Tom Beardshaw asks whether 5,000 people on Twitter can influence the future of Wales
This week, the Institute of Welsh Affairs Twitter account gained its 5,000th follower. That’s 5,000 people or organisations who have chosen to listen in to the public thoughts of IWA thinkers about the policies that will determine the future wellbeing of Wales, it’s people and institutions. Put it another way, that’s nearly five times the number of people who have joined the organisation as members. Can the IWA engage these people to contribute to the quality of public policy debate in Wales via Twitter and the social web?
What started as a digital space to connect socially with friends and family has grown into a world-changing digital platform that in less than 5 years is said to have played a role in the Arab spring revolutions, enabled Barack Obama to get elected and is now a part of the communications strategies of organisations around the world. In March this year, the network claimed to have 140 million accounts sending 340 million tweets a day. The term ‘social media’ seems inadequate to explain what is going on. It trivialises the often very serious nature of the information, debates and controversies that travel around the network daily. Social media is serious business.
IWA’s followers get news of the latest IWA events and publications on ClickonWales. They can speak back to the authors of articles and thinkpieces via comments on the website, share the link to their own media network following, or even respond in depth via their own blog posts. On Twitter 140 characters can be used to ignite entire conversations that may never reach mainstream media audiences. Yet they can spark debates online that can change the way that those engaged in public policy issues within Wales think about the issues that matter to our young democracy. As a think tank, the IWA is taking advantage of new possibilities for public debate offered by the explosion in use of web media. Now anyone is potentially a publisher. Anyone can develop an audience and have access to a media distribution network.
Twitter is like traditional media in its ability to get messages out into the public domain, although now anyone can publish without getting a job as a journalist or editor with a media organisation. Many people use it in this traditional way, sending out messages like press releases – “here’s our news”… “check out our new product”, “today we are doing this”… and so on. Using Twitter like this misses one of the key advantages of social media. Those 5,000 individuals and organisations listening in are able to speak back in the same space. No need to phone or write in – they can just click ‘reply’ and respond directly to the original author.
This capacity makes Twitter and the wider web highly conversational platforms where thoughts and debates can be assessed, critiqued and advanced. Twitter is a place to share links to longer form comment on blogs that can be responding to other blog posts as the conversation advances. The web behaves like a huge unending global conference, where people share fleeting trivia and and well-developed and essential perspectives alike. In this way it allows for interactions very unlike those found in newspapers, TV and radio, where only the voices of experts, selected by editors, can voice their opinions, and where discussions are always cut short due to lack of column inches, or the guillotine of time: “we’re running out of time – we’ll have to leave it there”.
While traditional media agonise about audience size to justify advertising or license fees, focusing on populist content, hoping to attract large numbers of people, Twitter and the social web afford us the luxury of creating conversations about niche topics that focus on issues that may be of interest to far smaller groups. For example, Cardiff-based GP Anne Marie Cunningham (@amcunningham) leads a weekly conversation about medical education in the UK using the hashtag #ukmeded. It is a highly specialised conversation that would never find space on mainstream media or would require great expense spent on physical meetings. Yet once a week, it meets the needs of a vital group across the UK and is open for anyone with an interest to participate.
Twitter operates as the tip of the iceberg and the social plumbing for the internet. With its limit of 140 characters, it enables a vast number of people to communicate publicly with each other while they curate their own personal news sources, paying attention to what interests them. Of course, there are risks in this open media landscape. The UK’s police forces have recently become interested in crimes of speech that are being committed on the network. People are as free to share irrelevant trivia as they are to post deep insights that matter to millions. It is always possible to stop following people who offer no value – if you read nothing but gibberish on Twitter, that is ultimately the fault of no one but yourself.
With such limited space for coverage and conduct of public policy debate about Wales in the mainstream media, open domains such as Twitter and blogs offer the opportunity to create new spaces and processes for engaging people who are interested in the issues that matter to Wales in ongoing conversations. Really harnessing new media for public policy debates requires us to innovate with the processes that form these conversations, and learning how to behave within the new shape of online public discourses. It may require us to learn about new software tools, and how to speak into a continuous debate, anticipating ongoing conversation and response, speaking not with a voice that claims to be the final word on an issue, but one that offers insight to the community and assumes the presence of others who may know more than you.
Many questions remain. How willing are those 5,000 to contribute the wisdom of their experience to the ongoing debates of the IWA? How might shifting the location of public debate to the web exclude people who are not comfortable with new technology or have no access to the web? Can it enable new people to participate? Is Wales a sufficiently ‘networked nation’ to enable web-based public policy discussion to enrich the quality of public debate on Wales’ future?
As one of the key bodies leading debates on Welsh affairs, IWA has gathered itself an audience of 5,000 individuals and organisations with an interest in enhancing the welfare of the Welsh people and its institutions. Many work in the very arenas of Welsh public life that concern the Institute and their perspectives have the potential to add to the quality of public policy debate.
In 2012, people have voices that are newly enabled to speak publicly, via Twitter and other ‘social’ technologies. The challenge for the Institute of Welsh Affairs is to bring these people into the debates it seeks to promote and create new forms of public discussions online that, in the word of its own mission statement “promote research and informed debate aimed at improving the cultural, social, political and economic well-being of Wales”.