Anti-social media

Twitter’s been twittering a lot lately, to the extent that one of the Guardian tech columnists, Bobbie Johnson, asked How can Google cope with Twitter pollution? It’s twittered its way into my life over the last four or five months and it’s a good thing. True, it’s added hugely to the distractions I can find on a screen these days but I’ve probably read more, watched more, listened to more, maybe even thought more in the last few months care of a handy tweet than I have in a while. As one of Twitter’s most famous devotees says, “to hell with those who don’t get it” (Stephen Fry on Twitter – his emphasis).

The Companies Office started playing with Twitter and – rightly? – asked for feedback on how it should do so. Some public-spirited tweeters jumped in to tell them how, and were fairly brutal in their delivery. The original tweet from the Companies Office has gone but the responses start about here, and others can be found through Twitter search. The thread raises some interesting questions about how organisations – especially those in the public sector and, more so, those acutely aware of their public image – can work and play with, and learn from, the crowd.

One of the specific complaints about the Companies Office was that it started out with a policy of not following anyone. That raised a bit of ire: what are they doing using Twitter if they’re only broadcasting and not listening? Credit to them as they must have heard (how, I wonder, if they weren’t following?) and are now following their followers.

Broadcasting and listening, being followed and following. Both are useful tools for public sector organisations, but what about talking back, the @Replies of Twitter? This is a tricky one: how can an individual or two in an organisation talk freely on Twitter when what they say will be attributed to the organisation? Worse still, Twitter and social media in general is open to the sort of very public scrutiny that public sector communications teams work hard to avoid.

Broadcasting carefully written announcements, snippets, news and links when you have time to make sure what you’re saying is safe is one thing. Responding in a meaningful way in what Bobbie Johnson and co call the “real-time web”, without recourse to approval by the communications team or the policy unit, is quite another.

Possibly there’s only one answer to whether organisations can really talk on Twitter and it’s they they can’t. The twitterverse may just have to accept that there’ll be tweeters that only broadcast, and maybe listen, but won’t be talking. Likewise those organisations have to accept that some tweeters won’t like them for it, probably won’t listen, and might just shout back. But in both senses, maybe that’s no different to how society’s always been.

Communities – virtual, real, online, physical, imagined – can’t be controlled no matter what the ideals behind them in the first instance. One thing’s for sure though: if organisations want a part of this community, they should definitely be listening.

Find me on Twitter @talkingtothecan.

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