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.