There are three things new media loves: subversion, humour, and an opportunity to overtake traditional media. When RTé apologised for reporting on the Sunday Tribune story of portraits of Brian Cowen hung by a (then) anonymous artist in the RHA and National Gallery, the story took flight online, as well as across mainstream media. The result was probably the internet in Ireland's biggest ever week, in terms of content created, the volume of communication online – and the social impact both these elements have had. Although it was traditional media that broke the story, new media is now driving it forward.
Things only really blew up when RTé decided to apologise on last Tuesday's Nine O'Clock News for the report that aired on Monday night. That rollback – along with the removal of the report from the RTé website – whipped blogs into outrage mode. Any whiff of censorship, and the blogosphere is off.
Damien Mulley (www.
mulley.net), the most high-profile blogger in the country – whose posts are not so much commentary but bulletins to the entire blogging community – had already recorded the report and uploaded it to YouTube. By today, views of that video will be hitting the 30,000 mark. Mamanpoulet.com (a political blog and winner of Best Irish Blog at this year's Blog Awards) tracked the story live, notifying her readers that there would be an apology on the Nine O'Clock News before the bulletin even went out.
A Facebook group called 'Leave the Cowen guerrilla artist alone!' (subsequently changed to 'Leave Conor Casby alone!') had nearly 4,000 members by Friday. Endless blogs and message boards were abuzz with comment and discussion.
Much of the reaction happened on Twitter, the micro-blogging social network where users post 140-character updates about what they are doing at any given time. Ordinarily, the site is a calm enough zone, rather benign and friendly, but when a Twitter storm takes hold, the social network comes into its own. Acting as a massive collective venue for conversation and communication, users tagged any related post with "#picturegate", posting relevant links from blogs, discussing the controversy, providing links to the Cowen portraits for users to print out and paste around their area, commenting live on Picturegate items on radio shows, talking about articles that appeared in the daily papers and so on. For a time on Wednesday afternoon, the tag #picturegate was the number one trend on Twitter globally, which is saying something about the volume of traffic the controversy was creating, considering Twitter digests three million messages a day. Eventually the term Picturegate, which was created on Twitter, crossed over, with Newstalk referring to the Cowen controversy as such.
For the first time, Mulley attests, the entire online community was united in one frame of mind – not particularly enamoured by the portraits, or the subversive act of planting them in galleries, but over what they saw as censorship between Government Information Services and RTé, and also over the visit of gardaí to Today FM in an attempt to find out the artist's name. "Traditional media still drives a lot of content on blogs in Ireland," Mulley told the Sunday Tribune. "When they saw that it was censored, they reacted in a way they'd react if they themselves were censored. They saw it almost as an affront on themselves, not just RTé."
Mulley believes the reaction was so strong online that further offline action will happen. "It's amazing. It's the first time all quarters of the internet have come together en masse and shared the same opinion... It's finally given people a very strong voice."