Online footprints, digital identities and life after Leveson

Pic: Derek Backen via Flickr

A few years ago I gave a talk to FACT Liverpool’s Art of Digital conference called Identity 2.0 considering how we try to comport ourselves online (professionally and otherwise) compared with our true selves; how, sometimes, the divisions become blurred, and this sends  mixed-messages about who and what we are. 

I remembered that talk again after taking a telephone call from a reader pointing out an inaccuracy in a print article uploaded to WalesOnline website, and asking what could be done. 
I outlined the options – I could update the article, showing where and what update had occurred, add a clarification and link to our Corrections and Clarifications page, and pass on details to the print title so it could also correct the inaccuracy in its clarifications column too. 
The caller’s response was so unexpected, and so on-the-money, that I ended up tweeting it:

140 characters is a little restrictive but that is word for word what was said; it doesn’t, however, convey the amused snort that met my suggestion the caller might want the record setting straight in print as well.
He was genuinely not bothered that a story might have been read in print or discussed by perhaps 35,000 people (taking reader reach into account) whereas the online article was read by 232 people on the day it was published, and 366 people in total to date; the concern was around its online lifespan and, I suspect, its portability. 
After all, 35,000 people in Wales reading (or at least having the page in front of their eyes, which is a different thing) and then discarding the product it came packed in is somewhat different to the CEO of a potential investor in the City, for example, finding it during an online search of the company or individual’s name.
Here’s an example that happened very recently; a student who stripped off – among other things – in a Cardiff nightclub fountain and was videoed by just about everyone who saw her.
She’s been discussed on Twitter as #oceanasket over the weekend…

… and was toughing it out and responding via Twitter but that account has closed now. The incident was reported locally in the South Wales Echo and on WalesOnline (it was decided not to name her), and also made international news although it’s the video that will haunt her down the years. If you plan on searching for it, it’s NOT sfw.

I’ve had several concerned people on the phone or in my inbox recently asking for online stories to be removed; it’s a legal and ethical minefield.
To consider court cases for a moment, specifically the matter of spent convictions: when several cases were uploaded daily back in the dim and distant days of 2001 who knows if they were set to unpublish automatically after the conviction was spent?
Do you wait for the former defendant to come forward and ask for an obscure case, out of thousands of other cases in your database, to be removed, or organise a  pre-emptive archive sweep of all content?  
Obviously every newsroom has the bottomless resource of people, time and patience to do the latter. Oh, wait. Uh…
But, court cases (and #oceanasket) aside, increasingly people seem to be more concerned and aware about the online footprints they leave – Facebook’s new Timeline is already helping  up the Daily Mail’s scare quota – but I’m getting more queries from people who want an online story removed because it’s just not how they want to be seen any more.
I don’t mean court cases; I mean people who spoke to their local paper a few years ago to raise an issue – my recent conversations have spanned everything from lack of council bin facilities to UFO sightings – and who now realise that their story lives on still; their names come up in searches, and they are visible to the whole world explaining why they don’t recycle, or how the glowing lights in the sky couldn’t have been weather balloons.

It definitely feels as though, post-phone hacking and with the Leveson Inquiry in full swing, people are far more aware of their right to call out their local paper if they have an issue with something.
Personally I’ve handled more PCC requests for information in the past eight months than in my entire career, and that’s not a stat that’s skewed because I’m an editor now and these things only go to editors –  complaints, PCC and otherwise, always wind up with newsdesk for input at some point.
The change is, I think, being driven by several factors, but the key points for me are: 

* Far more visibility of what action you can take if you’re unhappy with your local media
* The fallibility of the press has never been more public, more discussed and more entrenched in people’s minds
* Greater searchability and longevity of potentially contentious content as search engines become more sophisticated and aggregators spread content further

It’s not scientific, just some conclusions based on my experience, but other long-serving journalists I’ve spoken to have remarked on the same thing. 
Leveson demonstrates publicly how and why the Press makes mistakes, and there’s little distinction, for most people between national and regional; phone hacking arrests and court actions drive the message home as well.

Every week something happens that makes me realise regional journalism is changing, fundamentally, but for once it has nothing to do with the internet – it’s driven by the perceptions of users and non-users.
It’s easier to be more agile and adaptive online – mistake can be corrected, articles updated as a story progresses, ill-advised comments removed or functionality switched off … it’s not perfect but being transparent, and that familiar teaching instruction Show Your Work are effective ways to move forward. It’s a sort of Tina principle; we either get better, be less defensive, get more honest, show we’re accountable, or the erosion of trust continues. 

Meanwhile, as more people realise their online footprints haven’t been erased by the sands of time, I foresee busy, and complicated, times ahead. 

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