Walsall Council, despite it’s patchy areas, does a few things really, really well. One of those things in recent times has been social media. Dan and the people in the press office may occasionally appear to be running a West Midlands version of Pravda, but the willingness to engage with the public, journalists and obstreperous bloggers like me shines like a beacon. Many posts on this blog have been enabled, enhanced or created because of the free and willing engagement of the press team at Walsall Council, mainly on the Twitter social network. I think this is a brilliant and I support it totally.
One of the reasons that I like the Walsall approach to new media, is that it communicates the breadth and scale of work undertaken by the council. I understand the value of decent Local Authority provision; education, social services, neighbourhood cleansing, social housing, culture and democracy. I fear for the future of the collective vision that created our civic society against the acidic corrosion currently being visited upon it – not, as posited, for the reasons of fiscal prudence, but vain political ideology. When faced with intellectual giants like Eric Pickles, The Taxpayer’s Alliance and tabloid media, the best weapons are accuracy, probity and engagement. Authorities need to counteract the propaganda, engage with the public and show them what is under threat. Try to get their taxpayers to appreciate the potential loss, if you will.
I was therefore really impressed to see the #Walsall24 project. This initiative aimed to tweet the activities of the council for a complete day, and on the whole, was very successful. From 6:00AM on Thursday, March 3rd 2011, employees of the council tweeted about things they were involved in, right up until 6:00AM the morning after. This gave rise to some really interesting stuff, and rightly attracted much attention.
The concept of the 24-hour tweet marathon isn’t new, despite the subsequent press release claims: first time around, Greater Manchester Police undertook such a project to demonstrate, amongst other things, that they were mostly engaged in social work rather than criminal investigation. The GMP experiment was incredibly brave, and very honest; an almost unedited stream of information issued forth from the force as they dealt with potential suicide attempts, robberies and domestic incidents. One of the things that sticks with those who followed the stream was the rawness. It burned.
Walsall, however, were more reserved. Tweeting a constant message of happiness and community cohesion, sometimes that Pravda ‘We are all having a glorious time, da!’ ethic came through a bit strongly for my tastes, but considering some of the personalities at the council and their antipathy to technological engagement, this was a step in the right direction. Throughout the day, we learned of noisy cockerels, pothole reports, bin crew progress and other daily clicks within the occasionally off-kilter machinations of our civic hivemind.
The online community around Walsall were quite engaged with the project, and various discourses were generated, but the thing that really propelled it was the Social Media geeks. All over twitter, people who’d only peripherally heard of Walsall were suddenly hailing a new media dawn, the majority of whom had no idea about the town or it’s problems. For two days or more, evangelist spoke unto evangelist; people blindly and gleefully retweeted the activities of street cleaners, crossing wardens and social workers., then endlessly reflogged every drop out of newspaper comment tweets, blog posts and media references.There was quite a feeding frenzy – mostly explaining that Walsall was not dead to people who never knew it was alive in the first place. People who would generally rather scrub their genitalia down with a wire brush than contemplate visiting a post industrial part of the Black Country hinterland.
Then came the press release. Rightly pleased at their success, the press office at Walsall issued a statement that contained the following, remarkable statistic.
Twitter breaks barriers for Walsall Council
Date Published : 04 March 2011
A historic 24-hour Twitter event has been hailed a success after it drew an audience of more than 100,000.
More than a hundred thousand? What? The release goes on to qualify this, apparently in the words of Mike ‘Blofeld’ Bird:
It really does show that it’s something that works to get a message out and I’m delighted that something we’ve done has broken the six figure barrier. To get an audience of 116,273 is amazing and officers have worked very hard on this.
Let’s consider this for a moment. The population of Walsall was, according to the Office for National Statistics, 253,499 in 2001. Are we really to go away with the impression that nearly half of the borough’s population was online and engaged with this project? Surely not. However, the figures were not corroborated or qualified anywhere in the release. I looked at the number of followers that Walsall Council had on Twitter. Across the multiple accounts, their followers were well under 4,000. If one were to be generous, it could be assumed that 75% of those followers were unique (I for instance, follow most of the civic twitter accounts), and 25% of those will be unused, spammers or people outside the borough. There aren’t nearly 10,000 people there, let alone 100,000. I asked where the figures came from.
Dan in the press office told me that they used Tweetreach, an online service which gives a figure they call ‘reach’ based upon how many followers you have, how many times you’re retweeted (that’s when a message is rebroadcast by someone else) and how many followers the retweeters have. In short, it appears to count how many people could possibly have seen your output. Given the social media orgasm collectively generated by #Walsall24, it’s not hard to see that this figure was massive. Massive, but meaningless.
Most of the people blindly re-tweeting Walsall’s output, or references to it, weren’t from Walsall. They don’t live here or have any connection with the borough; they just rightly, liked the project. Individual private accounts blindly rebroadcast the main streams. This skews the reach massively. Last week, I had a Tweetreach over over 7,500. Just now, I have one of 1,233. I have more followers now, than last week, which are currently hovering between 600-700. This figure is clearly rubbish.
Furthermore, Tweetreach is opaque. The formula it uses is not given, and for social media types who love the concept of opendata – this seems contrary to group thinking. All I can ascertain about the analytical tool is that it is ‘respected’ – by whom, and why, is not clear. It just appears to enumerate the unquantifiable; publicity types love figures and this gives them some. Impressive ones. With eye-candy piecharts, to boot. Just right for impressing luddites like Mike Bird.
#Walsall24 was a great project, pulled off by extraordinary people who do hard jobs. I have a lot of respect for the public servants who work in any local authority – it’s no fun juggling shit and the public can be unfeeling and harsh. I just don’t understand the need for such ridiculous hyperbole. A better way to measure impact would be in the number of people helped. What matters to people like me – council tax payers and service users – is how well we’re dealt with, not how many Facebook friends the council has. We want social media and web services – they cost little and give the authority a human face. We loved the twenty four hour tweet thing – but this is only Walsall, and it’s a small pond. Making mathematically ridiculous claims just cheapens a very good initiative and leaves Walsall open to attack by the media and certain pressure groups.
The problem is, Walsall’s press office – and the social media community in general – have form for this. Not content that they’re visibly and wonderfully changing perceptions, they have to bang immense numbers on to the thing, like teenagers boasting of a half-imagined hot date. It’s tawdry, daft and unnecessary. The Plastic Hippo recently summed up his thoughts about #Walsall24, and there’s much to agree with in a thoughtful, well considered piece.
I really liked what was done with #Walsall24. It’s nice to have something genuinely cutting edge going down in a town not noted for it’s technological prowess. But I’d like to make a plea: next time, let’s have a bit more honesty. We can handle bad news. We’re grown ups – tell us when the shit is hitting the fan. This isn’t pleasant valley, it’s an urban conurbation facing a whole bunch of challenges. Tell us about cuts, tell us about shortfalls. Make it burn. And please, stop with the silly figures, it only makes the geeks look like Adrian Mole.
I’ve always loved David Bowie’s ‘Low’ album. I never knew what he meant when he sang ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car‘ – I do now. Let’s hope the Thin White Duke never takes a spin past the council house…