calling a customer a brat: twitter and the distinctions between public and private

So the latest fuss in the Norwegian social mediasphere is about Even Sandvold Roland, an 18-year-old in his final year of high school who wrote a tweet yesterday evening complaining that he couldn’t buy a song legally in Norway that was available in the US. A representative for Norwegian Warner Brothers tweeted back somewhat too hastily: “I think you should steal it, then, and brag about it afterwards in your brat* blog. I don’t want you to be angry.” (He deleted the tweet this afternoon, but Jon Hoem (and many others) have screenshots.) Even Sandvold Roland wrote an excellent blog post about this, piles of Twitter users joined in the fray, someone wrote a post about it in English which landed on Digg, the Warner Brothers executive wrote an apology (published on Even Sandvold Roland’s blog), it was in the mainstream media by morning and by noon today, Even was being interviewed on the stage of the Norwegian Editor’s Association‘s annual meeting. An aside: the program for their meeting is only available as a word file – how old media. Yet obviously they also have people who get new media and were able to twitter their way into getting the key player in this latest affair on stage so quickly – and look, the interview with Even Sandvold Roland and the debate following it is already online:

This is a fabulous example of how different the public sphere is today – and how out of control it can get. PR people often talk about how social media give them direct access to their audiences, allowing them to bypass the journalists who have their own agendas and of course the journalistic desire to emphasise conflicts and problems. This is an example of the opposite: if the record company exec had been talking to a journalist rather than firing off 140 characters from his sofa he would almost certainly not have called a would-be customer a brat. He would have moderated his tone and choice of words according to his awareness that he would be quoted.

I don’t really know that the record company exec was sitting in his sofa when he wrote those words, but I sort of assume so. It was 7:30 in the evening, after all, and the tone he uses is very informal. He shows no awareness of speaking in the public sphere – he’s writing directly to Even Sandvold Roland but the irony, one assumes, must be largely for the benefit of his friends.

He quickly saw his mistake. His next tweets attempt to modify what he said, and within three hours he’s written a lengthy apology for using such derogatory language, with explanations for why the music isn’t available in Norway – rights are complicated and Warner Brothers isn’t trying to aggravate people, he says.

And yet the damage is done. His apology is unlikely to receive as many Diggs as the intitial blunder. Perhaps we’ll simply all have to get used to a world where our mistakes are public. More and more young people simply say they don’t care that their future employers will see photos of them at parties or making fools of themselves. Everyone will have such embarrassments in the future; not having them would make you more suspect. Even in old media this may be the way to go. While previous US presidents pretended they hadn’t smoked marihuana (or claimed not to have inhaled), Obama published an autobiography admitting to his experimentation with drugs. And so nobody bother’s to kick up a fuss about it.

I’m not sure that will make the record company exec feel any better though.

* The original is drittunge, which is untranslatable, literally meaning “shit-kid” but in practice a word most often used scathingly by kids or teenagers to refer to annoying, grubby, younger kids.

Update: I like how Dagbladet has inserted a live Twitter feed of Norwegian tweets mentioning the word “Warner” in their article about the topic. Cool.

Update 2: I’m reading The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet and I’m feeling pretty bad for the record company guy – the internet can be so harsh. Not that it’ll make much difference, but I took his name out of the post. It’s available plenty of other places but at least I’m not adding to it quite so badly.

23. April 2009 by Jill
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