Public Sector Can’t Do Twitter

Let’s talk about public sector organisations using Twitter. In particular, those funded by the taxpayer.

Many councils and arms of Government have decided (read: been told) that they need to get on board with the digital age, and seek new ways to ‘engage with the public’ through different mediums. We expect them to be there, and so it makes sense that they are. In principle, this is a good thing. Organisations with such a direct role in people’s everyday lives should definitely be aware of the shift in how we are communicating. However, their response has to be considered, with a clear purpose, and strategy. It is clear that for many of those who are currently active on social media in this sphere, they don’t actually have a clue; more a case of diving in because they feel like they should, rather than having any real conception of what approach they should be taking.

Cardinal Sin Number One: ‘We don’t respond to messages’

The oft-repeated mantra across many public sector accounts is something along the lines of: “we monitor messages that we receive, but do not reply to them”. That is, if you are even lucky enough to get any sort of indication that somebody is actually behind these accounts. Glasgow City Council (@GlasgowCC) is one example of a local authority that don’t even bother to warn you about their blanket disregard for questions or comments they receive. Personally, I prefer this account… at least they reply:

Do us proud, Glasgow.

When challenged (not over Twitter of course, because you wouldn’t get a response that way), what almost always happens is that those who are responsible for these accounts throw up their hands in faux despair, pointing to the legitimate concerns about the questions about funding in the current economic situation (ad nauseam). The benefits of using social media channels for ‘engagement’ are addressed in volume elsewhere, but we have to ask what exactly the point in an organisation investing any time in Twitter is, if they aren’t prepared to use it properly? Save the time and effort and get offline rather than building a house with sand foundations and making our towns and cities look out of touch, please.

Cardinal Sin Number Two: Posting Utter Guff

Imagine the most boring person you know, and multiply their drudgery tenfold. Now imagine being stuck with that same person at a party, where they spend all night randomly interjecting otherwise exhilarating conversations with banal statements that everybody already knows, and tries to ignore.

That fairly accurately describes the existence of most British councils that are on Twitter. It’s true that we shouldn’t really expect matters so regionally specific to be any more exciting than the weekly local newspapers, but routinely they manage to sink to even lower depths. Clearly devoid of anything worthwhile to say, at all, South Ayrshire Council chose to climb up onto the world stage with great fanfare and flourish, to deliver this poignant message:

Thank God for this reminder!
Thank God for this reminder!

Words actually fail me.

Seriously though, this is one of the most ridiculous, pointless tweets I’ve ever seen – and I follow @horse_ebooks

@horse_ebooks - beating the public sector at Twitter with one hoof
@horse_ebooks – beating the public sector at Twitter with one hoof

There is so much wrong with the approach highlighted in the South Ayrshire example that it’s tough to know where to begin. How is this tweet relevant… to anybody? Is your target market really the tiny number of users that might be about to park a car somewhere in South Ayrshire, who are also checking Twitter at the same time? (not to mention the illegality of using your phone whilst driving). Total nonsense. Unless, of course, the role of Twitter is to randomly remind us of illegal acts. Maybe they should say DO NOT MURDER.

If you have time to post this sort of pish, then you have time to reply to people. No excuses.

Cardinal Sin Number Three: Not Reading What (or who) You Tweet:

There are a few larger organisations that actually do have a decent amount of stuff to talk about. Things that concern a lot of us; things that we might well be prepared to sacrifice a lack of correspondence to be kept up to date with. After all, plenty of people follow celebrities because they find what they say interesting (well…), not because they expect to get a personal reply.

The trouble is, public figures tend to be fairly savvy at using the technology for their own means; they have built their careers on galvanising crowds of people, after all. Sadly, this does not seem to apply to the public sector world.

A wonderful example comes from the Department of Work & Pensions. They are already guilty of committing Cardinal Sin Number 1 (and let’s face it, not too far from the folly of Cardinal Sin Number 2 either), but they manage to rack up a hat-trick by seemingly not even proof-reading what they post in the first place.

One tweet from early October linked to a video featuring Clare Pelham – Chief Executive of a disability charity – about issues relating to employment. In of itself, this was a great bit of content to share. However, it all went wrong. This is the Clare Pelham that they meant to mention:

Will the real Clare Pelham Please Stand Up?
Will the real Clare Pelham Please Stand Up?

…and this is the Clare that they actually ended up attributing:

@clare in promotion shocker
@clare in promotion shocker

Now I’m no expert in this field, but I’m sure that @clare might also be a bit surprised to hear the UK Government talking about her recent promotion. For reference, here is the offending tweet, in all of its tainted glory:

DWP Twitter Fail
DWP Twitter Fail


Okay, so we all make mistakes. I’ve done (and do) it regularly. That might shock some of you, given my sheer articulate brilliance, but it’s true. However, I usually spot and rectify them within 0.6 seconds of the tweet going out to the world, and hang my head in shame. Not the DWP though! This particular example stayed online for at least ten days after going out. They did manage to get it right in following iterations, so it’s bizarre that they didn’t go back and make a correction. It’s probably still there, but I am too dis-heartened to check. 

This wasn’t a once off either. Less than a week later they were at it again, this time with rogue characters that should have been removed before posting:

That quotation mark has no business being there
That quotation mark has no business being there

Please… read before you tweet. (and if you can’t, delete it and throw yourself upon the mercy of the Twittersphere)

Cardinal Sin Number Four: Simply Not Getting It

To close, I leave you with an insight into the behaviour of Orkney Islands Council… the behaviour of which is best left without comment:

Routine check for… what?

Wave Goodbye to Anonymity on Facebook

anonymityJust after I posted a week or so ago reflecting on my return to a more open Facebook existence, they’ve gone and announced that they are doing away with one of the privacy features that was so important to staying anonymous on the site.

In a blog post posted yesterday, Facebook quietly announced that they were getting rid of the ability to hide your name from searches – stating that it was irrelevant since people could still click on your name in comments that you make on other people’s timelines.

In the words of Michael Richter – Chief Privacy Officer:

people told us that they found it confusing when they tried looking for someone who they knew personally and couldn’t find them in search results

Well, too bad for them. If I choose to be hidden from search results, then it’s my conscious choice. Facebook shouldn’t be second guessing the reasons for users to wish to remain harder to find on the site.

Apparently a ‘tiny’ proportion of Facebook’s billion plus users were making use of the privacy setting, which eh… still equates to a huge number of people. It shouldn’t really be any surprise, given that the settings were so unintuitive to find and use. Make something hard to configure, and you have a perfect excuse to remove it later when the adoption rate is relatively low.

This move essentially means that there is no way to keep out of the spotlight on Facebook any longer – confirming my belief that Facebook is designed to incrementally pull you further in to the network, even when you purposefully want to remain on the outskirts. Even if you restrict all of your posts to a limited number of people, you are still going to have to contend with the fact that people will be able to find you in searches, and explain why you have decided not to ‘confirm their friendship.

The only way to get around this will be to use a fake name and e-mail address, but that is forbidden by the site’s policies, and could see you booted for good.

Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Observations from a Facebook exile

A number of years ago I found myself staring at my laptop, fretting over how to best represent myself up in a single paragraph – for MySpace, none the less. It was at that point that I decided that enough was enough. One by one, I deleted my various ‘social networking’ accounts, before that was even really a word we attached too much baggage to. There wasn’t any pomp or ceremony; no feigned outrage. I simply dropped off the radar.

It was liberating.

More than any other network, leaving Facebook was the most satisfactory, and I wrote a blog to explain why that was after a few months of questioning. A lingering anxiety about what other people’s perceptions faded away. There was no pressure to think about what audience my comments were being directed towards; how I should present myself; or what things I could and shouldn’t say. I didn’t spend time flicking through the profiles of people to check up into what they were doing, and didn’t inevitably feel like I was being left out somehow. There wasn’t the same feeling that everybody in the world was having a massive party, and that even if you were invited, it was just to be polite.

After a few days, the constant stream of mundane updates from people who I wasn’t even that friendly with in person gained perspective. The behaviour of those whose social interactions were wound up so tightly into the fabric of Facebook, referencing it in all sorts of situations, began to seem increasingly unusual – just as the acts and seeming communitas of those deeply embroiled in drug use are impenetrable to those who are not going through the same experience. Facebook seemed like a bizarre addiction that I was glad to be rid of.

But there were consequences.

drowning in data

Whilst being removed from immediate exposure to every detail of other people’s lives was undeniably a relief, it became clear that there was very little in the way of a middle ground in this regard; many people who I was in touch with beforehand just disappeared completely. In a way, this was a great test of seeing who was interested enough in you to continue to stay in contact, but it isn’t really that simple. I discovered that I no longer knew anything about nights out organised by friends, as ‘invitations’ had been sent out online. When I challenged people about this? The response was simple: “Well you’re not on Facebook.” The default mode of communication had switched in people’s minds, and if you weren’t there too, then that was your problem.

This carried on into other areas. When deciding to terminate my account, I was painfully aware that there were a number of people who I dearly wished to remain in touch with, but who stayed in different cities that were strewn across the globe. I dismissed this at the time by asserting confidently that if we really wanted to speak, we would do so; Facebook isn’t the only way to communicate on the web after all. Thing is, whilst that might be a nice idea in theory, trying to get other people to make the mental shift towards sending e-mails rather than what they have become used to turned out to be a fool’s errand.

It was this that eventually led me to the position that I held up until the recent past. Upon travelling through America with no phone, and no way to contact people that I met, I decided to sign up for a Facebook account that I would keep entirely for people who I didn’t get to see in real life. I used a fake name and details; kept the privacy settings as tight as possible; and told everybody else that I simply didn’t use it anymore.

To some extent, it worked. I was buffered from most of what I had hated about the network so much in the first place, but it brought with it its own variety of problems. What happens when friends of your friends add you? You can’t exactly explain to them that you aren’t accepting the connection because it’s for people in a different place, because… well, so are they. What do you do about people in your own city that you don’t see very often, but for legitimate reasons? Are they excluded? Then there was the difficulty of dealing with other people giving you away by tagging you in posts (which you can’t do anything about if it’s on their timeline).

I’m back.

facebook list

Recently I decided that it was time to open the floodgates.

In the time I had spent living a secret Facebook existence, there had been changes. After consistent challenges from privacy advocates – including pressure from the European Commission – Facebook introduced additional controls to allow users to filter who saw what content. This was a welcome two finger salute to Zuckerberg’s totalising vision of people only having ‘one identity’. It meant that if you only wanted to see updates from certain people, you could. If you have to accept somebody as a friend, but don’t really want them to see everything you post, then you can sort that out as well. It was far from perfect, and remains so to this day. Many people are unaware of the possibilities; the settings are complicated and spread across different parts of the site; and the format is subject to such constant change that even users who are clued up can get confused in the process. However… it was a start. If I’m going to have a connection with someone halfway across the world that I’ve met once at a party, then I may as well have the same with people that I see every weekend. At that point, whether or not their tangible friendship is any more or less authentic is largely irrelevant.

It could well be the case that this is the inevitable result of the clever honey trap offered up by Facebook; offering more and more incrementally until you find yourself completely immersed in their network. It probably just underlines and demonstrates the hard truth that the only way to really avoid becoming sucked in is to delete your account completely. However, I don’t feel particularly bad about it anymore. I’ve put my qualms to one side. Years of working in marketing have meant that I am comfortable with the balancing act that is required, and frankly… it’s just a tool to promote the things that I am interested in. My real friends are still the ones I go drink copious amounts of whisky with; or cook with; or have long Skype conversations with. Facebook doesn’t have the same sort of hold, because the importance I place over transient relationships has diminished with time. I know who and what is important to me, so it doesn’t really matter anymore.

Insights from the Prodigal Son

It’s been a few weeks since I slipped back into the fold now, and it’s been interesting. Here’s what I’ve observed so far:

  • People really do post the most inane drivel. That goes without saying, but the sheer extent of it is almost unbelievable. People that I respect in real life come across as preachy, argumentative, naive, and simple-minded.
  • Despite getting bugged for years about signing up to Facebook, there was no massive rush for people to connect. Instead of actively seeking out others, people connect in a gradual way. I would say it’s organic, but it is heavily influenced by the prompts and suggestions offered by the service. Users are led in everything they do; passive rather than proactively engaged. Very few people actually use Facebook anymore with any sort of excitement or depth; it’s just something that’s become a ritual.
  • People check up on others a lot more than they post.
  • There is a severe drought of good original content. Rather than posting blogs, articles, poems, pictures, or things they’ve created, the same memes and drab political commentary is shared and re-shared without second thought.
  • The initial friend request is the only interaction I have had with almost all of those I’ve connected with since coming back onto Facebook ‘properly’.
  • People fail to respond to chat messages, despite appearing online, and actively resent any initiation to talk as some sort of intrusion. Coming from a web culture where you logged on to talk in this very manner, it boggles the mind why anybody would appear online if they have no intention to do so. This especially applies to people who have requested my friendship in the first place.
  • Even with contacts arranged into groups, there is still a strong inclination to default to the widest possible audience. That applies equally to reading, as well as publishing content. It’s difficult to resist looking through the full list to see what’s going on when you know it’s just a click away… and even though you know the lack of value.

Let’s see what happens next.