Excellent Engagement

Content, interaction, community—that’s what your social media profile is all about. It’s a message that seems to have hit most brands, and organisations right down to the smallest. But from what I’m seeing a lot of at the moment, there are a lot of people finding it hard to think about what to do once they get there.

There’s an episode of the Simpsons (Season Two, Episode 22), stay with me, where Mr Burns would like to be nice to Homer—but he knows nothing about him (nor really cares) so falls on the most bland of engagement:

“Hey there Mr….d’uh….Brown Shoes! How ’bout that local sports team eh?”

(Oddly for a great Simpson’s quote the video doesn’t seem to be on YouTube anywhere, but there is an audio clip here.)

Does that remind you of anything? Here’s a collection of Tweets reminding me of it that I collected on Friday:

It’s not exclusive to Twitter, nor the Royal Wedding: check out any number of Facebook fan pages or any social platform on a Friday lunchtime to see loads of “Hey guys, what are you doing this weekend. Let us know!” type-posts. They’re a close cousin of the way blogs starting up will often end their debut post with a plaintive cry of “what would you like to see?”

It is no doubt amusing to watch them all come in (and to watch the meme or cliche spread), but there’s something deeper I think—and some lessons to learn.

I think it sometimes happens because people are following what the mainstream media started to do a few years ago (‘have your say’). “Let us know!” became their coda to all stories, because they were getting to grips with the idea that people could converse and create en masse without their involvement. They were trying to channel this new thing called UCG through them so they could continue to act as gatekeepers, or perhaps they were genuinely excited by all of those pictures of snow. The TV programmes and the newspapers (and to an extent their associated online spaces) were offering an audience, much like Tony Hart in his gallery, and still do—hence the potential motivation for sharing your content through them.

Most brand social web channels don’t have such a huge audience, or if they have a big one it’s often very tightly around a subject—big wide and generic questions aren’t going to engage that audience. Your dry cleaners, or a skincare brand, aren’t the first place you think of to tell your plans for a Bank Holiday.

Possibly it also comes from a desire to “get into the conversation”, to make a brand seem like it’s one of your mates. Might work, if you’re trying to create a very small community round your social web space—if you’re usually about answering questions and sending out news, isn’t it a little odd? What are your other followers going to do with the information if you get it and and then you spread it?

Most of all, people probably do it because they see others doing the same. That’s one way to learn, but you need to think more deeply about whether any techniques apply to your situation—what they might achieve and how they might look. In essence if you’re attempting to engage around your brand then things closely related, or of direct relevance are going to hold more weight.

As a bonus here’s Mr Burn’s classic funk track ‘Look at all those idiots‘, including wailing guitar from Waylon Smithers. What’s your favourite Simpsons as metaphor for social web engagement story? Let us know!

Ask a stupid question…

If there was one central point to remember to make online consultation successful it would be that if the question isn’t a good one the best response you’ll get is none. If the object of the exercise has no real meaning or effect then, while no response would be disappointing, it only takes a tiny meme to make silence seem like a success.

Take the administration in Austin, Texas (home, it must be said to large number of Internet culture savvy people) who probably thought that it was a nice piece of harmless PR through engagement to ask the people to come up with a new identity for the city’s waste dept. No-one sensible could care too much about the outcome, so it becomes open for hijack, open for people to have fun with, and easy fun is a great driver of activity. Activity you may have seen on the web this week:

And so the idea of the ‘Fred Durst Society of the Humanities and Arts‘ was born and attracted much attention, narrowly beating the ‘Ministry of Filth’ (although my personal favourite was ‘The Austin Dept. of Are You Going To Eat That?’).

It’s not going to happen, of course, so the outcome is that the consulters look stupid—drawing attention to both the time wasted of rebranding and their helplessness against the weak ties and satire of the web. What’s worse is it shows problems in engament in that  numbers of votes for this poll in total dwarf  those in other, more well thought through, consultations.

Even worse is when there’s a memetic idea that is simultaneously eligible, fun, and unacceptable to the consulters. That’s what’s has just taken hold in Fort Wayne (who like Austin are using the feedback tool Uservoice—blameless in these instances and a fairly nice solution to the tech aspects of this sort of questioning).  What bad luck for the town to have had a mayor and statesman with a vaguely rude sounding name (the man himself pronounced Baals “balls”):

As you can see the comments here are getting heated, there are legitimate reasons for honouring the man and there’s just no way to come out of this well now. Not every question is a good one.

Loose Tweets Sink Fleets

WWIII Propaganda: Loose Tweets Sink Fleets

…or otherwise carefully crafted communications anyway.

If you’re newish to Twitter and attempting to communicate with people to achieve anything more than a way to update friends or follow people you like you might want to print this out and stick it close to your monitor.

This stuff doesn’t seem to be explained clearly enough by Twitter or people who are encouraging its use, based on the number of people I see trying to reach an audience and scuppering themselves a bit by making these mistakes:

Think Before You Tweet: People can’t DM you if you’re not following them. A tweet starting with a @username can only be seen by those following both of you. You can’t guess a username, a typo or no space after breaks them.

Once you remember, pass it on.

Mind Your Language

We’re all aware, or should be, of the power of language. It’s one of the central ideas of 1984, that you can direct or restrict thought by what words you use for real concepts.

If that doesn’t convince you—it’s fiction, right—here’s a real-life example of how language alters perceptions. This is a list of language changes compiled by the Institute for Government after consultation with members of the Conservative Shadow Cabinet and advisers. It shows changes in words and you can perceive shifts in policy. Some mean exactly the same thing, and within the organisations where this sort of language is in use everyone knows what they mean—but they’re designed to feel different and direct thought.







Demand side

Supply side










Business Plan

Evidence based

Principles based

Partnership agreements

Post-bureaucratic state


Social Responsibility

Active centre


I’m not about to rant against jargon (I’m not a fan, but industry shorthand is almost inevitable) nor am I about to suggest that most people do this sort of thing consciously. This is just to illustrate the power of word choice in communications.

Now read this:

#localgov types really should follow @johnbarradell, B&H CEX and all-round good guy. #followThursday #Brighton

B&H CEX? I worked it out, but it took a while. A while I could have spent following the guy.

It's the private view for our Visual Communications MA students, and others, tomorrow. 6PM at BIAD Gosta Green campus, nr. Aston Uni.

So it reads like an invitation, but it’s to something ‘private’? Huh? Can I go?

I’ve worked out over a few years that “private view” means two things: if a show is big and important it means “no entry unless you’re invited”, if a show is small or not that well known it means “please come, there’ll be free wine and nibbles”. It’s developed as art-jargon for some reason, and people who know know and those that don’t don’t. But it does put off people who might otherwise have liked to have attended—and the smaller shows could do with that, in fact they want it.

So, just a reminder to think about the words you use if you’re trying to communicate—strip jargon and abbreviations where you can.

Chernobyl Fallout

“What would happen if the world were suddenly without people; if humans vanished off the face of the earth? How would nature react —and how swiftly?” That’s the question asked by the documentary ‘Chernobyl Reclaimed‘, and the answer seems to be ‘it gets on just fine without us’.

I’ve been wondering if the social web doesn’t work in much the same way.

The social web, or to be more technically correct the social Internet has been around for a long time. USENET is over a decade older than the World Wide Web and though its appearance is something like a forum it’s a little more complicated than that.

It’s based on a hierarchy of groups, organised as something that we’d read like a domain name: sci.physics or alt.music.bjork or rec.music.dylan, users subscribe and their client keeps track of what’s read and unread. It’s not quite synchronous: the service or Newsservers that you subscribed to may only have taken a portion of the available groups and once you post it has to propagate through to the other servers.

That said, if you’ve used a message board or forum or Facebook discussion you’d be right at home — you can go off and try it now. Google Groups in part acts as a newsserver and you can subscribe to USENET groups and post via the web or email. You won’t find much action in most of them, and even those with fairly high post-counts probably aren’t as lively as the once were. I’ve just taken a look into uk.music.charts, a group I lurked in a little back in the ’90s and, while there are posts and the odd conversation thread, it’s about 60/40 with spam posts offering cheap watches, easy jobs and easy women.

One trusts that those still frequenting those groups have learned to live with the spam, they have good filters or a high tolerance— or perhaps, despite the hassle, still find the groups the best place for what they do and the community survives.

Spam isn’t the only reason to move on, of course,  and some of the more general groups have found discussion splintering, devolving and just going elsewhere.

I thought for a time that this might lead to a social Internet Gaia hypothesis: that the various systems on the Internet are ” closely integrated to form a complex interacting system that maintains the [economic] and [conversational] conditions in a preferred homeorhesis” to paraphrase the original. In short that the social aspect of Internet routes around blockages much like the data packets do.

In shorter: people move on if the space no longer works the best.

And they’ve certainly moved on from the group that is uk.local.birmingham (stared I learned the other day, by a friend of mine back in the early part of the 1990s). I still keep a subscription to it on the off chance, but from a 1999 high-point of nearly 3,000 messages a month it’s now dribbled down to about 20. Apart from spam, the only surges of activity are bile-filled back-and-forths somehow connected with sometime Birmingham ‘King of Clubs’ (with all that entails) Eddie Fewtrell. In any real terms this newsgroup has returned to nature.

And yet it’s still going.

uk.local.birmingham | Google Groups

The spam is automated, so it doesn’t know that it’s not reaching people. The website (in my case) and newsservers don’t know that the traffic isn’t human so they continue to serve it. Those few real subscribers either no longer use the email addresses they signed up with, can’t be bothered to unsubscribe, or have long since filtered the responses away. Or they’re me—too sacred to mis anything—or the blokes whose ’70s territorial spats are best  conducted from the safety of a kitchen laptop. With Smooth FM on.

The Internet doesn’t care who or what is using it, it just bats content around. People set things up and then leave, it still carries on. How many services have you set to autopost, or synced with newer or better spaces and then sort of stopped using?

If every real person left Twitter tomorrow, like some dystopian novel (the film would be terrible), Twitter would carry on. As long as someone was still paying the server bills: pumped in Facebook statuses would still be posted, Foursquare mayors would still be declared, ‘news’ from thousands of company sites would be Twitterfeeded (or similar) to a gasping lack of public. And bots would generate new, Twitter only, content some silly, some aggregated, some spam.

The words ‘New Blog:’, ‘Breaking’, and ‘I am Jack’s colon.’ would still appear, and a lot of those posts would be shuffled off to Identi.ca or even some Facebook statuses. Autopost is the weed that would grow over our cities, spam is the animals slowly taking over. Our social web Ghosts in the Hollow.

In a way this already happens, there are thousands of social web accounts that exist purely to exist: automatic and unweeded, they either spam or have been set up and discarded. The amount of companies ‘talking’ to each other on Twitter is amusing to behold, often set up on a whim and operated from another service (usually Facebook) the accounts Tweet— but really that’s all that’s going on.

I was alerted to a local shopping mall being ‘on Twitter’ the other day, it’s been ‘tweeting’ for nearly a year. Following’ (despite never, it seems, logging into Twitter or dealing with @messages) 114 and being followed’ by 126 accounts. 90% of both of those numbers are other organisations tweeting nothing in much the same way, or people who work for those organisations. The account is a bot, talking to other bots and doing nothing except perhaps disappointing anyone who did want to engage with them.

The weeds are poking though even in fairly well ‘Liked’ Facebook pages too. Facebook page spam is on the increase, leave your page unattended for a day or so and if it’s popular enough to have attracted the attention there will be Russian brides and pyramid schemes posting. If it’s a page you created for fun, fair enough. It’s all about effort and no-one will think any less of you—but if it’s your work, I think you owe it to whoever you’re trying to talk to to care a little more.

Facebook | Birmingham: It's Not Shit

What can you do? Think carefully about what you automate, close or mothball old and unused profiles and pages. The usual stuff you’ll never get round to doing.

Twitter, reportedly, has about 3% of it’s servers at any one time full of Tweets about Justin Bieber. That’s some power of stardom, but think about it: how many of those accounts are autoposting to Facebook (or vice versa)? That’s 3% of Facebook’s severs too. And ping.fm’s and mySpace’s, perhaps. Maybe 1% of the Internet?

I’m guestimating to the point of losing all thread of argument, but the ecological consequences of auto-posting to dead services is probably fairly significant. We could be sucking the planet dry with our automated laziness.

But the animals and plants will do just fine.

Clay Shirky and the Cognitive Surplus

George Orwell said, in an essay of fulsome praise of the man and his work, that Charles Dickens “was not a revolutionary writer”. He didn’t mean that Dickens wasn’t capable of or responsible for revolutions in prose, but that despite the image as a champion of the downtrodden he didn’t wish for systemic revolution — everything would be better, Dickens thought, if people were nicer.

That almost sums up what I think of the work of Clay Shirky, in his first book Here Comes Everybody and now in the new Cognitive Surplus he gives example after example of positive ways that the social web has altered the way people behave and organise, but while talking about revolution he is offering not too much more than the idea that the rules can be as simple as “be nice”. Like the first book it’s a great read, it’s enthusing and Shirky explains the ‘why’ better than almost anyone else — he even, surprisingly to me as it’s the first time I’ve read or heard him touch upon it,  has a belated go at the ‘how’.

The cognitive surplus of the title is the comeback to the question “how do people find the time?” often asked about people who are active on the social web — Shirky’s (rather glib, he admits himself) answer is “they stopped watching television”.  You can get the gist of this from some of his recent talks like this one in Bristol (thanks Pete), but to sum up and very much paraphrase: ‘economic circumstances since the 1940s have given people more free time and they now have tools to use that time on a wider collaborative scale’.

Where I was uncomfortable with Here Come Everybody where the examples where it seemed as if an educated, connected, class could use these tools to produce pressure even if that was exerted on a lower class. I’m unsure as to whether Shirky doesn’t see these issues, doesn’t see them as a problem, or, is merely pointing out facts without editorialising. It may be due to my own thoughts around class and digital inclusion, or it may be due to the American perspective on class issues being different. Where Cognitive Surplus falls down for me is not just this, although problems do seem to be on the radar,  but the way civic actions formed from this surplus are strictly divided from the merely communal.

Continue reading Clay Shirky and the Cognitive Surplus

Skip-Tech — be careful what you back

I’ve have three separate conversations about QR (Quick Response) codes, which lead me to wonder if there were at last reaching some kind of mainstream use or at least critical mass. If you’ve not come across them, they’re a two dimensional bar-code (conventional barcodes are only one dimensional, the width of the black and white stripes represent numbers — the length is only so that they can be seen) that is meant to allow readers to be sent straight to a  web page.

QR codes were invented in Japan and have seen very heavy use there over the last ten or so years: a friend has been over and brought back some odd mushroom-chocolate sweets and even they had a code prominently on the box:

����!  #bigarigatou #mushroombenefactor #babelfishisn... on Twitpic

I wouldn’t have been able to use it though, as I was in a pub with no wifi or mobile reception. Even if I had that I’d still need to: know what a QR code is, have a mobile device that can use them (common in Japan, not quite so common in the UK — for example even iPhones don’t come with an app built in, older ones don’t have a camera hi-res enough to take the shots), be able to take a good enough photo (i.e. not see the code from too great a distance, in low light, on the move etc). Try and often as not you get something like this:

QR Codes were invented to solve a problem, the problem was that it wasn’t easy to display URLs in a usable way — in Japan the display of URLs was complicated by the use of western characters in web addresses (steps are being taken to even this out), but in countries using western characters the URL has to be pretty long before it isn’t quicker and easier to type the address into your browser. As someone interested in technology I was excited to see one on a pop bottle last year, took a while to find an app, and take a photo that worked — only to be directed to pespi.com.

The codes are even now starting to fade out in Japan — it’s becoming more usual now is for adverts/packaging to say “search for A COUPLE OF KEYWORDS” rather than use a QR or a URL. This has been the case in South Korea for a while, and is starting to catch on in the UK too (if you see a trailer for the new Leonardo DiCaprio film you’ll see that after tiny references to  its website URL and it’s Facebook page you get a full screen caption asking you to ‘Search for Inception movie’). In my mind this is because we’re skipping QR Codes in the UK — not because they were bad technology but because other pressures have combined to overtake them before they have become mainstream. In this case it’s a combination of the lack of a direct problem to solve and the realisation that vast numbers of people will search even when given a URL (yes, they type the URL into Google). The ‘search us’ method is becoming even more common as it’s easier to own a search term than to buy a memorable and usable URL.

If you were trying mass communication you’d have wasted any time invested in QR Codes (luckily they’re cheap/free, educating people as to what they were might not have been) — they’re “skip-tech”: technology that is overtaken too quickly to gain a foothold.

The more you look, the more you can see it — skip-tech isn’t failed technology like Betamax or HD-DVD that had direct competition and lost out in a format war (although both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray look like becoming skip-tech to cloud or hard drive storage), it’s tech that while it does its job doesn’t fit in with the way people use technology.

MiniDiscs are the ultimate skip-tech: the first consumer digital recording format, they offered the sound quality and convenience of a CD, with the record-ability of tape. Despite working well and finding favour amongst radio people, the advent of recordable CDs (that could be played on the same systems even if recorded elsewhere) soon afterwards killed it as a format.

It’s not always so direct as a format change, but a change in behaviour. DVD recorders to use with your TV were quickly overtaken by easier-to-understand (what was all that “finalizing” about?) PVRs and online catch-up services, not to underestimate the sheer number of ‘opportunities to see’ (er, repeats) most programmes and the trend to watching whole series in box-set size gulps.

Online there’s more chance for this to happen more quickly, as with most things. The proliferation of photo sharing services backed by camera companies, processing companies and even printer firms was quickly overtaken by Facebook becoming the place to share photos. Facebook has millions more members than much better photo-specific services such as Flickr, as the sharing of photos has become something that you do within your social graph much more than with the “whole web”. The sharing of photos has become both more communal (i.e. people mostly do it in the same space) and less open (generally) than people were expecting — the branded photo-upload site is skip-tech.

If the technology is quick and cheap enough to be treated as disposable it needn’t matter if you back a piece of skip-tech — nor will it if your aims are to reach the early adopters or for a short time — but it’s dangerous to base longer term strategy on technology where the use or the community hasn’t started to form a little.

Be quick, be agile, look out for new things — but always back the social use over the flash new tech.

It’s coloquial, mate

Lots of good clean fun on Twitter this morning where Paul Miller (@rellimluap) pointed to an “Australian Fix My Street“. It’s just a mock-up, created at the Canberra govhack hack day, but it’s great — mainly because of it’s title:
It's Buggered, Mate

A lovely dose of self-aware humour “it’s buggered mate” — which I think is an important engagement tool. Not only does it get attention initially, but it starts the “community” of users off with them having a good idea who a site is for — it’s for “them”, and it’s for people who don’t take themselves too seriously. A bit of fun is a very powerful thing.

You are not your brand online — and especially not on Twitter

Yes, good interaction on the social web is all about personality. But. Brands aren’t people, they don’t have friends, desires, dislikes. They don’t have time off. People do.

So if you’ve decided that a Twitter account for your brand is the way to go, think very hard about the separation between YOU and THE BRAND — even if it’s only one or two of you that do the tweeting.

It may seem like an easy decision, you want to be on Twitter (it’s the next big thing, everyone says so) you want to promote your business or hobby — so you sign up for the service as @SuperPlumbing or whatever. But, think, who do you expect or want to follow you:

  • There are people that know you — they may be interested in your business too.
  • There are people that don’t know you — they may be interested in your business.

If you treat @SuperPlumbing just as a username for your personal account, but tweet about your business:

  • People that know you will get fed up of constant business tweets (if they aren’t heavy users or fans of your service).
  • People that care about your business are put off by the personal stuff.

Is your business “relaxing with a beer after a hard day”, is it “at a #goodmeeting with @anotherperson”? No it isn’t — you are. Does your business have conversations with friends? Not really.

Get a separate account for yourself, and one for the brand.

Creating a Twitter account for a business or a brand (or even a little project you’re running as a hobby) opens up a new communication channel. You need to think about what it needs to say, how it decides who to talk to, what it talks about and how often. You need to think about how you monitor responses — following everyone just isn’t a great option. You need to think about who responds if you’re unavailable — if you’re a proper business you in effect need a CRM system (software or just practise) that makes sure responses are done.

Brand accounts don’t need to be serious, or even focused, but they need to be inclusive.

If you tweet too personally, to or about a group of people that you follow (but of course not everyone will be) then that creates exclusivity — that in itself will put people off, never mind the irrelevance of your activities to the “fan”.

Using Twitter as yourself away from the brand is a good way to see how people use it (so do it first), plus you can do what the heck you like.

I personally have likes and dislikes about how people tweet (although I wouldn’t assume to tell you what to do at all), some people I love in real life tweet in ways that mean I just can’t stand to follow them (too much, too much retweeting , auto blog posting) — but you need to find your own feet and react to people in whatever way you wish.

One thing that is annoying is the creation of a brand account and then retweeting all of the tweets to your personal account too (if people care they will follow…) — separation again, tell me about you, not your business.

Or tell me about your brand, but not you. Tell me both, but separately.

Open data may need to change the way data is collected and stored

Like Nick Booth, I was pretty excited to hear of the results of this FOI request for data about parking fines from Birmingham City Council. Not so much as because I care about parking fines, but because of the opportunity to see some of the huge chucks of data that we’re all pressing for release automatically rather than only on request. This request (check out the wording for a great example of how to phrase these requests so you get everything you ask for) was put in by Heather Brooke as part of an investigation on the new Help Me Investigate site (disclaimer: I’m part of the community management team on this).

Plotting the data on a map (alongside other data) could show all manner of things — but more importantly raise questions that are worth investigation: are regulations enforced more in certain areas, does enforcement contribute to lowering numbers of accidents on those roads, whatever anyone cares enough about.

But, not easily. Yet. The spreadsheets reveal that the location data in there is just shy of being able to be plotted on Google Maps (or similar) without altering:


The locations aren’t detailed enough for plotting by the tools we might use quickly, for use internally in Birmingham City Council they’re fine. As things readable by humans they’re fine. But to quickly pop something on a map there’s no tool I know of that will let you say “all these roads are in Birmingham, UK” — so the mapping software can’t plot.

Of course you can write a script to add “, Birmingham, UK” to each (or do it by hand) but that’s not simple — it becomes the work of coders rather than “the public”, will enough people be interested?

Yes data in public is better than private, yes get any data out there so some people can use it; but to really unleash the power then that data will need to be collected and stored with “free” use in mind. Are organisations ready for that?