#bbcpop: Think Before You Grief

As you may or may not know, I work at the BBC as part of a team producing the Comedy website. I’m writing this as a personal response to the many people on Twitter asking what the #bbcpop hashtag was all about.

Last night, we hosted an event in London as part of Internet Week Europe. It took the form of a Popcorn Comedy night – a mix of live comedy and funny videos sourced from the internet, with the opportunity for anyone interested in developing comedy for the web at the BBC to chat with us and find out how to get involved.

And, seeing as this is Internet Week, we used Twitterfall to display the #bbcpop backchannel so that the audience could have fun interacting between acts – and comment on the stuff they were seeing.

Did you just say #bbcpop?

Yep. So that’s the origin of #bbcpop. It was a backchannel for people at the event to play with amongst themselves, completely uncensored. We knew people would have fun swearing on it – it was an adult comedy event attended by creative, playful and above all, mischevious people.

One of those people was Nat Saunders, co-creator of Misery Bear. Noticing the temptingly big screen, he gleefully tweeted:

At a BBC event with a huge live tweet screen. If you do a swear word and add #bbcpop to it a whole room of people will see it. Ha!

Nat is a very funny guy and has quite a following on Twitter. Within literally seconds, the screen was flooded with swearing and re-tweets:

The Big Screen

This was funny for a few minutes, but by then the screen was so deluged, it was impossible to join in with the conversation. Tweets from people actually at the event were instantly lost in the landslide of abuse: the hashtag was picked up by hundreds of people in the Twittersphere who used it as an opportunity to get whatever beef they had with the BBC off their minds, or just join in with a Malcolm Tuckeresque swearfest. These people had no clue what the tag related to, and seemed often to believe their tweets were being displayed to a meeting of BBC executives. I know Nat meant absolutely no malice and was just having a bit of fun.

Wiping the slate and then shitting on it again

So at that point, I suggested wiping the slate clean: let’s start with a new hashtag (#bbcpopcorn) so that people’s tweets from inside the event would have a chance to be seen.

Unfortunately, as is perhaps inevitable, this was seen by some at the event as ‘censorship’:

Well said old boy RT @XXXXXX: #bbcpop migrated to #bbcpopcorn in a futile and terrible attempt at censorship, swear again at these cunts

Despite the intention being the opposite. Once this had happened, there didn’t seem much point in trying to defend against a tsunami of mischief. The original #bbcpop, meanwhile, had apparently become so ‘successful’, it was a trending topic.

I’m not sure what I’ve learned from this as a social media host. In the aftermath, I’ve seen people tweet that it’s “taught the BBC a lesson about the power of Twitter”. If the lesson is supposed to be that Twitter is a public space and people can use it however they wish: I already knew that.

And of course I’m not at all surprised that Nat’s original, naughty call to action generated such an enthusiastic response. I know this because I’ve been there myself: remember when Skittles replaced their whole website with a twitterfall? I was one of the people who took advantage of it.

It’s happened repeatedly when corporations have displayed an uncensored feed of public tweets on their websites. We scoff at their naivety. Don’t they know that anyone can say whatever they like?! Tee hee!

So was this another Twitterfail?

Not quite. There’s a crucial difference: this wasn’t the BBC’s ill-advised footsteps into unmoderated social media. This was a backchannel for an event, just like any other. And usually you don’t expect them to be full of unrelated abuse from people who aren’t there (though it’s obviously a risk).

As a user it’s easy to instantly write a single mischievous tweet and include a hashtag. Poof! It’s gone. On the receiving end, the cumulative effect of these individual tweets is a slightly depressing torrent of apparent abuse – especially when it’s nothing to do with the hashtag it’s attached to, being written by people who have no idea of the context.

I was surprised by some of the (quite high-profile) people involved. Shouldn’t they haven known better? What if it HAD been seen by a room full of executives, and not comedy fans?

So I suppose my lesson was this: as a user, if you’re joining in with mischief, think before you tweet – whether that’s at Stephen Fry or a faceless corporate entity, know your facts first.

There’s a dark side to Twitter that has emerged in recent times: snap reactions to ‘news’, unthinkingly aggressive herd behaviour that can amount to bullying. It’d be an overreaction to say that happened here, but it’s an echo of that behaviour – the instant and unrelenting tide produced by thousands of seemingly ephemeral snide comments.

So, come on tweeps. If you’re going to participate in a public medium, why not behave like the friendly, thoughtful people you really are?

And, if you are a faceless corporate entity planning to use a public tool as a private backchannel: if you’re not planning to moderate it as you go along (which would be censorship), maybe you need a different solution. Unless you’re hosting Swearfest 2011, of course.

I leave you with my favourite bear:

This post was entirely my personal opinion and not that of my employer.