Social media, serendipity and the power of trivia

For most of us – and certainly anyone reading this blog – social media plays a significant role in our lives. We keep track of our friends’ lives through Facebook updates, message them on Twitter, see what they’re up to on Foursquare, and ‘like’ their photos on Instagram. I do this more than most, since social media is a big part of my job; my friend Richard commented that he doesn’t need to ring me anymore as he can find out exactly what I’m doing, thinking and feeling by looking at my various updates online.

A couple of weeks back my colleague Keith wrote an interesting blogpost, wondering if this stream of minutiae is bad for us, akin to obesity for the mind. He asked “is it possible that we have filled our brains with information, images, adverts, arguments, thoughts, news, features, blogs and opinions, to the extent that our brains aren’t functioning as they used to?”

The stream of updates about unimportant things, from lunchtime burritos to Daily Mail click-bait, are thought by many to be distracting us from the reading of improving books or forging of real-life relationships.

thinking man

Keith certainly isn’t the first person to ask if the sharing of trivia is affecting the way that we think. Plato argued the technology of writing would destroy humans’ ability to remember. 17th century lecturers complained that their students spent too much time in coffee shops catching up on news and gossip. Even the walls of Pompeii featured graffiti from Roman Jamie Olivers exclaiming ‘I baked bread today’.

As Tom Standage argues wonderfully, the sharing of tidbits of information in a peer-to-peer way is by no means a 21st century development, and nor either is the suggestion that this has a negative impact on wellbeing.

I’m an internet optimist. Sure, the internet gives us plenty to be worried about, from privacy worries to the impact on older industries and the economy. But in my lifetime the 20th century model –  in which mass-produced media were piped at us, to be passively consumed at a set time via a small number of TV or radio channels – has been completely transformed. The 21st century has seen a diversification in media in which has given us access to a wider array of information sources than we’ve ever had before.

While some may argue that this overwhelms people, I’d argue that on balance being informed via a wider range of sources is a good thing. The web gives us access to more information than we even knew existed, as well as the power to publish ourselves. Yet far from overwhelming us with a torrent of news, the amount of time younger people spend consuming news has gone down. It’s been suggested that we’re simply becoming more efficient, able to learn more in less time.

Yet it’s also wrong to say the web hasn’t had an impact on the way we think. When I’m talking to a friend or colleague and we’re not sure of a specific point, one or other of us will reach for our smartphone and settle the argument immediately. I don’t remember; I research.

On the one hand there’s a large body of evidence which suggests that the increasing complexity of the media we consume is leading to increased cognitive capacity and rising IQ scores. But there’s also a healthy academic debate taking place over how our behaviours are adapting to the changing information environment.

Just as printing put paid to the one-valued skill of memorising entire books, communications technology is changing what we choose to commit to memory.  For example, studies have shown that regular users of GPS devices begin to lose some of their innate sense of direction. It would seem we’re putting our faith in external storage, and reallocating our mental energy.

This is the same phenomenon Socrates described, in which writing will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.”

What’s different is the ease of access to these external marks, such that it’s available to anyone with a smartphone in seconds. The question is whether this reliance on external storage and recall (‘exomemory’) is such a bad thing. What Socrates failed to see was the incredible opportunity created by access to knowledge greater than that our own heads can hold. As Amanda Palmer noted, we can only connect the dots we can collect. The out-housing of our collective intellectual capital has exponentially grown those collections of dots.

Having a network of information sources creates greater opportunities for serendipity. Some of the most useful things I’ve learned in recent years are bits of digital lint in my browser’s belly button.

Euan Semple made an interesting comment on Facebook today about location updates. Seen by many as a social media irritant, the ambient knowledge of knowing when someone’s in town also facilitates the arranging on real-life meetings. Similarly. the answering of questions about where to find lunch creates bridging capital, which helps us to establish trust in others.

The internet’s not going away; it’s speeding up, and growing at frightening speed. With the web being the gateway to our collective hive-mind, the ability to access and analyse information from the sources it provides has become an essential skill.

It’s said that in the West our environment is obesogenic – that food is so readily available that it encourages overeating. But just as you don’t have to eat everything, you don’t need to read everything you see either. The problem is not that we have too much information at our fingertips, but that we haven’t fully developed the tools and behaviours to help us manage it effectively.

Yet it’s the very technologies that cause the problem – search engines and social networks – that are also the solution.  Through knowing and using a wide range of sources, effective searchers are quickly able to sort the wheat from the chaff in our exomemory.  By establishing a network of trusted sources, I can quickly find a person or organisation who can give me the answer I need. By sharing and reading just the right amount of trivia, we create trusted connections – and learn what to scroll past.

Socrates argued that, exposed to writing, people would become “hearers of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear omniscient and will generally know nothing”.

The harsh light of history has shown this to be wrong. The human mind is a wonderful thing; by freeing up those synapic connections that might previously have been used to remember bus timetables or phone numbers, or discuss the 1989 first division football scores, we can put them to better use creating or connecting in ways that open up new possibilities for us all.

Some old thinking about new media

What a difference a week makes. Thursday’s televised debates could be said to put paid to suggestions this is  Britain’s first social media election. A whopping 9.4m Britons watched the debate,  demonstrating old media certainly still has its place in our political landscape.

Pundits took just minutes to announce who they believed to be the winners and losers in the debates, and within half an hour the first polls on audience reactions were out (but as my job is politically restricted, I’m not telling you what I think).

It’s estimated 36,483 people were Twittering about the debate as they watched. Now as I’ve blogged about before, Twitter isn’t always a great indicator of sentiment amongst the wider public.

But unlike the BNP/Question Time TV event I blogged about previously, what was interesting this time was how people on my social networks seemed to view the same events in widely varying ways.

In many ways, this reflects a longstanding debate within communication theory on how people are influenced by the media they consume. 

Discussion ahead of the debates focussed on how the leaders’ performance would influence the electorate; in the days since, commentators and pollsters have concluded the debates will have an unprecedented effect on the outcome of the election.  But this is a rather simplistic way of thinking about media influence, assuming that there’s a direct relationship between cause and effect. 

In the real world, we need to remember that people use the media they consume in different ways. We have different reasons for consuming media, and these fundamentally affect our experience of it.

Denis McQuail is one of many communications theorists to take a closer look at TV consumption. He found that in order to understand how media is recieved, you need also to consider why it is consumed in the first place.

With this is mind, he analysed TV viewers’ responses and motivations for viewing.  The result of his study is called the Uses and Gratifications Approach.

McQuail found there were four broad types of ‘media-person interaction’: surveillance (information-gathering), personal identity (resonates with who you are); personal relationships (swotting up on the big TV event in order to talk about it with others); and diversion (entertainment).

Looking at responses to the debate on the #leadersdebate twitter hashtag, it appears can be categorised in a very similar way. This isn’t a statistically sound study, of course. But communications researchers  – like ethnographers and anthropologists – look for patterns (of behaviour, language, etc) and try to relate these to their social and cultural contexts. Looking at hashtaged tweets there seemed to me to be some clear trends in types of participants, and in how they behaved.

Commentators have focussed particularly on those whose motivation for viewing was what McQuail would categorise as surveillance – ‘undecideds’ who watch in order to inform their own voting choice. A Guardian/ICM poll found one in four of those watching will change their vote as a result of watching.

The flip side of this, of course, is that three-quarters of those who watched didn’t change their mind at all. In my quick n’ dirty, unscientific analysis of the #leadersdebate hashtag , it appears a sizable proportion can be attributed to the personal identity category – that is, people who already have an opinion and watch in order to reinforce that pre-existing view. Many of these already sported a party Twibbon on their icon, indicating a clear, pre-held party allegiance. These tweeters – praising the leader they already liked and criticising those they disliked – came from the Twitterati across the three main parties and were not swayed by the content of the debates.

While this group comprised a small number of tweeters, they account for a disproportionate volume of tweets as they posted frequently during the 90-minute programme.

The third group were interested in personal interaction. Unlike the previous group, they’re not overtly political tweeters, but rather interested in the leadership as they would be another other televisual event, like finding out who killed Archie Mitchell in Eastenders. Their motivation is gaining social capital; they want to know about the debate in order to inform their on and offline interactions with others.

The smallest number of tweets could be summed up as motivated by diversion. This group watched, and tweeted, because… well, it’s something to do. They forgot to turn over after Corrie, or realised they’d already watched that episode of Have I Got Old News For You on G.O.L.D.

So what does this teach us? First, that noomedia isn’t (yet) proving to be the game changer it was talked up to be this election. The 36,483 people twittering about the debate represented just 0.004% of those watching. As I’ve said before, what people on Twitter say does not neccessarily reflect what the nation is thinking. That being the case, I would take Twitter sentiment analysis services with a pinch of salt.

But secondly – and somewhat conversely – while we talk about social media audiences being more actively engaged than those consuming mass media, it seems they don’t behave so differently after all. They have different reasons for consuming, producing and participating, and these reasons affect the outcome of that participation.

The field of communication studies has a rich vein of literature about mass media audience research. Those of us working in the field of digital engagement might learn a thing or two from looking at it again.

UKGC10 session four: The future of journalism

Eve Shuttleworth proposed this session in response to a question that arose earlier in the day: Where is journalism heading, and how do press offices need to change in response?

The web professionals session I went to earlier touched on the same issue – how do we develop the skills we need within our web and communications teams to respond to changing media demands?

Journalism has changed enormously over the past decade or so. News organisations large and small have woken up to the web, and are developing a wider range of rich media content. Local papers as well as national ones are using audio, video and interactive graphics to enhance their stories.

This has led to a huge cultural shift in news, with print and web journalists being located together and badged as content producers. The overwhelming feeling in this session was that communicators need to adapt in a similar way.

Press officers can’t focus solely on writing and selling-in written press releases; we need to take a broader approach to content, producing material for the corporate website as well as complete asset packages for the media to use.

Several of the group gave examples of journalists accepting their video content, although there’s a clear divide between the specialist and local press and the big boys on the nationals.

Major national news organisations are reluctant to take video material from the government (and rightly so in my view). But local and regional press are poorly resourced and more inclined to accept PR material.

Someone asked: the budget-slashing job cuts and subsequent culture of ‘churnalism’ that one sees in much of the regional press is beginning to creep into the national press too, in response to the poor advertising market and declining sales. Does that mean even major news organisations will start accepting complete packages from us too?

There was deep unease about this from much of the group; while an under-resourced press makes PRs life easier, it’s not exactly indicative of a free press performing its fourth estate function of holding government to account.

Many of us said we’re troubled by the lack of critical analysis press releases get. All too often, journalists will take a press release, find any contrary opinion, and present this as reasoned analysis. This over-simplification of debate does neither communciator nor journalist credit; it’s rare that there are two sides to every story. Usually there are at least three or four, and sometimes there really is just one.

This isn’t the fault of journalists, but of proprietors who have cut editorial teams, merged titles and slashed budgets so there simply isn’t enough journalistic resources to get out and report the news. One press officer said “make life easier for journalists and they’ll bite your hand off”.

Sarah Lay gave a great example of how they did this during the local elections in Derbyshire. Making a wide range of material available to journalists online meant that they recieved more coverage than they’d normally expect, yet had to take fewer calls from journalists. That’s a win-win for everyone (especially Sarah and her team, who took home a PR Pride award for this).

89% of journalists are using blogs and social media to research their stories, and it follows that the public sector need to engage with these too. Communciations teams need to keep an eye on blogs, Facebook, etc so problems can be identified and dealt with early before they become more reputationally damaging.

Alastair Smith explainined how Newcastle City Council managed a story which sprung up on Facebook. By responding to the group and offering to meet and talk about their concerns, they managed to turn what was a negative story into a positive one that helped the campaign group get what they wanted.

Communications teams just aren’t set up to respond to social media. Reporting lines for press releases usually require signoff from senior staff and politicans, a process which can take days – a timescale incompatable with the demands of social media.

Neil Franklin told us how he used to manage the Twitter feed at Downing Street, arguing that communicators need to be realistic about responding in a timely manner.

I suggested we borrow the concept of ‘presumed competence’ used by the Foreign Office. Back when an ambassador was sent to Ouagadougou and not heard from for months at a time, their masters back home had to assume they were capable of getting on with it. Social media has the same disconnect between local demands and ability to get sign-off from the centre. We may find it easier to respond to social media if we have a set of agreed ‘lines to take’ that we trust our teams to deliver, and refer upwards only by exception.

Whatever you chosen approach, organisations need to develop a policy for dealing with social media comment. Michael Grimes adapted the well-known US army model into this very useful process model for dealing with social media comment.

Others said it was difficult and unhelpful to have two different approaches to responding: It’s just media, and media is social. We need to have a vision for content generally, and plan our resources accordingly.

Someone added that we need to think about tone, and “don’t treat citizens as journalists”. While it’s true we speak differently to journalists as customers, the rise of the citizen journalist – and initiatives like Talk About Local – mean the distinction between the two is blurring.

Someone talked about this Clay Shirky article, which argues “we will always need journalism, but we won’t have journalists”. The fourth estate is vital in a democratic system, so if we’re seeing less meaningful analysis of our work by the traditional media, then we should welcome it from non-traditional sources.

Online journalists, of the traditional as well as citizen variety, are becoming as much curators of content as creators, aggregating content from the wider web and bringing it to the attention of their networks. Communications teams should try and emulate this in what they produce, for instance by linking to related articles or useful background information.

Eve Shuttleworth said the Ministry of Justice is starting to monitor blogs and social media to get a feel for what the issues are, but has not yet made the decision to respond. One of the issues they’re grappling with is whether press officers should respond as the organisation, or as themselves.

Identifying individuals could have security implications, especially where issues are controversial.

All of this points to an urgent need to reassess the service we provide. We need to develop a vision for how we provide content, and ensure we can resource this in a way that meets the media’s diverse and changing needs, the needs of the audience and those of the organisation.

Twitter is not a barometer of social attitudes

Like a lot of people, on Thursday night I tuned in to the BBC’s Question Time to see how Nick Griffin came across.

As I watched, I tweeted my thoughts, which became part of the huge stream on the #bbcqt hashtag. Looking at the hashtag search, you’d easily come to the conclusion everyone thought Griffin came across very badly.  Tweetminster reported that 99.9% of tweets were negative about Griffin.

Yet 24 hours later, a poll for YouGov found support for the BNP had increased following the show.

So why was the Twitter barometer of social attitudes wrong?

Quite simply, that’s because Twitter hashtags only tell us what people on Twitter think about something.

The comments on the BBC’s own Have Your Say forum, or submitted by viewers hitting the Red Button on cable or satelite had a far less critical view of Griffin’s performance, with a sizable number saying they agreed with his views.

So what this demonstrates is that what people say on Twitter should not be taken as what people in general think or feel.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately on the value of real-time search, with social media monitoring services selling sentiment analysis as an accurate method of understanding what people think.

This isn’t strictly true. It merely tells you what people on Twitter think. People on MySpace might think differently, and people not on the internet at all might have different attitudes altogether.

This is what ethnographer danah boyd (she does not capitalise her name) describes as the Not So Hidden Politics of Class Online:

‘For decades, we’ve assumed that inequality in relation to technology has everything to do with “access” and that if we fix the access problem, all will be fine. This is the grand narrative of concepts like the “digital divide.” Yet, increasingly, we’re seeing people with similar levels of access engage in fundamentally different ways. And we’re seeing a social media landscape where participation “choice” leads to a digital reproduction of social divisions.’

So for instance, boyd found that while discussions about social media tended to focus on Facebook, as this was the platform used by social commentators themselves, at least as many young people were using MySpace.

Our choice of social network, boyd argues,  isn’t about features or functionality. It’s a result of what sociologists refer to as homophily, the social phenomenon which means we choose to socialise with people like ourselves.

Because of homophily, the platform on which we choose to socialise online is inextricably linked with factors such as race, education and socio-economic status. This is reflected in the stats, which consistently show Twitter users are older, wealthier and better educated than people participating elsewhere online.

The phenomenon of homophily is evident not just in choice of platform, but who you interact with once using that platform. In following people who are interested in the same things as us on Twitter, we inevitably choose to follow people who are quite a lot like ourselves.

This means it can be something of an echo chamber, with views and opinions like our own reflected back at us.

This makes it inherently unreliable as a social barometer. It only reflects a certain strata of society, while other platforms may vary from this considerably. Let’s not forget that 10m adults the UK are not online at all. They have views (and votes) too.

Those of us working in engagement (as well as lazy journalists) would do well to remember that the views that echo through our own Twitter streams do not neccessarily represent everyone.

Decline of local news may allow corruption in public institutions to grow, Guardian editor warns

Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, this week said local news needed to be supported, or “corruption and inefficiency” would grow as scrutiny lessened.

Rusbridger backs a plan to give public funding to Britain’s national press agency to allow it to provide news from public authorities and courts as local newspapers withdraw because they can no longer afford it.

But this overlooks the key issue; local news is already failing to scrutinise local democracy, with news sidelined in favour of advertorial and churnalism. Making council and court news available will not make it of interest to profit-driven local papers. The decline of local news is the result of proprietors who for decades have merged titles, cut staffing levels and reduced the actual news content in search of astronomical 40% profits.

Council freesheets have, for the most part, stepped in to fill the news vacuum in areas poorly-served for local news. This is especially true in poorer areas, which present a poorer target for advertisers and as such often get no local news at all.

This is certainly the case where I work. As well as cutting newsroom staff, distribution has been streamlined so less-well-off areas only get a paper one week in three.

The solution, though, is not to artificially prop up the local newspaper industry, but to recognise that the era of the local parish pump journalist is over. The emergence of things like Talk About Local, which trains activists to produce their own hyper-local websites, means people who genuinely care about the local area can produce, collate and comment on their local news themselves. A similar initiative by the Young Foundation launches later this year.

The result of years of under-investment in local newspapers means that with a few exceptions they’re made up largely of press releases, printed almost word-for-word. As a council communicator, this suits me pretty well, but it’s hardly indicative of a healthy local press performing its normative function as the fourth estate in a democratic system of checks and balances.

As more councils and other organisations send out their press releases using RSS, you can – if you really want – read and analyse them yourself. So do we really need traditional newspaper journalists to dissect them for us?

Many local blogs, such as Kings Cross Environment, have a higher readership than many traditional news outlets in their local area. So what were seeing, then, is not simply the decline of local news, but its democratisation, with the future of local news and comment in the hands of people who simply seek information, not profit.