Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Custard tale gets under the skin of social media

Bird's custard powder was the foundation of many a dessert in villager's childhood but now reappears as a defining example of how social media gets to issues previously kept under the radar of mainstream journalism.

Today's Metro newspaper carries a colour page three lead on one Kent woman's 'desperate hunt' for a packet of Bird's custard. How desperate? Well, according to Metro, Jules Serkin visited corner shops, Tesco and a Co-op, where she settled for a tin of their own brand custard.

And that is pretty much all that happened before the digital dimension kicked in.

In the old days such a mundane tale would have been spiked in a second, albeit with a sharp question about news judgement. So what has changed? The 'story' was picked up by Jules Serkin's local paper, the Whitstable Times and the web version attracted 200 comments from around the world, making it the paper's most popular item.

Quite why Metro opted for the full page treatment is still a mystery to villager. Perhaps web and technology guru Clay Shirky would understand. In his book Here Comes Everybody he demonstrates how the old ways of filtering material for publication are being pushed aside by the mass access opened up by the internet and social media. Traditional and lofty editorial judgement has lost power as user-generated content gains ascendancy and is no longer kept separate from the mainstream media. Shirky writes of a revolution in communications: 'the increase in the power of both individuals and groups outside traditional organizational structures is unprecedented' (p 107).

He highlights many inspiring examples of how this new freedom is allowing groups to organize and push for change outside of established channels and patronage. Yet the Bird's custard tale raises a nagging doubt. What if this new power produces a tidal wave of trivia which by its sheer volume overwhelms those voices for change and undermines flawed but not wholly ineffective channels for democratic action - like local newspaper campaigns for causes more worthy than dried custard?


  1. It seems logical to assume that - because the net is composed of the same audience that consumes other media - the same rules of newsworthiness would apply to online stories...scandal, sensation, emotion and so on. For traditional media, the type of channel (and target audience) dictates what is considered 'news'. Are these parameters as clear online? I am no longer surprised by the success of particular online news such as the custard story or Susan Boyle. Most days I too receive emails from friends and colleagues with links to stories, and for the most part they satisfy one of the newsworthiness categories (I remember the 'man bites dog' example). It is this linkbait that creates and feeds a story phenomenon, but can they be evaluated or predicted for popularity? Headlines only exist in print media. Online, anything is fair game. Tidal waves of trivia are one unavoidable aspect of the internet, but one we should enjoy for what it is. At work, online PR should employ the tried-and-tested principles: content crafted for specific audiences in specific places (in this case at a website, email address, blog page or podcast, for example).

  2. In the picture of digital revolution painted so seductively by Shirky in Here Comes Everybody journalism as a craft is set for the same destiny as the scribe. And news value, as the traditional barrier to entry into the mass media must by extension be in peril, too.

    But perhaps things are not so clear cut? Shirky is adamant that we are in a revolutionary period and even moves to shut down doubt by dismissing experience as something which impedes the ability to see the new world clearly (p 320). Yet revolution is rarely so neat. Counter-revolutionary forces cannot be dismissed, nor can old patterns of control reasserting themselves in new forms. And we should all be suspicious of anyone claiming to see the present or future with perfect clarity. Can 'unlearning' really be a totally positive force?

    The online world looks pretty mixed up to me. Newspapers piggy back trivia which seems to fail the established test of news value. But online news often follows very traditional journalistic approaches. The challenge for the PR practitioner is to find some credible path through all of this and to stimulate content and debate which allows complex issues to be considered by all who want to join in. It does not yet seem time to unlearn the words of TS Eliot: 'Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?'

  3. The internet is like a hypermarket compared to the mom & pop shop. Consumers have to search for what they want in a much larger arena. It's daunting, but equally attractive because of what's on offer. I think the most important point Shirky makes is that of organisation. The online world is organising itself. And like aisle guides or home delivery menus, bookmarks and RSS feeds are examples of this ongoing process. How far these elements blur the distinction (which I think is quite clear at the moment) between traditional media like the BBC online and other news sites (blogs, citizen journalism etc) remains to be seen. This is where potential revolution of newsworthiness and channels may play out. Regardless, navigation will always remain a challenge online.

  4. Jantzen - your hypermarket analogy is a strong image but one I found unsettling. It gave me a sense of my intellectual life being invaded by the same pile 'em high forces which have all but killed the village store and forced us all to drive to bland, out-of-town barns. The notion of everything being jammed in one internet hypermarket seemed overwhelming but I could not think of a convincing antedote. Thankfully the Economist provides a more comfortable scenario in their extended, and cautiously optimistic, report on the news business this week. Their take on the retail analogy is to describe online portals like Google and Yahoo as the Wal Marts of the 21st Century news world. In these news 'warehouses' we can find virtually any kind of news, with subject stories bundled together by news 'aggregators', either the portals themselves or sites devoted to collecting mere links to the originators.

    Village life - in the form of news boutiques offering original and quality content - could, ironically, be saved by these parasite aggregators because they lead people to those who create the high-value content. This is a trail likely to be followed by advertisers.

    The Economist is doubtful that news will ever again attract big profits but concludes there will still be a demand for analysis. Funding this will come from a very mixed economy - subsidy, charity, idiosyncratic proprietors, subscriptions etc.