Will the new legal guidelines for social media make things better? It’s up to you…

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has issued new guidelines setting out the approach courts and police forces should take in cases involving social media. The new rules are described as ‘interim’ and will be accompanied by a three month public consultation period.

My worry is that while a lot of consulting may go on the rules won’t get stress tested – or stress tested enough – through prosecutions in that time. Lots of talk. Very little test driving. Personally, I wouldn’t buy a car built this way.

But if that’s the way it’s got to be it behooves all of us to get out there and kick the tyres on this one.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, is drawing a distinction between two types of ‘communication’:

  1. Credible threats of violence, targeted campaigns of harassment against individuals, or which breach court orders.
  2. Other communications which are ‘grossly offensive’.

Quoted in the CPS blog he states: “The first group will be prosecuted robustly whereas the second group will only be prosecuted if they cross a high threshold”.

Even then, this second group may escape the courts if the offensive communication is taken down swiftly, or blocked. That sounds fine in principle but it’s the nature of such remarks to go viral at hyper-speed, given the sharing tools that accompany social media. If I retract something swiftly but it has already been widely disseminated by others, how does that work? The Saville/McAlpine case speak to this very clearly.

What will ‘grossly offensive’ actually mean?

The emphasis seems to be on the protection of the individual. Again the question is how prosecutors might weight ‘grossly offensive’ and whether the cult of celebrity might have undue influence.

A schoolgirl trolled by a handful of individuals may be more deeply hurt than a top footballer who finds allegations of sexual indiscretion bandied about the Twitter streams of millions.

Celebrities, or other high ranking, high net worth individuals, also have more ways of protecting themselves and can, for example, fund redress through the civil courts.

The individual versus the organisation

The guidelines are not designed to prevent freedom of expression but even that opens up a can of worms.

Is the harassment of an individual somehow more heinous than the harassment of an organisation?

Can I say something offensive about a hamburger chain but not lay the same claim against an individual employee?

And would the level of offense be viewed differently if the employee was a humble burger flipper as opposed to a senior executive?

This is the kind of stuff that keeps me awake at nights. It’s the guidelines around ‘grossly offensive’ which are liable to require the most decoding. The police and the courts would need to be satisfied that the communication in question was more than:

  • offensive
  • shocking
  • disturbing
  • satirical
  • iconoclastic (this one alone is a veritable minefield)
  • rude
  • an expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion
  • banter or humour, ‘even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it’.

Starting today

The interim guidelines don’t change the law but do, in effect, lay a pre-formed interpretation upon it. I don’t doubt the smarts of the people who came up with this but I do worry that their direct experience of social media might be… limited.

The approach they set out takes effect from today, so let’s take a real interest in what happens and bring our own understanding of social media into play when it comes to what the final guidelines might look like.

If I have a concern about the consultation process itself it’s that there seems to be a desire to focus responses on the specific framing of the interim guidelines rather than encouraging broader observations on the challenges involved in ‘policing’ social media and our protection both from it and as part of it.

By that I mean looking at what’s required to both protect our rights to speak up as well as protect our rights not to be shouted down or maligned.

There’s a kind of catch all ‘further comments’ question at the end on the consultation document, but that’s as far as it goes.

But for goodness sake get involved – whether you’re an individual or an organisation.

Twitter – this summer's chart topper?

birdie-song-cartoon

Does anyone remember The Birdie Song? The original version was released in the 1960s,  but in the 1980s a UK band called The Tweets got to No. 2 in the charts with an instrumental version accompanied by a silly dance. I use the term ‘dance’ loosely. In the same way that you might describe a bacon double cheese burger with chilli sauce, caper mayo and a side order of onion rings as ‘nutritious’.

Both the Birdie melody and footwork burned itself into a collective global psyche. (As a special treat I have included a link the Indonesian version by Warkop, who built a whole comedy routine around it, at the end of this post.) Huge numbers of people hated The Birdie Song but a frightening and equal number are compelled to hum the first few bars under their breadth in moments of crisis. Go to a wedding and sooner or later Aunty Ethel and your strange cousin will loosen their clothing and start teaching the moves to anyone who dares come within striking distance of the dance floor. By 9.30 the same evening every inch of available floorspace is given over to synchronised chicken dancing.

All of which brings me to the subject of this post: Twitter.

Okay, at first glance this may seem like a gratuitous segue based on a tenuous ornithological resonance. But Twitter and The Birdie Song connect on a much deeper level. People get very hot under the collar about this particular branch of social media (as they did with The Birdie Song). It’s a love it or loathe it kind of thing. For every Aunty Ethel desperate to teach you the Twitter moves there’s an Uncle Alfred spitting tacks about collective navel gazing.

Until a couple of weeks ago I was in Auncle Alfred’s camp. I had bigger social media fish to fry. I was interested in ‘communities’, ‘platforms’, you know, ‘big stuff’. So what if Stephen Fry could describe dolphins undulating in 140 characters or less. Twitter was witter. I took words seriously.

But if you’re going to get under the skin of social media you can’t leave anything out. I sidled up on Twitter, the same way I approached Wasabi mustard and pickled ginger when I first discovered sushi. You had to poke at the condiments just to prove you knew what you were doing. Take a little dip, decide you don’t like it (can’t see what it adds) and then get back to the raw fish and soy sauce. (Okay, a serious amount of mixed metaphors going on here, but keep up with me.)

But Twitter is a very interesting phenomenon. There are layers to it. Dismiss it as geeks meet airheads at your peril. Like The Birdie Song, its predicated on some simple basic steps. First the question: What are you doing? and then the answer: as brief as you can make it. You can teach someone The Birdie Song dance in about 10 minutes. You can start to Twitter in a similar amount of time.

I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that Twitter is the first pure-blood content progeny of the online age. It is adapted for skimming and dwell times that you can count in nano-seconds. Even the line length is perfect for screen reading, although whether that’s by design or luck, I don’t know.

Websites, although they’re getting better and better, are still caught up in their offline heritage. Websites may embrace interactive media, real-time chat and online transactional interfaces, but every now and then they drop their aitches and start sounding like printed brochures. Blogging has shifted control more firmly into the hands of users but they’re still predicated on offline values. Phenomena such as Facebook, bebo and YouTube have further societised the internet; but they are, simply, highly accessible online manifestations of yearbooks, youth clubs and the weirder hinterlands of televisual entertainment respectively.

Twitter is an online baby. For a start, your ‘standing’  on Twitter has everything to do with how many people follow your Tweets (posts). You can’t throw money at it in order to get noticed. And people only seem to follow what engages them. There’s no brand loyalty here. I’ve come across big business Twitters with 2 followers, while mums in Maryland can number followers in thousands.

Secondly, you’re only as good as your last Tweet. And if you last Tweet was more than a few hours ago, chances are it has already been submerged by newer, fresher perspectives. Twitter has taken internet ‘currency’ to a new level. When people visit the internet they want to find information that is relevant now. Yesterday’s news is so very, very yesterday. That doesn’t mean there’s no room on the internet for historic / archive content (if presented usefully) but there’s no excuse for not being up to date, as well, particularly as publishing to web is being made easier by a plethora of content management systems.

And like The Birdie Song, Twitter is all about collective impact. It doesn’t matter that Aunty Ethel is always half a beat behind the rest of the dancers, or that your strange cousin has added a couple of unique moves to the bit where you all turn round; Twitter is a collective. It’s thousands of voices threading in and out of each other on a single platform.

Twitter also exposes the associative nature of internet information connectivity. Thanks to hyperlinking, the internet mimics and facilitates the human brain (associative thought), allowing us to move from one piece of information to another, propelled by what we’re thinking of doing. It’s this hyperlinking that allows us to get from, say, checking the cost of flights to Malaga this summer to  tracking down the right kind of rice for a great paella recipe.

Twitter is highly associative. My experience is that although each Twitter post is officially provoked by the question: ‘What are you doing?’ often the question people choose to answer is ‘What I’m thinking about’ or ‘What has got me thinking.’ Twitterers point to other Twitterers’ Tweets, a signficant number of which are crafted around a stimulating thought, or which act as signposts to useful information on other websites. (Tiny URLs and Twitter – a marriage made in heaven.)

All of which has got me thinking – what next? I’m no Darwin scholar but it seems like every time there’s an evolutionary leap it spawns a period of extrordinary fertility. Get the structure right and Mother Nature pops out a huge number of permutations. Then it’s just down to the survival of the fittest.

I’m sure they’ll be Twitter derivatives but the big question is what else can evolve around user value, equal access, immediacy, succinctness, ease of publication, associative linking and associative thinking? Answers in 140 characters… or more.

The CDA Lab Rats on Twitter

Dongkrak Antik by Warkob (The Birdie Song)

Are we all becoming users?

One of the most important  things us lab rats do (when starting to work with a client) is getting them to ‘think like users’. Instead of thinking about what they want to say they must be totally absorbed in what their users want to do.

This means organisations have to get inside the psyche of users, whether that’s visitors to websites, ‘target segments’ opening emails, or less controllable interaction via social media. “Who are these user people and want do they want?” “Can’t we just sell them stuff?”

But I think I’m currently caught up in a profound and seismic shift ,which is turning us all into users (businesses and individuals alike). As a business, do I still need to engage in a time-hungry project of Borgian magnitude to construct a website, or do I download WordPress? Is my next budget demand a massive add campaign or an imaginative poke on Facebook? Is it all about build and cost or is it all about visualisation and imagination?

Don’t get me wrong, businesses who too-eagerly embrace social media,  with no clear idea of what they will bring the millions of social mediators they seek to interact with, do so at their peril.

But it strikes me that if businesses, organisations and other coporate collectives can engage with social content generation tools wisely and thoughfully, it will bring them one step closer to being users instead of simply mimicking users in order to turn a buck.

That brings a smile to my lips.

Have websites had their day?

I can feel the morning getting away from me. A train beckons and I can’t be late for that meeting. But I AM running late and I haven’t done half the things on my list: my Facebook pages are still woefully incomplete, I need to load a new image on the blog (yep, this one) and I’ve only just signed up to Twitter. Who, for heavan’s sake, has got time for a proper job?

Social media is rather like the really good looking person standing next to French windows at a party. You’re immediately attracted but you’re cautious of going up an introducing yourself in case you sound like a sad prat (tell me it’s not just me who feels like that).

Some of us have embraced sites like Facebook as if they were long lost credit cards. Others of us are sidling up, still figuring out what it is we’re going to say. Businesses, in particular, are trying to get the measure of social media and have the hugest potential to look embarrassing if they get it wrong.

None the less, embrace it they must, or be left on the sofa while everybody else is gathered round the beautiful person standing by the French windows and laughing like drains.

There’s are numerous reasons why businesses should do this: some of which I’ll go into in more detail when I don’t have a train to catch, but the most critical is that all this social energy is definitely reaching cirtical mass. The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 (hardly the home of cool) was plugging its Twitter url this morning. I’m currently involved in a project where it is becoming increasingly obvious that the website is going to be the least important component online.

Perhaps the headline: ‘Have websites had their day?’ is overly provacative, but I feel the platform morphing from one based on technology to one based on social energy.

More anon.