Deveny-Gate: the social media balancing act

Deveny-Gate: the social media balancing act

Catherine DevenyEarlier today, I was asked for my opinion on Catherine Deveny and whether The Age was displaying a misunderstanding of social media by sacking her for inappropriate tweets during the Logies. I’m not going to retell the whole sorry tale here; there have already been way too many news items and blog posts so that if you really have been under a rock, you can follow one of these links.

However, in all the furore, media comment, defences, attacks and social media posturing I have been struck by how so many people have completely missed the genuine lessons from Deveny-Gate. (It had to become a Gate – even if just for the sake of irony.)

Was Deveny sacked because of “a couple of twitters” as she puts it? Was she victim to an entrenched gender bias that allows men to be controversial but forces women to be ‘respectable’? Or is something else in play here that says more about widespread misunderstandings of social media – and heritage media, for that matter?

The personal v professional brand argument

Catherine Deveny is an outspoken comedian, broadcaster and writer – that much is true. She performs stand-up, appears as a panellist alongside politicians and thought leaders on ABC TV’s Q&A and often fills in on 774 ABC Radio Melbourne. I’ve never come across her before, but – apparently – her stand-up act is controversial, confronting and unashamedly frank. And so are her tweets. Before Twitter came along, this side to Deveny would be restricted to paying ticket-holders in whichever venue she was performing in. People were willingly buying into her style of comedy with an understanding of what to expect. That expectation is crucial to understand in considering what follows.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that she wasn’t dropping the ‘c’ word into her columns for The Age, describing ANZAC Day as “feeling big because your dead relative killed people” on her radio show, or joking about performing sex acts on presenter Tony Jones during the broadcast of Q&A. Pretty safe to assume Deveny knew where the line was drawn with regards to those aspects of her professional brand and the different audiences in each channel.

But Deveny seems to have forgotten this when it comes to Twitter. If Deveny understands the acceptable limits of behavior when participating in a televised panel discussion on Q&A with politicians and thought leaders, how does she justify joining the #qanda Twitter back-channel to make vulgar comments about other guests? No one has yet been able to explain that me. It is reasonable to assume that the audience for both is the same and the moment a #qanda hashtag appears, the comment isn’t restricted to only her followers who have chosen to opt in for that brand of comedy but to everyone who has tuned into both the television broadcast and the Twitter stream. If she would never say it on air, why on earth would she say it to the same audience on Twitter? Maybe she really doesn’t understand that social media is more than just a niche group of enlightened and open-minded geeks these days.

Social media requires a careful balancing act between the professional and the personal, as I’ve discussed at length before. Lean too far one way and you can end up sacrificing reputation on the other. In Deveny’s case, the job is harder because there is more than one professional brand at stake; the outspoken comedian, the mainstream columnist, the broadcaster. Deveny failed at this balancing act and as a result has fallen off.

The offence v lack of humour argument

Many of the comments today have revolved around the idea that people either have no sense of humour or are hypocritical in being over-sensitive in this case. Criticising Deveny seems to mark someone as a prude or reactionary fuss-pot. Personally, it takes a lot to offend me. A lot. Be as vulgar as you like; if I choose not to laugh it isn’t because of offence but more likely because I just don’t find certain things funny.

I’m sure all of you reading this are the same. You may tell the bluest jokes down the pub but would never say the same things on Facebook where your mum is following you. There, you manage the balancing act between the different aspects you put forward to the different groups who may be exposed; friends, family, oldies, youngsters, work colleagues, bosses. We all know the importance of ‘time and place’ when we self-censor our own comments. So this isn’t about whether something is funny or not. It goes back to that balancing act. Is the humour finding that middle ground between the different sides of Deveny so as to keep all sides of her reputation and brand intact? Were her comments appropriate for the particular situation she was in – ie; a social media space seen by thousands of people who may have come to her account from any of the different channels in which she works?

I think there’s no doubt that the answer is ‘no’, regardless of whether you personally feel the comments were funny.

The sacking on Monday v sacking on Tuesday argument

OK, some people are calling The Age‘s decision cynical, happening as it does after the media furore kicked in and not the morning after the tweets first started drawing attention. But entering the world of reality for just a moment… that has less to do with The Age and more to do with those who saw blood in the water and called in the sharks.

Some are interpreting the late punishment as purely a backflip and reactionary measure. Well, duh! How else could they have dealt with a situation that should have gone away on Monday morning but ended up plastered across the news media and Today Tonight? On Sunday night, Deveny’s reputation was battered, but possibly salvageable, and therefore little impact on The Age brand. I’m sure her bosses weren’t impressed, but that was an internal discussion to be had. Maybe Fairfax would finally develop the social media policy they sorely need, but no one would have reasonably expected much else to happen. After all, the morning after, more publicity seemed to have been given to Wil Anderson’s tweets and Claudia Karvan’s wardrobe malfunction. In fact, Monday’s coverage of Logies tweets seemed to list everyone except Deveny. Obviously, her Twitter feed wasn’t as prominent with Fairfax or News Ltd hacks as we would later be led to believe.

But after Today Tonight ran a story on both Anderson and Deveny’s Twitter behaviour, outrage was being whipped up where before it had been merely mild tutting. Suddenly the story shifted. Whether Deveny’s tweets were more controversial or outrageous than Anderson’s is, I guess, a subjective discussion. She certainly did choose targets – Bindi Irwin and Belinda Emmett – that are considered more off-limits by the Australian mainstream audience than, say, Anderson’s targets of the always ridiculous (in a good way…) Molly Meldrum or audience-dividing John Mayer.

In the beginning, The Age seemingly tried to present a conciliatory slant on the story, by allowing Deveny to express her reaction in a lengthy article on their website, while also quoting Editor-in-chief Paul Ramadge as saying Deveny’s comments were “not in keeping with the standards set at The Age”.

But the sheer number of negative comments that apparently deluged The Age in response must have illustrated to the editor that the readership was not so ready to forgive and forget. What were they to do? Stick a finger up to their readership and by implication condone Deveny’s comments, or take further action?

With people looking more and more to see how The Age would react, it was becoming increasingly necessary for the paper to do so. If people want to criticise The Age for being reactionary instead of standing by their columnist, maybe the finger should be pointed more at the commentators and so-called current affair show beat-ups that created a situation that required a reaction to safeguard their brand and how it is represented.

The gender bias argument

Yup, this has been trotted out a bit today. People are asking how male comedians seem to make inappropriate comments with less uproar but Deveny ends up sacked?

Let’s not forget that Wil Anderson was the first target the media went after. But, crucially, Anderson didn’t answer the phone and certainly didn’t make long statements about how he stands by his tweets and anyone who criticises him doesn’t understand how social media works. Anderson ensured the story had nowhere else to go.

Deveny, on the other hand…

Deveny’s unrepentant response to the critics in The Age, including her own editor quoted in the same story, has far more to do with the growing reaction from the public than any supposed gender bias. Next time, do what Wil did! Shut the $&#! up!

The social media is friendly gossip v social media is publication argument

They were not official Age communications. Yet The Age has taken umbrage and sacked someone. I don’t see how this is any different to intemperate comments in the pub after a few.

So reads a comment on Crikey.

Yeah, I’m going to drag this soapbox of mine up again, but there is a massive difference between boozy yarns down the pub and publishing comments in social media. Because it is publication. Legally. Those comments will exist for anyone to see for years into the future and will even be archived for future generations to see. It still amazes me that so many people have yet to grasp this basic truth about such pervasive technologies. Do people have to be sued for libel before realisation sets in? ‘Cause it’s going to happen – and soon, based on the way some people carry on.

Deveny defended the way she uses Twitter in The Age in the now infamous comment…

…you have got to understand social networking to get the context of it, it’s passing notes in class.

Ummm… no, it’s not. It’s like writing your note on the blackboard in permanent marker for everyone to see. Maybe Deveny’s analogy would stand up if we were talking about direct messages or email, but not open comments in the Twitter stream.

Haven’t we had enough stories of young teens losing jobs because they make inappropriate comments about their boss on Facebook? Can’t people see that saying something privately to three mates over a beer is very different to standing on stage and announcing it to three hundred audience members which is different again to publishing a comment to three thousand strangers? Do I need to draw people a diagram?

Come on. It’s 2010. This chestnut has been argued and put to rest in blog posts and articles ever since Twitter started four years ago and is put to rest again every time a legal advisor pops up on a tv show confirming how the law works in these cases. Yet people still continue to believe social media has no rules. Even worse, others continually argue that the law should be changed to remove these rules. They claim that laws should reflect human behaviour and how people wish use social media, rather than how we can protect other people from unacceptable behaviour!

Human behaviour leads people to speed and drive drunk on the roads. Should we remove those laws to keep our legal system ‘in pace’ with how people choose to use their cars?

Didn’t think so.

The free speech v reputation management argument

I was surprised when this one came up in Bernard Keane’s article on Crikey today.

The problem of supporting free speech is that it only really counts when it relates to someone you violently disagree with. We’re all up for fighting the good fight when we like the individual concerned or the views they’ve expressed are ones we endorse.

Previously I’ve criticised the incarceration of Holocaust denier Fredrick Toben … and the treatment of ex-LNP galoot Nick Sowden. Now I have to defend Catherine Deveny, who could perhaps be the first columnist in the world sacked for her tweeting.

Relating this incident to free speech is a bit of a stretch. After all, no one has said Deveny should not be able to tweet those comments – at least as far as I have seen. People just exercised their own right to free speech to express their disapproval. Free speech doesn’t mean we should all tolerate what everyone else has to say. Free speech means that everyone has the right to say what they want and everyone else has the right to disagree on an equal platform.

So Today Tonight‘s story attacking Deveny was free speech at work. The various blog posts and website comments expressing dismay one way or the other are unfettered free speech of the best kind.

And, most importantly of all, The Age has just exercised their own right to free speech – and freedom of action – to stop working with someone who makes those comments, just as others have exercised their right to object to that decision.

Where on earth has there been a lack of free speech in this entire affair?

The censorship v the unfollow button argument

One popular tweet today talked about how people should just unfollow someone if they find a comment offensive. It is an old argument, trotted out every time someone complains about obscenity or waves the spector of censorship – which, I remind you, didn’t occur in this case. The Age sacking a columnist is no more censorship than any other employer sacking a staff member who has become a liability to the business.

Anyway – back to unfollow buttons and censorship. “You can always switch off the television,” critics say, marvelling at the commitment of some busy-bodies ready to complain about any program they disapprove of. Sure, the remote control is a powerful personal censor, but then that poses some difficult questions. If the new ABC Kids channel decided to make better use of those late night hours when the kids are in bed by putting on hardcore porn, the argument could theoretically still be applied; if you don’t like porn, switch over to another channel. But access to a remote isn’t the point. The appropriateness of the content in that time and/or place is the point, which takes us back to my earlier comments about balancing expectations.

I guess, in the end, The Age had the option of a different kind of unfollow button which they chose to use.

Go on – I bet you all have your own opinions now.