On finding solace in sharing

I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen while travelling around Asia in recent weeks who seem to put more effort into recording and sharing things than actually enjoying them.

Walking around Angkor over Christmas, for example, I was amazed at the number of people who walked around filming the place on the phone rather than looking at it with their eyes. Most baffling of all was a young couple who set up their GoPro to film the sunset – then sat back playing Pokemon on a retro Game Boy rather than experiencing the magnificent sight happening right in front of them.

In my last blog post I wrote about why I tweet, based on George Orwell’s motivations for writing. Chief amongst these was historical impulse, what Orwell described as the “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

As I said then, by sharing with others, we create a record for ourselves, too, and at the same time create a dialogue around what we share, reinforcing, challenging and shaping our worldview as we go.

And yet it was this same impulse to record and make sense which motivated engineer Jordi Mir to post online a video of policeman Ahmed Merabet being murdered on the streets of Paris last week – a move that was criticised by the Merebet family, and which he now bitterly regrets.

Mr Mir told The Associated Press he posted the video out of fear and a “stupid reflex” fostered by years on social media. At first he didn’t know what he was seeing, so he recorded it. And then he didn’t know what to do, or how to make sense of something so inexplicable.

“I had to speak to someone,” Mir said. “I was alone in my flat. I put the video on Facebook. That was my error.”

An error, absolutely, but Mr Mir is hardly alone in being at a loss to explain why he filmed – still less shared – the chilling video.

“There’s no answer,” he said, blaming it on a decade of social networking which has trained him to share whatever he saw.

“I take a photo a cat and I put it on Facebook. It was the same stupid reflex,” he said.

Recording and sharing has simply become a habit – we share to show off (like the Angkor sunset pair), but we also record when we simply don’t know what else to do, or we don’t know how to respond to what we have seen, like Mr Mir’s footage from Paris.

Has the urge to record and share become uncontrollable? Perhaps. In the past decade sharing details of our lives online has grown from niche hobby to hourly habit, reaching epidemic stage in 2014 as overshare was named Chambers Dictionary’s word of the year.

As Keith Porter wrote on the Live Simple blog, we all need to learn to put the phone down and be present – to soak up the atmosphere and truly experience what’s happening right in front of us. It’s easy to criticise something as patently ludicrous as going to a concert and experiencing it through a screen, or filming a sunset rather than looking at it.

But while many have lined up to condemn Jordi Mir for sharing a video of the brutal murder, his response is more comprehensible. When reality is simply too awful to look at or understand, sharing it can help us to seek reassurance, or help, or simply to process what is happening. When sharing is a habit that we use to make sense of the world, the urge to do so in the darkest of times is completely understandable.

Why I Tweet

Last week I spoke about 300 Seconds at #digitalcswomen, a workshop introducing women from the Senior Civil Service to social media. Organised by Sarah Baskerville – best known as tweeting civil servant Baskers – it opened with an introduction from Emer Coleman on the many benefits social media has bought her in her career. Chief amongst these was the ability to build a network which you can then use to find answers, and to learn from.

Twitter, and social media in general, remarked Emer, exists because of sharing – people sharing their thoughts and ideas, but also sharing their knowledge. Adding contributions to the debate, but more importantly by passing on tidbits they’ve found along the way that may be of value to others.

Later in the event, we broke up into small groups to talk about getting started on social. Someone asked me why I tweet. I replied that it’s because I find the network I have built on Twitter really valuable to me, but the question’s gone round my head all week since. I’ve been on Twitter around six years (under my current persona for five), and have sent over 25,000 tweets in that time. But I’ve never really sat back and reflected on why I’ve done that.

Book cover

Back home, I flicked through my old copy of George Orwell’s essay on his journey to becoming a writer, Why I Write.

Like Orwell, at an early age I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Unlike Orwell, I soon disbursed myself of this notion when I realised I’m not a particularly good writer. (As it happens, I married one and live the life of a journalist vicariously through him instead.)

Orwell listed four great motives for writing – which, to my mind, could equally apply to tweeting. All of us who tweet are motivated by a balance of these four drivers, together with the desire to share that comes with media being social.

Sheer egotism

Orwell argues that a writer writes from a “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups in childhood, etc.”

Social media has opened up the prospect of being talked about  to anyone. Like most social media users, I am narcissistically self-aware of my online presence, carefully curating my tweets to show my ‘best self’ – me at my most interesting, clever and attractive (and not, as I am as I write this, nursing a mild hangover, still wearing some mis-matched pyjamas at lunchtime).

Aesthetic enthusiasm

“Perception of beauty in the external world,” as Orwell put it, adding that the writer takes pleasure in good prose itself. It’s true that I get a kick out of creating the perfect 140-character bon mot, generating a handful of retweets and emoji-heavy replies. But Twitter enables me to capture and share the ordinary, everyday beauty of the world around me. A rainbow after a storm. The sunset over the Thames on a summer’s evening. Faces in places.

Social media awakens the aesthete in us all, allowing us to capture and share beauty where we see it.

Historial impulse

The “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

This is probably my most regular motive for tweeting. The recording of things as they happen. By sharing them with others, we create a record for ourselves, too, and at the same time create a dialogue around what we share, reinforcing, challenging and shaping our worldview as we go.

Political purpose

Writers write out of a “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after”. No book, notes Orwell, is genuinely free from political bias. Every tweet, I’d suggest, is political too. Every comment, every link we share, is a contribution to public discourse – an attempt to bring people round to our way of thinking.

In that respect, no tweet is an island. One tweet won’t change the world, but taken en masse, the volume and sentiment of what’s said and shared on our networks shapes public debate. This can be seen right now with the parallel social media war taking place alongside the conflict in Gaza. Both sides have their official propaganda, but social media allow us to see deeply inside the war zone, and the steady drip-drip of stories and images has led to a notable shift in public opinion. Stories become more real when shared in real-time by people we know and trust.

Israel/Palestine is a topic on which strong opinions are held – for many, views shaped by their own family and friends’ experiences of oppression, racism and diaspora.The writer’s subject matter, noted Orwell “will be determined by the age he lives in, but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape”.

Our tweets are shaped by our pre-existing opinions and beliefs, however much we might believe we are impartial. So, too,  are our networks – we each build filter bubbles around ourselves, which can mean social media reflects our own views back at us rather than opening us up to a wider spectrum of views.

For Orwell, the Spanish Civil War marked a turning point, from which he wrote in support of democratic socialism and against totalitarianism. “The more one is conscious of one’s political bias”, he added, “the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity”.

Tweeting is political with a small p. So it’s important we recognise the limitations of our own bias, and that of our networks, and actively look beyond them so we can see the world as it really is.

Reciprocal generosity

However, when Orwell wrote (and when he wrote Why I Write), writing and journalism were one-way processes, with prose crafted by writers and read by the masses. As a truly networked medium, social creates a fifth significant motivation for writing; the culture of sharing itself. I tweet because I want to share my knowledge, and in turn have others share theirs with me.

Building a network requires us to be generous with our knowledge – sharing our own ideas, but more importantly sharing links to things that we find interesting, in the expectations that others might find them of value too. In doing so, you position yourself as a valuable source of information on the areas you care about (in my case, intranets, digital comms, and the current status of the train service into Waterloo).

Once you’ve built a network of people you trust, you can draw on it. Social media is my go-to for answers on everything from digital best practice to how to upholster a chair.

Knowledge is power, and knowledge is more powerful when shared.

Concluding, Orwell said that “all writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery”. He has a point. I tweet because it makes me look good. I tweet because I’m selfish; I’m a voracious collector of half-remembered knowledge, and by sharing what I have, I gain more than I give away. And I am lazy; why find the answer when the hive-mind can tell you in an instant?

I tweet because I’m a selfish, vain and lazy person who wants to change the world. And so are you.

In praise of web anonymity

The Twitter rape threat row shows no signs of abating, as many users pledge to take a one-day break from the site this Sunday, August 4th. Author and columnist Caitlin Moran says she’s taking a 24-hour ‘trolliday’ from the site “because it will focus minds at Twitter to come up with their own solution to the abuses  of their private company”.

Twitter have already caved in to demands for a ‘report abuse’ button – which, as I argued earlier this week, is likely to cause as many problems as it solves. But many commentators claim this doesn’t go far enough, and are calling for an end to anonymous accounts on social network sites like Twitter.

Writing in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins claims that the internet has become a masked ball, “whose concealed dancers may be corporations or governments, paedophiles or rapists, weirdos or fools”, demanding that “it must be regulated”.

Jenkins echoes the online disinhibition effect, “a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the Internet”. Anonymity, it’s suggested, is itself the cause of so much anti-social behaviour online.

Although I would certainly never condone the type of abuse that Moran describes, we need to be wary of losing the enormous benefits that anonymity on the web brings all of us.

Anonymity can be a wonderful thing. Many of those commenting on blogs and forums are doing so from beneath a pseudonym, so they can speak freely on the issues that concern them without it being part of their Google footprint, drawing scorn from real-life friends and family.


Anonymity can be a powerful force for good online

Anonymity allows us to practice having different points of view; we can be a more conservative or liberal version of ourselves in online discussions, which helps us to form our own opinions and arguments.

And it’s there where the spectrum of trolling begins. At one end you have someone taking a contrary opinion in order to get a rise out of someone. This kind of anonymous trolling can be a noble art, and we saw a fine example of such this week, when Pukkah Punjabi trolled the ‘racist van’.

At the other end of the spectrum you have people shouting vile abuse at strangers. This is clearly wrong, and rightly illegal. What one woman might be willing to ignore, or consider a joke, another might find scary and threatening, especially when received as frequently as some high-profile women do.

Where trolling ends and abuse begins is difficult to define, but we should exercise caution so we don’t lose the benefits of anonymity in our rush to rid the web of abuse.

MIT academic Sherry Turkle has written extensively about the value of the anonymous web in allowing people to experiment with different facets of their personality and opinions, in order to develop our sense of self and identity. In Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, Turkle talks about how the internet allows us to engage in new ways of thinking about evolution, relationships, politics, sex, and the self.

As an example, someone who is coming to terms with their sexuality might participate in online discussions in LGBT forums. Being able to do so without risk of disapproval from friends or families can prove a vital lifeline for a young person to develop their identity and sexuality.

Anonymity can bring benefits in everyday situations. For example, when I was last looking for advice on finding a new job, I was much more comfortable doing so in the knowledge that my boss at the time couldn’t look it up.

But anonymity can equally be an issue of personal safety. I have one friend who will only comment online under a pseudonym as they have been a victim of real-life stalking.

For others, anonymity is a matter of life and death. Twitter is widely thought to have played a key role in galvanising the Arab Spring, but that was only possible because people felt they could use it anonymously, without fear of reprisals.  We should be very mindful of the implications of ending web anonymity in those parts of the world where speaking publicly can have serious consequences.

Padraig Reidy, blogging in response to Caitlin Moran, hit the nail squarely on the head:

“The web is wonderful, and possibly the greatest manifestation of the free speech space we’ve ever had, but it’s also susceptible to control. Governments such as those in China and Iran spend massive resources on controlling the web, and do quite a good job of it. Other states simply slow the connection, making the web a frustrating rather than liberating experience. Some governments simply pull the plug. The whole of YouTube has been blocked in Pakistan for almost a year now, because something had to be done about blasphemous videos.”

The web is far less anonymous than it used to be. When I first started using it, everyone was anonymous, all the time. Then, as now, there were a handful of idiots who would abuse that anonymity in order to get attention.

In the two decades since, the web has opened up communication and ideas in ways few dreamed possible. As a tool which enables people to speak freely with others all over the world, putting thousands of information sources at our fingertips, the web has fueled revolutions and overthrown governments.  But through providing anonymity, it’s also been revolutionary for individuals, allowing people to discover their sense of self, to find a partner, to form and change opinions, and much else besides.

While more can be done to streamline the process of reporting and preventing abuse, we should all be very wary of losing the real and valuable benefits anonymity can bring in a knee-jerk reaction to a small but vocal group of idiots.

(Photo credit: Stian Eikeland on Flickr)

A ‘report abuse’ button on Twitter will create more problems than it solves

Twitter today responded to calls to make it easier for people to report abusive messages received through its service, pledging to introduce a ‘report abuse’ button.

This follows a weekend of controversy for the platform as feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez faced a deluge of hundreds of vile tweets, including threats to rape and kill her, after she successfully campaigned for a woman’s picture to be put on a new banknote.

Criado-Perez refused to be silenced and took to both traditional and digital media to name and shame those who’d made the threats. Twitter drew criticism from politicians on all sides. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper described their response as “weak” and “inadequate”, while the Police’s social media lead called for the company to make further changes to the platform to prevent abuse.

In the past three days, over 50,000 people have signed the petition calling for the introduction of a ‘report abuse’ button. These tens of thousands will no doubt be pleased to hear Twitter has heeded their demands, and included this functionality in the latest release of their iPhone app, with other apps and sites to follow.

But we should be careful what we wish for. A button will not, alone, rid Twitter (or the wider world) of mysogyny and abuse. These are complex issues that will take more than a button to resolve. But ‘report abuse’ buttons have been known to be widely abused on other networks, an introducing this to Twitter will create new and complex problems for individuals and brands online.

Abuse buttons are easily abused

Back in 2010 I wrote about the case of a magazine which disapppeared from Facebook after falling victim to misuse of the report button. They found their page – and the personal accounts of all the admins – disappeared overnight, with no recourse to appeal.

After writing that piece, I heard similar stories from social media specialists of pages shut down and valuable content lost through malicious reporting, commercial rivalry, or simply mischief-making. Community managers and social media managers have found disappearing content to be a depressingly regular occurrence. It only takes a handful of reports to have content removed automatically – putting campaigns and content at risk of malicious removal, and putting the personal accounts of the admins at risk of deletion.

Facebook has long since made it simple to report different kinds of abuse, from breaches of terms of service to copyright violation, but provides no means by which brands and organisations can appeal when this is misused.


More recently Facebook introduced the concept of ‘protected accounts’, where pages are protected from automatic shut-down – but this isn’t a service they publicise, and is largely only available to paying advertisers.

Introduction of a similar mechanism on Twitter ironically creates a whole new means by which trolls can abuse those they disagree with. The report abuse button could be used to silence campaigners, like Criado-Perez, by taking advantage of the automatic blocking and account closure such a feature typically offers. In that way, it could end up putting greater power in the trolls’ hands.

A report feature could also be used by campaign groups to ‘bring down’ brands or high-profile individuals (such as MPs) through co-ordinated mass reporting.

The abuse button will do little to prevent abusive messages

It’s not at all clear that an abuse button will do much to prevent the use of abusive and threatening language on Twitter, either.

Unlike Facebook – which these days makes it quite difficult to register a new account, and in storing so much of your life history creates implicit incentives toward good behaviour as users truly fear having accounts deleted – the barriers to entry on Twitter are low. All you need to create a Twitter account is an email address; you can be up and running in under a minute. If users are blocked or banned for abuse, they can – and will – simply create new IDs and keep on going.

The introduction of a report button could simply create a tedious game of cat and mouse in which the immature and misogynistic simply treat being reported and banned as a wind-up to be ignored.

Button-pushing mechanisms rarely create real change

To create real change, and really tackle the issue of abuse on Twitter (and indeed, mysogyny in the wider world) we have to recognise it’s s complex problem which can’t be resolved by giving people a button to press and make it go away.

Abuse is sometimes clear-cut, but often it’s subjective. What someone may regard as a joke or sarcasm, others could see as abuse and threatening language – as the Twitter Joke Trial proved all too well.

Threats of violence and rape are, rightly, against the law (the Malicious Communications Act 2003 outlaws electronic communications which are “grossly offensive” or threatening). Writing for the Guardian, feminist writer Jane Rae argues more could be achieved by applying these existing laws.

It’s encouraging to see the UK police have already made one arrest over the threats against Criado-Perez, because seeing people being prosecuted for what is a serious crime sends a far stronger message to trolls than having their Twitter account blocked. I, for one, hope the police take action against more of those who have threatened violence.

A report button is an ineffectual knee-jerk response to the issue. But that it’s been introduced in a hurry – leaving no time to ensure it’s properly thought through, resourced, or supported by processes created through discussion with law enforcement agencies – means this is a move that’s likely to do little to tackle abuse on Twitter, but rather create new ways for people and brands to be abused.

UPDATE: Several bloggers have expressed reservations about this too, thinking more about some of the problems with trying to automate the process of identifying and tackling abuse. Here are some posts worth reading:

Gearing up for GovCamp

There’s less than 24 hours to go until UK GovCamp 2011 and I’m super-excited.

A year’s a long time, isn’t it? This time last year, I was just a couple of weeks into my new job at Parliament and a newbie on the central government geek scene. The sessions I attended at UKGC 2010, on socialising internal comms and the future of journalism, really reflected the work I was doing in my previous job rather than what I do now (while the session on Google Wave seems like another era altogether).

My first year in the job’s been a steep learning curve, and increasingly I find my work focussing less on communications – on the creation and distribution of communication messaging – and more on developing platforms, which enable people to find, share and do things.

So this year I’m likely to be attending sessions that focus more on technologies and methods. I’m a recent convert to Agile and really looking forward to the two planned sessions on it – one looking at its application as a software development methodology, and another on how we can apply Agile methods to policy formation.

As ever, though, my focus is internal, on making organisations work and communicate internally so they can better serve our real customers – the public.

And I do like a challenge, so I’ve agreed to liveblog the opening session so those who can’t make it can get a feel for what’s going on. I’ve never live blogged before, but I do live tweet from events a lot and am relishing the idea of doing so without the 140-character restriction. My live blog stream will be found on the UK Gov Buzz aggregation page which the lovely Steph has set up.

Thereafter, though, I’m aiming to tweet a bit less than I usually do from these things. Partly because not everyone who follows me wants to read 200 tweets on what a bunch of government technology nerds are doing on a Saturday, but also because I want to focus on participating rather than recording.

The Guardian’s Meg Pickard has blogged about the pros and cons of the (un)conference Twitter backchannel, arguing that “inserting a pause in usual social reporting activities/obligations provided time and mental space to listen to, reflect on and add to what was being said”.

And that’s what I’m aiming to achieve this time around. I’m not saying I won’t tweet at all (let’s be honest, that’s unlikely), but I’m going to stay ‘in the room’, making notes and blogging afterwards, after I’ve had time to think on it.

Plenty of blog posts to come after the event though, so watch this space.

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.

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.

Will Twitter’s new terms call time on council feeds?

Twitter’s new terms of service were launched last week, to general acclaim from users. The new terms aim to tackle the rising tide of spam that threatens to engulf Twitter, as well as prepare the ground for the arrival of advertising.

The refreshed Twitter Rules spell out a number of different reasons why you may find your Twitter account terminated. In calling time for inappropriate avatars,  squatting and multiple, near-identical accounts, the new rules turn into policy what was already established moderating practice.

The new terms emphasise the personal touch, stating that you’ll be in violation of the terms of service  “if your updates consist mainly of links, and not personal updates.”

Now this could cause a real headache for councils, the vast majority of whom use feeds to automatically tweet stories and releases. In banning all bots, the new terms would appear to call time  for many councils on Twitter.

Stuart Harrison suggests councils mitigate the risk by personalising their tweets, supplementing feed stories with replies and additional information.

Whilst I agree councils aren’t currently making the best use of Twitter – using it as a broadcast medium with which to distribute press releases – I’m not sure many councils will be able to do this.

I expect that over the coming months and years more councils will follow Brighton’s lead and recruit dedicated social media officers. But until that happens few have the resources to really put the social into social media.

Right now it’s not clear how – or indeed if – Twitter will police this. But if they do start banning all automated feeds, I’m not sure many councils will have the capacity  to change tack quickly and keep their feeds running.

That would be a real shame. As Liz Azyan found, more councils are using Twitter than any other social platform (30% at the last count). The relatively swift adoption of Twitter is a rare example of council officers embracing social media and, well, JFD-ing it.

If Twitter starts banning councils for automated feeds, it’s unlikely many will have the determination or resources to get their feeds running again. Councils are inherently risk-adverse, and if we get burned with this it could be a real setback for social media in local government.

The problem is, the new terms imply that all bots are bad. Yet plenty of users don’t think they are.

I think of Twitter as a one-stop information resource. The personal touch is part of what makes Twitter so useful (the ability to ask questions on seemingly any subject and get a string of useful answers in minutes is really invaluable). But announcements from companies and organisations are often genuinely useful too, and Twitter would be a poorer place without them.

Like bad pubs, bad feeds are easy to spot and easy to avoid.

Fortunately, it’s not just councils and PRs who might fall foul of the new rules; many news organisations, such as the Guardian and CNN, use RSS feeds to Twitter latest stories.

And this is where we’re likely to see some push-back. Many automated feeds are demonstrably popular, and Twitter is unlikely to want to get on the wrong side of the powerful media organisations currently using their service by banning their feeds.

That being the case, I suspect (and hope) Twitter will use their discretion and separate the good bots from the bad.

What do you think? Is Twitter right to ban bots?

What #welovetheNHS tells us about viral communication

This week, in response to some quite extraordinary nonsense being spouted by the US right wing about one of the UK’s most beloved institutions, NHS users on this side of the pond began sharing their own stories and words of thanks on Twitter.

The hashag #welovetheNHS quickly saw tens of thousands of individual messages of support for “socialized medicine”, with many sharing stories of loved ones’ care. The story spilled over into mainstream media as politicians joined in, and on Thursday made the front page of the Evening Standard.

#welovetheNHS messages on Twitter

#welovetheNHS messages on Twitter

72 hours on, it’s now the subject of news and opinion columns on either side of the Atlantic, as well as a hell of a lot of Twitter spam.

NHS at 60What’s interesting, for me, is the comparison between this organic campaign and an earlier one. Back in 2007, the Labour Party launched a campaign to celebrate the 60th birthday of the NHS. Called Proud of the NHS at 60, this asked people to share their individual stories and experiences as NHS users, and ask their friends to do the same.

The principle is the same, but the outcomes were very different; Proud of the NHS at 60 had relatively little impact, while #welovetheNHS really caught the public’s imagination and became one of the biggest news stories of the week.

I can think of several reasons why this is:

1. Authenticity
Proud of the NHS at 60 was conceived either by the Labour Party or a PR agency working on their behalf. The campaign objective was to translate pride in a national institution into support for the party which founded it.

Conversely, #welovetheNHS began as a grassroots campaign, with the aim of setting our transatlantic cousins straight about state-provided healthcare. That people are keener to join in a campaign begun by real service users than an incumbent political party is hardly surprising. Nonetheless, it provides a useful lesson in the dynamics of viral campaigning – it’s damned hard to make these things take off unless it’s seen to be genuine and heartfelt.

2. Leadership
The hashtag #welovetheNHS was originally coined by comedy writer Graham Linehan. As the creator of TV shows such as The IT Crowd and Father Ted, he’s not a figure normally associated with healthcare, or with politics. However, Linehan (@glinner) is one of the UK’s most popular Twitter users, with a wide base of followers with widely varying interests.

Linehan has had some success using Twitter as a campaigning tool already, spearheading a petition on the Daily Express’s front page on Dunblane survivors.

His popularity and diverse following meant he had a good critical mass of followers re-tweeting his original post, enough for it to take off. A strong launch to a sizable critical mass of users is essential for viral campaigns to work.

3. Success
Everyone likes a winner. Research into voter behaviour, for instance, consistently shows that people who don’t already hold strong views one way or the other will often pick the person or party who looks likely to win, as we like to be on the winning side.

Those who heard about the campaign later were arguably attracted to join by the considerable success of the campaign in its first few hours. Those who had already participated were motivated to keep on adding tweets by the prospect of greater success.

So people like to join something that already looks like it will be good/successful. The early stages of the campaign are when its success is decided.

4. Seige mentality and good, old-fashioned patriotism
Because we might slag off the NHS all the time for its long waiting lists, MRSA infection rates, and so on – but it’s ours, goddamnit, and we’ll stick up for it.

The NHS is one of the UK’s most popular institutions. Almost everyone concedes it’s not perfect, and will happily criticise it. But over 90% of Britons wouldn’t be without it. Hearing some of the hysterical, inaccurate information doing the rounds in the US motivates people to defend an institution they like.

Conversely, the Proud of the NHS at 60 campaign launched when there were no obvious attacks on the health service from outside, so people had little motive to join.

What this illustrates rather well is the enormous difference an enemy makes to the success of a viral campaign.

It seems highly likely that Twitter campaign stories will continue to cross over into the mainstream media, just as ‘10,000 people have joined a Facebook group’ stories did throughout 2007. But just as with Facebook, the most successful campaigns will be those that were begun by people considered the have an authentic voice (rather than by whole institutions), which offer a strong motivation for others to join, and which quickly reach a critical mass of users.