You can’t get a decent pint on Twitter

Two conversations, with smart people talking about difficult and interesting things.

The day before yesterday, we were in a pub. It was crowded and noisy, and barely possible to hear from one end of the group to the other. But the discussion was lively and sustained, ideas were shared, thoughts developed.

Last night, a more spontaneous conversation on Twitter among a group which included, by not particularly relevant coincidence,  some of the same people.

The ideas were just as sharp and challenging – if considerably terser. People overheard and started to join in, and a lively debate developed, only to fragment and fall apart.

The experience really brought home to me how much Twitter is not a conversational medium. Sustained twittering works in announcement mode – Harry Metcalfe’s superb blow by blow account of yesterday’s data.gov.uk launch, for example – and in simple exchanges, but it doesn’t scale well. It is hard to track quite who is saying what to whom.  Replies to one point can easily be misunderstood as replies to another, the 140 character limit strips out much of the emotional maturity which it is easy to signal in other channels (“I agree with you about x but think we should pay more attention to y” collapses into “y!”), and final meltdown occurs when the effort to keep track of who is in the conversation leaves no capacity for actually conversing.

That’s not an argument against Twitter, it’s a recognition that it does a few things well and many other things very badly. That should be unsurprising and uncontroversial, because the same is true of any tool. All of which is a very roundabout way of getting to the subject of blogs, and in particular of blogging in government. I am looking forward to a conversation about that tomorrow yet another format at UK govcamp.

Just like everything else, blogs aren’t good for everything or for everyone. So the suggestion in some of the blog talk in the run up to the event that blogs are a bit passé seems to me slightly to miss the point. Judging by the state of my feed reader, blogs remain lively and dynamic, so the question of whether blogging from within the public sector is slow and difficult and is failing to attract many new bloggers can’t be answered by generalities about blogs in general.

I think Lucy Toman has put her finger on one of the key issues:

Writing a personal blog about my civil service job is a constant balancing act between being interesting (and I do think my job is interesting, obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t blog about it!) and being professional. My blog is suitably festooned with disclaimers but I still frequently self-censor. I’m not at all surprised that most people really can’t be bothered taking the risk.

Lucy deals with that by being very careful about how she writes about her day job.  I deal with it by being very careful not to write about mine at all.  That’s not to say that what I blog about has no connection with my work, quite the contrary.  But it does have two very specific consequences, one limiting and one distorting.  The limitation is that what I write is much more abstract than it might otherwise be, the connections to practical consequences exist but remain invisible and unspoken.  The distortion is that the set of topics which lend themselves to be blogged in that way is skewed towards some aspects of what I do and away from others.

The distortion effect is then further emphasised by the social effects of public sector blogging.  In terms of the typology I invented a few months ago, I belong in category 5 (Everybody else) which is not a crowded place.  But most of the visible interaction in this space is in category 1 (People whose job it is), and I suspect that in a piece of unwitting and unintended social conformity, I write more than I would otherwise do for that audience because it is the one I can most easily detect.

I remain convinced that there can be greater openness, a greater range of category 5 blogging, just as I remain convinced that constraints on that openness are entirely proper as long as we retain the current model of public services. Striking that balance is not easy – tomorrow’s conversation should help us all make a better job of it.

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