Locked Twitter accounts – what’s the problem?

The need for locked accounts – do they say more about our society than they do about the individual? (Image c/o Thomas Quine on Flickr.)

The growth of social media has presented us with opportunities to connect with people in new and varied ways. Through its use, we can build networks with like-minded individuals and use this network to our advantage both personally and professionally.  However, whilst this ability to build such a network is largely positive, for some this creates serious difficulties.

One of the things I have been struck by when reading the huge volume of “just signed up for Twitter, here’s what you do next” type blog posts (and are there plenty of those floating around) is the extent to which they encourage openness and the importance of engaging with the medium in a very public way. Indeed, it is not unusual to encounter the belief that unless you are fully open, you are not really getting the best out of the medium. This does, of course, present difficulties for those who may have issues with embracing such a public medium and would, therefore, need to use it in a fairly restricted, less than open manner. Openness does present difficulties and those fully able to embrace such openness should respect the desire for some to retain a degree of protection whilst also making use of new communication networks.  Indeed, this post was prompted by hearing of someone with a locked account being hassled on why they chose to utilise the medium in a restricted way, rather than to embrace openness and reap the benefits of doing so.

For some, the full advantages of Twitter need to be balanced with their own personal safety. They see a medium that will be beneficial to them personally or professionally, but are conscious of the fact that, actually, engaging with the medium fully and openly might leave them open to risk. Take, for example, women who have been (or continue to be) harassed by stalkers. Fully embracing social media presents a number of risks and serious considerations. Embrace the public and open approach to the use of social media others encourage and they risk making themselves vulnerable to further harassment. On the other hand, avoiding the medium altogether means that they entirely cut themselves off from fellow professionals and access to a useful information medium because of the fear of further harassment, and why should anyone be prevented from engaging in a medium because of fear?

For others, it is about job security. An increasing number of people have to be cautious about what they share and how they share it. One person’s innocuous comment is another’s cause for disciplinary action. We will see the need to tread carefully become ever more important as we move towards increased privatisation of public services.  Whilst it is also true that the public sector is hardly a liberal social media zone, with controls and restrictions often placed on public sector workers keen to embrace social media, the private sector can be even more restrictive. The corporate brand is primary. Perceptions that the brand is damaged, even through activities in personal time, can lead to serious consequences. For example, a higher education institution may be more tolerant towards employees actively (and legally) expressing political viewpoints, whilst a private company may be less than tolerant. (I am intending on writing a separate post about the privatisation of HE and its possible consequences – this being one of the areas I plan on exploring.)

Ultimately, for some, a locked Twitter account is the only rational solution. It enables engagement (albeit restricted) but it also ensures that there is an element of control. It seems curious, therefore, that some would question the rationale of being on Twitter with a locked account. It suggests a lack of awareness or understanding of the reasons why others might feel the need to have some form of protection. That it is usually men who question the value of locked Twitter accounts (certainly in the experience of those with locked accounts who have talked to me about their experiences), speaks volumes. Not least because of their failure to understand that there might well be specific reasons why individuals choose to engage in the medium in this way.

There is also an element to this that is somewhat egocentric (perhaps unsurprising for social media, a medium that is predominantly ego-driven). For some, using mediums such as Twitter ‘properly’ means ensuring as many people as possible can see what they have to say. The medium becomes all about what they have to say to others, rather than what they can learn from others. I think this is where, sometimes, social media can become problematic, particularly tools such as Twitter. Generate a certain following and you run the risk of believing that everything you have to say is important and must reach an audience. But surely tools such as Twitter are about more than that? Surely it is as much about learning from other people as it is about sharing your ideas and perceptions? In which case, why is a locked account perceived by some as a handicap?

If one is to view social media as a forum by which people learn from others, surely the restrictions a user places on themselves are immaterial? They are getting value from the medium, just in a different way from those who choose to adopt an open approach. Who are we to determine whether an individual is getting a satisfactory level of value from their use of a medium? Isn’t this somewhat arrogant? Doesn’t it also suggest a degree of ignorance of the society in which we live? That for some the only way they can engage in such forums is in a highly restrictive form? It is for this reason that anonymity on the internet also needs to be protected and efforts to curb anonymity must be resisted. Yes, anonymity can be used as a cover for unpleasant actions, but it can also be used by the vulnerable to protect themselves from oppression (anonymity did, after all, play a role in some of the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings).

Twitter isn’t all about building an audience for yourself. There is a place for that and there is absolutely nothing wrong with using it as a platform to attempt to spread your beliefs or to campaign or raise awareness of issues you are passionate about. But we must also remember that Twitter and social media are as much about what we receive as what we broadcast. And, so long as we continue to live in a society that enables harassment of women, or restricts individual freedom, we should not judge those who engage in the medium in such a way others may perceive to be limited and contrary to their belief that social media demands openness to be an effective tool.

With anonymity and locked accounts we should not be challenging those who use such methods to engage with social media. We should be asking what is it about our society that means that people adopt these tactics for their own personal safety and security?  What is it about our society that prevents some people from embracing an open, public approach to social media? What is it about our society that means people have to put up barriers to protect themselves? Locked accounts and anonymity should not concern us; a society that makes these the only logical means by which individuals can engage in public forums most definitely should.

An Age of Information for them, but what about us?

“An amendment to the constitutions of all nations and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Proposed by Adbusters. (Image used with permission from Adbusters.)

A little while back I wrote a post pondering whether the internet has, in terms of the way we are governed, been an opportunity missed. For me, the arrival of the internet had the potential to revolutionise our political life. In democracies it offered the opportunity to more closely connect the governed with the governing and in totalitarian regimes it offered the opportunity to breakdown barriers and help to shape a society that is more open and democratic. Whilst the internet has helped facilitate communication between citizens, and led to a degree of change in the way we are governed, the changes have, as has been the case throughout history, benefited the powerful rather than the powerless.

The internet has, undoubtedly, led to a change in the way in which we communicate with each other. We share far more with complete strangers than we would ever have been comfortable with in the past. In many respects, this is relatively harmless. We choose to volunteer certain information about what we are reading, what we are eating, where we are going…harmless information of little interest to anyone.

But, as the NSA revelations have demonstrated, information has also been collected by the state, information that was not publicly published by citizens and instead obtained by tapping into cloud networks. As the Washington Post reported:

…the NSA’s acquisitions directorate sends millions of records every day from internal Yahoo and Google networks to data warehouses at the agency’s headquarters at Fort Meade, Md. In the preceding 30 days, the report said, field collectors had processed and sent back 181,280,466 new records — including “metadata,” which would indicate who sent or received e-mails and when, as well as content such as text, audio and video.

In short, communication between ourselves has changed, as has the amount of information on us available to the state, but the relationship between the governed and the governing has remained fundamentally unchanged.

Indeed, in some respects the NSA revelations might just be a high watermark in terms of informing the governed about the activities of the governing, or at least in terms of the balance between the information available to the governed and that available to the governing. Could it be that, despite the opportunity afforded us by new technology, we have already passed a point where there is a balance in the flow of information between the governing and the governed? Was there even really any balance at all? Will the future see the balance tip ever further in favour of the governing?

It would seem hard to believe that the revelations by Edward Snowden are going to repeated any time soon. Fine words will be said in public, but it seems unlikely that the reaction will be anything other than the tightening of internal procedures to ensure that another Snowden is not on the cards in the future. History suggests that the response will not be to increase transparency, but to tighten the grip on state information, ensuring nothing leaks out that might alarm the governed. Indeed, the fact that both Snowden and The Guardian are faced with calls to be prosecuted suggests that the governing are unlikely to suddenly open up and embrace transparent governance.

On a smaller scale, it is also the case in the UK that the right of the governed to know what the governing are doing is threatened with restriction. The UK has often been seen as one of the most secretive of the Western democracies, certainly more guarded of its internal operations than the United States (whose Freedom of Information Act preceded the UK’s by 35 years).  Whilst the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act in 2001 offered hope that perhaps we were entering a new era of transparent governance, Tony Blair’s regret at introducing it underlines the extent to which it has been introduced with great reluctance and, consequently, there have been frequent and sustained attempts to undermine the legislation.

We see this partly in the way that the current government believes that publication of masses of data negates the need for freedom of information legislation, never mind that it is not solely pure data that the governed wish to obtain. It’s also the kind of information that the state wishes to conceal by using methods which, they believe, circumnavigate existing legislation. And now we understand that the recently replaced Justice Minister, Lord McNally, has indicated that the government is to consult on FoI restrictions. From the Campaign for Freedom of Information blog:

…the Justice Minister Lord McNally says the government is not committed to implementing all the proposals it has put forward but adds “It is however right that we should seek to ensure that the costs the FOIA imposes on public authorities are not excessive, especially in the current economic climate, and are proportionate to the many benefits that the FOIA brings.”

The minister says that the government’s aim “is not a widespread reduction in transparency but to focus on the small minority of requests which are disproportionately burdensome”. However,  the proposals are not targeted at particularly burdensome requests but would restrict access by allusers, including those making occasional requests of modest scope.

The government is still considering the options, Lord McNally says, and will consult the public “in the near future” on those it decides take forward. It seems likely that further moves to restrict the Act are on the way.

So have we reached a point where the information we have access to on the governing is going to rapidly decline, whilst the information the state has on the governed will continue to steadily increase? I may be cynical, but I find it hard to believe that there will be any balance any time soon, and certainly not a shift in favour of the governed. Once the Snowden furore dies down it will be business as normal for the state and our ability to access information on the governing will be severely diminished whilst ours is expanded in ever more complex and secretive ways. The history of the actions of the governing provides no evidence that it will slow down or reverse the collection of data on the governed.

The mechanism available to us through the development of the internet provides us with an opportunity to create a truly open, transparent and democratic system of governance. A system that ensures that the individual is free from state deception and that gives the governed the right to full public disclosure on all matters pertaining to peace, security, ecology and finance. At present the balance is too heavily weighted in favour of information flowing upwards. And that is not to any of our benefits.

Universal Jobmatch – “the system is hopelessly broken”

Universal Jobmatch is “badly designed, badly implemented and a complete shambles”.
(Image c/o Department for Work and Pensions on Flickr.)

A further update on one person’s experience using Universal Jobmatch hosted here anonymously…

In early March this year I was very suddenly made redundant (i.e with 2 days notice), and cast into the gentle arms of the benefits system for the first time in my life. As my employer had entered administration this meant that their financial liabilities had transferred to the State, and to get the statutory redundancy and notice pay that I was owed I needed to register as a Jobseeker. Being a Jobseeker also meant that I would get Jobseekers Allowance: an amount so small that if I had to live on it (rather than doing as I did and using my emergency savings) would rapidly have seen me becoming homeless due to unpayable debts. I was shocked at how little support there was for Jobseekers, both in the Job Centres, and through the Government online jobs portal Universal Jobmatch.

During this period of unemployment, I wrote both an initial post and also a follow up post on this blog, which detailed the many inadequacies that I had encountered when first using Universal Jobmatch. I described its extreme slowness; its inability to understand localities smaller than a whole country; it being incapable of refining job alert results to only the required sector or location; and the jobs advertised on it being outdated, spam or potentially illegal. The many comments following the initial post have outlined the various problems that other Jobseekers are also having using it, many of which are leading to unfair sanctions and hardships for those individuals.

We’re now 7 months on from those original posts, which feels like a long enough time to have given the UJ site a full test. So, what have my experiences with it been in that time, and did it proven to be a useful job-hunting tool in the end?

To begin with, a quick update since my initial tests – I gained new employment in mid-May, but the job was utterly awful*, so I returned to job searching, working full-time in the day and spending 2-3 hours every night looking for and applying to vacancies. I have applied for 100 skilled professional posts since March 2013 (although I have taken a temporary break over the past month), and I have multiple email alerts and RSS feeds set up to ensure that I am able to find relevant vacancies as soon as they become available. I think it’s safe to say that I am very aware of what potential roles there are being advertised in my sector and location.

In the 7 months since I originally registered with UJ, I have not logged in to the UJ system. Not once. There was no need for me to do so, because I had set up email alerts for my areas of experience/skills which would send relevant vacancies direct to my inbox. This is the same method of disseminating information that commercial job sites and professional recruitment agencies use. However, reading the comments on my first post it appears that if I was currently registered as a Jobseeker, not logging in at some level of frequency would lead to sanctions and loss of Jobseekers Allowance for a period. Why is the action of logging in to a site seen as more important than the action of productively looking for jobs, wherever they may be? Luckily, as I was in full-time employment after May I was not subject to monitoring by a Jobseekers advisor of my use of the site, but I find this a worrying approach for current claimants.

OK then, even without logging in, has Universal Jobmatch done what it’s allegedly designed to do, and been successful at connecting me with vacancies? During the last 7 months of receiving daily email alerts sent by the system, there have been approximately 12 jobs sent that are relevant for my stated skills areas, and which I could apply for with a realistic prospect of actually being considered for the role. On clicking through to view the adverts on UJ, all of those jobs were actually previously advertised on one or more of the job sites that I had alerts set up for, and all of them were on those sites long before they were send from UJ. As an added bonus, some of those jobs were being advertised for the first time on UJ after their closing date had passed. As most vacancies have an application period that’s open for at least 2 weeks, if not a month, I cannot understand what UJ is doing so wrong that it’s displaying these vacancies many weeks after they were initially advertised. This delay in notifying users of available roles is minimising the time which people have to apply, and reducing their chances of success…or removing them entirely if they were relying on UJ to identify current vacancies for them. If I had been relying solely on UJ for my job search, I would have missed the rare opportunities that arise to apply for professional posts in my sector.

Of course, there’s also the additional problem of vacancies being advertised without the information that allows you to actually apply for them. For example, one advert recently stated “To apply and to access more information relating to the vacancy scroll down to Job Packs and click on the link.” But there was no Job Pack area on the page, and no link to apply via on the page, purely because this is a direct lift from the employer’s website, with no check if it was actually coherent and useable when placed on UJ. The advert on UJ gives an individual’s email address under the “application methods” section, but the body of text gives a different, corporate email address to contact to request application forms: this is confusing. On the employers website there are indeed Job Packs, and further information about the vacancy on the page, again showing the corporate email address and with no mention of the person with the individual’s email address. I had to locate that recruitment website and vacancy information for myself, using my own, previously gained knowledge of how that specific employer advertises vacancies, and my belief that there would be Job Packs available on their site for immediate download. A site which advertises vacancies which aren’t actually available unless you do your own search outside it, or which advertises closed vacancies is not being successful in its core requirement of enabling Jobseekers to apply for jobs.

Another aspect of those UJ email alerts that I set up is the sheer volume of completely inappropriate job adverts that I’m being sent, rather than notifications of relevant roles being advertised. When my UJ profile has been created with settings meaning it should only send information on roles within 25 miles of my location, in Library and Information Science or Social Media, the massive amounts of irrelevant vacancies I get emailed to me is ridiculous: MOT tester. Sous chef. Mobile care assistant. Pensions consultant. Personal carer. Recruiter. Tax manager. Dodgy “work from home” roles. Engineer. Customer service adviser. Parts inspector for the oil industry. Jobs 50 miles away. Jobs 100 miles away. Jobs in Germany and Spain.

The UJ emails contain between 5-12 vacancies per email, every day. As I’ve been registered for around 230 days, this means that if I average the irrelevant alerts to be coming in at the rate of 8 a day, I’ve had a minimum of 1840 entirely useless vacancies identified and sent to me so far. As stated above, approximately 12 of those roles were actually ones I’d signed up to be alerted about, which means that only around 1 in 153 vacancies emailed to me by UJ may actually be one I’d requested. That’s not an inspiring statistic, especially in comparison to the accurate and targeted alerts I get from “proper” job websites like indeed.co.uk.

Luckily, I am actually an experienced information specialist. I have the skills that enable me to quickly sift through information and discard irrelevant material, yet the fact that I am forced to do this daily with UJ email alerts is hugely frustrating. Why can the system not actually use the settings I established? The ability to restrict job searches to location, and sector is one of the most basic functions this site should be able to perform, and which all commercial job search sites provide, yet it simply cannot do it. I am being bombarded with hundreds of useless emails, which I must sift for any hidden, relevant jobs. I am being sent notifications of vacancies after the application deadline has passed. I am gaining nothing of use from this website, and it has played absolutely no part in the fact that I have been able to find and apply for so many jobs over the last 7 months. To me, it is of no practical use at all.

Yet I am lucky. All of this is only an inconvenience for me: I currently have employment so I’m not required to use UJ, I can use other websites to monitor vacancies, I have reliable internet access, and I have the skills to sift through those emails for the occasional useful bits. I don’t need to use the site to apply directly for jobs to prove that I’m actively trying to find employment. What if I didn’t have internet access? What if I was being forced to travel every day, just to get internet access, to prove that I had logged in to a system that doesn’t even hold any jobs I can apply for, and doesn’t even send out my CV to employers when I do use it to apply for a role? What if I didn’t have the IT skills to use a computer, the knowledge of where to look online for reliable job adverts, or a literacy level that meant I could skim those emailed job titles and know not to waste my time, as they weren’t the jobs I was looking for? What if I didn’t have the experience to know that I could do some research and go directly to the source site for adverts to get immediate access to required application forms, rather than have to request that they be emailed to me, and lose valuable time that could be spent filling out the application? What if I have a visual impairment and have problems using online resources? None of these reasons constitute an attempt to avoid looking for employment, yet due to the system being incompetently implemented, they are being regarded as such, and Jobseekers are being sanctioned and punished as a result.

What would my advice be if you were “encouraged” to use Universal Jobmatch? Refuse. The system is hopelessly broken, yet as shown by the comments on my previous posts, the only ones who are suffering are not the people who designed an unusable system, but the often vulnerable people who are forced to use it. This is not an example of a core government service being provided using a system which is fair and equitable. This is a badly designed, badly implemented and completely unsupported shambles of a website. Frankly, the designers and those faceless government bodies who approved it and are forcing vulnerable claimants to use it should have their membership cards for the human race revoked.

Or even better – force THEM to have to use it in order to claim their salaries.

*No matter how awful a job is (and in this case it involved mismanagement and bullying) you cannot leave a role, as this is classed as making yourself voluntarily unemployed. That means you’re not entitled to Jobseekers Allowance. It also means that individuals are forced to stay in work situations so bad that it affects their mental and physical health.

Evading transparency – the privatisation of public services

Is the sale of Royal Mail a symbol of our damaged democracy? (Image c/o kenjonbro on Flickr.)

Earlier this month, after several years of threats from both the Tories and Labour, the Royal Mail was finally privatised by the Coalition. Despite strong profits and a secure future (primarily due to the rise in internet shopping), the Coalition saw fit, without the permission of the general public who owned the service, to sell it off to wealthy investors. Not only was a publicly owned service sold off without the permission of the public, it has done so at huge cost as a result to the substantial under-valuing of shares in Royal Mail.

With privatisation comes a new set of priorities for the service. No longer is it answerable to the general public, instead it is answerable only to investors whose prime interest is a return on their investment (not on ensuring a quality service). And because it has moved into the private sector and is no longer answerable to the general public, it is not within its interests to act in an open and transparent manner, as it would be forced to do if it were publicly owned. If it doesn’t have to answer to the public, there is no reason for the public to know what it is doing. Which, in my view, highlights a substantial and serious problem with existing Freedom of Information legislation in the current, rapidly changing, environment.

It took many years for the UK government to (reluctantly of course) ‘embrace’ the principles of Freedom of Information. The UK has historically been one of the more secretive of the Western democracies (compare the attitude of our government to transparent governance to that of the United States for example) and, so far as governments across the ages have been concerned, the notion that the governed have a right to know what the governing are doing in their name has long by considered absurd. Even after the legislation was introduced, the governing class were less than enthusiastic about embracing basic principles of an open democracy and transparent governance.

Despite his rhetoric and claims that his would be the most transparent of governments, David Cameron’s government has generally followed the trend of its predecessors. There has been talk of transparency, and some piecemeal attempts to match rhetoric with words, but generally the government has viewed transparency legislation as an obstacle rather than as a conduit for good government. Perhaps this is unsurprising from a leader of a party that is perhaps the most secretive about the source of its funding. This reluctance to fully embrace transparency has been reflected in the actions of a number of ministers (Michael Gove and Andrew Lansley being two obvious examples), but also in his apparent zeal for public sector services being sold off to the private sector where they are free from scrutiny.

Cameron may argue that ‘profit’ is not a dirty word. In many respects, I would argue, it is the dirtiest of words. Dirty because the profit motive obstructs transparency and makes services less accountable to those that rely on them. Put profit into the equation and suddenly the waters are muddied. True transparency simply is not possible to the extent that is possible before the introduction of the profit motive. We see this in the shift of public sector services to the private sector. Whereas public sector services are subject to legislation enforcing a degree of transparency (although admittedly this legislation could be much improved – it is nonetheless, better than nothing at all), the private sector is free from such scrutiny, hiding behind their supposed need to protect profits.

Privatisation is, therefore, not only a sop to your political donors, it is also prevents proper scrutiny of a service. The transfer of Royal Mail, for example, means that the way it is run is, effectively, no business of the people who use the service. It is only the business of investors. If you have no investment in the service, you have no right to know how that service is being delivered. The drive to privatisation is not only a drive to take services out of public ownership, it is a drive away from transparency and towards secrecy. With every privatisation of state owned services, comes a move towards an increasingly secretive (dare I say totalitarian?) society in which you do not have a right to know about the services you use. In effect, we face reaching a point where Freedom of Information legislation is almost an irrelevance as it can no longer be effectively applied and no information of real value can be obtained from its use.

The only way to prevent the governing from eradicating what transparency we currently have (aside from demanding a reversal of previously undertaken privatisations), is to extend and strengthen existing Freedom of Information legislation. If we are to be serious about creating a transparent society, then these powers must be strengthened. If a private sector company is contracted to provide a service on behalf of the public sector, then it must be subject to the same transparency as if it were provided by the public sector. Of course, private companies will complain that opening themselves up will leave them at a competitive disadvantage, but if they wish to provide public services then that is the price they must pay. The concern of the general populace is not the profit margin of a private contractor but that the service provider can be held to account by the citizens who are most affected by the service they are providing.

For all of these reasons, I will be writing to my MP calling on him to support the call to extend Freedom of Information powers in the early day motion (613) tabled on Wednesday. The motion declares that:

…this House praises the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for the transparency and openness it has brought to the public sector and the public right of access of information held by central and local government and its agencies; notes that public services delivered by private companies are currently beyond the scope of the 2000 Act; further notes that, as growing amounts of public services are privatised, ever decreasing amounts of public spend are subject to freedom of information; and supports calls to extend the legislation so that public services contracted out to the private and third sector are covered by freedom of information legislation.

Whilst it is a relatively recent piece of legislation, Freedom of Information is a vital principle if we are to believe that the way we are governed should be transparent and open to scrutiny. An information society should expect nothing less than open information on the way services are provided, whether it be by the public sector or the private sector. A truly democratic state should ensure that all of its citizens have the means to ensure they are fully informed about the ways in which they are governed. Privatisation is not only the enemy of transparency and accountability, it is also the enemy of democracy and freedom.

Cameron says “go online” if unhappy with energy price rises. 7m people say “huh?”

Image c/o @ARRGch on Flickr.

There’s no two ways about it, the Tories’ energy policy is looking pretty feeble in the face of Labour’s commitment to freeze prices should it win the election in 2015. Ever since that announcement it has been clear that the Tories have absolutely no idea how to respond. This is perhaps unsurprising when one considers that not only is there very strong public support from the public for a prize freeze, there is also widespread support for the nationalisation of energy firms (approximately 69% of the population are in favour).

Of course, this failure by the Tory party reveals their traditional priorities. They may claim to be on the side of “hard-working families” (ie everyone) but the reality is, obviously, that they are the party of big business, not the average working family. This is so obvious as to be barely worthy of comment, but their response has certainly underlined the extent to which they are unwilling to help mitigate the failure of the energy market.

Take, for example, David Cameron’s response to the price hike announced by British Gas:

“I think a lot of customers find it utterly baffling how many tariffs they have.

“But there is something everyone can do, which is look to switch their electricity or gas bill from one supplier to another. On average, this can help people save sometimes as much as £200 on their bill.

“So I would encourage customers who are not happy with the service they’re getting, are not happy with the prices, to go to the switching sites online and see whether they can get a better deal.”

That’s right, swap to another supplier who, more likely than not, will also increase their prices in the near future. Not only is switching a relatively futile gesture, it doesn’t actually solve the cause of the problem. Indeed, the sticking plaster solution offered by Cameron isn’t even an option for millions of people in this country. Why? Because it relies on:

  • Everyone having an internet connection.
  • Everyone having sufficient skills with which to use the internet effectively

As we know, those least likely to have internet access are also those most likely to be seriously affected by a rise in energy prices. For them, Cameron offers nothing. You may be hard-working, you may pay your taxes, but if energy companies raise their prices, you are on your own. Never has the social consequence of the digital divide seemed more stark than at times like these. Energy prices are on the rise and millions of people have no option but to take the hit, all because they do not have an internet connection at home.

Cameron may think the answer to the energy crisis is to “go to the switching sites online”, but seven million voiceless people will be asking themselves: “how?”.  Voiceless, at least, until 2015.

Normal service has (sort of) resumed…

Ok, so a valuable lesson has been learnt – back up your databases folks! Well, you all knew that, it’s only novices like me that overlook such things. Anyway, thanks to various cache services, I have managed to restore a number of my posts (the ones I tend to think of as ‘greatest hits’) and things should be as normal in terms of comments etc. Of course, some posts have gone for good. If you linked to, bookmarked or commented on these posts, I am sorry but they are gone.

I’ll slowly get back to a normal posting schedule on here as there are a number of things I’d certainly like to blog about (maybe a post on backing up your website…). In the meantime, do check out a new venture I am involved in: Informed. Informed has three main objectives:

  1. To provide a neutral space for library and information professionals to publish blog posts on a range of wider information issues.
  2. To be outward-looking in our content.
  3. To create an audience within and outside of the profession.

It will rely on content generated by library and information professionals so we would really value your contributions. If you have something to contribute, please do contact us via contact@theinformed.org.uk. The information sector has perhaps never been more interesting than now, with so many issues affecting so many different areas of the ‘information profession’, so we felt the time was right to have a site that reflected this. We hope you feel that way too and look forward to hearing from you.

Right, advert and apologies done…normal service will resume soon…

Ok, something has gone a bit wrong here…

Sadly (well, for me anyway), I recently made a very slight error and accidentally sort of deleted everything that was on this website. Sadly my host service was unable to retrieve the data I lost (I know, sucks to be me eh?), so now I have to go through the trouble of re-typing, from memory, everything I have written over the course of the past two years and more. Obviously this will take some time and require lots of hard thinking whilst I try to remember a paragraph I wrote in 2011, but I’m sure it will come back to me eventually…

Alternatively, I could re-populate this blog with stuff that is cached online. This will take slightly less time than trying to remember that paragraph I wrote in 2011, but it is probably the better option.

Basically, this site is now in a state of flux until I can get it to be something vaguely resembling its previous form. This probably means that posts from 2011-2013 will be reduced to something like my ‘greatest hits’ (ie posts people actually read or commented on or posts I am, for my shame, proud of). Given I am about to be involved in the launch of another website (which will be far better managed than this sorry affair over here), it could take some time to restore.

In the meantime, a word of advice for you kids out there dabbling with your first domain/WP install: back-up your databases kids and never, ever, no matter how tempting, hit that delete button. Because it’s slightly annoying. And you’ll look like a dick who doesn’t know what he is doing.

Right, best start gathering all the random odd bits of this site still floating around…

Is it time for a new space for information professionals?

This post is a collaboration between myself and @jaffne and is essentially a very rough outline of something that has been variously discussed between myself, @jaffne and @ellyob. It is rough but we think it might be worth taking forward as an idea and we were hoping others could pitch in and help develop it, potentially bringing it to fruition. Ultimately, we need your input to help refine this idea and, perhaps, to help us get it off the ground.

The Why

In the past year I have twice been approached to host guest blogs on my site about generally information based issues that touch on our professional expertise.  Whilst I am obviously quite chuffed that my site is seen as a suitable place to post such content, it has prompted me to wonder if perhaps this suggests the need for a place to host such content.  There seem to be very few websites out there where librarians and information professionals can share their thoughts on such issues where perhaps their blog isn’t an appropriate place, or doesn’t afford them the protections they perhaps require to enable public comment on particular areas.

I’ve recently got to talking about this idea with both @jaffne and @ellyob, who have both suggested an interest in something along these lines (although in what form we are not really sure at present!). I know others have also discussed this with me and think this might be something of possible interest across the profession and beyond, I guess the question is what would this look like and how do we go from here? I am particularly keen on something that is outward looking and expansive, that would tackle issues that are of interest to non-librarians. I feel strongly about this because I think reaching out in this way can go some way to addressing concerns about the profession being considered unnecessary and obsolete. And if not, well, maybe it’s worth a try?

Below @jaffne explains her perspective on this and we have both outlined roughly what we think this could look like. We hope this kicks off some discussion and we’d certainly love to hear people’s thoughts on whether this is an idea worth pursuing and, if so, how we go about pursuing it.

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As a librarian who worked in a commercial law firm, I was very sensitive to the fact that any public statements of opinion made by me, on any topic, could be interpreted by my employer or clients as a breach of my employment contract. This was especially true if they could be seen to contradicted my firm’s stance on certain sectors or were overtly political. This meant that I had to be careful not to involve myself online with any contentious issues, and had to restrict myself to commenting only on library sector issues which couldn’t possibly reflect badly on the aims of, or be misinterpreted by my employer or their clients. I also couldn’t comment on the working practices I personally experienced, or any challenges I felt I was encountering in my career, as again this could be seen to reflect on my employer negatively, and could threaten my continued employment with them.

Unsurprisingly enough though, I did actually have opinions, on all sorts of things! Things I wanted to talk about, processes and systems I encountered that were not working well, or in areas where I felt there were developments that would have an impact on my work and approach to it.

To tackle this desire to speak when I had no place to put my words safely, I have previously blogged anonymously. I have done this as a representative of my local professional group, the Scottish Law Librarians Group, on an international legal information professional group blog (On Firmer Ground) and as a guest on Ian Clark’s Infoism blog. I found the opportunity to be able to speak about professional issues “safely” liberating, and allowed me to speak more freely without fear of repercussions from my employers. I believe I’ll also continue to need a “safe place” for me to discuss issues in, as my own blog is linked to my LinkedIn profile, and thus my workplace (and any discussion of it) is identifiable.

However, as far as I know, there isn’t really a “neutral” space available to me. When I say neutral, I mean somewhere that isn’t controlled by a specific body (e.g. CILIP, SLA or any other information professional group in the UK), somewhere that it would be possible to discuss any professional issues, without feeling that it had implications relating to membership of professional bodies. I feel that there is a need for a place to speak freely, one not controlled by any specific interests, or with a feeling that it could only be used by people to say the profession is perfect!

I initially suggested Ian’s Infoism blog, as I had previously been allowed to post material there, and Ian was interested in the idea of creating a forum, and was happy to give up his blog for the benefit of the profession. However, it’s been mentioned that as a long-standing blog with a defined purpose, it could be seen as not fulfilling the neutral element, which is understandable: it was initially proposed as a shortcut, a way to get a platform that was already established and had a large number of readers, but for the purposes of transparency and neutrality, it’s clear that a new site would be more appropriate.

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The How (by @ijclark and @jaffne)

So, how should a proposed UK information professionals blog or website be structured, and run?

Name

If this is to be run as a group site, then a name should be decided among the group. This would be something to be decided on as a first step, as it would allow the creation of all associated materials. A decision on a name could be made by first canvassing suggestions from interested parties, via publicity on blog posts and Twitter, and then running a poll to choose the most popular option.

Aim

Then the site needs an aim. So often, it seems that information professional blogs end up navel gazing and focussing only on insular issues, complaining to librarians about librarians, or people not understanding librarians, so that’s something we’d like to avoid if possible. Where possible, content should be written keeping in mind an audience beyond libraries and the profession. Of course, we want to be able to write about the profession and its issues, but it would be a far more useful blog if it focussed on how the skills of the information profession impact more widely on society, and issues arising around that topic. So, posts could cover everything from how we can aid information gathering, in all its guises, to our understanding of a range of concerns about the information society. However, rather than just focusing on instructional, ‘how to’ type posts, we’d rather focus on outward looking content that demonstrates relevance, how skills and knowledge can support other professions and/or sectors and the broader impact our profession has, or can have, on society in general.

Structure

For our purposes, the format of a group blog with editors managing the upload of materials would be sensible. It would allow contributors who wished to remain anonymous to send materials to the editors to be posted on their behalf (as long as the material was within certain guidelines, as listed below), or materials could be posted by the editors with an introductory block of text, crediting the author. It would also allow an element of risk management, as allowing materials to be posted without some measure of vetting could open the group to the risk of being held liable for the comments and activities of users. Content should be tagged consistently by subject area, and relevant content tags could be agreed upon by crowdsourcing suggestions.

Acceptable use policy and post management

The site would need acceptable content guidelines for materials to be posted, the core probable guidelines are listed below, although as with most other management of the site, they would need to be decided and agreed upon by the editors prior to the blog launching.

Core acceptable content guidelines:

  • Nothing libelous
  • Nothing slanderous
  • Anonymity does not allow ad hominem attacks

Materials submitted for publication on the blog which did not meet the requirements of these basic guidelines would be rejected: either entirely, or returned to the author for amendment before resubmission.

Rules would also apply for those commenting on posts, in order to maintain a professional and respectful atmosphere on the site. Those breaching the principles outlined above for content would be deleted, and/or blocked from further comment if they were seen to be deliberately inflammatory without foundation. It would need to be decided whether comments would require approval before publication, or whether they could be posted without checking.

Editors would need to understand that some of the posts they would be responsible for managing may propose viewpoints which they personally do not agree with. However, the editors must remain neutral, and maintain the blog as a place to share ALL viewpoints, within the guidelines outlined above.

Management of the blog

If the above approach to the site structure is used, it would need a team of editors to manage the site. Despite the use of the word “editors”, they would not be responsible for actual editing of the submitted content. The editors would upload the posts/content, monitor the comments to ensure they were not breaching any of the stated guidelines, and possibly write content, if they felt they had relevant material to contribute. It would be best if the editorial team came from as varied backgrounds as possible, in order to be able to give input and the benefit of experience from a variety of working situations. A team of at least 6 voluntary editors would provide a balance of workload, and the required spread of experience to effectively oversee the site. Core site management reference materials would need to be hosted centrally in a space where all editors could access them, most likely in cloud storage such as Google Drive, Dropbox, or if the materials are more extensive, on a wiki. This would need to be decided based on the needs of the initial editorial team.

A public call would be needed for volunteers in the information profession to become editors, with @ijclark and @jaffne as a core team initially.The timescale of commitment to the editorial role would be flexible, dependent on the editors personal needs.

Hosting

It would be preferable to host the site on a named domain, this would ensure it has a more professional appearance than ‘just another blog’. A WordPress.org installation would be preferable as it is easy to manage and maintain. However, hosting fees would also need to be taken into consideration. How would this be accounted for? It is not a substantial sum of money that needs to be paid on a monthly basis, but it will need to be paid nonetheless. Would this be covered by the editors, donations…how would we approach this? Again, this is something that can be decided once we have a group of volunteers in place to take this forwards. And obviously the URL would be determined by whatever name was given to the website, so that would need to be established first before proceeding.

Conclusion

So what do you think? Is this something that would be of interest? Would you be interested in getting involved? Where do we go from here? Add your comments below and let us know what you think! You can also contact us via email (ukinfoprofs@gmail.com) or tweet at @ijclark or @jaffne.

The internet: an opportunity missed, or an opportunity lost?

But nothing compares with the revolutionary impact of the internet. The internet has altered drastically the nature of our political campaigns, conventions, constituents, candidates and costs. Some politicians regard it with suspicion, others with pleasure. Some candidates have benefited by using it-others have been advised to avoid it. To the voter and vote-getter alike, the internet offers new opportunities, new challenges and new problems.

The above quote was taken from an article written by a future liberal American president. A highly skilled and cunning operator, he identified early on that this technology would play a crucial role in political life.  Furthermore, it would later be a key factor in electing him to the highest office in the land, leaving his opponents trailing far behind as they failed to grapple with the opportunities this new technology provided.  But this above quote isn’t all that it seems.  For one thing, it was written in 1959.  For another (obviously) the article was not about the internet, but about television.  And, of course, this future liberal American president was, in fact, John F Kennedy.

The emergence of television as a major communications tool had the potential to revolutionise the relationship between politicians and the electorate. Rather than remaining remote and detached from the people who would elect them, politicians could now appear in every constituent’s living room, communicating with them directly in a way they simply were not able to before.  Of course, this development did alter the nature of political campaigns and politics in general, much as Kennedy predicted, but it made no tangible difference to the relationship between the governed and the governors.  If anything, television simply reinforced existing power structures. One only has to see the relationship between commercial television and the political elite, both funded by the same corporate sponsors, both defending the interests of those same sponsors and the economic system which benefits their funding streams.  Television did nothing to challenge existing power structures, it merely reinforced them.

Television’s reinforcement of the status quo is perhaps unsurprising. Whilst it has the potential to reveal truths about our society to a much bigger audience than any other medium has managed (thanks perhaps to the power of the moving image), it has largely been a one-way communication tool. Whilst it has afforded the opportunity for some interaction, and for viewers to engage in populist TV shows, it has done little to engage or empower people in democratic processes. And then came the internet…

The internet certainly has the potential to radically alter the relationship between the governed and the governing. The growth of social media in particular has opened up the potential to enable greater communication between the two. Whereas the flow of communication has primarily been top down, from the governing to the governed, the internet and social media enables a cycle of communication between the two. The internet and social media has, unlike almost every other communications tool that preceded it (like television), the potential to be revolutionary in its impact. Unfortunately, this potential has not, in my view, been realised. Rather than heralding a radically new political environment, the internet has increasingly become just another communications tool for the elite to assert authority over.

Of course, the great “Arab Spring” has often been heralded as a watershed in terms of the ability for social media and the internet to facilitate radical social and political change.  Whilst it undoubtedly had some impact, it was perhaps not the great game changer that many claim it to be. Of course, that hasn’t stopped many of these actions being acclaimed as “Facebook Revolutions”. But there is perhaps a Western-centric view of the influence of these tools, primarily because many of these tools are Western creations. It is perhaps unsurprising that the Western media have latched onto Western technology as a hook to interest their populations in uprisings that happen in parts of the world where they have previously shown little interest.

Wael Ghonim, a key figure in the use of the internet as a tool to support the revolutionary movement in Egypt, documented his experiences of running a social media campaign in support of the uprising in his book, Revolution 2.0. Whilst it is undoubtedly an interesting read (I’d certainly recommend picking it up if you get the chance), as one reviewer points out:

“…it clearly states that the Kullena Khaled Said page even at its best only reached about one million readers, a large number for an Internet campaign no doubt, but only a small minority in a nation of 81 million people. Ghonim makes scant any reference to, for example, the wave of strikes that begun in Mahalla in late 2006 and which played a major role in mobilising people against the Mubarak regime. Thus, this book represents a rather narrow view of the Egyptian revolution, something Ghonim also asserts himself.”

The exaggeration of the impact of social media appears to be borne out in a report prepared for the Defense Intelligence Agency in the United States. In “The Impact of Social Media on Social Unrest in the Arab Spring” [PDF] the authors investigated the impact of social media upon social unrest and presented three main findings:

1)      Exogenous political and economic shocks served as the necessary underlying drivers of social unrest; without grievances, individuals would have no cause for protest.

2)      The authors did not find a consistent correlation between social media use and successful mass protest, suggesting social media is a useful but not sufficient tool for protest.

3)      Social media boosted international attention to local events by facilitating reporting from places traditional media has limited access to and by providing a bottom-up, decentralized process for generating news stories.

The authors ended on a cautionary note. Social media was increasingly being used by authoritarian governments to “repress opposition movements and stymie democratisation”.

In short, social media made a contribution to the development of the Arab Spring, but it was not the key factor. Unsurprisingly, a number of factors came together which led to the successful overthrow of authoritarian regimes. Social media didn’t change the dynamic between the regimes and the people they controlled, but it did facilitate the protest movement once it began to develop and grow. What is important to note, however, is that the technology is increasingly being used by repressive regimes to reinforce existing power structures, rather than to open up and democratise society. But what about in the West? Has the internet had the revolutionary impact its potential suggested?

Western liberal democracies appear not to have seen the internet as an opportunity to create a more participative democracy, but rather as an opportunity to reinforce existing structures. In terms of using the technology there appears to be two dominant strategies:

1)      Push out information about the state under the auspices of Open Data.

2)      Collect more information about citizens.

(And you could probably add a third as being that of a propaganda weapon*.)

In terms of the first (and I am primarily referring to the UK here) the internet is seen as a tool to push out government data. This is, of course, seen as a way to make public officials accountable to “taxpayers” (so the rhetoric goes) and to create, as David Cameron would have it, a new era of transparency. Of course, data without context is fairly meaningless. Opening up data in the way the UK government has been doing so does not truly empower citizens or radically impact upon the nature of our democracy. It is one-way communication between the governing and the governed, just delivered in a slightly different way. Indeed, an interview with Francis Maude conducted by the Wall Street Journal underlined that this information push is not about changing the relationship between the governed and the governing but about reinforcing the status quo (this is a fairly sizeable extract but I think it is worth extracting this part of the exchange):

Wall Street Journal: In what way does it do this? Open government at the moment seems to be about opening government up so people can see what it does, but I don’t see a lot of evidence that it is about empowering citizens. The power balance doesn’t change.

Francis Maude: What you are starting to see now in terms of opening data up in the health service changes the balance of power because there is less ‘you take what you are given whether you like it or not’. It is more you have a chance to look at what you are getting and exercise some choice, some choice which will be enabled by digital. You can see what different hospitals are offering, you can see the outcomes from different GP practices, you can make decisions based on that. That is changing, in a crucial way, what most people say is the most important public service. That is changing the balance, moving the balance towards the citizen.

WSJ: All of those things are about choosing between pre-existing choices. It is not empowering you to change those choices. How can the citizen, having been empowered to do the business of government in a better way, change the business of government?

FM: Through elections.

WSJ: So technology doesn’t have impact on the relationship? We are still in the business of putting crosses on pieces of paper and putting them in ballot boxes.

FM: Those are essentially political decisions, which are subject to democracy.

WSJ: So how do you empower democracy? How does technology change the nature of democracy?

FM: By increasing the level of information and knowledge and the access to it.

WSJ: So what can citizens do once they have been better informed?

FM: Vote in a better way. We are not changing the nature of democracy.

WSJ: Isn’t the logical conclusion of what we have seen elsewhere that digital has the ability to change that relationship? What you seem to be saying is that when it comes to politics, actually no, we are not looking to change. We, the government, will go out to you, the citizens, from whom we derive our legitimacy, we will seek your opinions on these things and then a committee of the great and the good will consider them. But there is no fundamental shift in doing that online or filling in a piece of paper and sending it in.

FM: You could have a continuous participative democracy where decisions are voted on in real time by as many people as are on line and know about it. That is an option. That would be a massive change. You could enable that — you vote for people on Britain’s Got Talent that way.  The technology is not very hard to do. We could do this.

WSJ: This is not something you are suggesting is the policy you are going to have?

FM: No.

The government’s agenda, as the Wall Street Journal point out, will not lead to a fundamental shift in the relationship. Technology is not changing the nature of democracy, it is merely reinforcing old structures.

The second strand is, of course, the collection of information on citizens. The revelations of the activities of the NSA have, thanks to Edward Snowden, shown just what lengths the state is prepared to go to in order to collect information on the governed. In the guise of national security it is prepared to conduct widespread, cross-border electronic surveillance.  Of course, this comes soon after the UK government had attempted to introduce its snoopers’ charter, an attempt that is sure to be repeated regardless of the controversy over surveillance conducted by the NSA. The growth of this new technology appears to be viewed as an opportunity to gather more information on the governed, to reinforce the relationship between them and those that govern them. If there has been a revolution, perhaps it has been in terms of what the governing can learn about us, rather than what we learn about them (despite piecemeal freedom of information legislation – which appears to be a watered down sop to demonstrate that we can conduct our own surveillance on them as much as they can on us…of course we cannot).

Not only is information on citizens being harvested, but it is being done so with the threat of exerting the full force of the state should this be disrupted. See, for example, the case ofDavid Miranda and his nine hour detention. Both here, and in the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement, we can see the lengths the governing will go to in order to protect their own interests and ensure the flow of information remains within their control. As Charlie Beckett, author of Wikileaks – news in the networked eraputs it on the LSE blog:

“…‘outsider journalism’ when combined with the best of mainstream news media and when they exploit the power of new digital networks, create a communications power that is a serious challenge to authority.”

When this one-way, highly controlled flow is disrupted, it presents a challenge to authority, a challenge to governing forces and a shifting in the balance of control of information. Therefore, these same forces will act to protect and ensure that this flow remains within their control. Information, as far as the governing are concerned, should primarily flow in one direction – upwards.

There certainly is a two-way process of communication between the governed and the governing, however the governed do not have an active role in this process. They are to be passive consumers of the data pumped out by the government and a veritable bank of information to be collected by the state. There is no revolution here, the relationship has barely changed, all that has changed is the method by which this relationship is managed. The governing still control the flow of information, in both directions (the recent revelations about Israel underline how social media and the internet is seen as a powerful tool of propaganda – the third main strategy employed by Western, liberal democracies).

Both the internet and social media have the potential to radically alter the nature of our democracy. The truth is that this potential has not (yet?) been realised. Where social media has been hailed as a powerful tool in over-throwing repressive regimes, it merely played a supportive role in strengthening existing revolutionary movements. It helped to challenge the existing relationship between the governed and the governing, but it was an aid not the driving force. Likewise, in Western democracies social media and the internet has not radically changed the relationship between governing and governed. Indeed, it hasn’t changed it at all. Despite the potential for new technology to radically change the dynamic, creating a more open, democratic and participative environment, it has merely been used as a tool to reinforce pre-existing structures. Of course, the potential is still there for the internet to significantly recalibrate our democratic structures. I hope that, for now, this is just an opportunity missed but I fear, as the extent to which the state is prepared to control the flow of information becomes ever clearer, it might well be an opportunity lost.

* I would have liked to have explored all three strategies in greater detail, but I was conscious of the fact I was already running way over a word count that one would reasonably expect people to endure.

The problem with Twitter becoming a little less Piccadilly Circus…

Messages delivered by third parties for payment on social media raises a number of ethical concerns, for information professionals and society in general.
(Image c/o Joe Price on Flickr.)

One of the things I have become increasingly interested in (and wary of) is the use of social media, in particular Twitter, for either personal financial gain (via a corporate sponsor), or to push certain agendas. Of course, this sort of thing has been pretty much part of the Twitter landscape for some time now (this article on the phenomenon dates from 2011), but either this trend has increased, or I am noticing it far more than I used to. A couple of incidents recently have raised my interest in the area to such an extent that I felt I simply must write a blog post on it (one incident alone isn’t enough to pad out a post, I need two different examples at least to prompt me to sit here and start bashing out a series of letters and symbols).

The first was the news that the Israeli government are offering grants to students if they tweet ‘pro-Israeli propaganda’. According to The Independent:

In a campaign to improve its image abroad, the Israeli government plans to provide scholarships to hundreds of students at its seven universities in exchange for their making pro-Israel Facebook posts and tweets to foreign audiences.

The students making the posts will not reveal online that they are funded by the Israeli government, according to correspondence about the plan revealed in th

This troubles me greatly and, I think, it’s part of a growing trend of using Twitter as a means of covertly pushing propaganda (or misinformation) out into the public domain. Without an awareness of the funding aspect, such tweets not only undermines everything that individual tweeters tweet, but also Twitter itself. Suddenly, everything becomes suspect. Who else is pushing out tweets with an agenda, trying to covertly influence public opinion? If we are not aware that an individual has been sponsored by either state or corporate actors, how can we properly evaluate what they are saying?

I was reminded of this story recently when this tweet popped up in my timeline. Whilst a reasonable comment on the iPhone, a bit of digging into the tweet author raises some questions. A quick check of his bio indicates that the aforementioned tweeter works for Telefonica. A further search on Google revealed this story:

Telefonica, one of the world’s largest carriers, has signed a deal with Microsoft to promote far more heavily the software giant’s Windows Phone 8 operating system and devices running it.

The carrier said in a statement on Wednesday that over the next year, it will enhance its marketing efforts for Windows Phone 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices. The company will focus those marketing efforts in several of its major markets, including the U.K., Germany, Spain, and Brazil.

Telefonica said that its move is designed to enhance competition in the marketplace. The company said Wednesday it wants to “encourage the presence of additional mobile operating platforms as an alternative to the current duopoly of Android and iOS, and provide customers with a more personal smartphone experience like Windows Phone offers.”

[Yes, that is a terribly written article, see other sources here and here.]

I’m not suggesting that the author is posting tweets as part of some grand corporate strategy, that would be a little far-fetched, but one wonders to what extent corporations actually deploy such tactics. After all, if nation states are using the technology to engage in more subtle promotion, you can be sure corporations are and have been doing so for some time (when have you known the public sector be one step ahead of the private sector?). Stealth marketing is, of course, a well-established concept and Twitter (and social media in general) makes it much easier to push out promotional materials from seemingly independent accounts. How can we be sure whether @X is tweeting about a product or service because they value it, or because they are being paid to be seen to value it?

Of course, marketing people love social media, particularly tools such as Twitter. Here is a service which enables a corporate entity to interact directly with both customers and potential customers. That’s a powerful weapon for any business or service. But, of course, utilising it effectively requires care and subtlety. It’s no good being the virtual equivalent of Piccadilly Circus, blazing loud messages out into the ether whilst thousands of people walk past or chatter away oblivious to the messages being pumped out around them. Sure, you’ll pick up a few along the way (who may well then broadcast your message to their audience), but to a significant number you will become background noise and a more sophisticated approach is warranted (besides, no marketing strategy should focus purely on one tactic). Most people do not want their feeds cluttered with corporate messages, they want such messages to be as unobtrusive as possible. Which is why, for those wishing to push out a certain agenda, alternative methods to push out such messages are sought. If it means paying a third-party (a willing customer, a celebrity or an employee) to push those messages out for you, then so be it. As long as the message does not come direct from source. The more removed the message, the more effective it becomes.

However, once the message does become removed from source, certain ethical questions are raised. Individuals are no longer providing ‘personal opinions’, they are providing opinions for money. Once opinions are provided in this way, it then devalues the entire output of that individual. How many other ‘opinions’ have been formed as a result of payment? Can anything they say be taken at face value? Once it is clear that your opinions can be bought, your output becomes valueless.  As Bill Hicks once argued, if you do a commercial, “everything you say is suspect” (I’ll let you look up the rest of that quote…).

It’s difficult to know, however, how this can be tackled. In part it’s just a case of being aware that there might be a particular agenda at play, but then you also don’t want to view with suspicion every single thing that is tweeted by someone referencing either a service or product. Some people may be genuinely endorsing a product or service without financial gain, I see little problem with that. However, when there is a financial incentive behind the tweets that are being posted it clearly becomes problematic. Not only does this kind of tweeting raise questions for the online community in general, it particularly raises a number of issues for librarians and information professionals.

First, it makes it difficult to evaluate published materials. With a lack of transparency about the motives and agendas behind a series of tweets, it is hard to determine whether tweets are genuine opinions and beliefs, or merely the opinions and beliefs of a corporate (or state) sponsor. Taking the example of the accounts to be sponsored by the Israeli government, how will it even be possible to determine whether published opinions are actually those of the Tweeter in question, or whether they are opinions given for financial reward? It could possibly be determined, but it would take a lot of work, far more work than the average Twitter user has to investigate the authenticity of a tweet or tweets. And who is really going to take the time to find out whether X’s comments about the state of Israeli society are an accurate reflection of the reality? I’d be surprised if anyone does.

But it also raises questions about our own ethical principles. How would we square tweeting for financial reward given our professional ethics? It’s not acceptable for anyone, in my view, to sell their opinions in this way, but is it even more problematic if you are a library and information professional? If you clearly state you are such, is there an expectation by the general public that you will hold the highest ethical principles at all times, no matter how unfeasible that might be? When people see ‘librarian’ or ‘information professional’ do they see ‘disseminator of impartial information’? Is it unreasonable if they do? Can any professional truly be held to the highest ethical standards at all times? Likewise, would it be acceptable for operators of an official library account to offer rewards to those who post positive tweets about the service?

But as well as raising questions about our approach to social media, it also raises questions about how and whether we as a profession can tackle the problem. Is there actually anything that we can or should do? What, if anything, can actually be done about covert sponsored social media statements by anyone? Is it about awareness and validating everything everyone tweets or posts? That would surely be too time-consuming and needlessly paranoid/cynical? We don’t want to get drawn into a habit of being sceptical about the motives behind every single thing that people tweet or post. Perhaps all that we can do is to be aware of the problem and to try, wherever possible, to lead by example. For if our opinions and beliefs can be bought, compromising our professional, ethical principles in the dissemination of information, who is left for anyone to trust?