It’s a well-established principle in modern architecture that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based on its intended function or purpose. The same is true of the tools and media we use to communicate. The technology shapes the nature of our discourse especially tools like Twitter that restrict our ability to write more than 140 characters. It’s hard to be corporate using such a short amount of characters so the behaviours we exhibit online are more relaxed, informal and generally more fun.
The relationships that evolve from these online interactions are therefore different to those that evolve from say email exchanges. Working in government communications and engagement, I am unlikely to email a journalist asking about his or her family, their musical tastes or to ask for access to their personal photographs, things I know routinely from their social networks.
The Medium is the Message
Relationships are built on trust and reciprocity, qualities commonplace in the social web, and so the relationships that I have with journalists today are by their nature different to the ones I would have developed pre-social. Here the medium is literally the message.
Social media users value authenticity and that’s what seems so lacking now in more traditional forms of government communication. I’m not suggesting that things like press releases are false just that they seem outdated and unfit for purpose in a social world. This is not news. As far back as 2004 companies like Flickr were completely shrugging off the press release model opting instead to just blog about their product releases letting journalists join the dots.
Publish Don’t Send
In 2006, Silicon Valley watcher Tom Foremski wrote a brilliant piece calling for the death of the press release. He suggested among other things deconstructing the release into sections tagging the information so that as a publisher he could make the information useful.
This is in large part what we do in Government Digital Service so for example in the 5 weeks leading up to the launch of GOV.UK we published around 35 blogs about every aspect of our work. Publishing in this way rather than sending also shapes the form of the communication since on the web there is an imperative to evidence any claims you are making via links which also helps the authenticity factor.
We had lots of coverage for the launch of GOV.UK and lots of interaction with journalists but there were others who found the information through social media, read the blog and constructed their own stories. One example is this piece by Kate Kiefer in Forbes writing about GOV.UK and the style guide behind it. She didn’t need to contact us to write her story nor did she need a press release to make sense of our blogs. I subsequently tweeted her @katekiefer
brill 2 see result of @gdsteam being open on blog and journalists writing their own stories #nomorepressreleases
And so the potential for a new relationship evolves based on mutual respect for the work of the other. In my experience, mutual respect buys you a lot of good will so I’m hoping that in the New Year many more of my government communication colleagues across Whitehall will begin to explore how different relationships can be built through the behaviours we manifest in the social web and how ultimately that just might be a good thing for government.
For the past couple of days, I have been enjoying some leave from GDS after what’s been a fairly hectic year. It’s allowed me some time to write (which I’ve not done in a personal capacity for years) and to return to some thinking about the nature of creativity and technology and a bit about people management in that context.
I started my career as an arts administrator when arts administration was regarded as a “profession”. What always struck me as rather odd was that arts administrators were paid well, had full time positions and relative job security. But arts administrators cannot exist without artists who invariably struggle financially, have no job security and who were often powerless in charting the course of their own careers.
During that time I remember stumbling across an organization called the Chaos Pilots who provided courses in arts administration. I always thought that was a much more fitting title. Artists don’t need administration they need some good pilots who can help them steer a course through bureaucracy (like funding applications) they need individuals who are empathetic to their work and who understand that it’s the artist and not the administration that’s important.
Last week I was given a copy of Grayson Perry’s autobiography Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl and it’s a fascinating read. While Perry is openly transvestite (and the book offers a brilliant insight into his motivation for that lifestyle choice) what comes alive most in his writing is the creative process that drives his choice of both medium and message. At the core it’s about complex problem solving, his own desires, his emotional intelligence and his incredible talent.
When I first met people like @jaggeree, @tomskitomski@countculture @paul_clarke in 2009 I had not worked with technologists/developers before. I was brought into their world through my work in the London Datastore. I can remember talking to Chris Thorpe on the balcony of City Hall and having a distinct feeling of deja vue. It struck me that he was very similar to the artists (visual and performing) that I had worked with in my early career. So it’s no surprise, for example, that Paul has turned out to be an incredible photographer (or that he has in fact studied acting in the past).
The desires and motivations of technologists are very similar to those of artists something identified by Paul Graham in his book Hackers and Painters;
“Like painting, most software is intended for a human audience. And so hackers, like painters, must have empathy to do really great work. You have to be able to see things from the user’s point of view…..What hackers and painters have in common is that they are both makers. Along with composers, architects and writers, what hackers and painters are trying to do is make good things”
So if hackers are the new creatives what challenges do they pose for our future organisations? Traditional management approaches will not be fit for purpose because no more than it’s possible to administer artists it won’t be possible to “manage” these creatives. They are largely driven by the desire to fix problems, create beautiful things and make the world a better place. These are not always the values of the bureaucracy (private or public). Bureaucracies may therefore need a crash course in piloting fairly soon if they want to attract the brightest and best to help steer their course for a successful landing.