Jed Cohen

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Perceptions of the Impact of Social Media

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So this is the first of my #140conf seven posts in seven days series.  For those of you that haven’t read my previous post, I’m going to write a post a day for the next week reflecting on some aspect of the 140 Characters Conference.  The posts may be direct responses to the panels, commentary on the event, or something only tangentially related.  I’m not really too sure on what I’ll be covering each day, as I’m writing them shortly before I post them.  So what’s on the agenda today?  How the perceived impact of social media can differ from reality.

I wish to approach this by discussing the usage of social media by the UK government (see how these can be tangential now? It’ll make sense by the end, I promise).  My interest in this stems from two sources.  The first is a comparative politics class I took my freshman year of college; it provided me not just with an interesting look at the governments of other countries but also equipped me with the beginning of a framework for comparative analysis (which makes sense I suppose).  The second is my interest in the convergence of new media and politics; I actually wrote my final paper for one of my last classes senior year on “Networked Publics: A Look at Social Media and Government.”  The paper was a comparative analysis of the ways in which the US, UK and Japanese governments use social media.  You can read the entire thing on Scribd if you’d like.  Up to you.

Anyway, my interest in the UK government’s utilization of social media came about after stumbling upon the tweets of @DowningStreet, which is the official stream of the Prime Minister’s office.  To me, No10 admin (as the tweeter refers to him/herself) provides access into the daily routine of an office six time zones ahead, one which has no political responsibility to me.

So it was great then to have a panel at #140conf called “Across the pond – UK Media Panel.”  Here’s a screenshot from the schedule:

UK Media Panel Description

UK Media Panel Participants

The panel was really quite interesting, and during it I stared to wonder.  How has the UK government’s willingness to embrace social media changed the way the media interacts with the government?  Has it led to the public cutting out the middle man that is mass media in exchange for creating networks and starting conversations directly with individuals?  I was curious.

Sadly I was unable to ask my question during the panel, in part because I was sitting pretty far in the back and the lights were kind of dim (nobody saw me raise my hand!).  But I was able to track down @radiokate after the panel.  (By the way, Kate runs something called BBC Save Our Sounds aka @BBC_SOS, a project dedicated to building an interactive aural map of the world.  It’s pretty great – check it out).  Kate was able to redirect me to @media140, or Ande Gregson.  I’d actually been following his tweets for a little bit, and he was gracious enough to take a few minutes to answer my question.

Now I won’t publish his answer, partly because I don’t remember it word for word and I don’t want to put words in his mouth.  But the impression that I received from my conversation with him was that we must consider that the perception of what we see on Twitter doesn’t necessarily reflect the truth.  As an outside observer, I don’t see how news gets distributed locally; @DowningStreet may provide a solid stream for users to read, but I don’t truly know what the dynamics of the situation are as I don’t regularly interact in that space.  It may be that the stream is used by journalists and bloggers as another source of data open to interpretation, one which allows them to obtain new information and analyze it for redistribution.  Or it could be read by the public.  Or both.  I don’t really know.

This in turn led me to consider whether or not I am capable of making inferences based just upon observations of Twitter users.  Just because I follow @DowningStreet, am I qualified to critique or interrupt conversations, events or trends taking place involving him?  Or is reading one slice of a Twitter conversation not enough to qualify me to comment on what is going on?

I don’t really know, but I’m curious as to what you think of this.  Feel free to tweet at me or comment below!  And don’t forget to check back tomorrow for the second reflection.

Written by Jed

June 19th, 2009 at 12:08 am

Posted in conference

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