in Politics, Twitter

I’m James Cousins – and I’m a Twitter-sceptic

It’s time to come out. Despite my regular use of Twitter, and my frequent advocacy of it, I’m a sceptic. I think it is over-hyped and while fun and useful for some, for most it’s an irrelevance.

Now to a degree that title and first paragraph was a bit of fly-catching. This blog post is advertised and Twitter and I’m sure I’ll have attracted a few people who came to read just so they can disagree, shake their heads and mutter to themselves that I just don’t ‘get it’ – the most damning statement you can make about a Twitter critic.

I am actually a fan of Twitter, I think it is incredibly useful, I have benefited enormously from it and have been able to help a number of residents through it. But I think people sometimes lack a little perspective.

But what prompted me to write this post was the response on Twitter to Plymouth Council’s decision to block access to Twitter through their network. This, of course, was a travesty and compared to the actions of the Iranian Government. Presumably a news blackout and riots on the streets of Plymouth are next.

A search on Twitter reveals widespread condemnation. Many quote the Labour candidate’s response or the similar story that appeared on the MJ’s website. Fewer point to articles like those on The People’s Republic of South Devon or The Plymouth Herald where the comments suggest that, actually, local people are not lining up to condemn the council and many support the move.

Now there are arguments on both sides. You might think that transparency is a good thing in government at any level, and I totally agree. But is Twitter the way? There, I’m not so sure – the Twittering classes are still a fairly insignificant minority numerically, many of those with Twitter accounts barely use them and there’s still a significant proportion of people who do not even have internet access.

Plymouth City Council aren’t trying to ban communication. They are banning access to a social networking site from council computers. I’ve twice seen internal emails advising of a blanket ban on access to specific sites, once for eBay and then for facebook – neither occasion were Wandsworth council, but instead my employers at the time. Indeed, I once had to present a business case to get any internet and email access.

And it’s entirely within any employers right to provide or limit internet access as they see fit. I happen to think it should be a management issue, rather than an IT issue, but if they feel their staff have no valid work reason to use Twitter in work time, then they have the right to make that decision and use IT to enforce it.

Comparisons with Tehran are wide of the mark. I don’t think Labour are accusing the council of rigging an election, just complaining about the use of council resources on another social networking site. People are free to Twitter, facebook, eBay, YouTube or even FriendsReunite in their own time, but I’m guessing the council – and most residents – feel this isn’t really what, say, a housing benefits officer or social worker should be doing at their desk.

So am I supporting Plymouth? Yes, I think I am. Each council has the right to make their own decisions. I might not have made that decision, but fully support them in their right to make it. Should they have different access policies for councillors and employees? Perhaps. But is it really a blow for communication, or transparency? No, absolutely not. Twitter is just a medium, one among many. If Plymouth seek to stop communication, or make their workings opaque, that is a problem, but when we attach more value to a medium then we do the messages it carries it is already too late anyway.

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  1. I think I mostly agree with you.

    One of the key things about social media, is that while they can provide a very cheap, very effective communications channel, that channel penetration (must resist temptation to come over all Frankie Howerd at this point) is low. Increasing, but low.

    I would suggest councils should use these methods to engage, as much to listen to what others are saying about them as anything else.

    However, Plymouth’s stance is slightly different. They’ve simply prohibited use of twitter from Council networks except for the Comms team. This isn’t switching off any ‘official’ twitter use, it’s simply preventing staff (and/or members – am less clear on that issue) from accessing twitter from their PCs in work time. Which is fine. As you say, that’s entirely up to them what to allow.

    However, it does little to relieve the problem (“people speaking inappropriately”) simply because there are so many ways to update twitter – txt message and iphone sorts of updates will still be okay, even if all of the twitter API routes have been closed down – and it’s not clear they have, since the communication specifically refers to the twitter site (although that may well include APIs)

    Therefore while I would say it’s up to Plymouth to determine what constitutes appropriate employee usage of their resources, the action they have taken is not likely to do much to alleviate the problem they had – plus it’s netted them a lot of publicity (probably more con than pro).

    • Actually, I think it’s probably positive publicity for them. A lot of the comments on Plymouth forums support the move – “I don’t pay taxes for councillors to tell me what they had for lunch” etc. Of course, that may be coming from a position of ignorance about what Twitter is, but that doesn’t stop them holding that view and thinking the council did the right thing.

      I’m with you in thinking that Plymouth, or any council, should be considering Twitter as a method of engagement. But the fact is – and I say this repeatedly – most people aren’t on Twitter. If you’re trying to engage with a community that includes the poor or elderly chances are you won’t find them on Twitter so enabling the officer who calculates housing benefit, or assesses social service need, to Tweet about it is not likely to improve service delivery.

  2. Yes, fully behind that. That’s a key message that must not get lost: online delivery is not going to reach everyone – nor will it be everyone’s preference.