Robin Hamman has posted an interesting write-up of a BBC College of Journalism debate on the media coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. And the issue of digital doorstepping that I was talking about at the time has re-emerged. Professor Joe Foote, the head of Journalism and Communication University of Oklahoma, has something to say on the subject:

Someone asks about “digital doorstepping“: Foote responds saying that, when he was a journalist thirty years ago, when something happened they’d get the phone book out and ring the person up for comment. “I don’t see anything different about a journalist going to a face book page and taking something from there because it’s been deliberately published and shared…”

Foote is missing at least a couple of significant points here. For a start, many users of these networks perceive then, emotionally at least, as being “places” rather than communication methods: they are the front room rather than the telephone. And leaving a comment asking for quotes, a contact or an interview, is more akin to suddenly appearing in someone’s living room rather than giving them a call, at least in the case of inwards-focused publishing and networking services like Livejournal and Facebook.

Fundamentally, what we have here is the clash of two great bodies of ignorance. On the side of the journalists, it’s a complete failure to understand the culture and emotional weight of some of these online communities. They charge in. trying to apply physical world models to a new environment and wonder why they get a hostile reaction.

On the part of the online community users, it’s a case of failing to really comprehend the nature of privacy in these online environments. For a long time they’ve been able to rely on a general ignorance of their parents, bosses and the world at large of them. (I was blogging for years on Livejournal before anyone else in my office even knew blogging existed.)

That time has gone.

Now, they need to understand that those spaces are only truly private when they use the privacy features are enabled. Don’t want the press using your Livejournal account of a news event? Mark it as Friends-only. The features have been there since the start. Now the wider world is coming to understand these sites, it’s time for people to learn how privacy really works in the online world.