They who shout loudest: an onlooker with a megaphone at the Tour de France, 2013. Photo: Getty
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Social media is important for journos but let’s keep things in proportion

A tiny online minority has a disproportionately loud voice. It is important to remember the weak correlation between the things we know some readers think and what readers, in totality, really think. 

Journalists now face constant temptation by numbers. Each piece offers a tantalising glimpse of their popularity: how many comments, Facebook likes and tweets does it garner? The illness is neediness, the prescription is data and the (flawed) assumption is that numbers correlate with what matters.

In December 2012, the Guardian revealed two facts about its online community. In isolation, neither sounds particularly surprising. However, taken together, they explain how misleading it is crudely to measure online interaction. First, the newspaper website’s audited audience for the previous month was 70.5 million unique users. Second, the paper revealed that its site “publishes around 600,000 comments a month, with 2,600 people posting more than 40 comments a month”.

Martin Belam, digital editor at the Trinity Mirror group, crunched the numbers and made a startling calculation. If 2,600 people post at least 40 comments each, then their total must be more than 104,000, which means that a maximum of 496,000 comments are written by everyone else. In other words, at least 20 per cent of the comments on the website each month come from just 0.0037 per cent of the Guardian’s declared monthly audience.

A tiny minority has a disproportionately loud voice. There is nothing wrong with that per se. But it is important to remember the weak correlation between the things we know some readers think and what readers, in totality, really think. If we fail to distinguish between the two, a peculiar kind of distortion seeps into the news.

While covering a controversial news story, journalists will often use social media to monitor how their readers (in reality, a tiny minority of their readers) think they are handling the events. This is what happened during the sacking of Kevin Pietersen from the England cricket team. It was no surprise that a significant number of social media users violently opposed Pietersen’s removal. That is understandable: he is the most thrilling and talented player of his generation. There is a danger, however, especially as journalists cultivate the number and satisfaction of their social media devotees, that the followers will begin to lead.

Yet Pietersen’s vociferous Twitter advocates, who cling to the idea that his sacking was the result of a bizarre Machiavellian plot, are not representative of the entire community of England fans. Far from it. For every tweeter who stabs the word “Disgrace!” into his smartphone, a thousand other cricket fans could quietly be saying, “It’s perfectly understandable,” over the breakfast table without anyone noticing. We never hear the whole national conversation, merely the shouting outside the bar at closing time.

When I used to write a weekly newspaper column, the sports editor told me that fans of one particular football club were highly disciplined in hounding critical journalists. I criticised anyway and awoke to find a series of organised threads under my column, submitted minutes after the piece had been posted, exactly as my editor had predicted.

It is often assumed that the quantifiable nature of digital media encourages sensationalism. It is true that a misleading headline or simplistic argument can generate a temporary (and easily measured) fuss. But a parallel trend runs alongside web-orientated populism: the timidity of not wanting to offend a tiny minority of readers who are keen to express their outrage. Populism and fearfulness, in their different ways, are both manifestations of the same herd mentality.

Let me make the counter-argument. The vast majority of readers do not comment on articles or write to journalists using Twitter. Instead, these people read, consider the arguments and reach their own conclusions, without leaving much of a digital footprint. That it is extremely difficult – impossible, even – to decipher what they believe does not mean they do not exist. Indeed, they are often exactly the people who may consider changing their minds. The silent majority, sceptical and open to new arguments, is the very audience journalists should try to reach.

I have many reasons to be grateful to social media. Readers frequently direct me to articles and resources that help me to develop my ideas. Social media has enhanced my life and, I hope, my work. But gratefulness does not blind me to another truth: however many people comment on articles or attend literary festivals and book signings, I will never meet or hear from the vast majority of my readers. They will continue to judge, weigh and assess – without me ever hearing their conclusions. All of this is a modern version of the problem identified by Einstein: “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”

In a different context, as a professional cricketer, I witnessed how that fallacy crept into management thinking. During a tedious, overcomplicated fitness test, a pioneering cricket coach took me aside. “I practically invented all this and now look!” he lamented. “When I encouraged fitness testing, it was because fitness was a clear means of improving performance. Now coaches do so much of it because it’s easy.” His point was that improving technique requires great judgement and skill, yet it can’t be measured or counted. Improving bodies, on the other hand, can be captured on a spreadsheet. Dodging the harder challenges, managers found more things to measure, congratulating themselves on “proven and scientific progress” as they did so.

Writers are now adjusting to hearing much more from their readers. That is to be celebrated and encouraged, not to be feared or pandered to – still less counted. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.