As I sat on the train scrolling on my phone for Brexit news, a curious landmark update dropped into my timeline. It was 10 years, the tweet told me since I joined Twitter.
It made me think and reflect on the journey I’ve taken and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. Many have been good and others not so good.
Ten years ago I went to Coventry as part of an audience of local government comms people to hear ex-BBC journalist Nick Booth talk about what the future would look like.
It was a future, he said, where allotment holders would blog, councillors would film themselves and reach 30,000 on YouTube and where Birmingham Post reporters like Joanna Gearey would check the news by asking her followers on Twitter. Joanna works for Twitter in New York now. Each of Nick’s points was backed-up with an example but the line that stopped me in my tracks was this…
‘We will no longer have to go through the Priesthood of journalists to talk to our residents.’
As a press officer, this spoke to me. There was a better way changed my life. But this is no happy ever after romance. There are jags in the story. But it made me think of the key lines and lessons I’ve learned.
The line became the first of several lines that became staging posts along my journey.
‘Facebook is where you meet people you went to school with. Twitter is where you meet people you wished you went to school with.’ In 2008, discovering you could connect with people you didn’t know through an app on your phone was genuinely life changing. For me, then discovering that you could meet them at the Birmingham Social Media Cafe that then thrived was even more amazing. For a few years it met downstairs at a cafe near New Street station. Once a month you could meet with people that you’d seen online.
Ten years ago there was something about the West Midlands that encouraged Twitter to take root. It was a place big enough to have a critical mass of people who gave a stuff about the place where they lived and who wanted to see where this new technology would take us all.
I watched it play out in my timeline.
The Brum Bloggers was the loose name for those early people who inspired me. Quick-witted, sharp and gifted they ran rings around Birmingham City Council. They worked not out of spite but because they wanted their city to be a better place. One of them had a website called ‘Birmingham its not shit.’ They made a website in plain English that translated what the city’s planners wanted to do and where you could comment was one idea. They decided to crowdsource a replacement council website in a day. Why? Because they thought the council one was crap and too expensive. And they started social media surgeries to help community groups share in this fun. Nick Booth was instrumental. They even ran a Twitter panto.
‘I trust my officers with a baton. Why wouldn’t I trust them with a Twitter account?’ Back then, it wasn’t comms people who inspired me. It was those who’ve never written a press release but knew what the internet was. Back then, non-comms people were the people who were doing the most challenging things because no-one had faxed them the rule book. The countryside ranger, the hyperlocal blogger, the coder and the resident.
Here’s an example. One day the Assistant Chief Constable of West Midlands Police turned up in full uniform at the Birmingham Social Media Cafe to ask what social media was and how it could be used.
That copper was Assistant Chief Constable Gordon Scobbie. A solid man with a strong jaw who you’d imagine would take a pace towards trouble rather than away. Like the Brum bloggers, he also gave a stuff. But his concern was the policing of the region not websites. Only a few years previous, West Midlands police officers were banned from using the internet to help with their work. Now things would change. He worked out how social media could be used and then in 2011 post-riots convinced the right senior people that the answer was not to ban it but embrace it. The man should be lionised.
Officers, are real people, Assistant Chief Constable Scobbie concluded.
‘Walsall Police Station at 19:11 today, not on fire. Look how not on fire it is. Very not on fire.’ When rioting broke out in the summer of 2011, rumours circulated across Walsall that the police station was on fire. Step forward PC Rich Stanley who shot the damaging rumour down in flames using his Twitter account and a pic taken on his smartphone.
Suddenly, the purpose for social media started to take shape. It was not the shortage of ideas. It was a shortage of time.
‘#jfdi just fucking do it’ And so started the era of #jfdi in local government. Seeking forgiveness was easier than asking permission. Don’t wait for IT. Just do it. I started testing and experimenting myself and through Twitter I found my tribe. We all found each other. But the people who thought that social media was driving people apart couldn’t be more wrong. But what was really surprising was that the bright ideas in local government comms were coming from the provinces. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Derbyshire, Devon, Monmouth, Orkney and South Lanarkshire.
‘Organisations don’t tweet, people do.’ In my own corner of the world, we ran #walsall24, a 24-hour wall of noise on Twitter to paint a picture of the day-to-day.
‘I don’t go to unconferences any more. They’re boring’ In London, there too was a recognition that the world had changed but that Government hadn’t. Inspired by some US ideas, 20 or 30 met in a pub one Saturday to stage an unconference. Seeing as no-one was running events that were tackling how things are changing, they’d run their own one. There was no agenda. The attendees decide what they’d talk about. Ideas emerged.
John Peel once said that punk was realising that if you sold your brother’s motorbike and knocked over a phone box you had the £100 you needed to record and release a 7″ single. Of course, the first localgovcamp in 2009 was going to take place in the West Midlands. Twitter was connecting people in local government who also gave a shit.
I’ve said before that going to my first unconference changed my life. Instead of waiting to hear what people with powerpoints have to tell you you can do it yourself. Ideas can bounce and be improved to fail or fly. On the way back from one UKGovCamp I had to sit by myself on the train home because the inspiration was too much.
Unconferences said that we could do it. So, why don’t we?
So we did. It’s where the commscamp event I’m involved with first started. And the brewcamp meet-ups.
‘The answer is quite simple. Eventually, all the old suits will die.’ In 2010, a very senior government comms person announced that the future of communications that year was going to be the printed A-Z of Services. I spent years banging the table that it wasn’t if but how local government should use social media.
It didn’t matter what they said. Those of us who knew what the future would look like just carried on without them. It was exciting times. There were ski tracks in the snow we followed and learned from. When one decided to use Facebook to tell people election results we gasped at her audacity. When I started to tweet that the gritters are out on a cold night I did so after a fight. Quickly, all this became the norm.
There was a group of people, too many to name here, who pioneered things not to advance their career but because they knew it was the right thing to do. For several their daring was frowned upon. I’m still proud to know them.
The partnership – and it was a partnership – that build comms2point0 played a part in changing things. But change would have happened anyway.
‘Die press release die! die! die!’ A blog post by Tom Foremski fired me. One of the first presentations I ever gave in front of an audience was on this topic. After a few years blogging my thoughts I was starting to get asked to speak to people. The essence of it was that sending words all the time was a bit pointless. Some people were keen on this. Others were not.
‘But the revolution never happened like we thought.’ Social media was going to shine a light through the crap and give citizens a voice. It was going to let us talk with residents directly without having to go through the priesthood of journalists.
Well, it both has and it hasn’t.
Where I live in Quarry Bank in Dudley there is a nature reserve. There has been a planning application to build houses on part of it. It was opposed with a 10,000 name Facebook group who mobilised 1,000 objections in an unprecedented display of people power.
In the old days, a protest outside the planning committee would have been it. And if the Express & Star photographer was called away to a fire instead the protester’s voices would only have carried a hundred yards into the cold night air.
The revolution is on Facebook. But councils themselves are still as immobile. And then there’s Donald Trump. Trump is everything I thought was impossible in 2008. Negativity. Hate. Abuse. Echo chambers.
Waking up to hear he had been elected was a dark day. My own innocent belief in the optimistic positive power of social media died that day. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Bad people can use it, too. And win.
‘The future is here, its just unevenly distributed.’ While one part of the population are digital natives at the bow wave others are not.
‘It’ll get interesting when it gets boring’ was a throwaway comment I once heard a bloke called Dave Briggs say. Dave was a former local government person who in the early years of my journey became freelance to evangelise about how the web could be used by the public sector to make people’s lives better. He works in-house now rather than freelance making good the direction he spent years telling others about.
Dave’s line is something I’ve thought of often over the years. He was right. We now don’t have the excitement of the early years of the love affair but digital tools have become the norm. It’s not the shiny tool that’s exciting but the change we can make to people’s lives using it.
‘It’s the right thing in the right time in the right place.’ I check the news on Twitter. I download the meme and share it with my brothers on WhatsApp. I book workshop places on Eventbrite and what sparks me is the ideas that emerge on the Public Sector Headspace Facebook group. Thriving with almost 3,000 members and almost 11,000 comments, likes and reactions in 28 days.
I realise the other day that I try not to train people just about social media now. I just look at what works best. If that’s a bit digital, that’s fine. But the idea of running an event just about social media seems pointless.
‘I love newspapers but I’m still intoxicated by the power and possibility of the internet.’ In many ways, what I do now is just the same as I did 10 years ago before I joined Twitter. I tell stories and help people communicate. Just how I do it has changed.
I’m a director of two companies, comms2point0 and Dan Slee C2 Ltd and the work I do directly and indirectly comes from what I do on the internet. That’s a positive.
But the 10 years has cast the positive side of social media with the negative. It is no golden bullet, It has caused a revolution. Just not always the ones I thought. It can be good It can be bad. Twitter is no longer the place it was. The optimism has gone. But it has moved rather than dissipated and its got more realistic.
Not everyone I’ve met through social media has been a beautiful person. But that is life.
Over time, events like commscamp were around the day-to-day and how to make it better rather than the synapse blowing enthusiasm of the new shiny toy. And that’s fine.
Social media has become simply the way people talk to each other and communicate. The interesting stuff is how it can change people’s lives not the shiny of the channel itself.
But if anything, the gap between what people are doing and what large organisations are doing has got wider not smaller. It can be summed up by the council who posted a link to consultation on Facebook but then ignored the dozens of comments posted to the link.
Innovation is not running #ourday on Twitter once a year. Its doing things differently, learning from it and doing it better next time around.
Ten years has felt like a long time. It feels like a different world.
Thank you if you’ve connected with me online or in real life.
Let’s do better.