Saturday 20 February 2010

Firstly, a disclaimer. I've been on the 'web' since 1995 in one form or another. From the early days of the Webchat Broadcasting System and every webpage having a grey background to the current web 2.0 shiny world, I've watched quietly whilst the virtual world changed around me. I didn't leap on web 2.0 immediately, as documented below, for various reasons. A lot has changed in the past year.

Eventually, no matter how shy you are, you come to the point where you realise that knowledge, experience, observations and musings are worth nothing if they remain in your mind. No opinion is wrong in this brave new world. I have no qualifications and no training. All I have is who I am, a geek watching the world change around her and deciding to become a part of that world in all the myriad different ways which are now available, from festival forums to Google Wave, from Twitter to software user feedback groups. Knowledge is worth nothing if it isn't shared. As a result of the new social networked world, next week I will be trying to help a festival organising team make their festival greener. The week after I will be trying to convince a magazine who recently ran a convention for the first time that Twitter is the key to instant information dissemination to geeks who all have mobiles in their pockets. The week after that, who knows?

The following are my musings on the challenges which web 2.0 will present to Councils which I sent, after some very deep breaths, to the Communications Department. I am unaccustomed to popping my head above the parapet at work. I am geek also equates to I am shy.

I've been on the web for 15 years now. The rules have changed, the speed of communication has changed, the general feeling among 'geeks' has not, and nor has their sociology. I dislike the word, but essentially, some of the most powerful tweeters with the most followers are self confessed geeks, people like Stephen Fry, Neil Gaimain (author), Wil Wheaton (ex Star Trek: The Next Generation actor, now pro blogger), Jonathon Ross. As Twitter grows their influence will wane, as celebrity culture takes over and the demographics of Twitter change.

At the current moment in time, however, the following facts seem true:
  • Twitter attracts, at the moment, a certain group of people. Whether they fit into Acorn or not (I suspect they do), they have certain general traits. Middle class, educated, eloquent, not afraid to express their opinion, access to all forms of the web, well read in the blogosphere, personal connections through 2nd and 3rd parties to influential people. Whilst take up rates of broadband connection within our area may not be as high as in some other areas of the country, schoolchildren still have access at school and on their phones, likewise college students. By using Twitter we are disseminating information to a very specific group of people, those who do have 'always-on' internet access, and those who are aware of Twitters existence. However, these are people who perhaps don't read paper media any more, don't read the local newspaper, don't read Councils paper based communications. For them, the internet is the way they learn about everything, to the exclusion of other more traditional forms of media. You cannot carry a paper in your pocket.
  • The borders between famous/celebrity/talented/important and us 'normal' people are breaking down. I can send messages to the editor of SFX magazine or any other numbers of magazines, the organisers of my favourite music festival, my favourite authors, bands, blog writers, and I can get a response. Sometimes instantly, sometimes not. But this would never have happened before Twitter, you would have needed a personal email address. That would have been perceived as an intrusion, akin to phoning someone on their direct line. Now those barriers are not in place and peoples connections with others are multiplying. Some are more accesable than others, but the nature of access has changed. This will directly affect us. If people ask questions of our twitter feed, are those contacts being logged, is there a facility to attribute it to social media, are we measured on this in NI's, how do we judge an avoidable contact, what kind of reply are people being given? Are they being told to telephone instead of someone interacting with them directly? Does the twitter feed need to be manned during office hours with a live human being who can find answers for people and reply? Is this another face of our call centre? How busy is the person covering the feed likely to be? Are we an information push, or do we intend to be interactive. If we are not being interactive, are we defeating the point of Twitter itself, which seems to have become 'to interact'. Will this affect how we are perceived and therefore limit those who take our messages seriously or follow us? (I'll come to public perception later, it's a big one)
  • Peoples interests, hobbies, day to day curiosities are being catalogued. I can search, using Twibes, for people who are interested in exactly the same thing as me. Or, indeed, search for people who know something about a subject I don't, but want to. Hashtags catalogue in the same way, collating groups of disparate people together who would never have spoken before Twitter by a common goal or interest. Is there a way we can encourage community spirit in the virtual world in a way we seem to have lost in reality, turning things full circle and encouraging communities to come together in reality to make changes to their environment through discussion on social media?
  • Goals, objectives, agendas, firestorms. Last week Paperchase learnt a bitter lesson in failed PR, pathetically unprofessional email responses, what happens when you come to a battleground too late, and how peoples perceptions of you as a company matter. tells the story well, but it examines only half the issue. On the one side, yes, the public and private sector have been taken by surprise in the speed with which Twitter can be utilised to get a clear and concise message across. And yes, perhaps the depth of feeling aimed against them was a little of a shock to the system. But that shock expressed only shows how little they understand the demographic of Twitter users. Social conscience and ethics, hitherto, have been words on a strategy report or year end report. A brief nod, and move on.
Part of being a group who are no longer seeing barriers to discussion, commentary, instant information sharing and access to people that was impossible before, is the dropping of self moderation and inhibition. People are no longer hesitant about expressing opinions. The retweet function means that something can go viral in 15 minutes if the influential geek tweeters pick up on it. And on a really fundamental level, people from Korea to the US saw a big corporation being a bully and reacted, by calling the corporation out on it and emailing Paperchase to complain about their plaguerism. Paperchases initial response to those first emails was 'Do not always believe everything you read.......' - unprofessional, unhelpful, defensive and most definitely not a professional press release cleared with internal PR. Their second response was a post on their webpage explaining that the offending artwork had been purchased from a studio who had assured them of the above board origins of the artwork. The third update finally named the studio and explained the artist had been contacted. It transpires the contact was in December and denied all culpability. It also now appears that Paperchase are refusing to talk to the artist by email, and will only communicate by telephone. Cynics would suggest deniability is coming into play here somewhere and someone has finally spoken to their Legal Department.
As a case study for how not to deal with a bomb going off in your face, Paperchase have performed admirably. Of all the things we needs to worry about in its use of social media, this is it. By entering the social media arena, we have agreed by inference to play by social medias rules. Paperchase did not have a social media presence until last night. They entered the battleground late and lost all credibility in doing so. Credibility is key here, because without it, peoples perceptions of you as an organisation will plummet. The idea that what happens in Twitterverse stays there no longer washes either, both the Telegraph: and the Guardian: picked up on the story within hours. Instantaneous mob rule appears to have arrived. And yet, if this were the case, surely there would be more firestorms, more hauling over the coals?
The fundamental lesson to learn here is not that Twitter will crucify you if you make a mistake. It will crucify you if you make a mistake and then fail to compensate, apologise, respond professionally or contact your PR department before opening your mouth. These are lessons which we need to learn. The importance of never responding to anything on any social media site ever without first checking it with PR, when it relates in any way whatsoever with your work area, or BWDBC in general cannot be emphasised enough. It needs to be a discplinary offence to do so and it needs to be included in the acceptable use policy. Your own opinion is your own opinion, absolutely, but as someone who is tweeting who is identifiable as working for a particular organisation, you are a representative of that organisation whether you like it or not. The same is true for blogging, for Facebook, for any social media. What you say is instantly quotable, undeletable, and can be retweeted in 2 seconds into the streams of thousands of other people, including the local newspapers. I strongly believe the adage 'if you've nothing positive to say, don't say anything at all'. We're not restricting peoples free speech, we're asking them to be responsible ambassadors for us out in the social media world. The issue with the social media world, is that you still work for the Council in that world, whether you are sitting at your desk or not. There is nothing so simple as removing your badge or branded fleece to denote the end of your involvement. If you enter the arena of social media, these are the sacrifices you make.
Public perception is important. Whilst being professional is important, corporations like Paperchase who sign up to things like Twitter for no other reason than to defend themselves are given short shrift. Twitter is about interaction as is all social media. It's about being able to ask the most esoteric question regarding some random piece of software and receiving a reply from some bloke in Chicago who you've never met, giving you the answer. Or at least it is for me. It's not about coming across as cool. It's not about trying to be young and cool and hip. It's about being honest and upfront if you have failed and directing focus back onto what you're doing to fix the problem. The Xmas period tweets were a perfect example of this. People moaned about gritting or lack of it, we switched to a stream of information about what was being gritted, when, and how often. Managing public perception is something which can be done easily through social media and I strongly believe that we are on the right track. We are communicating our successes, acknowledging our failures, but also redirecting focus from our failures to our measures to address those failures. We are being what Paperchase were not, honest, up front, clear, concise, not changing our story and ensuring that the public know what they need to know. I believe continueing to do this will stand us in good stead.
  • Personal versus professional logins for social media sites. This is tricky for me. I have an online presence which spans many communities, forums, old BBS's, blogsites, Google Wave and Twitter. I appreciate I am not er, 'normal' in this respect. So putting that aside, how do you address the issue of someone saying their work accounts can be held accountable if not portraying us in a positive light, but that their private ones can't? The London Ambulance Service were one of the first employers to have this problem, thanks to the popularity of the Random Acts of Reality blog, written by an Emergency Medical Technician working for the LAS. The author wrote an interesting summary of how not to lose your job if you're publically blogging about your employers here: - despite trying, I've yet to find a public comment on this blog from the LAS but this quote "This is one of the reasons, he suggests, that his colleagues and managers at the London Ambulance Service Trust, (who Reynolds concedes could have stopped him in his tracks if they wanted to) have embraced the blog." from is the closest I've got to finding that his employers, despite his honesty, are fine with the blog and wont be pursueing him to stop writing it any time soon. It's an interesting take, and it's offered as evidence that complete lockdown is not always the way forward. However, a complete restriction on blogging etc is far easier to manage than opening up the floodgates and then having to address the issues each individual blog raises as more and more people decide they have a view and they're expressing it come what may. It's definitely something we need a statement on though because eventually it will become an issue.
  • Social media in worktime. I use Twitter for a number of things. Out of work hours I'll post interesting links, pics of where I am and what I'm doing, and chat about sci fi and geekery. In work hours, I use it as a way of asking for help from a massive pool of people who have a lot of different experience levels in a number of different technical areas. There's a bloke in Colarado who helps me with GIS, a girl from Pitney Bowes who I send suggestions to about Map Info's usability, friends who are better at Excel and Visual Basic who I can ask about formula construction - and I get these answers and feedback instantly. If I were to wait for ICT, as I have done in the past, I would wait a month. With Twitter, the help is instant. That's invaluable to me. I also work as the lone geek in Environmental Services off site. I can't pop my head around someones door on a different floor and ask for help or to bounce ideas off someone. Twitter and social media allows me access to a think tank of people who I can bounce ideas of. I am no longer restricted by my physical geography. However, Twitter is a different bunni to most social media. I can't chat for hours on there, the character limit restricts me. There are no games, no groups, no distractions. I read other peoples feeds in a quick glance. It doesn't time suck. Other social media such as Facebook does. Therefore someone is going to need to examine the payoff between allowing Facebook to be accessed through the Councils network to allow different Departments to engage with their target audiences - I am specifically thinking of Childrens Services and Social Services here - against the very real possibility of numerous employees spending most of their working day lost in the chat and games available there.
  • Mentioning something you don't want to mention. There is a very real possibility that in mentioning social media and developing a policy at all, it will bring to the notice of people hitherto unaware of such things the possibility of causing trouble with blogs, or sinking worktime into Facebook. Therefore there needs to be some kind of statement included on how access and usage will be monitored and who it will be fed back to and what the outcome is likely to be if you are found to have accessed these sites inside work hours if you do not have a good reason to do so i.e. running a Connexions group or the suchlike. In this vein, perhaps going down the route of social media ambassadors may be an option - a nominated person (or people) within each Section who is responsible for representing that particular section in social media circles. They would be put on an access list for Twitter, Facebook et al and everyone else who wanted to access those sites and post something in work time would need to go through those people. I don't know if this is practical from a ICT point of view, it should just be a case of putting facebook, twitter et all on everyones ban list and adding it to the exception list for all the other people who have been nominated.
I am aware that some of these suggestions will not be popular. I am aware that restricting access to anything comes with its own problems. I am also aware that at the end of the day, I am paid by my employers to come into the office and do some work. In the new shiny world, I do believe there is a massive space for social media, an opportunity to engage groups of people hitherto disengaged with the concept of community, a way of interacting with people who would never normally speak to their Council or see any need to. I believe that contacts regarding basic questions can be avoided by efficient communication, and efficient communication no longer involves delivering a leaflet to every door in the Borough.

I put mine straight in the recycling bin. I read The Guardian on my iphone and I pay for it. I watch freeview in realtime on my iphone. Yet I still read books in bed. I am not alone in this because I talk to very many people who do exactly the same thing. I am, perhaps, not the majority, but I am a minority with a new voice who wants to vote but who doesn't know who to vote for because no one is telling me their policies in arenas I pay attention to. I am the minority but I want to be part of the community, contributing to shaping the future of our world, but I am finding new ways to do it in an arena which I understand the rules of. I don't attend community groups. I don't go to church. I do check certain forums, blogs, twitter feeds and webpages on a daily basis. I have a social conscience, I care about the environment, I recycle, I am reasonably well educated. I believe social media and the rules of communication are changing. I am proud and relieved to work for a Council which acknowledges that.

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