Bulletin boards, nobheads and good people

There’s a very niche car forum I inhabit, full of grumpy old men. It’s my favourite place online.

This contributor summed up his experience of the internet since 1993. I can only imagine, but it sounds about right to me.

And it’s a a nice reminder of how the first generation webbies I meet through work often feel.

Years ago the “proper internet” was just obscure bulletin boards and stuff on usenet, and the general public were absolutely ignorant of it – It was mainly used by intellectuals, hobbyists etc. A good place, unsoiled by the general public – If you wanted access to it, you had to work for it.
One day in September 1993, AOL included Usenet access in their internet package for the general public, and this basically ruined the place.

Car forums experienced a similar thing in the mid/late 2000s, where loads of idiots turned up and ruined the game. Before then you could safely presume anyone you were talking to on a forum was probably a decent person, but once word got round to the nobheads, it dragged the whole place down.

I really can’t stand facebook, but all the dickheads who ruined forums are now on facebook instead, and forums are slowly falling back into the hands of mostly good people, and I’m really happy about that.

The best training ever

Regardless of what the HR manual says, people working in digital need to live and breathe it.

You don’t have to be obsessed with social media, or a coder, or been doing whatever-it-is-you-do for that long. But you have to be passionate about something to do with the web.

That gets you started. Then you have to throw yourself in at the deep end, regardless of your seniority or experience. There’s no point pretending anyone ever knows it all, or can afford to ignore something they are not sure about.

I was in at the deep end when I started growing the #nhssm community with Alex Talbott, Colin Wren and Gemma Finnegan.

When Alex introduced himself and pitched the idea of a weekly Twitter chat for healthcare workers interested in social media, I was sceptical. It sounded like a void that didn’t need to be filled and would suck up more time than it was worth.

Happily, I was very, very wrong. A trickle of NHS communicators, nurses and doctors grew into a steady stream of health professionals, expanding to cover mental health workers, people working in private healthcare, academics and managers. Within a matter of months 8pm on a Wednesday evening became the most hectic part of my working week: dash home or stay late in the office, promote a topic or theme, seed some questions, then help facilitate.

Alex, Colin and I ended up meeting in a pub most Wednesdays, with Gemma Skyped in from Cornwall or on IM. The social side of it was no hardship, but the chats were so busy that it was nice to have each other there for support.

We were all learning a huge amount too: the spiky characters; their passion, arguments and tone all colliding in one short 60 minute burst of energy. Some nights there was a huge amount of useful information to curate and share, but it was also a steep learning curve knowing how to moderate conversation, to ensure people with useful contributions didn’t feel left out or were put off altogether.

I failed over and over. Topics that were of no interest, over moderating some people, ignoring others. Obsessing about branding and formalising this community, while at the same time dodging the occasional sniff from a compliance or security team.

Is this official? On your own time or the public’s? Who cares? I was learning more about online conversation and helping to manage a community than I could have experienced in a lifetime of courses or tuition.

The scary part was when we realised that this was not a true sandbox that we could afford to mess up. Exciting but serious opportunities came along: running an #nhssm conference with the Guardian, presenting to NHS Directors, talking to European health professionals.

And all the while the weekly chats continued to be the bulk of the work and the mainstay activity.

My own confidence to get involved with online conversations, to contribute, participate and defend a view, developed immeasurably. I now see those same situations I faced on Wednesday evenings, each time I look at a feed, forum or comment thread.

The best bit is that #nhssm is still out there and for Alex, Colin and Gemma it has helped them earn money for their expertise. Most of all it has helped make the NHS more open to social media. Things have moved a long way since that first phone call.

Want to really understand the value of conversations online? Get stuck in.

It’s the internet, Tim, but not as you know it

It's my final night in Beijing – my first visit to China. I'm hoping it won't be my last. This is a fascinating country, the people I've met have been very friendly and the sights and sounds are sufficiently different for days to feel exciting. Not something that can be said about many parts of an increasingly smaller world.

Before I arrived, my eclectic knowledge of China was limited to what I had read: rapid economic growth, human rights issues, my own personal fascination with the auto industry, and, of course, references to state-owned media and the blocking of social media.

On the flight out I read Chinese Whispers by Ben Chu. If you even have a passing interest in China it's a brilliant read, and certainly helped to straighten out my preconceptions.

Platforms

These days it feels strange not having access to all my social media accounts, unless I happen to be in a remote location. So travelling to a huge city, with wifi on tap, but no Twitter, Facebook or WordPress, has been odd. At the same time, it doesn't hurt to have a break from these things, and has encouraged me to take a look at what is available to the Chinese.

I joined Sina Weibo a month or so before I travelled, and as a platform it's pretty good to use. Fast, intuitive (even with my non-existent Mandarin), and lots more functionality than Twitter. Consider it a more comprehensive publishing platform, with the option to host closed community chats, as well as open replies. Other platforms are available of course, but Weibo (way-boar) is what everyone talks about. The t-bomb of China, if you will.

It's worth knowing that I also managed to use LinkedIn, Google + and Foursquare, which came as a surprise, particularly because Google appears to be largely blocked.

Boundaries

Platforms are all very well, but there's no doubt the country is grappling to come to terms with this unprecedented opportunity for self publishing, organisation, sharing of information and conversation.

I'm not going to list the history and emerging issues here. But it's worth listening to The Forum on the BBC World Service on 2 November, for a fascinating exchange of views between the Government and Chinese bloggers.

Jamil Anderlini, Financial Times, has spelt out some of the really big implications of social media in China.

Governments wanting to put boundaries around social media and control messages is not something unique to the Chinese, of course. But coupled with the lack of independent domestic media within China, it becomes a problem. Citizens can access some independent journalism from external media sources i.e. the FT or BBC for example, but access is sometimes hindered.

Look what happens to BBC content, for example:

Click on the story in the top left, and you get this:
 

It's easy to understand why the Chinese are so excited about the potential of social media, and frustrated about censorship.

Bloggers

I have spoken to a dozen Chinese bloggers while in Beijing. They ranged from young people with regular, public service jobs, to those whose sexuality or political beliefs put them squarely in the Government's spotlight.

It is a shame that for some, they feel compelled to restrain their blogs to restaurant reviews and holiday diaries, sometimes published on WordPress via a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

I didn't hear any first hand accounts of intimidation or blocking of blogger's content. But from some of those I spoke to, I understand that blogging is not an option if you are trying to rally support for a cause or campaign that may be deemed politically unacceptable.

The repeated story was that of the 'big Vs' – bloggers with large numbers of followers. Big V refers to the verification tick alongside their Weibo profile, like the blue tick on high profile Twitter accounts. A number of big Vs have had their profiles closed, and this has created a sense of outrage and despair among the blogosphere.

Clumsy blocking of web pages, outright banning of entire networks, and closing profiles with large followings sounds like a very crude attempt at controlling something that, ultimately, is uncontrollable. The web simply doesn't work like that.

Much of the emphasis in China seems to be on sheer numbers of followers, rather than actual influence. According to a recent judicial interpretation 500 shares equals rumour mongering – although that kind of benchmark will sound familiar to British Twitter users.

Bizarrely, it seems that publishing in English allows for greater freedom of expression. My own experience of reading Weibo for a week indicates that English provides greater freedom to comment on political issues. A simple search for 'Tiananmen Square' yielded several negative references to the 1989 protests and the Government's actions.

My short week in China has left me more confused than clear, about the country's use and understanding of the web.

I don't think the Government will relax the restrictions that exist, but evidently nor can it control the web. The potential of social media to change the country is huge, but it is increasingly painful for all sides to understand how. For those of us in the West, it will be difficult and sometimes shocking to watch, as this understanding evolves.

 

 

 

Are you motivated or getting something done?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the gap between feeling strongly about something, and actually doing something about it.

This is partly born out of recent personal experiences, but also thinking about the way people behave online.

At home I’ve been thinking a lot about Parkinson’s disease and road safety (separately, for different reasons!), and yet I haven’t found the time to contribute anything to either of these causes yet, despite the fact that I have found time to jot down this post.

At work we often see a lot of people and organisations re-tweet, write or in some way help to promote our policy engagement projects, but the numbers are rarely proportionate to the number of responses we receive or, if I’m honest, meaningful engagement. In the time it takes people to help promote a project, they could have contributed directly themselves, which would probably be more beneficial all round.

Maybe these are unfair comparisons to draw, but the fact remains in both cases that, on the face of it, people are interested in a cause, but in reality many (including me) do little beyond that. This is in spite of the fact that in both these examples there are usually pretty easy ways to get involved.

I could sponsor a Parkinson’s project in a few mouse clicks, which I think would deliver some tangible, or I could add weight to a road safety petition online by signing something and sharing a link.

Likewise, we offer up easy ways for people to comment on projects online, through several social media channels, a good ‘ol email address, or a more detailed response form.

The hard truth I am arriving at is, even when you know you are personally affected, or motivated by something, you still need multiple and well timed nudges to actually do anything about it. Simply claiming a cause or interest is a long, long way from getting involved.

This post highlights the importance of motivators: people or secondary, independent, messages, to ensure we complete a task. But these have to appear in the right place, at the right time. And perhaps that’s where we are getting to in the work-related scenario: identifying our audiences and the channels they prefer, to communicate with them.

This is good, in as much as we know where some conversations are happening and may be able to join in. But our call to action, the way in which we really want them to respond (completing a questionnaire, sharing a view etc.) isn’t quite right.

Another equally important motivator is the promise that by doing something, you will feel good about it. This is where the language of our policy engagement might struggle. ‘have a whinge and change what the Government is doing!’ is a much more appealing sell than ‘have your say’ – about as far as we go at the moment.

Maybe I’m mixing too many different things here, but I am really interested (motivated, even) to hear from others about what they think causes the gap between feeling and action. Please make the time for a comment below.

And in the meantime I really will make the time for some meaningful support for Parkinson’s UK and road safety.

Do I belong to a professional body? Yes.

I completed a survey last week that asked whether or not I belonged to a professional body. I think what the author of the survey meant to say was a ‘recognised’ body. Something like CIPR or IDM.

The survey seemed quite important in the context of some other things that are happening, so immediately I felt guilty for not being a paid up member of at least five branded communications bodies.

But on reflection, isn’t the web, and our networks within it, one brilliant, huge, professional community? For those of us working in communications, and particularly at the intersection between digital and communications, we can absorb more expert knowledge, support and contacts than any number of professional subscriptions.

I’m not saying there isn’t a role for professional bodies: they offer structure and a means to filter huge amounts of content. But I’m not going to feel bad for not having any particular affiliation, other than the strength of my own network and ability to tap information.