Fly on the Facebook wall: A social media documentary

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Media captionWATCH: The technology behind The Secret Lives of Students

Would you let someone read your text messages? How about broadcast them on TV?

In an age where what we tap with our fingers is almost as important as what we say with our mouths, documentary makers are having to go to extraordinary new lengths to tell the whole story.

"Is Chlamydia permanent?" Josie silently searches on her phone, moments after discovering she may have contracted the sexually transmitted disease from Aiden, another star of Channel 4's new series The Secret Life of Students.

Aiden's just broken the news in a phone call, and we've heard the whole thing.

Image copyright Raw tv
Image caption The documentary makers developed special software to record the students' online conversations

This is because they've both agreed to have their phones "tapped" for the documentary.

"Sorry about that. Awkward. But just get checked out to be on the safe side," Aiden texts a moment later.

Some things are easier to say when you're not face to face.

'Open and assertive'

The Secret Life of Students is a twist on the traditional "observational documentary" TV format, where willing contributors are meticulously tracked by camera teams, in the hope of revealing the dramatic highs and lows of their lives.

For this series, in addition to the cameras, the 12 first-year students were given specially modified iPhones running a script that allowed the programme makers to monitor their digital lives.

The system hoovered up text and WhatsApp messages, searches, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram posts plus phone calls.

Image copyright Raw TV
Image caption Geography student Josie loves Twitter but uses a basic mobile with no camera or internet

These communications were delivered to the production team back in the office in near real time, 24 hours a day.

"This project really opened my eyes to what a different generation they are," says Joanne Timoney, series producer of the programme.

"We had 200,000 bits of content from our filming period, that's a massive amount.

"They're a generation that's much more open with their feelings and more assertive somehow on their digital communication.

"They were able to say something on a text to their boyfriend, their friend, their mum or dad that maybe they wouldn't say in real life."

Authorised eavesdroppers

The communication monitoring system, called the Digital Rig - or D-Rig - was created by Joanne's team at production company Raw TV and a team of developers.

Image copyright Raw TV
Image caption Physics student Hassan uses Facebook, but spurns the use of SMS texts

"It was remarkable how open and honest they were about us sharing their data," Joanne explains.

"The willingness to share very quickly, and share quite sensitive stuff, quite soon and without any real concern, it was something that was pretty standard for that generation."

It's the first time that digital communications have been used in this way for a British documentary, so making sure Josie, Aiden and the other 10 contributors fully understood what they were signing up for was a huge priority.

"We never ever felt like we were spying, because we always knew that they were aware that we could see what they were doing online, and for me that's a very, very different kettle of fish," says Vicky Bennetts, who ran the D-Rig system at Raw TV.

Raw had to get permission from both sides in any conversation, no problem for communications between the stars of the show, but that also meant asking for permission from family and any new friends the students made at university.

Image copyright Raw tv
Image caption American Studies student Mads sends about 100 iMessages every day on her iPhone

If one side refused to give consent, their phone number was blacklisted, so that and future content was discarded and not used in the programme.

The documentary maker was sensitive about showing BBC Click the Digital Rig software, not allowing us to film or photograph the interface, saying that it wanted to protect its intellectual property.

Awkward reactions

Mads, one of Josie's flatmates in the documentary, used this rule to play the system. "It was quite easy to strategically say, 'Don't say yes to them,' so I wouldn't have to deal with what we were texting about," she says.

"It was a bit weird; a lot of people I'd pre-warn that they might get a call from someone from a Channel 4 production company wanting to use our texts, and I'd get a, 'What the hell are you talking about?' response back."

Image copyright Raw TV
Image caption Biological sciences student Ben prefers using Snapchat to Facebook

Once the producers had consent from all sides they could store the communication in a searchable database for the duration of the filming process.

This meant that if a story developed in an unexpected way, they still were able to feature it by pulling up old texts or calls.

Another advantage of receiving this data in near real time was that the team monitoring the D-Rig in London could tell the film crew in Leicester if anything interesting happened that they weren't aware of.

"As you get into week three… it gets a bit awkward, especially when you know the camera people have seen or heard about what you've been texting," Mads explains.

"They may not be the people reading all of them, but they have vaguely heard, so they're going to ask you questions about this and that."

The producers of the programme told BBC Click they were fairly confident the students didn't have another way of communicating - they even confiscated their normal Sim cards before filming started.

The critics text back

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Each student's contacts had to give permission for their conversations to be used

Sam Wollaston, TV critic for the Guardian, was a fan of Raw's use of social media posts, telling the BBC, "the technology made it".

"For young people today so much of their lives is operated by a small screen and so much of what goes on there is real thought, so putting that in the documentary added a poignancy and another dimension," he added.

"It's definitely pioneering and is a format that others should follow and would be silly not to."

Caroline Frost, entertainment editor for the Huffington Post UK, was of a similar opinion.

"There is always the temptation for TV producers to get a new bit of kit, and then work out how to shoehorn it in editorially," she said,

"For once, it was spot on, and the medium reflected and deepened the message."

But the Telegraph's Michael Hogan was less impressed, giving the programme two of five stars in his review for the paper.

He panned the use of social media as "occasionally amusing but mostly just an opportunity to despair over the youth of today's overuse of 'lol', 'omg', 'babe', 'awkz', 'banter', exclamation marks and multiple kisses."

Ttly not his fav show!!! ;)

Raw's next project using the D-Rig follows the lives of school-age teenagers, but as this hyper-connected generation gets older, and virtual communications are interwoven even more into our lives, it could be that this sort of intense monitoring becomes an accepted norm, or even a necessity, for documentaries.

Image copyright Raw TV
Image caption Psychology student Brenda sent more than 19,000 texts and social media updates over the three-month filming period

"Not that I am now like, 'Yay, I can text anyone, text whatever I want', but it is nice knowing they're not on my phone anymore. I feel like I was watched a little bit…" says Mads.

"If I told any of my friends they'd be like, 'Why would you ever, ever want anyone to see your texts?' but it's a new experience, they've never done it before.

"And my texts aren't that outrageous."

Watch more clips on the Click website. If you are in the UK you can watch the whole programme on BBC iPlayer.

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