March 2010

Last week I spent a day at a social media legal masterclass (details are here if you want them ) with an excellent presenter in Kathryn Corrick. I attended as I wanted to make sure I have a proper overview of what the legal issues are and to get a bit more detail where possible. I was fairly relieved to find that I do have a grasp of the essentials and that actually anyone with a fair amount of common sense and an idea of the basic principles is going to be fine but there were a few interesting points I wanted to note properly. However as it was a legal masterclass I need to point out that I am not a lawyer – and neither was the person running the course – so this is not actual advice!

But first a more general observation. there is a huge difference in the legal and moral positions on various issues and the law is not yet ready for social media.  Social media throws up issues of privacy and identity which are far more complex when you have a complete record of someone’s time online and also a need to balance the personal with the professional roles of an individual. This is particularly true for democratic content where it might be the legal case that copyright is broken for example but where the moral case is very clearly with anyone who is trying to constructively engage in democratic debate. The law is a tool which is there to help is all get along and in the case of social media we don’t really know how we want to get along and how we need the law to help is yet as we are still writing the rulebook.

But more specifically – here are the specific things I noted from the day – they are not all new thoughts – but useful reminders if nothing else:

  • Copyright really is very simple – if someone else created a piece of content then don’t use it without crediting them. If you want to use big chunks of someone else’s content then ask them – and if you want to try and profit it from it then don’t – they made it and they should profit. Democratic content is slightly different in that you want people to take it to some extent – but the problem of people taking selected pieces and quoting out of context can be addressed through copyright legislation. We are about to do some work around making council webcasts far more viral – and I will be looking at the creative commons licence model to see if this offers the right level of protection. Making the webcast player embeddable is a good route to deal with the copyright problem as if people embed content then they are far less likely to abscond with it – its about making the right thing to do the easiest route.
  • You really cannot represent yourself as someone else – this is not news but I did not know that this is all down to the Consumer Protection from Unfair Training  Regulations of 2008 (I say this in homage to Kathryn who ran the course – she claims this as her favourite bit of legislation. The regulation covers things like fake blogs but also using fake accounts to leave comments. This highlights the problem of identity / anonymity for officers in my view as you really do need to use your own identity. And did you know that the act of creating fake blogs is actually known as flogging??
  • Purdah – we had an interesting discussion of social media and purdah over lunch and Kathryn’s view – which I agree with – is that the substantive point which you need to focus on is whether or not you have gained benefit from your role as am elected representative and if you have then you need to disassociate from this during the election process. In a social media context this means that you cannot, for example, use the same twitter account that you use as an elected representative in order to campaign – even if you have set this up outside of the council infrastructure – because you are communicating with followers who you may have picked up as a member. This inevitably means having more than one account on social media sites and making sure that you communicate where you are going to be at any time as it were. Though this makes clear sense in terms of the ‘letter of the law’ it seems to me to ultimately be a very clumsy way of handling identity – but this is what we are stuck with until we have a more sophisticated view of online identity management.
  • Moderating content is actually higher risk than not moderating as once you moderate something you take responsibility for it. This is worth remembering in the context of the virtual town hall pilot.
  • We did talk about aggregation and Kathryn said she would follow this up as its clear that aggregation is something new which means there is nothing in the existing body of law to help us with liabilities and responsibilities. Also a point to note for Virtual Town Hall!
  • Privacy is largely ignored by most social media sites and it really is a shocker when you read the terms and conditions ( I know we all know that but really – how often do you actually stop and think about it!!). One thing to note is that most sites insist that it is actually a person who creates an account – which actually creates some problems where an individual is signing up on behalf of an organisation. Again – this is probably one of those lawyer problems which will never be an actual issue but needs to be noted.
  • While talking about privacy – I was surprised as to how easy it actually is to breech someone’s privacy (for example talking about a friends health in a public place). I think the thing to note here is that you need to be aware of what the other person would be happy with you revealing – not to judge other people’s level of disclosure by your own.

There are some common sense things you can do to navigate all of this – the two main ones being:

  • Have a strong take down policy and remove content quickly if there is an issue – but make sure that the policy tells people what you have done so you can’t be accused of censorship
  • Make it easy for people to complain – encourage people to take responsibility

So – no amazing revelations here as the law is really about clarity of thought and if you have that then you are fine.  Where this gets interesting is in what is best for the individual is no longer the best thing for democracy in general and where the technology starts to expand beyond what we can find a real world simulacrum and hence precedent for.  Will update this if we get info back on the aggregation point.


I spent Saturday in Kent at transformedbyyou: You can see a lot of the content from the day on the Ning site and I know more is being added. I went partly because a knew there would be a lot of interesting people there (there were) and partly because I was interested in the format/objective which was using an unconference type approach to try and instigate some thinking around social innovation. I think it worked well (much helped by some excellent facilitation / social reporting from Amy Sample Ward and David Wilcox ). I joined a group that was focusing on mobile as a channel and we had a good morning discussing what this means and where the potential is for local government. To summarise:

  • We drew a distinction between making websites accessible on a mobile phone and the potential for apps
  • We wanted to design for the near future and make full use of the possibilities for current technologies rather than be limited by ‘lowest common denominator’ thinking (after all it was a Saturday)

In conclusion we described mobile as a valuable additional channel that can help bridge the digital divide – but the you have to keep in mind that it does not solve it because you need to find services and interactions that are particularly suited to the channel and this doesn’t necessary match perfectly with the services and interactions that will work on a desktop device. We talked fairly wide rangingly about QR codes (which are basically like barcodes – but linked to web addresses – that can be read and interacted with by smart phones), location and time based alerts, street scene reporting and community funding ideas. In the afternoon we spilit into two and covered two ideas:

  • Exploring the use of QR codes
  • Looking at how you could use gaming to complement the street scene reporting idea

I worked on the latter – and got rather into it…..I think partly influenced both by Joanne Jacobs from her LikeMinds presentation and Carl haggerty’s recent post World of GovCraft (BTW – I have title envy). The team comprised @sidekickstudios (a software and games designer) , @alteredeye (an academic looking at Human Computer interaction) and Tracy (from the Kent CC web team) we were well resourced for the challenge.

The idea was simple: we want to develop a mobile app which combines reporting of issues your physical community (broken lights / potholes / unkempt land etc etc) with a gaming approach.  We thought this had strong elements of co-production as well as being channel authentic – and so we created “CALL OF DUTY” – which will be flying of the shelves at Christmas…..

Why? We could have just designed a mobile app for street scene reporting – a kind of phone based ‘fixmystreet’ – and I know that other councils are thinking about just that (for example Lewisham iphone app ) and its a really good thing to do. But we thought that adding a gaming element added in two additional benefits:

  • It would be more fun – when did the idea of doing something useful become unfun anyway?
  • It could be used to link people in the area together – using the gaming community to build local community

The game itself should be fairly simple – you get points for:

  • reporting an issue (5 points)
  • rating an issue (1 point)
  • doing something about an issue (10 points)

(points clearly indicative at this stage – currency to be established!)

We assumed that the app would know where/when you were reporting something (probably with a photo) and that you would just be asked to firstly suggest an outcome – do you want it fixed by the council or do you think the community should deal with it for example – and then prioritise the issue by being shown a list of current issues and being asked to place it in the right place in the queue. We felt that this moved the user passed just complaining and gave them some sense of the whole picture. Other users could then ‘rate’ that prioritisation. You would be able to track the status of your issues, as well as getting updates on things that have been dealt with in your area (you might see some before and after pictures for example)…..btw – there is clearly a whole back office integration piece to be done here but we decided not to worry about that…..again – it was a Saturday

The gaming element would contribute a leader board where you could see who else has been active and where you relate to them – you could also have viral options so that you could share issues with your community to get support for your prioritisation. At this point I started getting drawn into a whole top trumps thing where you got rated for the types of things you report, how you fix them etc etc….

The final element was some way of linking game currency – points – to some kind of real world rewards – for example cheap entrance to a swimming pool. We felt that this would provide additional motivation and acknowledge the fact that you are ‘working’ for your community. We also wanted to make it possible to donate your game currency to local charities etc so that they could benefit.

This is not an unachievable idea – as long as you can remain committed to the idea that it does actually have to be fun and to engage with some actual game designers rather than the poor folks who will have to make it work with the back office systems. Its strengths are, I believe, in the fact that it tries to use the channel in a ‘native’ way without actually compromising on the social goals of the project. The first step to doing this would be to do some focus group work around establishing motivations and looking at what the game currency would need to look like.

If nothing else it was great to spend some time with likeminded people and a blank sheet of paper. But I now would like to think about this more – what can be achieved when you actually think appropriately for a channel and when you don’t get constrained with what is currently possible? What happens when you accept the fact that you probably won’t get anything built for at least a year – so why not look that far ahead in terms of the technology? And what happens when you think that actually it should be fun to do stuff for and with your community – and look at building something to do that?

Gaming is a growth area for online – as is augmented reality – and both of these come together in this idea. So – are you intrigued or was this just a way to pass a rainy saturday?

You can hear Adil describe the idea here:

Or how to avoid sounding like a social media guru ……

I realise that I have drifted into the habit of talking about webspace rather than websites and I wanted to work through why this is – mainly to make sure it’s not just an abuse of the English language. I’m a big supporter of the idea that language evolves in order to reflect social changes – but also concerned that that is very easy to start using meaningless words and phrases just to make things sounds more interesting. But sometimes terminology does need to change to help move thinking along – and I think this is perhaps part of a wider debate that I have talked to a few people about recently about the need to find some shared terminology to talk about these ideas around using social web tools to do civic an democratic things.

But right now the real point for me is that that fact that I feel there is a distinction between these two words – but is it a meaningful difference?

Probably the biggest difference in my internal definitions of these words is that fact that a website is self-contained – it might have elements of external content but it is clearly the editorial property of the domain owners – which means they also control the purpose. Webspaces on the other hand are formed by the aggregation of content from the users and are therefore not editorially controlled.

Secondly I see webspaces as being primarily social – they are defined by the interactions between people – where websites are more likely to focus on non-user generated content. This makes the potential for co-production in a webspace greater than the potential within a website.

But finally I think the move into more architectural metaphors – the use of the word space rather than a more technical description – starts to bring in the thought that what is being created is more than the technology – and that it has more of an identity of its own. In the real world the difference between a site and a space is one which we all recognize but actually the definitions are not actually that different:

  • site noun (PLACE): a place where something is, was, or will be built, or where something happened, is happening, or will happen
  • space noun (EMPTY PLACE): [C or U] an empty area which is available to be used

Perhaps the difference is that a site is there for something to be built but the word space offers us potential for greater opportunities – perhaps this is why the word suits social web activity better than the more practical word ‘site’ – we want to talk about the potential and impact rather than just the building blocks. The sense of potential comes from the, in one sense, infinite nature of space, and in another sense, from the sense of emptiness. It is a more grandisose and open term than site as a result seems to better suit the grandiose ambitions that can be talked about with respect to social web.

But does this make it the right term? I don’t know – it feels more suitable to me but perhaps we will have to wait while the terminology evolves to see if it continues to make sense.

One way to explore it though is to use it. When I talk about civic webspaces I am trying to describe something with the following attributes:

  • You know when you are there
  • It can give visual and social clues as to how you should behave their
  • It sets expectations as to the type of conversations you are going to have – and these interactions will be about your local community
  • It will evolve and change as its community changes – but it will always be identifiable
  • There is an expectation of shared action and purpose – rather than just talking this is a space to get things done

This final point – this sense of shared action – is where the biggest departure from what I would call a website occurs.

I often go on from there to ask people if they acknowledge the difference between Facebook and LinkedIn – they all do. When you think about it like that it becomes clear that we are missing a public sphere (back to Habermas again!) and that we need to think about how to build it. But the question as to what we are building is not yet clear. The Virtual Town Hall is one possible building – one possible definition of the space – but its fairly specific – if we want to talk about a wider set of possibilities we are still in the position of talking about a space and how we can define it.

I just wanted to point out this interview with Danah Boyd – I like the fact that she makes it clear that so much of the behaviour we see online is actually normal teenage behaviour – its just happening online – which brings visability and longevity.  She is very relaxed about this longevity point – and the fact that we will all get far more comfortable with the idea of your ‘earlier selves’ being available.

Interesting comments about privacy and privilege – and the difficulties of personal / professional boundaries and how it effects the offline power relationships.  We suddenly have to redraw boundaries and include your public online content as part of your professional persona.

You can also read the transcript here.

The issue for me is the fact that these behaviours that she is describing are also seen in adults – because the space supports that teenage behaviour – and that early adopters are using the same cultural norms – but that’s another post I think.