Is social media the problem, or is it the culture?


When your social media challenge uncovers deeper issues

Dave Briggs of Kind of Digital sparked this one off, but I’m not sure where it’s going to take me. So here goes. (Local government tweeple, if you’re not following Dave – & especially if you are in the East or West Midlands, follow him. He knows his noodles).

I very rudely interrupted an interesting Twitter exchange between Dave and the lovely Kate Norman (who if you are an NHS type, follow her too) on all things parish councils. I’m interested in parish councils because we have lots of them outside Cambridge. It’s one of the things that seems to divide Cambridge City and everywhere else as far as the political culture is concerned. Over numerous conversations with councillors and activists of most of the parties represented in and around Cambridge, the cultural as well as political tensions are becoming more clear.

“Yeah, OK Pooffles, and now you’re going to tell us how Twitter is going to solve everyone’s problems, right?”


One of the themes that seems to have come up time and again at events, workshops and seminars that I have been at is how exploring a ‘social media problem’ has been the method by which to uncover a wider, deeper cultural problem. For example how do you deal with the problem of members of staff complaining lots about your organisation on Twitter and Facebook? Lock down Twitter and Facebook from your organisation’s computers? They’ll only take to their smartphones and bypass all of your technological barriers. Thus you end up losing any benefits you may gain from using social media as an organisation while failing to reduce the risks associated with it. (Actually, you may end up increasing the risks as monitoring becomes harder).

“But Pooffles, I don’t do social media and I don’t have time for any of this other [insert name of issue] nonsense!”

I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve heard that sort of phrase before. I also try to forget the times when people who’ve said that to my face go onto be incredibly rude and/or abusive to me afterwards. In that sense I’m lucky to have Puffles with me for much of the time – Puffles is a brilliant filter. The people who tend to be the rudest and most obnoxious to me tend to be the people who don’t ‘get’ social media. Those who seem to be the friendliest are the ones that are intrigued by Puffles, start up conversation and often tend to be users of social media themselves, if not understanding of the cultures growing up around it – eg through relatives.

Now, at first glance Puffles (the cuddly toy form) isn’t a social media phenomenon. It’s a cuddly toy. All the more bizarrely, there’s this bloke who carries Puffles around from place to place. Why? The conversations that stem from such things tend to be around the culture the people that use social and digital media, rather than the social media itself. But it takes that explanation to try and bring people’s thinking around towards understanding, if not accepting the ‘micro-culture’ that has built up around a single social media persona.

“No, Pooffles. I really don’t do social media. I concentrate in my area of expertise.”

…As someone said to me not so long ago. (Or words to that effect).

My response?

“That’s fine. There’s nothing in law that says you have to be using social media. But as a senior member of your profession, you need to be aware of the impact that social media use by other members of your profession and beyond, is having on your area of expertise.”

Sound reasonable? I think someone rescued me after I said that – or lunch called.

The three areas Puffles and I are bouncing around in are the worlds of politics & policy, academia and Cambridge as a local community (or local communities – take your pick). Venn-diagram-style, they all to some extent overlap each other. It’s just that few people seem to have picked this up and even fewer seem to be running with it.

In the case of Cambridge academia, culturally the institution has been very closed off to residents that live here – until very recently. When I was growing up here, the administrative staff made it very clear that us little oiks were not welcome – even though they were the ones that were in our neighbourhood, not the other way around. (As far as we were concerned anyway). Political and financial pressures post-1997 helped open things up, and social media is opening things up even more. But the inertia of centuries of a closed culture makes the task of opening up not an easy one – especially when faced with a societal change that has happened in a matter of years in comparison. How do you manage this?

A similar sort of inertia affects the voluntary and community sector in and around Cambridge too. I blogged about this six months ago. Fortunately, now that I seem to be getting my act together and now that Puffles’ coffee drinking buddy has just been elected Mayor of Cambridge, we might be able to make some progress on this. Mayor Paul Saunders being several years older, wiser and calmer than me (as well as being mayor) has locally what ministers have nationally – a great deal of influence in their sectors to bring people together. In terms of actions, it’s simply the case of inviting people and organisations together and presenting them with some specific challenges to tackle. Ministers – and royalty – do this all the time. You just seldom hear about the results.

Moving away from advertising and broadcasting, and towards listening and engagement?

I can’t remember where it was – it may have been Housing Camp 2013 – where someone mentioned about going to ‘networking events’ where lots of people broadcasted to each other and nobody listened. I remember a few years ago going to one such ‘social’ where I didn’t want to talk about work things with some consultant type desperate to give me his business card until I abruptly told him I was here to socialise, not to be sold to.

One of the reasons advertisers and broadcasters tend to struggle with social media is their mindsets are yet to adjust to the idea that social media users can answer back – en masse and very publicly. Have a look at the customer services Twitterfeed of any major brand – and count the number of apologies you see. (Also have a look at what they are apologising for too).

As far as problem-solving is concerned, I think people and organisations are moving away from ‘copy-and-paste’ style solutions to one where they take an active part in the problem-solving process. Think of social media workplace policies. Which one will be more effective? The one you copied and pasted off of the internet or the one that you developed and worked through with your staff? The copy and paste version may be a lot less hassle and may tick the box in your objectives that says you will produce a social media policy for the workplace, but does it solve the problem of the risks associated with social media use by staff? Does it increase the opportunities available with social media? Moving away from a copy-and-paste, tick box mindset to one of working with staff – and often people outside of your organisation – requires a culture change. But that’s not easy to achieve in a closed culture.

“So…how are you going to get people to listen to YOU then?”

It’s more the engaging than in me broadcasting as far as all things local are concerned. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve spent a long time turning up to events and doing a lot of listening. Compared to where I was last year, I’ve got a greater focus on what things I need to do as well as a much more flexible mindset on what all of this engagement work can deliver. Which is probably a better way of doing things. To be continued…!


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