that could never be imagined even 10 years ago.

Also savouring Ireland's golden moment was the Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba, somebody with more reason than most to remember #2012 and the social media year.

"Laying down in my hospital bed, watching Katie Taylor, She is got the best supporter. The Irish fans are unreal @fmuamba"

As his tweet shows, social media can be a forum for life's finest moments, for uplifting thoughts and good wishes.

But it can also be a cesspit of toxicity; for aggressive racism, bullying, libellous remarks and the worst aspects of human nature.

Comments made on social media can ruin lives; children are horribly bullied, other people are routinely humiliated.

But in 2012 there was a real sense that the authorities are taking a grip and hitting back. 'Bad tweeters' are increasingly having their collars felt as lawyers and then police become involved.

In March, Muamba lay 'dead' on the pitch at White Hart Lane after collapsing in a Premier League game against Tottenham. He had suffered a cardiac arrest and for a time it looked fatal.

Watching on TV, as medics tended to the player, Liam Stacey, a 21-year-old student 320km away at Swansea University, tweeted: "LOL, F**k Muamba. He's dead." It was a shocking statement but Stacey soon had police knocking on his door.

He served 28 days in jail for a public order offence. Despite saying sorry, he claimed the comment was "just drunken stupidity".

There was no such excuse offered by nine other people after Sheffield United footballer Ched Evans was convicted of rape in April. The nine ended up in court after naming the victim on Twitter, even though her anonymity was protected in law.

The law also came to the aid of former Tory party treasurer Lord McAlpine, who was wrongly implicated following a BBC Newsnight report. He hired lawyers to hunt down tweeters who repeated false abuse allegations and 2013 will see an increase in similar legal moves.

Ireland also had its fair share of trolling, the term given to the kind of personal attacks and unpleasantries that can sometimes make social media an aggressive space to be in. In August, Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker said he was "physically sick" after a Wexford musician, Mark Sinnott, used Twitter to taunt Lineker's son about his childhood leukaemia.

Sinnott later apologised and said he was "bored" when he tweeted George Lineker (20) to tell him: "pity ya didn't die".

The tragic death in University Hospital Galway of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar has also continued to fuel social media chatter, with questionable statements made about the nature of Savita's medical care in the absence of any established facts.

The story has also sparked many angry confrontations. Last month, Irish Independent columnist David Quinn received an apology from Pat O'Mahony, a freelance RTÉ producer who labelled Quinn "a poisonous c***" in a tweet. O'Mahony later apologised and deleted the statement from his account.

Professional media organisations are still learning how to master social media. RTÉ presenter Miriam O'Callaghan admitted just last week that Twitter could be "lethal" in the wrong hands.

She spoke as RTÉ introduced new guidelines for the use of social media. A report on the infamous Frontline presidential debate prompted the review. "You have to be careful obviously, it's lethal," she said.

O'Callaghan drew some criticism in June after she greeted the appointment of RTÉ's new current affairs chief Kevin Bakhurst with the online equivalent of a shiny red apple for the new teacher. "Mega congratulations on your new appointment – our big gain. I know you'll be very happy here – and we'll all make sure you are."

That will depend on how things go next year when RTÉ – and the rest of us – try to avoid social media banana skins.

UL, in its statement last week about social media, said: "It is crucial future graduates understand its significance, and are social media literate."

The university is right. It's in our DNA. Roll on #2013.

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