Monday, April 25, 2011

Would like to Tweet

After having been a relative and reluctant latecomer to Twitter, I still think it’s incredibly difficult to use. I’m astonished at how it’s catching on as part of marketing and communication strategies in the public, private and voluntary sector. Is there any organisation that doesn’t have ‘follow us on Facebook and Twitter’ added to their web page nowadays?

Well, until last week there was one. I’m involved with a UK learned society called the Housing Studies Association, and at our last committee meeting we decided it was time to tweet. We ran a successful experiment during our recent conference, with several of us tweeting, getting retweeted, getting favourable comments and acquiring new followers in the process, focused on our hashtag #hsa11. Subsequently we have set up our own Twitter account and team (aided by the very useful recent piece in Inside Housing), and I am tweeting housing news in Northern Ireland. We are also on Facebook, of course.

So now there are times when I have to enjoy Twitter responsibly, because I am representing an organisation. This has brought into focus all the frustrations I experience with it.

First, it can be quite hard to find Twitter accounts on Twitter. I’ve found the easiest way is to google the name followed by ‘on twitter’. WTF.

Second, the hashtag. I never thought I would be standing up in front of a group of housing academics and saying ‘if you are tweeting, the conference hashtag is.....’ But I often forget to add one - and how do you find a hashtag if you don’t know what it is? You can guess, which seems to work quite well, or pick it up from other people’s tweets, but surely there’s a better way of grouping interests so that people can follow them. The Facebook page system works well for me, for example. You can’t subscribe to a hashtag, you have to search for it or click on a link in someone’s tweet.

Third, the @person thing. Again I forget, with the exception of when I’m replying to someone. And although direct messages are notified via e-mail, replies under @Mentions aren’t, so it can be easy to miss them if you are busy.

Fourth, the business of shortening e-mail links. As with using google to find people, if you want to make the most of your 140 characters you have to go into a separate application to do this, and paste it into your tweet. Something I’ve never been able to work out how to do on my phone. But again it’s fiddly.

Which brings me – fifth – to the 140 characters limit. Why oh why? Although there are times when the discipline is good, there are far more when it constrains expression overmuch, especially when a shortened URL, a hashtag or two, and the odd @person is included. And a photo, although I haven’t started using that application yet.

Finally, the easiest thing to do on Twitter is to retweet, which is presumably why there’s such a lot of it about. But I haven’t been able to work out how to add a comment to a retweet, so I assume I can’t. Facebook is far superior here, with the thumbs ups, comments and captions for shared items. It’s actually quite difficult to have a conversation on Twitter, as it doesn’t come up anywhere as a thread – could this be why it is so beloved of marketing people?

It’s hard to understand why Twitter is becoming so popular when it has so many flaws. It has huge potential though. It’s changing the way we communicate and think in a way that I believe is ultimately going to be very positive.

However - Twitter is only v.1 of ... well, whatever Twitter is meant to be.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Neighbourhood policing

There have been some minor instances of anti-social behaviour in our neighbourhood recently – nothing serious, just annoying stuff like graffiti, kids knocking on our windows, more litter in our drive, and in one case eggs thrown at the house. We were concerned that the latter might have been personal, because we are English, but we’ve been told it’s happened to other houses in the area as well.

The problem seems to be with two groups in society – young kids, and older teenagers/ young adults. The young kids are local and, in general, well brought up. I suspect they just don’t think there’s a problem with litter and window-knocking, or making a noise in the street or playing football mainly in the street, but straying into front gardens occasionally. And, indeed, if all the neighbours are happy with that, then it isn’t a problem.

The older group are more difficult to assess. They certainly appear more threatening. They seem to roam over a wider area, they drink, and I suspect they are completely aware that their behaviour is intimidating. A few weeks ago we had a call from a neighbour who wasn’t at home, but who had been phoned by his teenage children who were in the house on the own. An older group were playing football in their drive and the children were scared. He asked us to go and take a look but by the time we arrived they were gone.

The police have responded well, however compared to what they have to deal with elsewhere these are not major incidents. My concern is that nowadays society leaves too much of the responsibility for anti-social behaviour with the police and not enough with the citizen. Of course it could be argued that in Northern Ireland this is less the case than many other places, due to the residual vigilante practices of paramilitary organisations, but I’m talking about areas – such as my own – where this doesn’t happen. The police have told us not to confront anyone, and not even to take photos (they are concerned about child protection issues), but to call them whenever we see anything untoward, and not to worry about it seeming unimportant.

You couldn’t ask for more from your neighbourhood police, but I’m not afraid of these kids and I want to confront them. I want to say to them that certain types of behaviour are not acceptable in my neighbourhood and that it has to stop – and keep on saying it, if necessary. I think that by giving up the right to do this to the police, we as citizens are hiding too much behind the state and, in fact, that it means these young people have achieved the dominance of public space which they seek. Needless to say, both the younger and older groups are usually boys.

The received liberal wisdom is that children and young adults need to be provided with things to do, to stop this kind of behaviour. Well, I was brought up in a town with very few activities for young people and I didn’t end up hanging around on street corners. Much more to the point is whether parents know where their children are. If your children want to meet up with friends, let them do so in someone’s house and garden. If your children say they are going to visit a friend, phone to check they are actually there. Don’t let your few hours of peace and quiet be at the expense of somebody else’s. If your children are older, you can’t police them, of course. But let them know certain kinds of behaviour are not only despicable (which they probably won’t care about), but illegal, and it’ll be hard to get that first job or J1 visa with a criminal record.

I’m for zero tolerance when it comes to anti-social behaviour and I see no contradiction between that and being a socialist. I believe that if you allow incivility to take hold and boundaries to be crossed, then the problem escalates. Remove graffiti at once, clean up litter, and speak to people who may not understand that their behaviour is causing a nuisance. Socialism is about the collective, and anti-social behaviour is about the power of the (usually male) individual to cause distress to others. Citizens need to be able to make that clear.