Over the coming weeks I’ll be speaking or facilitating conversations about how social media can be deployed for positive action, be it in commercial contexts, public sector organisations, non-profits and charities or in research. But unless I’m speaking to social media enthusiasts, every time I address an audience about social media, I am constantly faced with the task of defending these technologies against charges of increasing personal isolation, cyberstalking, hacking attacks and the development of a culture of mass ignorance.
Frankly, I’m tired of it.
If these assertions were appropriately tested under rigorous academic criteria, and negative experiences of social media were adequately chartered in terms of risk value, you would find that the almost-constant objections to deployment of social media are based on such low risk statistics as to be negligible. I am not foolish enough to assert that they do not exist as speed humps on the information superhighway, but these issues are seriously impeding progress in development of a society that is not merely connected, but actually productive. Connectivity isn’t just about forging connections between users of social media tools, but it is about deploying these media in such a way as to elicit the best outcomes from connection.
I’m glad to say that some social media adopters seem to understand that connection and participation are in fact two different entities.
Mark Drapeau’s article in yesterday’s MediaShift is a useful analysis of the growing interest in at least US government officials’ adoption of social media, and mobilisation of the ‘collaborative, creative class’. He notes that beyond the obvious applications of crowd-sourcing, information sharing and keeping-up-with-the-propagandists, there are clear benefits from the establishment of bi-directional brand ambassadors for championing policy ideas and responding to questions, concerns and contributions from an active electorate.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of political figures (let alone media identities) are still treating social media as a broadcasting channel.
I was perplexed at last year’s Amplified08, when representatives from the BBC tried to crowd-source those present in asking how their online back channels could be enhanced to encourage greater participation, but when the suggestion was raised that they actively engage in conversations with individuals, they shied away from the additional workload this would incur. If you want greater participation, you need to value your users. You do this by engaging with them directly. If you don’t have time to engage with them, or if you don’t choose to allocate time/resources to engage with them, then you will not enhance participation. End of story.
The same goes for government use of social media. In order to maximise the possible outcomes for connections forged using social media, you have to invest in responsiveness. This simultaneously builds the sense of a relationship with social media correspondents, and reduces the likelihood of negative experiences of social media, because the crowd itself is self-monitoring. (For example, in the recent episode on twitter of a phishing incident, it was twitter users themselves that warned each other of the problem, virtually wiping out the problem within hours of it emerging.)
But so far, too many government officials are adopting merely a broadcasting approach to social media deployment, thus actually increasing the sense of separation from their social media audiences. And, with little but anecdotal evidence to support my claim, I’d argue this even encourages nefarious individuals in their attempts to hijack high-profile social media accounts for vandalistic or vulgar purposes. Essentially, a lack of respect for the high-profile individual elicits a rebellious response.
An at-risk example of this kind of practice is my own Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. While I applaud his use of YouTube and Twitter as a means of reporting on his day-to-day activities, it disturbs me that Rudd doesn’t use his 4000+ followers on twitter more effectively, nor does he (or his staff) respond to many questions posed by his readership. He is using the combination of his site, his YouTube channel and his twitter feed in a decidedly consumerist fashion. That is, he asks for feedback, he posts status updates and he broadcasts his ideas, but he does so to gather (consume) information, and not to offer new insight (participate and respond).
As a basis for comparison, David Cameron of the Tory party in the UK has actually used both YouTube and twitter as a means of actively responding to his audience. This is a remarkably brave adoption strategy for social media, but it will win for the Tories a sense of commitment to relationship building and responsiveness to its electorate.
The comparison is profound; one government identity has identified that connectivity is relevant in the social media age, whilst the other has identified that bi-directional communication is key.
Positive action and positive experiences of social media are possible but they are dependent not on the tools alone. It is essential that users go beyond the notion of mere connectivity, and let go of outdated concerns about social media as a cesspool of iniquity and ignorance. Social media is enabling, but it is the method of engagement which encourages best practice outcomes and fosters an age of mass intelligence.