The old proverb that ‘a lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on’ has been replaced by one in which the blog post has made the trip before the lie has done up its laces. It is a better world, but it is a different world and those of us who grew up under the old dispensation are challenged.
I wrote a column for the BBC website about my growing despair over the lack of technical understanding among the wider population, and I thought I’d found a hook in the coverage of Sky broadband’s decision to move its customers to Google Mail.
A reader had alerted me to the story, but although some people had problems, it looked to me as if there were no real issues. I wrote the column, and within hours had been emailed by people who knew more about the situation than I did, who had been messed around by Sky and who were active contributors to a discussion forum I had simply not found. I had screwed up, but those I was talking about were able to tell me – and the rest of the world – what was really going on.
I signed up to the forum, read the posts and added my own contribution. then I emailed my editor at the BBC and told him what was going on. The following morning I posted an apology and an explanation. I didn’t take down the original post – if it went then the discussion would make little sense, and it would only have saved my embarrassment. I didn’t edit what I had written, for the same reason – let it stay there to mark an error. But I did add a correction, so that anyone who reads the piece will know more about the situation and be pointed to the forums. It was the best I could do.
Since posting the apology and clarification I’ve had a few supportive emails, some from people who agree with the general point about our technological ineptitude. The forums are still active, but the criticism is tempered with an awareness that I did engage and did not try to hide behind my institution or my editor. I’ve learned a useful lesson. Actually, I’ve learned two.
First, don’t rely on a first-level search – the forums I needed were not indexed, and I should have contacted the reader who originally got in touch with me. Second, don’t write offline – I researched the piece but then spent a train journey writing it up and filed it without going back to the sites and sources or having another look around.
It’s tempting to say ‘it was only a column and the real substance was the argument about network literacy’, but that won’t wash because the story that underpins the argument has to be able to take the pressure, and this one didn’t.
So it goes – writing a weekly piece is always going to be risky, and I should be grateful that the Sky users were willing to let me join in their conversation once I’d stuck my nose into their business.