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Accountability and social media

The so-called Soylent Green moment - "The Web is People!" - is hardly a novel insight (if the reference is lost on you, don't do what I did and look it up - it's a movie spoiler). But for organisations from the small and private right up to national governments, its implications are unfolding continuously and sometimes painfully. If you doubt the painful part, consider how Trafigura and their superinjunction fared on Twitter last year - or indeed, how social media has amplified BP's recent travails. More positively, social tools have been harnessed by corporations like Dell or Toyota and governments like the UK's (through the respected Number10 website and social media brand) to provide both a safety-valve for customers' or citizens' grievances and a way of harnessing their insights and creativity. 

These are some simple tales of the web's power to give voice to private individuals for the harm or the good of organisations. But between them there lies a subtler set of dilemmas. In a recent piece of work for the BBC, we were commissioned to analyse the BBC's use of social media as part of its responsibility to account for itself to its licence fee payers (we blogged about this during the study on the BBC Internet blog). Here are just a few of the interesting tensions that emerged from that study:

Accountability - what does it mean?

Using social media for accountability purposes turns accountability into a public conversation where the contributions of all parties are visible. That makes it really important for organisations to be clear about what they mean by accountability, and in particular who is doing what to whom. If I'm in government, does accountability mean me accounting for the actions of government? Taking your views into account? Inviting you to hold me to account? To hold the whole government to account? Or just my department? These may seem nice distinctions but central to them is the often open question of who is driving the agenda, which makes a big difference to the tools organisations choose to conduct accountability.

Many organisations are unused to the idea of dealing with individuals directly, or even having a back channel. So they will naturally frame accountability as a push process rather than a pull process, which is probably the biggest mistake they could make.

Relationships are personal

The web might be people. But it's not the people. It's you & me. So if I'm having a conversation with a manufacturer about a product, I'm probably going to be much better disposed if my interlocutor eschews the cloak of anonymity afforded by some online tools and speaks to me as a named individual. This has huge implications. Here are a few:

  • Keeping the personal apart from the professional in our online lives is already a problem for everyone who uses the web. If I name myself in an interaction with a member of the public on behalf of my employer, that's only going to be harder. The same is true if it's explicit or implicit who I work for from my online social presence.
  • But by the same token, individual letter-writers, commenters etc will often operate under pseudonyms, so in a real and probably inevitable sense the decks are stacked against the corporate communicators.
  • Such activity is often specialised and run by, or even outsourced to, dedicated units. But what happens when the chairman of the board decides to blog? Should he operate through a professional communications department and risk sounding inauthentic? Or should he operate alone, and risk stumbling into communications traps? Which leads us on to...

It looks like accountability, it smells like accountability, but it aint accountability!

For public institutions in particular, it's a fact of life that there are constituencies (government, parliament, the fourth estate, pressure groups etc) who set the framework for debate and to whom those institutions are answerable de facto. There is no such thing as pure unmediated democratic accountability to the public. 

So in those institutions, communications is full of snares for the inexperienced. That's why it became professionalised. The art of understanding how a particular statement might play to the press, or in other fora which might strip it of context and skew it in the service of a particular argument, is an essential facet of survival for a modern public organisation. How to balance that frankly political requirement against the justified demands of paymasters in the public is a question not easily resolved. This plays out in practical terms both in how organisations choose to regulate the use of social media by their staff, but also in the often confusing coexistence of press units with that social media activity.

The problem of sincerity

One inherent danger in using social media for accountability is that those contributing are both self-selecting and very often anonymous. It would be rash to take their opinions - assuming there is even a consensus - as representative of the group (customers, citizens or taxpayers) at large. But if you're going to ignore them, you could be accused of cynicism for providing a forum (or engaging in a forum) in the first place.

The paradox of transparency

One of the limits of accountability is the extent to which organisations wish to expose internal discussions (and let's face it, we all like to disagree). Arguably real transparency would rest on a mature view that no institution is a monolith and that people have a right to witness its inner workings. Microsoft implicitly recognise that view in the doctrine they have published for their employee blogging platform, Channel 9. But there's also a danger that extreme public openness could limit the vigour or creativity of debate within an organisation. If I know that my silly-sounding idea in a brainstorm might be tweeted straight away, I might keep my mouth shut and deny the world or my company a brilliant product.

None of these questions have simple answers. And how the BBC chooses to move forward remains very much an open question. But we have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on these issues and look forward to developing this area of our work in the future. As organisations are increasingly defined by their online presence, the behaviours and tools in play around online accountability will have huge and growing implications for their ability to suvive and thrive.

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Reader Comments (29)

matthew as reynolds isnt playing on the bbc blogs and is putting off a response to your work can you say how you feel about the treatment from your old chum...ta

July 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermr joefish

@mr joefish, all I can do is repeat what we've always said in relation to our work for the BBC: they're our client and commissioned the work from us; it's then up to them to decide how they want to take it forward. Sorry if that sounds like a weaselly answer, but it's because we have a professional client-supplier relationship and it really isn't appropriate for us to start taking public positions about our client. That's also why I've stuck to looking at the generic themes in this post.

July 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Shorter

matthew many thanks for replying..and no i dont think a honest answer is weaselly (sic) . i do hope you appreciate that the way reynolds has dealt with the whole destruction of the pov messageboard community has created a lot of anger which is why there is a degree of frustration that he is the one who decides whether or not a report on accountability is published when as far as many posters are concerned he has been the major example of accountability not being taken...we still await reynolds "executive" blog which will no doubt be as arrogant and unaccountable as the vast majority of his posts..
but thanks again matthew for taking time to reply.

July 9, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermr joefish

matthew a good read to show the contempt felt towards the bbc and their "enforcer" who is showing a gross level of unaccountability

July 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermr joefish

Social media is definitely a danger to large corporations but in the long term it can only force them to re-analyze their workings and force them to improve their service, surely?

It also bridges the gap between the small time business and country (economically speaking) sized company that has more money on advertising then sense. At least for now whilst getting traffic and branding organically within facebook and advertising still being comparatively cheap compared to google adwords...

July 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdamien sayer

@mr joefish - sorry I had to remove your last comment. The functionality of our website is fairly blunt and doesn't allow us to edit or notify in a particularly streamlined way (and we don't have your email address). I would say though that if you're able to edit the comment so that it's commenting on the behaviour rather than name-calling the person we'd be happy for it to stay up. Hope you understand.

July 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Shorter

it is too bad you left the bbc..your manner..even when removing one of my posts is respectful and gives a pretty clear explaination..i may disagree but i feel treated with a bit of respect...
sadly at times the lack of respect shown by some individuals within the bbc creates the atmosphere which leads to frustration and ill feeling...
have you read the last few posts on your bbc blog about your report.?..what do you feel about them ?..and can you understand why customers interested in your report are feeling badly let down.?
although as more and more posters are banned the debate will soon disappear.
anyhoo thanks again for your post..although i would honestly be interested in your take on the bbc's response.

July 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermr joefish

matthew are you aware that on the pov messageboards the host name has now been made anonymous..a real step couldnt make it up.

August 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermr joefish

matthew how about this for an outrageous example of bbc interaction on the pov social media and accountability thread
"Message 14 - posted by Central Communities Team (U1097995) **, 4 Minutes Ago

Hi Officer Dibble

Since there's so many users of the BBC website who confuse accountability with a right to harass, can you really blame hosts who don't want to use their real names on here?

I don't know what you do for a job, but would you like it if a group of unhappy customers harassed you day in day out because they didn't like cuts or changes your company had to make? I get frustrated dealing with many companies, but I would never think it was acceptable to harass an individual who worked for that company on their own blog or twitter. But a minority of BBC website users do, and many hosts don't want to have their work invade their private life because they did two weeks filling in on a board for a host who was on leave.

Accountability is about the BBC being transparent and answerable to licence fee payers, not allowing the 'I pay your wages' brigade to target individual employees.

Paul Wakely - CCT"

what a poor excuse for running a service

August 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermr joefish

but will comment again..the latest outbreak of petulance by the bbc has seen more able critics leave..theyb will be pleased..really stomach curning what they are doing...

what is it they used to say..publish and be damned...if only

August 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermr joefish

when you read what reynolds is doing on YOUR blog do you feel sad matthew..i know i do.

August 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermr joefish

Hi my joefish. Sorry, I wasn't delierately ignoring you but just saw your last few comments. The notifications on this platform are a bit patchy. In terms of the discussion continuing on the post I wrote for the BBC I have decided I really needed to back away from that one. Since I'm no longer a member of BBC staff I am neither able to speak for them, nor accountable for what they do - especially since the project is finished and I'm not being paid to stay involved! So in the interests of getting on with business I do need to concentrate on other things. Given all of that, I know that if I delve into the comments I will get drawn into wanting to respond, but will simply feel frustrated and not being able to do so really meaningfuly. Hope that makes sense.

August 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Shorter

as always matthew thank you for a polite reply ..its a shame that its the likes of you the bbc have lost while keeping their more ignorant employees to wind up customers..
while accepting broadly what you say i would have felt a comment on how your work has been buried and the way in which customers have been denied even the obvious bias of a nick reynolds blog would have been useful..what is it they say matthew..if good men do nothing...
cheers anyhow

August 15, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermr joefish

so on the back of your report nick reynolds has described hosting as "user management" and the hosts now have no name but are a generic "pov_host" do you think reynolds has missed the point? lol x

August 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermr joefish

Hello Matthew.

Firstly, thank you for the time and effort you have put into the Research with regard to BBC Social Media and Accountability. You obviously had to trawl through an awful lot of comments, and then try to propose recommendations to BBC.

I am really sorry to say that after all that (similar to the months of discussions with posters of POV Messageboards, which Mr Reynolds refused to undertake on the actual MESSAGEBOARDS where the posters were, but on the blogging area, where HE felt happier), that I feel you may have wasted a great deal of time, for no perceivable change in attitude.

Nick and Jem have continued to have ALL discussions about BBC Social Media on their Blogging area, and have not posted any thread or link over on the Messageboards (which they obviously believe are not part of BBC Social Media). They are now talking about USER *Management*, when I believed the Graf Report and BBC Trust included user GENERATED (and user-"LED") discussions, which should take place on the Messageboard area.

For all the meetings and training, Nick is still making statements along the lines of "I have discussed POV messageboards and really don't want to discuss your problems over there any more"................"now any bloggers who wish to comment?.........". It is showing complete contempt for BBC messageboarders that Nick and Jem still seem to feel that SOCIAL media is ..............blogs ONLY.

I had held out hope of improvements at BBC, and Nick and Jem's first forays into the latest blog had me feeling that they may have "got" interaction at last, but I have to say, I think you wasted your time, as much as we wasted ours in trying to get BBC Management bloggers to understand that Messageboard users are NOT bloggers, and that they value COMMUNITY. The "improvements" undertaken by Nick have ripped the COMMUNITY apart, and I have to say, the wit, intelligence and camaraderie is now missing. Not long until BBC POV boards no longer exist....... and for all that bloggers may feel that is no bad thing, blogging is your "thing", whilst messageboards fulfill the needs of others (and remember there are a lot of "silver surfers" out there who are reaching out for COMMUNITY interaction which they find on messageboards). BBC used to fulfil that part of the remit, to encourage people to use their computers and get online. Their stance AGAINST messageboards is now alienating people who CHOSE to use BBC because they felt it was safer than other sites, and because they maybe were not technically as gifted as those who frequent the blogging area of BBC to discuss technical matters. Does that mean that Mrs McGlumphy from down the street is not made welcome at BBC Social Media, because she *ONLY* uses messageboards <sniff sniff> whilst Whizzkid Jenkins is welcomed with open arms in the blogging area?

Will BBC ever "get" that they are there to provide a service for both the Whizzkid Jenkins AND the Mrs McGlumphy's of this world? Or are they determined to continue with their Social Media snobbery, deriding those who CHOOSE to use Messageboards?

August 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterniclaramartin

atthew have you seen the lack of response on the online blogs by the bbc...perhaps they just responded while you were around. it certaiinly mocks the idea of accountability

August 31, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermr joefish

Matthew, I realise that this "Research" is now done and dusted for you, as you have reached your own conclusions, drawn up recommendations and handed them over to BBC who paid your company for it. It is now up to BBC what to do with your suggestions, and that is the point I would like you to reflect on, in case BBC ask your company to undertake future "Research" for them.

The fact is that you engaged with posters from BBC blogs and messageboards (albeit in the blogging area). The posters gave full and frank answers to your original request for input, you spent a lot of time and effort to bring together what you felt was required from BBC to improve "Accountability", and BBC (in the form of Jem and Nick) EVENTUALLY gave the posters feedback (albeit sanitised). At the beginning of the follow-up blog Nick and Jem seemed to be saying that staff had been sent on courses for training to improve their interaction with posters (although Nick has said that he didn't go on one...."d'oh" is the word which comes to mind if he feels he didn't need to go on one).

Anyway, they seem to be done with useful interaction......posters now talking amongst themselves again, whilst Nick has moved on to the NEXT blog, without tidying up the follow-up "Accountability" blog.

So, please bear in mind how much effort the posters put in to your blog. How much effort YOU put in to your research, and how little BBC seem to have taken from your suggestions.

I would suggest that next time BBC employ you, just ask them to write the Report the way they want it, and you simply sign the bottom.........certainly would save EVERYONE a lot of effort.

August 31, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterniclaramartin

Hi Niclara, & hello again mr joefish. As usual throughout this project I'm in a somewhat restricted position in terms of sharing my views on the BBC's conduct, for the reasons you cite - I am a supplier and the BBC is my customer. So I'm not commenting as a private citizen in the same way that I am in, say, recent posts about Digg and accountability on this blog.

Having said that, I do think Nick and the BBC in general deserve genuine credit for publishing the summary of the report. I know from my time inside the corporation how hard it can sometimes be to get such decisions signed off, either because of a reluctance to be open, through bureaucratic inertia, or some combination of the two. I also know that some things happen quicker than others, so I wouldn't conclude that if certain recommendations haven't yet been put into practice they never will, or that work isn't going on behind the scenes to discuss them further or even move to implement them. In saying that, I have no inside knowledge one way or another.

I'd also stress that the post we wrote on the BBC Internet Blog to solicit views (as well as the attention we paid to comments including yours on our own blog) was only one dimension of our research, which also included time spent studying BBC messageboards and blogs and their comments, research into what other organisations have been and are doing and many interviews and meetings inside the BBC. And although inevitably some aspects of any project are frustrating, I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoyed this one and found it very satisfying to work on.

August 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Shorter

Matthew I am genuinely glad that you feel you got a lot out of this remit, (as YOU display all the qualities which posters on the messageboards and blogging areas in BBC are crying out for). I felt sure that there would be a far broader spectrum of input than just the boards, and yes, I do appreciate that it takes time to roll out "improvements", but, I would also have to say, that posters in the blogging area are becoming just as annoyed at the attitude of some BBC staff, as the messageboarders did eighteen months ago. On blogs you see posters asking a question repeatedly, with no response which gives a solid answer. And that is what is the problem with a lot of BBC interaction with posters to their Social Media areas. Too often IF they do respond, it is with vague answers which no-one understands the meaning of, or in the case of Nick Reynolds, he answers a question with another question................or links you to a previous blog of ten thousand words for you to trawl through to find THE point he means you to find. So, yes, often you WILL get an answer, IF you are prepared to spend two months in isolation, reading the equivalent of War & Peace, in the hope that YOU can FIND the answer. THAT is not interaction. That is showing utter contempt. If staff are being asked the same question often, then either it means they have not answered it clearly, or they need to "cut and paste" the answer for newcomers. What they shouldn't do, is send posters around umpteen blogs to find the answer for themselves.

And yes, perhaps in the past BBC have been reticent about signing off things, but, they have to join us in the real world and stop being so precious. The bottom line is, either BBC WANTS to do Social Media or it doesn't. If it chooses to write blogs, or provide messageboards for posters to either respond to points raised by BBC staff, or for posters themselves to lead discussions in the form of threads on messageboards, then BBC staff should respond to those points both on the blogs (AND in the messageboard area, which has very little input from BBC staff other than hosting and moderating..........sometimes overzealously which destroys discussion).

The main problem when dealing with BBC Social Media is that the staff seem to want to CONTROL as much as they can (indeed Nick even admitted staff prefer to blog, because "control is rather important to them". They want to write blogs, they want to host/moderate in a style which often stifles debate, they want to close down discussions which become uncomfortable, (or move the debate to a different area), they want to ignore difficult questions - cherrypicking the ones they will respond to, they want to end the discussion before the posters feel it is concluded, they want to create a large portfolio of blogs (whether or not they are worthy of being posted).............................

The posters want information and open discussion.

In recent months on too many blogs and messageboards, there has been a tightening up of House Rules and application of them, which verges on censorship at times. Posters to the messageboards and blogs have left in disgust at the treatment they receive. Why would you stay where fast flowing and interesting discussions can be closed (or destroyed) by heavyhanded hosting/moderation? And that last point is probably one of the core areas of concern. Topics of genuine interest to posters too often end up discussing Hosting/Moderation issues, rather than the original topic. I've seen no other boards where discussions are overshadowed by anger at House Rules application.

I hope you are right and there is work going on behind the scenes, but I have to say, that the problems with BBC Social Media have been getting worse................not better, over the past couple of years........and indeed seem NO better in recent weeks. Too often now, I see posts talking about FOI, as the only way to get answers from BBC, and I find that sad.

Of course you have completed your task, and handed your findings over to BBC (and actually I think Nick having said at the beginning that he would post a follow-up blog, put himself in the position of having to deliver it albeit only after a lot of arm twisting). It is now entirely up to them what they do with your recommendations. I hope they grab this opportunity to address the issues raised.

August 31, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterniclaramartin

matthew.and again thank you for your now usual polite and reasonable response.
just one thing, although i take your point regarding what you can and cant say.. i do feel if you take a few words to praise mr reynolds and the bbc for publishing the summary report, balance would suggest that a few words should be spared to point out that they have not acted on any of the points you raised in the summary report..indeed as niclara suggests the situation has deterirated further..(eg the blogs..the contencious popular ones had no bbc response for months..)
also a bit concerning that a big deal was made of getting feedback on the blogs but you didnt seem to involve messageboarders as much..but you still passed comment on them...again i appreciate that this may be the sort of discussion you said you cant really get into..but i think my first point does deserve a response.

ps join the bbc messageboards as a private person and have your say..but be warned if you disagree too much you will be banned x

September 9, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermr joefish

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