Activism, Clicktivism and the limits of social media in achieving social change

Last month, Malcolm Gladwell published a piece in The New Yorker arguing that social media was preventing real social change taking place by encouraging what he termed 'clicktivism' – a form of engagement and action based on weak social ties, rather than real-life activism based on strong ties.

Of course, Gladwell’s piece was mostly a straw-man argument concocted to earn him some column inches and boost his profile between book launches. And of course it generated a number of impassioned rebuttals from the social movement and NGO communities.

However, while Gladwell was wrong on most counts, the past week has started to reveal the faultlines within social media and activism.

Drawing on the fall-out from the student demonstrations in central London last week (for those wanting a back-story, see the LRB’s fantasic essay on why the government's cuts are driven by ideology rather than economic necessity) we can argubly see clear limitations to the power of social networking and social change.

First of all, there was zero mobile phone signal for many students during the march which meant people were unable to live-tweet, live-blog or upload images and video in real-time. I’m not sure if there was an explanation for the outage, but it had the same effect regardless: people were unable to live-report and co-ordinate actions online from the heart of the demonstration.

And I didn’t see the Home Office intervening and encouraging mobile networks to fix any problems to cope with increased demand as with the 'Iranian Twitter revolution'.

Secondly, the pitfalls of being a digital native became all to clear to students involved in potentially criminal activity whose actions were uplaoded to social networking sites and shared with the world – especially the media who had a field day harvesting and publishing photography and video of students engaged in direct action.The BBC reports in lurid – and somewhat pointless – detail about this while the Telegraph set up a distasteful 'shop-a-student' section [No link, sorry. Refuse to]. As this was the first action for a lot of students, many failed to ‘mask up’ or conceal their identity.

Thirdly, once the media witch-hunt began and the police started rounding up suspects support and solidarity networks sprang to life via blogs and Twitter offering advice for people involved in the demo as well as  campaigning to raise funds for those facing charges.

However it would seem that the police are pretty good at spotting these websites – largely hosted on corporate blogging platforms or hosting providers – and pressuring the provider to pull the entire site. The most high profile example to date has been Fitwatch, a blog dedicated to reporting on the police Forward Intelligence Teams who take photos of people suspected of being linked to all manner of lawful protests and adding their profiles to a huge database.

Fitwatch (re)posted advice (widely available on the web) providing guidance on how to deal with the fall-out of the demo which resulted in the entire site being removed by its host, Just Host – purely on the say so of an acting detective inspector, Will Hodgeson, from the Met Police's CO11 section.

As of tonight Fitwatch is still offline, despite the Guardian taking up their case.

So, while Gladwell argued that the "revolution won't be tweeted", he sadly might be closer to the truth then he intended – and definitely more than social change campaigners hope he is.

Daily Mail snoops on people online and steals their content

A few weeks ago the Daily Mail caused a bit of a brouhaha by accusing brands that monitored social media to help identify and solve customer’s problems of “snooping” and “spying”.

I really can’t get anywhere near the level of hysteria generated by the article not even if I attempted a Brasseye-style spoof. Basically you should go and read it, although you actually shouldn’t as it’ll increase their site traffic.

Anyway, while there’s been enough discussion of this particular incident online I wanted to follow-up with another story of the Mail’s disgusting audacity and hypocrisy that happened to a friend.

Now, just imagine if a company was to trawl through the Internet – not unlike those companies that snoop on customers. But imagine if instead of helping people, this company used the Internet to steal things that belong to Members of the Great British Public.

Then imagine that when an aforementioned law-abiding citizen tells the company that it has broken the law and stolen something the company (or a representative of said company) was to deny it and attempt to cover up the crime by offering desultory sums of money to buy the victim off.

Just imagine if that company was none other than the Daily Mail itself!

Yes. That’s right. The sanctimonious Daily Mail was trawling the web on election night for pictures of voters across the UK reacting to polling stations being closed without all voters being able to cast their vote.

Friend and film-maker, Emily James, just happened to be in one of those polling stations and snapped away on her phone, uploading the images to Twitpic.

While other media outlets saw the images, requested permission to use, credited and paid Emily for her work the Mail simply lifted the images then claimed they were in the public domain which meant they could use them with impunity.

Emily, knowing her rights, asserted that Twitpic’s T&Cs copyright remained with the photographer and invoiced the Mail for a reasonable amount.

What followed was a series of exchanges with the Mail’s Pictures Online Picture Editor, Elliot Wagland, and the Mail’s Group Managing Director, Alex Bannister.

I’d urge you to go and read the full saga over at the Just Do It blog as it unfolds and savour in the sheer hypocrisy of the Daily Mail that on the one hand criticises companies for using the Internet to help its customers while on the other hand is happy to steal content from people. Part 1 is here and Part 2 here

Aside from the audacity of the Mail it’s also slightly worrying that its Online Pictures Editor fails to grasp the basics of copyright in relation to key social media platforms.

However, as Martyne Drake observes on his blog about this particular story, although the Mail’s Group Managing Editor  claims this was a one-off

given the number of times I’ve seen them [Daily Mail] attribute copyright wrongly and use pictures from Twitpic and other services (which retain the original copyright of the photographer), it’s not so much an incident that’s happened by accident or carelessness, but downright arrogance.


Two post-event analyses of the #DEBill by me

As you might have seen in my previous
somewhat splenetic call to action
against the Digital Economy Bill the past few
weeks have been spent with my blood pressure rather high.

Perhaps out of therapy – or merely because
it’s offered a fascinating case study of how social media can be used to
potentially open up some form of direct democracy – I’ve pulled together a
couple of blog posts on the subject.

The posts broadly cover the use of social
media to campaign against the bill and the – I argue – ground-breaking way Twitter
was used to report the crucial debates in real-time as well as engage with
politicians mid-debate.

The first post was published over on We
Are Social's (i.e. my work's) blog
while the second was guest posted over at Royal Holloway University’s
New Political Communications Unit blog


The Met Police, Twitter and blogger engagement

I posted a while back about comments made to PR Week by the Met Police's corporate comms manager, Dick Fedorico, about their plans for online monitoring and engagement.

Well, in advance of this year's Climate Camp the Met has signed u to Twitter to provide real-time updates on their actions during the week long Camp.

But, take a look a look at their Twitter policy:

"Official CO11 Met Police channel. Please note we
cannot respond to messages via Twitter. Read our Twitter policy at"

So….. the Met is using Twitter to disseminate information, but isn't prepared to listen to what people have to say.

There's some additional confusion as in a Guardian article a spokesperson says that only people who follow the Met's Twitter feed will have access to updates. But currently their feed is public so anyone can view their feed.

Well, actually; I say 'feed' but there seems to be two identical Met feeds:


It'll be an interesting case to follow and see how it works.

Tags: Met Police, CO11, Twitter, Climate Camp

Review: Social Media Insight 2009

An interesting report from a firm called Social Media Library came my way a few weeks back but I’ve only got around to blogging it today. First up my overall thoughts and then a break-down of some of the specific results.

The report, Social Media Insight 2009, offers a detailed analysis of the UK blogosphere, Twittersphere and …er …. Forums broken down by ‘influencers’, sectors – and perhaps most interestingly, geographical location.

I put the term ‘influencer’ in inverted commas because I have long-standing concerns about the idea of online influence and especially from the perspective with which the PR, advertising and marketing likes to conceive the concept (IMHO we primarily perceive ‘influence’ as power, i.e. the ability to persuade people to do or buy things. But the concept of power in networks is still being worked out and is vastly different to traditional conceptions – anyway I digress).

My theoretical worries aside, Social Media Library CEO, Graham Lee, tells me that the report uses a proprietary methodology they call BlogScore (Twitterscore, etc) which uses two main metrics: “a blog's incoming links, but also, importantly, the number of incoming links that those links have” as well as “the performance of a blog on relevant keywords in search returns”.

Crucially for me the system gains credibility by involving both automated data mining and then analysis of each site by a real, live, human. This is important for two reasons: firstly Social Media Library should be fairly confident in guaranteeing each site is UK-based.This process is a significant improvement on purely automated tools which filter UK blogs based on domains or UK-based IP address. Secondly it means that their geographical data break-down can again be fairly accurate.

So far, so good. My big question was: what does the data *really* tell us? Putting my cynical hat on I read the main findings of the report and the charts and while it is interesting to note that 38% of influential UK blogs are about consumer issues; or that 32% of UK B2B blogs are about the marketing and PR industries; or Coventry Twitterers have the highest average number of followers (594), what does his really tell us?

Graham’s answer was as follows:

The purpose of the report is to help people get more of a feel of the social media landscape as it currently stands. Social media is immensely complex, and particularly if you are not immersed in it day-to-day, quite confusing. Add to this the fact that our shared English language with the US – making it exceedingly hard to garner actual engagement levels in the UK – and it becomes a difficult beast for people to get their heads around. … One other breakthrough has been the potential to look at the spread of social media regionally, across the UK. Understanding this, I hope, helps people > better determine the scope for social media to help support regional campaigns and initiatives.

While I definitely agree with Graham’s final statement my key take-out from the report is that it gives a real top-level ‘feel’ for the state of social media in the UK. A potentially useful tool for non-digital specialists – so I suppose I'm not necessarily the primary audience for this.

But this isn’t a criticism. Using social media effectively means getting down and dirty with data; finding relevant communities and immersing yourself in them. If the approach to scraping, measuring and analysing social media presented in the report can be tailored and drilled down into further and sliced in different ways then it definitely offers great scope for UK-focussed digital campaigns.

If you want to know more take a peek at their blog.

Tags: Social Media Library, Social Media Insight 2009

Twitter at the peak of the hype cycle

Neville has a good post taking a brief but insightful look at Twitter's current popularity, charting it against Gartner's famous Hype Cycle.

Twitter HC

Neville writes that Twitter is currently perched atop the initial Peak of Inflated Expectations and quotes Gartner's Mark Raskino who argues that if we take micro-blogging as an abstract technology its current mass popularity lies in the fact that it's a tool which helps journalists (and bloggers) do their job and is thus gaining significant media attention.

I would add to this and suggest that the journalist example is one half of Twitter's popularity. Once the media write about Twitter, their audiences sign up and find that as well as being a useful tool for journalists it's also a useful for them. In fact it's a damn useful tool for just about anyone. Thus the inflation continues.

Neville also reinforces this point with a quote from Don Dodge who suggests that the power of Twitter lies not in the technology, but in the people (which is something I've been saying for a while):

"Social networks are all about connecting people and letting them communicate. It is the power of the network…not the technology."

Neville ends his post with the (perhaps leading) question:

"How quickly will it slide down into and then out of the trough of disillusionment?"

I believe the answer to this question is: quicker than we think.

As Twitter gains popularity via the dual drivers of mainstream media coverage and amazing public utility it becomes a ripe target for spammers, shysters, snakeoil salesmen, etc.

Sure this has always been the case with any product, tool or service but key to twitter is the realtime, network effect conditions under which it operates.

If people love Twitter for it's live connection with friends and colleagues then they'll hate it for the speed and ease with which spammers and shysters can invade their lives.

It's already happening: first there were fake, spammy accounts following you automatically and now I and others are complaining of receiving direct messages from spammy, fake accounts without even following them.

And maybe this is the real driver of innovation or the migration to new social media platforms. Friend Feed is growing nicely but maybe it's not going to gain critical mass until Twitter is clogged up with spam – or indeed, mired in the Trough of Disillusionment.

Tags: Twitter, Neville Hobson, Gartner, Hype Cycle, Friend Feed

UK Government’s BERR launches YouTube Channel

I've just spotted that the UK Government's Department for Business and Regulatory Reform (BERR) has launched its own YouTube channel (I wonder if it's the handiwork of @neilyneil?).

One of the first videos uploaded is a piece to camera by Lord Carter talking about his recently published Digital Britain report:

Pleasingly BERR have opened up the comment section to allow viewers to discuss and feedback on Lord Carter's report.
Unfortunately, no-one has contributed yet.
See Joss's comment below. Looking again this morning it seems the comment option is now turned. I'm sure it wasn't yesterday when I looked… looks like BERR are trying to drive discussion to their own destination which, in its own words, is a "discussion site …created by the Secretariat for the
Digital Britain Steering Board, to provide a space for you to engage
with us directly in an online debate about Digital Britain.
" Wow! The "Secretariat for the
Digital Britain Steering Board" – how social is that 🙂

It's worth noting that there is already a huge volume of discussion of the report online. Just take a look at a Twitter search for the hashtag #digitalbritain. I'd recommend Lord Carter get online himself and started engaging in the discussions already happening.

Technorati tags: BERR, Lord Carter, Digital Britain

Tweet My Blog! LOLs for Hols


I’m on my hols visiting family in the Isle of  Man for a few days, so tweeting will be light and blogging lighter.

But this site caught my eye, made mehave a bit of sick in mouth and then laugh loudly. The sad thing is ….. stuff like this still works!

Via @badgergravling

Technorati tags: Isle of Man, Twitter, Spam

Twitter case studies: Bad and er… bad


This isn’t a particularly constructive blog post, but I thought I’d share two great examples of bad Twitter use.

The first one I didn’t even bother clicking to view their profile page, because frankly why would I want to having received the notification email pictured left?

I mean, that’s not even trying is it? It’s not even setting up a Twitter stream as an affiliate link farm and pretending to be a real person.

It’s just doing what it says on the tin: Top Affiliate1. Still, I suppose it’s at least ‘authentic’.

The second example of Twitter abue is slightly less forgivable. I received a notification that Coca Cola Zero was following me on Twitter (albeit in Portuguese) so I took a look at their profile thinking how interesting it would be to see what the brand was doing on Twitter.

Amazingly (and presuming it is an official Coke branded site – although I have no reason to think otherwise) the Twitter feed is more or less being used as a spam site. Take a look at the screenshot below:


You should be able to make out that the user is following about 5,000 people (me included despite not speaking Portuguese) while only having 200 followees. Also, although you probably can’t make it out, they have only posted two tweets in over two weeks. That’s a FAIL in my books.

As a footnote, I was in Brazil last week speaking to PR professionals – so I wonder if someone I met works on the Coke Zero account and has added me. If it was – feel free to drop me an email and I’ll tell you where you could improve 🙂

Technorati tags: Twitter, FAIL, Coca Zero

Public sector goes Twitter crazy


There was a flurry of activity on the UK & Ireland E-Democracy mailing list today with a Dave Briggs flagging a number of local authorities embracing Twitter.

Dave’s list includes

It’s interesting to see how each authority is using Twitter. St Helens is using it to announce news stories; Southend seems to have used it to update the count during the local elections; Stratford-on-Avon are using it in a fully conversational way while Barnet seem to have registered their profile and not much else.

Another and interesting recent addition to Twitter is UK Parliament who seems to be someone behind the scenes at the Houses of Parliament website. This will be really interesting to follow as the HoP website provides a wealth of information from the day’s activities in the house and having someone interpreting some of the day’s parliamentary news is a great idea.

However, my main bugbear is that there isn’t RSS on the HoP website. Given the amount, variety of info and frequency of updates is the perfect site to use RSS. That’ll be my first question via Twitter!

Technorati tags: Twitter, Local Government, UK Parliament, Edemocracy