Saturday, 29 August 2009

Social media: what are we asking of our politicians? Too much maybe?

By Tim

We will shortly be launching a beta version of the Yoosk Performance Index and it has got me thinking about not only how useful it will be, but also how sensitively we will need to approach its launch.

The YPI is a league table that aggregates the ratings given by Yooks users, after they have viewed answers to their questions given by public figures. It then ranks the public figures in a league table accordingly. At the top of this post is an idea of what it will look like- the 'See how they compare' table on the right hand side.

The Internet presents a massive challenge to MPs and leaders who find themselves under constant scrutiny. It’s no secret that Yoosk believes our MPs should be more accessible and accountable and use social media to achieve this.

But sometimes I think we expect a little too much because the new kinds of dialogue that are happening on social media channels are in some ways contradictory to certain aspects of human nature.

True, humans like showing off, we like eavesdropping, we like chat and gossip and there is plenty of all of this online. I suspect these behaviours are hard-wired. At the same time, we also value our privacy and our reputation, which I think are also probably hard-wired, and the web can be quite a threat to both.

So here’s where the openness of the web runs crash bang into the reality of human nature- and it presents a new problem to those who put themselves forward as leaders. They are on new ground: tempted on the one hand by the opportunities to raise their profile and be seen as a living breathing human being, but on the other threatened with having their basic human frailty and proneness to error held up and ruthlessly dissected.

People in high risk jobs thrive on support. They develop very close and closed networks. Fraternities, formal and informal, are as old as civilization itself. And they are by their very nature, secretive, self-supporting and self regulating. These become learnt behaviours for those in power, because they work and because everyone around them is behaving in the same way.

Leaders who go on the web are leaving this comfortable world and entering one where they will quickly become the subject of gossip, unfounded criticism and open speculation. At the same time, they will be expected to sacrifice a significant amount of privacy, to give up a lot of the protection of their closed network and take some significant risks with their reputation.

Let’s be clear of how much we are expecting of politicians when we ask them to engage on social media.

It’s a big ask. Communicating online effectively requires time, discipline, creativity and courage. Not everyone can replicate Obama- the point about him is that he is a remarkable communicator. It is instructive that those who do engage online regularly and in a full spirit of openness, are still a minority.

So we the public need to help them. We need to understand that it is reasonable to expect them to manage these conversations, at least to a degree. We should encourage them to be open by not lambasting them for their mistakes when they admit to them, but by applauding their honesty.

Let’s see how they react to the Yoosk Performance Index.


Ade said...

I completely agree with the spirit of this post. As someone who's been critical of leaders who refuse (either directly or passively)to engage with a wider audience, I can also say I recognise that to make it an attractive proposition for most, a more mature attitude to debate must be adopted by all stake-holders. Having said that, I also believe that active monitoring of the consistency of leaders' claims (while allowing for genuine, justified changes of heart) is important as a means of encoraging honesty. Striking this balance is essential if this discussion is be of any real value.

The Yoosk Team said...

Hi Ade
Thanks. Did you witness the attempts by the Today team on Radio 4 to get a consistent response from Lord Mandelson yesterday?