I was talking to a friend on Skype earlier today and the conversation turned to social networking…as it does. I was trying to explain the concept of Twitter to her and persuade her to give it a try and the conversation turned to the whole social networking phenomenon and how much the business of writing and researching has changed since we both studied journalism in college.
Now granted, since I learnt the ropes things have moved on from quarter in reel to reel recorder (one of these…, through minidiscs on to hardrive recorders. Elsewhere the revolution of being able to file copy from anywhere without having to use a copy taker or an ISDN line as long as you have access to an internet connection has made minute by minute breaking news achievable.
But apart from the tools we carry about with us to perform our daily business it’s the actual job that has changed almost beyond recognition over the year. I graduated from college in 2000. Back then learning how to use search engines was a fairly new part of the curriculum. These days, if the Internet went bang in the morning I wonder how many of us would remember how to do things the old fashioned way. There are so many routine inquiries that would have required several hours of judicial phone calls or knocks on doors that can now be answered by a few minutes Googling.
It’s something that we all take for granted yet still on occassion becomes something to marvel at. I’ve lost count of the number of times the press room in the Four Courts has been agog over a piece of video or audio that would have previously meant a search of the archives back at base that you might only have seen when it went to air. During the Joe O’Reilly trial, for example the footage of his appearance on the Late, Late Show in the company of his obviously uncomfortable mother-in-law three weeks after he had murdered his wife got an almost daily showing.
Similarly the video that Siobhan Kearney shot to publicise the guest house she and her husband Brian Kearney had run in Spain was played again and again in the media room during his trial for her murder.
These are the kinds of archive material that have always been obtainable but never quite as readily as they are now. These days colour writers wanting to describe an earlier event in vivid technicolour can call up their subject in a Google search rather than rely on rusty memories.
Even basic newsgathering is changing according to the advances in technology. Journalists can now look at someone’s Myspace or Facebook page. Incereasingly this is the first place to look in the case of murder victims. A Bebo memorial page set up in their honour is a source of photographs not just of them but of the friends and family who attend the court each day, a way of putting names to faces without intruding. In the recent trial of Finn Colclough, which I’ve written about at some length, journalists quickly found the Bebo page set up for victim Sean Nolan with the outpouring of grief from his devoted friends which still continues to this day.
We live in a technological world and it is at their peril that a journalist doesn’t move with the times. YouTube is the source for the kind of eye witness footage captured by increasingly high resolution mobile phones that news editors could have only dreamed of in the past. Twitter has become the new buzz word for a second by second stream of information from any major news event. You only have to look at the number of articles and courses springing up on electronic news gathering to see the impact it’s having.
As I discovered researching the book it’s now possible to gather information from the other side of the road simply sitting at your desk. I’m a great fan of the idea of VOIP (quite apart from the fact it allows me to chat with people who have decided to move back to Sweden and are no longer eligable to be my Call a Friend for Free!) I get very excited about the fact that I can Google someone or somewhere, go to their website then simply click on a phone number somewhere in that page of text and within seconds talk to them through Skype (using the Firefox Skype plugin).
As a writer too the advent of Web 2.0 has totally changed the reality of life. The fact that you have become some grungy creature who hasn’t change dout of your pajamas and who lives in a small pool of light over you cluttered desk and overheating laptop is no longer a barrier to you networking with editors or agents in any of the major cities.
Living in Ireland and not having access to a lot of writing festivals or author appearances where publishers and agents would be in attendance it’s fantastic. I can be as cheeky as I like in approaching people through Twitter or blogs (although it remains to be seen how successful my networking is – to date I’ve probably got most of my most concrete contacts the old fashioned way but I’m optimistic for the future).
I’m constantly in awe of all these changes. I love technology but I’m not young enough to be born to it. I remember what life was like in the dark Luddite days and I like the way things have changed. Personnally I think the reality is that this is simply a new way of doing something we’ve always done. I’m fascinated with the opportunities to self publicise that the Internet provides (obviously I’m aware of the blogging one) and the idea of virtual book tours and being able to reach a global audience is too exciting to pass up.
The Internet has allowed us to go back to the kind of old fashioned communities and intensive networking that were bog standard a century or more ago. These days we may hang out on Twitter, in the 18th Century coffee shops were all the rage. Thanks to Google I’m now in touch with a community gardening initiative that happens not five minutes from my front door.
I sometimes wonder what would happen if everything went bang (it’s a thought that feels natural with the ongoing economic doom and gloom) but I can’t help thinking we’d probably carry on much as we are now. We’d just have to get out more. As long as Armageddon isn’t coming any time soon, I’m happy enough with the way things are. We’ve come a long way, even if the communities we’re building hark back to earlier times and I for one am more than happy to embrace tweeting and blogging and exploring the big wide world from the comfort of my desk!