Public discourse and private citizens – how free is freedom of speech? #groggate

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A recent disclosure that a Federal public servant has been blogging about matters political in his personal time has come to be referred amongst Australian journalists and bloggers alike as #groggate.

There has been much discussion about the rights and wrongs of this unmasking of a pseudonymous blogger who had the temerity to question the efficacy of the retinue of journalists who were following the election candidates around the country.

The debate about this continues to rage across the blogosphere and twittersphere; and in the publication that outed the blogger it seems they are using the issue as linkbait in fine blogger tradition.

But, as some wiser folks have realised, this matter is not about one public servant and his blog. It is about participation by private citizens in public discourse.

Up until recent times the opportunity for the average citizen to participate in public discourse was extremely limited. Instead participation by private citizens in public discourse was mediated by newspapers, magazines and television channels – the professional news media.

Because of this historical role as gatekeepers of access to public discourse the professional news media in Australia appear to believe that they have a privileged position to maintain. I believe that this feeling was what drove the unveiling of the author of the Grog’s Gamut blog.

It appears to have been a rearguard action by members of the professional news media who feel their gatekeeping role with respect to public discourse is being eroded. Funnily enough they are right. Their role as gatekeepers who set the agenda for public discourse is eroding under their very feet.

Instead we are seeing a fragmentation of the media landscape. Eternal verities such as guaranteed audiences are splintering and nobody really knows what will happen next. And into this shifting media landscape new voices – those of private citizens – are flourishing in niches. Not every new voice is excellent or expert. Not every new voice is skilled in the ways of fact-checking and other journalistic niceties. But some of these new voices are finding loyal and interested audiences. Grog’s Gamut was one such new voice.

But Grog’s blog was written under a pseudonym – it was not an anonymous blog as some have asserted. And the journalist and his publication could not resist the temptation to reveal the real name of the author.

That revelation means nothing to most people. But to this particular public servant it means scrutiny from mandarins at senior levels in the public service and the possibility that he might lose his job over his private opinions shared in his private time as part of his contribution to public discourse.

Further, it means that every other public servant will be watching what happens to the author of Grog’s Gamut. They will be watching to see if it is possible for a public servant to participate in public discourse in Australia. They will be watching to see if it is too dangerous for their jobs to put their heads above the parapet. They will be measuring the possibility of danger and assessing whether or not they should support Government 2.0 initiatives.

Other private citizens – those who work for major corporations – will also be watching what happens to Greg Jericho. Many will assess the risks of their participation in public discourse. Some might be discouraged from participation. But I hope that others will choose to embrace the new media tools and give voice to their opinions. I hope that others will share their opinions, ideas and information. I hope that they will continue to create niches and fragmentation of the traditional media.

We need new voices. We need to democratise participation in public discourse. Some of it will be ill-informed rubbish. But amongst the dross will be some gems and our society needs to find those gems.

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Twitter, commonsense and journalism #groggate

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I’ve been observing the discourse in the mainstream and social media worlds about the ‘outing’ of the blogger Grog’s Gamut – the so-called #groggate. Craig Thomler has made an excellent aggregation of the various sources of comment.

There were two things that really irritated me recently:

These articles irritated me because they each conflated ideas that were not necessarily related – activism and social networks.  And, in the case of Elliott’s article, he disingenuously used Gladwell’s arguments to continue the justification of The Australian’s recently declared war on bloggers and Twitter.

In my opinion Gladwell does his usual trick of lightweight commentary without bothering to delve into any level of depth or subtlety. This seems to be his stock in trade (and he writes entertainingly) so I tend to let it pass by.

But the value of Twitter in respect of creating loose ties than enable the development of deep, real life, and personal relationships cannot be underestimated. Twitter provides the regular interaction – much like at the water cooler in the office – that let’s us understand who we might want to get to know on a deeper level.

The ambient knowledge about people in your network that Twitter affords is invaluable.  It assists us in transcending physical separation and allows us to stay in contact with friends without the need for physical co-location. Another great benefit with Twitter is the ease of making new connections with people who share common interests.  The recent Social Innovation BarCamp in Sydney is a good example of an event that brought together many people with common interests – it was organised and publicised mainly via Twitter.

But Elliott notes “Malcolm Gladwell writes that social media is really activism-lite and a tool that makes participation in a cause more efficient: that is, through the click of a mouse one can make a donation to a cause or send a supportive tweet”.  He then argues that because Greg Jericho (who we now know as the author of the blog Grog’s Gamut) was not entitled to privacy because he was merely a “commentator” and not a “whistleblower”.

Elliott then goes on to compare Jericho’s situation with that of famous activists like Martin Luther King or Steve Biko and to note that Jericho is “now even more popular, thanks to The Australian“.  This comparison of Jericho to famous activists is spurious.  He never claimed to be an activist.  Jericho’s only claims were:

I’m a guy interested in sport, literature and politics. I have in turn wanted to be captain of the Australian cricket team, Olympic gold medalist, PM and Booker prize winner. Now I’ll just settle for blogger.

Thus no claim by Jericho to special privilege or “whistleblower” status.  Just an ordinary citizen taking advantage of the freedom of speech afforded in Australia to share his opinions and insights.

And, as for action by the people in the Twitter-sphere in response to Jericho’s outing by The Australian, no physical action was meaningful or relevant to the situation.

What physical action was possible, reasonable or sensible in the recent #groggate case? No physical action would do anything for Jericho except to inflame the situation. There is no direct analogy between the Grog’s Gamut case and calls to action like those issued by Martin Luther King or Steve Biko. Twitter is not peopled entirely by complete idiots.

Using Twitter to organise a picket line at The Australian’s offices would have been foolhardy and would have made Jericho’s situation at work more difficult. No need to take up a collection for Jericho’s legal fund as The Australian did nothing illegal.

All we can do is express our dislike of the actions of the publication and the journalists involved and express our disapproval of their continued self-serving justifications. We can mourn the death of any notion of journalistic decency.  We can feel sad that Australian mainstream news media is becoming as polarised and polemical as that in the US.  And we can note that by their actions James Massola and his colleagues have done a huge disservice to freedom of speech in Australia, especially for public servants. The use of pseudonyms has been an important part of free speech for a very long time. Pseudonyms proliferate in the mainstream news media – so why are they unacceptable from a blogger?

This whole affair does make me seriously question the journalists – what are their positions on political, social and religious matters. I want to know more about their backgrounds. What are their political and religious affiliations? And what about these mysterious people called Editors? Who are they, what do they stand for? Perhaps they’ve unwittingly raised the issue? But we need transparency from journalists as well as bloggers. It’s time for journalists to come clean about their personal viewpoints and perspectives, no more pretending to present facts in an objective and disinterested way. We need to admit that there is no such as as unbiased reporting and embrace transparency for journalists too.

As for activism, we are seeing real action happen as the result of social networks.  GetUp! is a good local example of this. Say what you like, but  raising enough money to put ads up on prime time TV via social media channels counts as real action, as does winning a High Court action regarding the enrolment of voters.

Many other NGOs are also working out how they can embrace the new media. It’s a pity the old media folks are so busy fighting a rearguard action to save the past that it seems they cannot consider the future in a positive way.

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Rethinking organisations: the digital revolution, social and convergence

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An interesting question came up last Friday in a discussion with a group of Marketing and Communications folks from McDonald’s. It was about how social media might be situated and used differently depending upon whether you approached it from either a Marketing or a Communications team perspective. Also the question of who should “own” social media within the organisation was raised.

These are good questions and they got me thinking.

One of the things I often speak about is how technology is converging. How computers, televisions, mobile phones and broadband are converging together to give us new kinds of devices that call into being new kinds of content. As a result we are seeing the mashing up of media from diverse sources and its remixing. The much loved Hitler Downfall Parodies are a great example of this.

The convergence of technology is also being influenced by new kinds of software. Social software that is so easy to use that non-technical people can create and use it without needing to track down geek assistance. Software like Facebook and Flickr are great examples of this trend.

However, another trend associated with this change in technology is the skills and capabilities that businesses need to thrive in this new environment.

In the past, under bureaucratic systems that arose during the last two hundred years in the industrial revolution, specialised silos were created to enable businesses to scale effectively.

Bureaucracy has become a value laden term these days and it is generally used in a negative sense. However, bureaucracy was an essential way to organise people on a grand scale in an age before realtime digital communications. But now that there is almost ubiquitous realtime digital communications we are undergoing a digital revolution.

Our business structures, skills and organisation have not yet adapted to this new world. I can see the need for convergence of skills and activities to enable businesses to take advantage of the digital revolution. Thus I’m starting to see the need for a convergence of many roles and functions. We need to start thinking about how to totally remap the organisation to integrate digital functions effectively.

For example, in the areas of marketing and communications the boundaries start to blur already. The real task of these areas is to communicate with people, either inside our outside of the organisation. And, increasingly, their role is to converse and collaborate with their stakeholders. These functions are merging towards creation of collaborative communities as the audience morphs into participants rather than passive recipients.

The kinds of ideas that need to inform our thinking about how to reshape our organisations for the digital revolution include:

  • Networks: both human and technology networks are key, working out how to enable each of these inside and outside of the organisation is critical.
  • Amplification: understanding how these new human and technology networks amplify messages is imperative; defining cultural practices that embrace this idea is important.
  • Connected: determining how to manage people and business in an age where everything is connected – both people and things – as is how to use this power for business and social good.
  • Personal: the blurring of the boundaries between business and personal or between private and public is already occurring. We need to develop cultural and organisational practices that understand and enable us to manage this blurring of boundaries.
  • Social: human beings are social animals.  The Taylorist world view that has coloured much management thinking in the twentieth century needs to change and reflect this truth.  Humans are not interchangeable widgets and we are not machines.  It is time business leaders and structures change to reflect the social nature of human and business interactions.

We need to find ways to move away from hierarchy and silos. We need to find ways to move towards meshes and webs of relationships.  These are more like the way human beings relate in nature anyway.  The entire bureaucratic venture has been an unnatural way of being for humans. Humans need to find a way to make business more human and less machine like.

It seems that social computing and hardware convergence could be the catalyst for us to change our ways of running businesses so that they better meet human needs and map to human social needs, while continuing to make profits.

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Ethics, incompetence, and conspiracy

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The common thread between these items is the importance of communication. And it is the communication by leaders and managers within organisations that signifies to people what standards of thinking and behaviour are acceptable.

This communication takes the form of spoken words, behaviours, gestures and also of absence, silence and looking away. Thus leaders communicate the way that it is acceptable to be within that organisation.

Ethics are hard to define – often they are easier to detect by their absence rather than by their manifestation in the daily life of an organisation.

When I used to work in government we talked about ethical behaviour as doing the right thing even when nobody was watching.

Interestingly, in that government context we discussed (and sometimes vigorously debated) things like probity quite a lot. Perhaps one of the features of an ethical organisation is that an ongoing discourse exists about what ethics means at a practical level for people within that organisation?

Another thing that supports an ethical organisation is a refutation of incompetence. Where incompetence is tolerated, accepted or covered up within an organisation it can override ethical considerations and breed bad outcomes.

At best, toleration of incompetence can lead to dispirited staff and unhappy customers. At worst incompetence can segue into breaches of statutory and regulatory requirements unless leaders and managers take vigorous steps to prevent it.

Incompetence tolerated also breeds passivity. If incompetence is accepted, and people are unable to stop it, then they cease to care. That giving up caring about quality means that the organisation is starting down a slippery slope that can lead to poor delivery initially and, ultimately, to ethical issues.

It is a pretty safe bet that an organisation that tolerates incompetence is not simultaneously facilitating discussions about ethical behaviour or probity. It is not likely to be focused on high quality outcomes for stakeholders such as shareholders, customers or staff.

The next step beyond this is conspiracy. This situation is neatly outlined by Michael Krigsman in his recent article, Dell lawsuit: Pattern of deceit.

As Michael summarised it:

Dell shipped approximately 12 million computers containing faulty components and then tried to hide the problems from buyers.

For Dell this appears to have played out, with staff members actively conspiring to do the wrong thing by customers, as a failure of ethics.

This kind of situation makes me wonder just what communication (taking the form of spoken words, behaviours, gestures and also of absence, silence and looking away) that the Dell leaders and managers were demonstrating to their people?

I wonder too, how many other organisations suffer in similar ways? And, if you are a leader or manager, what signals are you sending to your people about acceptable ways of being in your organisation?

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Knowledge, convenience and findability (thanks @KerrieAnne)

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This amusing cat picture was suggested by my buddy @KerrieAnne as a Caturday candidate – it’s from a post by Nick Milton titled You wont use it if you can’t find it – findability in KM.

This struck me as:

(a) one very cute cat;
(b) one very important issue; and
(c) one of the age old problems of business.

On all counts, there is good reason for making this more than a cute picture to share on Caturday.

Findability is one of the biggest problems we suffer from regarding information, in particular digital information.

How often have we tried to find that thing we saw yesterday on the intranet but now cannot locate it for love nor money? How often have we tried to find that report on the shared drive that we know we wrote last year? How much enterprise disk space is wasted on storing data nobody ever uses because nobody knows what’s there?

None of these issues is new. To my knowledge we have been discussing them since the arrival of word processing and server based storage. Yet we seem no closer to an effective solution than ever. There are entire departments now devoted to knowledge management, yet our knowledge (let alone information) is still (for the most part) a semi-chaotic mess.

As Nick noted:

Your knowledge assets MUST be findable. They must be ambiently findable (which means that by their very nature, they pop up when you start looking). As knowledge managers, sometimes we spend far too much time creating usable knowledge assets, without thinking about creating findable knowledge assets (actually, we often spend too much time on capture, and ignore both usability and findability).

The interesting question is how can we make this happen? From past experience we know that asking people to add metadata to content is a hit and miss approach.

From my perspective, the most interesting candidate to help solve this problem at the moment is enterprise search technology. Sure this technology works on the findability issue and does not take care of the usability factor.

But I reckon findability is more useful at a business level. Realistically, if we could find stuff, we could improve its usability later. However, at the moment we can’t find stuff at all.

In the meantime, that’s one cute cat 😉

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Time to drop the social and the media from our lexicon?

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I was reading the article If Every Company is a Media Company…Then Who Owns Social Media? after seeing a Twitter conversation between @DesWalsh and @Trib.

The article author, Don Bulmer, notes:

Social media is no longer just a destination or a set of tools and features. It has evolved into a very power extension and dimension of life and work…a new way of thinking about how business is done.

Asking the question (today) ‘who owns social media?’ in business is like asking the question ‘who owns email?’ Everyone does.

Seeing it put like this made me realise that what we’ve been talking about is really just communication.

Nobody actually owns communication in general. But what people and business entities do own is many of the communication channels and platforms. They also own certain kinds of protected content – like copyright, patents, trademarks, etc.

What we are seeing is a democratisation of corporate communication. In the past special departments of ‘communications’ were created to craft corporate communications.

The platforms and channels of communication were unwieldly and required specialist skills and training. Communications were split between internal and external. External communications were often outsourced to professionals like advertising agencies.

You don’t just let gifted amateurs loose on your multi-million dollar television communications program. After all they would not know how to buy the media space to get the advertisements run as and when required.

But the internet has changed all of that. Any person with broadband and a webcam can create video content and have it up on YouTube in a few minutes. The gap between the professionals and amateurs has suddenly narrowed.

Then I watched the Jeff Jarvis talk on Privacy, publicness & penises, where I picked up the insight that it might be better to think of the internet as ‘place’ rather than as ‘medium’.

If the internet is a place, and a place where humans congregate, then it is implicitly social. To keep nattering on about ‘social’ this that or the other is a bit mad. We don’t continually reference the social nature of places like bars, restaurants, football games.

So is it time to finally retire the words ‘social’ and ‘media’ from our lexicon and simply start thinking about the internet as a place?

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Risk management and real communication

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I was reading a post by Dave Snowden that really got me thinking.

In his post, From oratory to the soundbite, he discusses the changes in how our politicians engage with us.  Noting the change from the days of Lloyd George, who would speak for an hour without notes and engage with hecklers in the audience, to that of the manicured and controlled soundbites of modern politicians.

It also got me thinking how we have become conditioned to manicured and carefully prepared speeches and presentations in many areas of our lives nowadays.  And this shift is all about risk control.

This shift to carefully manufactured communications can likely be attributed to the way you can sound easily sound stupid or ill-informed if speaking off the cuff (cf. Barnaby Joyce).  Then that comment can be amplified endlessly (and often mercilessly) via social media.

In the days of Lloyd George his engaging speeches were not recorded for posterity.  They were ephemeral.  Nobody pored over the transcript and excerpted poor phrasing to regurgitate for weeks afterwards in media releases and media interviews.

Our ability to document every happening is changing how free we are to express ideas and opinions.  No longer can we have an amusing interplay with a heckler at a speech that is heard by only those present.  That interplay can now be taken out of context and used as a weapon against you by people of ill-will.

This is one of the reasons I believe we are seeing the growth of the politics of NO. In the past oppositions and governments could make bipartisan stands and it was hardly known by the populace. But now a new transparency means that it is easier and simpler for oppositions to stand against things than to work together for the common good on issues.

Perhaps once people understand how transparent things are becoming we can evolve new ways to communicate in less manufactured ways?  But for that to work we do need to accept imperfection.

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Real world social values and social networking

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Social media and social networking do not reduce the need for good social skills. Rather, the disconnection from physical presence in online communication makes social skills (what some call EQ) even more critical.

Some of the recent fracas rebounding across Twitter are a good example of this – covered well by various people including @kimota and @mUmBRELLA.

The basic skills for building relationships include reciprocity, negotiation ability and sharing. Also critical are the skills of walking away gracefully from an issue or staying to fight with dignity.

For many people these are skills that were learned in the playground. But what happens when people have missed these important lessons?

What happens if the person who’s been asked to run your firm’s social media activities never developed those skills in the playground? And what are the essential skills required for effective social interaction?

It seems to me that we’ve been putting up with a paucity of social skills in the workplace for a long time and it is only now that there is traceable evidence we’ve noticed that it’s a problem. Social media merely provides us with documentary evidence of the kinds of human social interactions that have been happening for aeons. The problem is that this documentary evidence now gives these unfortunate social interactions a much longer lifespan than a cranky comment in passing conversation.

Evidently on a quick shot medium like Twitter it is easy for a grumpy day or lack of coffee combined with quick fingers to lead to an explosive incident for your brand. Then the Streisand Effect can amplify the incident so that it resonates for days or weeks afterward. And, as an added benefit, the whole thing will get indexed by search engines and be findable for ages.

Social media is now providing us with tangible evidence of how many people lack (or fail to demonstrate) the basic skills required to get along well in the playground. And these are the same skills we need to work successfully with other grown-ups, both online and offline.

Goleman, one of the gurus of emotional intelligence, offers twelve questions to assess emotional intelligence. Answer ‘yes’ to half or more, (and if others who know you agree with the self-rating) then you are apparently doing okay.

The real question is how can we apply this to social media and learn how to channel the best of ourselves rather than the worst?

Goleman’s 12 Questions

  1. Do you understand both your strengths and weaknesses?
  2. Can you be depended on to take care of every detail? Do you hate to let things slide?
  3. Are you comfortable with change and open to novel ideas?
  4. Are you motivated by the satisfaction of meeting your own standards of excellence?
  5. Can you stay optimistic when things go wrong?
  6. Can you see things from another person’s point of view and sense what matters most to that person?
  7. Do you let customers’ needs determine how you serve them?
  8. Do you enjoy helping co-workers develop their skills?
  9. Can you read office politics accurately?
  10. Are you able to find “win-win” solutions in negotiations and conflicts?
  11. Are you the kind of person other people want on a team? Do you enjoy collaborating with others?
  12. Are you usually persuasive?

[Source: Goleman, Daniel. “Working Smart.” USA Weekend, October 2-4, 1998, pp. 4-5.]

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Not just Twitter, most conversation is meaningless babble

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It’s not really meaningless babble anyway! And this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Most conversation is not important for the words we speak. Instead it is the act of being present to the other person and giving attention that gives most conversations their true value. Some experts term this social grooming.

It also enables the growth of social bonds by means of the time spent in relatively trivial communications.  These seemingly unimportant communications are what makes dealing with bigger issues between individuals and groups easier.

How much easier is it to ask for help from someone you’ve known socially for a while than a stranger? How much easier is it to know the best way to phrase a suggestion or request to someone if you’ve chatted with them before?

The important thing that social networking tools like Twitter or Facebook  (or newer tools like Google’s Buzz) enable is non-localised proximity. No longer do you need to run into a person in the office kitchen each day to build up informal social ties.  Now we can do it from half a world away in real-time.

It’s also worth checking out Dunbar on this kind of thing.

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Positive thinking versus positive action

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There is a difference between merely engaging in positive thinking and undertaking positive action. On its own thinking is merely an interior act, and only when connected to positive actions does it create new realities.

Look at issues like slavery, women’s rights, democracy. Changes in each of these were fueled by anger channeled towards action that led to change. I like to call this productive anger. It’s not about rage, rather it’s about what some might call ‘righteous anger’.

Productive anger that generates positive action has led to great changes in world.

I suppose it’s what you do with the positive thoughts that matters more than merely thinking them. One of my old school mottos was:

In deed not word
1 John 3:18

And a famous slogan of the Suffragette movement was:

“‘Deeds, not words’, was to be our permanent motto,”
Pankhurst

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