What the Queen's death showed us about public vs private media
Is the "groupchat" the most important broadcaster around?
Given that I’m an Englishman, my subscribers would, presumably, forgive me if I took this week off. But it’s my belief that HM (who may or may not have been a subscriber to the Future Proof premium plan) would want us to continue.
Not to mention the fact that recipients of this newsletter stretch the corners of the globe, but are perhaps, overwhelmingly, North American. For Americans, the death of the Queen has been excellent spectator sport, allowing them to engage with a rich historical tradition and also snipe from the sidelines as a republican enterprise. It has also sparked something of an internecine war between American journalists and publications (who care about the Queen’s passing a proportionate amount) and British journalists and publications (who care about the Queen’s passing a disproportionate amount).
Particularly striking have been the clashes with the New York Times, which led one UK publication, Reaction, to label it “the world’s worst newspaper.”
“The niche, paying market the NYT wants in Britain is Britons who can’t stand Britain,” writes Reaction’s editor, Iain Martin. “There is quite a bit of revenue to be made here.” Meanwhile on Twitter, Andrew Neil (chairman of the Spectator and one of the few truly big beasts of British political journalist) responded to the Times’ bait with a Tweet that read: “In the latest manifestation of its relentless anti-British propaganda the New York Times now reports that Queen’s death = “a rupture to the national psyche”. What does that even mean?”
I would’ve thought that psychic rupturing was quite apparent to Neil, but I suppose the wood for the trees and all that.
From a media perspective, the death of the Queen has been quite a staggering event, as we knew it would be. I was on my way into central London on Thursday to produce a political podcast when the news began to inch into Westminster. The decision was made to postpone the podcast recording under a growing assumption that the political news blackout anticipated after the monarch’s death would be coming. The fact that Huw Edwards, the formidable Welshman anchoring the BBC’s coverage, was wearing a black tie was referenced as a hint that the inevitable was coming. For me, the Palace’s use of the word “comfortable” in its statement all but guaranteed HM wasn’t going to make it to the weekend – “comfortable” is a very British euphemism for a state that ranges from “on deathbed” to “already dead”.
Since then, the response has been relentless. Rolling news coverage, a blackout of all tonally inappropriate scheduling, the news of the Queen’s death disseminated through channels that have nothing to do with news (for example, the BBC sport homepage, below, or this noticeboard at my local train station, further below).
This is a once-in-a-lifetime media event: when the new King passes (in many decades, I’m sure) it will not carry the same weight as this. The Queen’s reign was unique. There’s an old @dril tweet, below, from March which neatly sums up the situation (and was almost incredibly on-the-money in terms of timing):
But the thing that captured my imagination, in this case, is a phenomenon which you might call “groupchat leak”.
The groupchat (which I am writing as a compound word, even though Microsoft Word is responding with its censorious little red line) is an outlet of growing importance. SMS messaging has been around since the early-90s, but even by 2000 the average number of texts per month sent by adult Americans was just 35. Can you imagine, now, sending just a message per day? It wasn’t until 2007 that the number of text messages sent and received even overtook the number of phone calls sent and received, but since then the tip has been wild. The concurrent rise of social media has turned text-based comms into the dominant lifeform in this space. The apex predator.
Of course, chat rooms have a long and, um, storied history. They date back to the 1970s and when I was growing up, before I owned a mobile phone, apps like MSN Messenger were the dominant means of communication, whether it be with one person or with multiple users. But mobile phones and social media killed the chat room, only to slowly move back into that space: Facebook, a site which is increasingly only used by old people, is now an important group messaging space. And, on top of that, in February 2014, it acquired WhatsApp, which is now the world most popular messaging application (in fact, it’s held that crown since 2015).
WhatsApp groups can run to 512 members, which, unless you’re a bot looking to spam sell fake Ray-Bans, is enough for most social interactions. It has become the hub of group communications – almost everyone I know in their 20s or 30s has at least two or three WhatsApp groups that are in almost constant communication. It has taken action away from Twitter and Facebook, but created a very similar dynamic of micro-content people relayed to chosen recipients. It’s no surprise that the rise of the group chat has coincided with Instagram releasing a feature like ‘Close Friends’ and Twitter releasing ‘Circles’. Both services are aware that target demographics enjoying communicating freely with closed circles of trusted friends.
The death of the Queen bore this out very starkly. When Nadhim Zahawi, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, interrupted the House of Commons in order to pass a private message on to the Speaker and the Leader of the Opposition, Twitter went into overdrive. “Something very big is happening,” one user wrote. “OMG, is *it* happening??” wrote another. Well informed circles of journalists were immediately aware of the story that was unfolding, long before any statement had been released, but no-one was willing to say it out loud.
Which is precisely where WhatsApp (or other group messaging applications) come into their own. With public broadcast of a ghoulish sentiment prohibited by social norms, people took to their group chats to speculate about the health of the Queen. This was also a way of communicating this huge news to people who were not on Twitter at that point (by “people” please here read, basically anyone normal). The news trickled out of the closed, euphemistic circles of Twitter, and through to mainstream knowledge, via the group chat.
Yesterday, I ran a very unscientific poll on my Twitter account, trying to ascertain when people had first heard the news via their groupchats. 57.9% of respondents had first heard “speculation about the Queen’s health” between 12:00 and 13:00, which means within half an hour of Zahawi interrupting the commons. A further 28.1% heard first whisperings between 13:00 and 15:00, while 7% and 7% found out between 15:00 and 18:00, and after 18:00 respectively. Obviously, I conducted this poll on Twitter and am therefore likely to get a big sample bias towards people who use Twitter and therefore heard earlier. But all the same – the impact of the leakage was huge. One response told me that he’d been on the phone to a Times journalist at 11am who’d told him he’d have to ring back because of “a Queen panic”. The news was already trickling down.
As media professionals, we take for granted the importance of social media marketing. Indeed, it’s become the dominant form of marketing – in all my years working in podcasting, I’ve only had a couple of projects that have run print advertising or any other physical marketing event. Overwhelmingly, people want to use socials. Key to any marketing push is the ability to measure your output and the response, which is something that social media advertising (however appalling the cost per interaction might be) is very good at. You have measurements, you have analytics.
When push comes to shove, I don’t doubt that the groupchat is a more effective marketing device than social media. I don’t doubt, for a minute, that if I posted on my Twitter account (with a few thousand followers) a message like “please subscribe to my podcast” I would get a lower uptake than if I posted the same message to my groupchat with 30 members. Groupchats are effective broadcast mechanisms and effective advertising platforms.
But how can media producers take advantage of them? I’m tempted to write that off as a question for the boffins. And clearly the boffins at Instagram, Twitter or wherever are thinking about it. They’re thinking about the question of trust – is a communication platform more potent if you trust the people you’re broadcasting to? That is an issue that is only going to ramp up as we continue to put in power a generation of people whose professional lives could be destroyed by crap jokes they made when they were teenagers. Just look at the way that Gen Zers to prefer Snapchat to other messaging services. They are like the forest campers of the internet: leave no trace.
The most important broadcaster of news about the Queen’s death wasn’t the BBC news channel or The Times or even the Buckingham Palace Twitter account. It was groupchats. And that’s because they are the only space where people felt safe to ask the question “Is the Queen dead?”. Much – in my opinion, too much – discourse about social media centres on the question of how to disrupt anonymity. To stop trolls and bots and other abuses, many campaigners for better social media target measures like requiring new users to sign-up with ID, or enforcing users Tweeting under their real names. Though these ideas would undoubtedly cauterise the stream of vitriol coming from cranks, the effect would be to further push social media away from being a useable broadcast channel. For better or worse, anonymity creates a disinhibition almost indistinguishable from trust.
Anyone working on social media right now, and thinking about its future, would do well to use the last week as a case study. It is fitting that a story about the Royal Family – the ultimate symbols of the dichotomy between public and private – should expose the duality of our public and private media.
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The next edition of this newsletter is due to come out on what is now a bank holiday, here in the UK. So I may, or may not, publish something. I like to keep you on your toes.
I cannot wait to be done with this Italian phrasebook gimmick, which stopped being entertaining or informative a long time ago. But, all the same, it does occasionally throw-up a goodie – in this case, something that a lot of tongue-biting people have spent the last few days wishing they could’ve said.
Ho appena postato / I just posted.