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Why is CSR silent in social media?

“I think Richard Dawkins was sent to test us. Like fossils. And facts.”

It’s not just religious fervour that facts can get in the way of – a good dose of facts and rational discussion is the best cure for disinformation and malicious rumours too. So why aren’t more CSR programmes using social media to fight negative perceptions of their organisations?

It strikes me that one of the richest sources of useful, interesting and inspiring information that organisations have is the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) work that they do. By that I mean in part, their charitable, social works, but also their ethics and principles and how these are put into practice

It’s not just about shouting about all the work you do for charity. CSR at its best (and I think of M&S Plan A first in this respect) is about explaining the principles and the ethics the organisation subscribes to.

In my student days i was lazily radical in my views about corporations. Twenty years later I will hold my hand up and admit my views on, say, McDonalds or Nike were informed by word of mouth, rarely backed up by evidence or data beyond that which was presented to me by campus activists. I think I got quite worked up about some of it, and I think a lot of it was nonsense.

There were and are two issues around responding constructively to anti-corporate criticism:

  1. Organisations aren’t individuals: The Corporation has a fascinating premise (essentially, if corporations were individuals they would be psychopaths) but it stops being useful when you try to understand how corporations or any large organisations behave. They aren’t individuals, they aren’t monoliths, they aren’t even machines in which their employees are all little cogs and moving parts. Large organisations are networks, complex adaptive ones at that – we deploy management and metaphors to control them, and direct them and shape them, but essentially they are human social networks.
  2. The issues are complex: My sense over the years is that corporate communications and issue management teams have been schooled in managing communications in mainstream media. That means control and simplification are the order of the day. Soundbites aren’t useful when you are trying to explain complex issues around, say, social responsibility, tax or regulation. Success is being in control of the news agenda, mindshare, even if most people don’t believe a word they are reading and just assume that because you are big company you are up to no good.

Actually, both these points are about complexity. The perfect place to share information, discuss it openly, link to evidence, discuss issues openly, share examples of doing good, are the social web.

Yet, according to a new report from the pretty thorough and credible guys at Social Media Influence:

fewer than half of nearly 300 North American and European companies currently communicate their corporate and social responsibility accomplishments. Just one quarter have a dedicated social media sustainability channel or advocate.

This compares to about 85% of the Social Media Sustainability Index Report  sample who are happily trying to promote their products and services through social media.

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How Howard does it: attention master at work

This is a great video in which Howard Rheingold (using Screenr, an interesting Twitter screencasting tool) explains his process, his workflow, for gathering information and putting it to work (or turning information into knowledge as he says).
The simple five-minute walkthrough is very useful to me personally, as I am thinking about both how I process information / knowledge and how to define and explain these processes and the digital literacies involved to others. Howard teaches digital media at Stanford and urges his students to use these tools as part of their work – so he has some strong insights to offer (to say the least).
There is so much information out there, in Twitter streams, in Google, in Delicious, in email in Facebook, in the articles that we read online, that the challenges for knowledge workers are becoming acute, specifically:
  • Attention: How do you focus on relevant things and not get distracted by the endless fascinating things being discussed in your social networks. Or as Howard has explained it before, how do you learn to switch from diffuse attention, where you are open to your network’s inputs and focused attention where you hone in on the thinking and effort around a single task, such as writing a report or chapter of a book. (The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr expands on issues around how we pay attention online and in deep thinking/reading long-form text, by the way – more to come on this from soon.)
  • Creating value / knowledge: Twitter for example, is wonderful. But you could spend all your time playing the game that is Twitter, collecting and sharing links with your ever-expanding network without ever turning the links into working knowledge, adding your perspective.
Blogging, for me, is one tactic for refining information into knowledge in this way (which is partly why I get twitchy if I don’t write a post for a long time). The discipline of switching my attention to creating a post and not diving back into the Twitter stream hunting for new hits of exciting information, is a way of of re-stating what I have learned in my own words.
That act of writing, reporting and analysising (even briefly) that both really understanding what I am reading and connecting it with other ideas, creating my own perspective. Sometimes that perspective adds value in my network, sometimes it just helps me understand things better (usually you don’t know which it will be – usefulness in networks is hard to predict).

In the video, Howard talks about various stages in this example process of turning information into knowledge. How I heard them was…
  • Tuning his network to get useful information: His Twitter network is tuned to topics he is interested in (multiple topics might be focused with Twitter lists, of course) and he uses Twitter searches to find new inputs.
  • Collecting/curating information: Useful sources of information are stored as annotated bookmarks in his Diigo / Delicious databases.
  • Refining the information in his own databases: Devonthink, a desktop personal database,?is put to work to categorise and combine bookmarks and documents, snippets of information. He is making sense of it, turning links and articles into personal, working knowledge.
  • Turning the information into knowledge: Howard describes the whole process as being about turning information into knowledge. In this case, he is writing a book about attention (which I can’t wait to read) – the Devonthink data informs his writing in the Scrivener application (which helps authors combine notes and draft manuscript elements in a clever way).

We need to be aware of how our own workflow/thinking processes work, for the simple reason that they are new, evolving, emerging. There are no neat sets of productivity tools available with a training course – we hack together our personal collections of tools and behaviours (I don’t use Devonthink for instance, and have done no more than dabble in things like Diigo and Scrivener, that Howard mentions as key elements of his process) that work for us.

Image (cc) RuffLife

To keep working effectively we need to be able to critically reflect on our own behaviours and adjust them. With practice it gets easier to do this. I think of the stages of the process like a kind of graphic equaliser – I’ll tinker with the levels as I go along, but as I get better at it I know there are pre-set patterns that will work best for different types of work: writing a speech may require little collecting from the network, but a focus on refining the information I have already collected my Delicious and my blog, whereas writing my new book will require tuning my network, interrogating it for new data and connections.

: : Note to self: One useful exercise we might carry out to examine our own processes and practices would be to turn on a screencasting tool and capture how we browse and what we do with what we find.

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Tweet’s anatomy: Microsoft retweet research (Pls RT)



Frankly I think my spell-checker’s a bit of laggard when it comes to the social web. But, bless it, it’s learning fast at the moment…

Every other word or phrase it thinks I need correct.

“Retweet” is a phrase it will need to learn soon, very soon indeed.

Danah Boyd at her colleagues at Microsoft Research have created a draft paper on the phenomenon, called Tweet, Tweet, Retweet: Conversational Aspects of Retweeting on Twitter. It is based on analysis of over over 700,000 tweets (430,000 or so users), taken in samples of five minute chunks between January and June 2006.

  • 36% of tweets mention a user in the form ‘@user’
  • 5% of tweets contain a hashtag (#)
  • 22% of tweets include a URL (‘http’)
  • 3% of tweets are likely to be retweets in that they contain ‘RT’, ‘retweet’ and/or ‘via’
  • 9% of retweets include the users own handle – dubbed “ego retweets” (though the paper acknowledges that sometimes this can be “a way of giving credit” or saying thank you, as i’ve seen it.
  • ‘RT’ is very much the predominant form, with 88% of the retweets using this (Tweetie please take note and change your app’s retweet function).

Retweeting is such an interesting phenomenon I’m sure there will be further studies soon and they will find shifting patterns in these sort of numbers as the practice evolves and/or matures.

There is a nice analysis of the reasons for retweeting (for ’tis now a verb – get used to it spellchecker) including amplification, commenting, making the retweeter’s presence known, qualifying a statement made by someone else, recognition of another, to get more followers and as a form of bookmarking a tweet. It’s not always a postive behaviour and can be “a selfish act of attention seekers”.

It’s a draft paper at the moment, with the final version scheduled to be published in January 2010 in HICSS (Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences) – congratulations, guys.

The authors Twitter handles are @zephoria, @redlog and @gilgul.