“There are a lot of cowboy towns out there”

“There are a lot of cowboy towns out there”

Earlier today (or by the time I put this up, yesterday) I wrote a post about David Cameron’s clumsy approach in dealing with digital media. In it, I said that governments were struggling with social media in part because it’s so new. I said something along the lines of “five years ago, none of this was around”.

This sentiment was repeated, close to verbatim, by my own Prime Minister, in the National Day Rally that he gave tonight. He said this while addressing a point about engaging citizens both online and in real life.

You can find his whole speech online on YouTube, but the videos are upwards of half an hour each. If you want to watch the relevant bit:

This is what he said, namedropping mrbrown along the way:

I think, face-to-face, on TV, we know how to do it. Engagement online, I think we need to learn to do it better. It’s not easy to do,  but it is important, because the digital media is continuing to grow in importance. Five years ago, YouTube was insignificant. Facebook didn’t exist. All you had was mrbrown. Today, mrbrown has a lot of competition. We in Government have a lot of competition, and we have to be able to operate in that space.

He then goes on to make a case for more decorum and proper, reliable online engagement, because currently the digital space is “anonymous, it’s chaotic, it’s unfiltered”, which then lends itself to misinformation and untruths being circulated. He calls for more engagement with citizens, not just by individual ministers on their own social media accounts, but by the Government as a whole. So that there is space for proper sharing and debate, with protocols and a certain standard of discourse going on.

He said:

We can’t be in every corner of cyberspace because there are a lot of cowboy towns out there, but there must be places that grow … where people recognize that these are places that are reliable, where you can have an open debate, where different views are expressed, but it’s balanced.

It’s a salient point. Much of existing digital media platforms are inherently casual and joyfully unrestrained. There’s a reason it’s called social media, because it mimics the social settings we have offline. Facebook is a dinner party, a class barbeque. Twitter is the coffeshop where the old men in their singlets sit around a table with bottles of beer to mouth off and make dirty jokes. In fact, the very first tweetup I went to was basically all sitting around a table with beer, mouthing off and making dirty jokes, and then posting them to Twitter. Because that’s the sort of conversation that typically goes on on Twitter. Mouthing off and dirty jokes.

In the offline world, there are proper platforms for citizens to engage with the Government. There are Meet-The-People sessions. There are forums. There are established, respected channels of communication. Not so much online. I like that the PM has acknowledged that, if the Government hopes to engage with its citizens online – but on the terms that it sets – then it needs to create new spaces for people to do so, because the current online tools are not cut out for it.  (The PM himself hosted a Facebook chat during the General Election in May, but there was so much noise I doubt anything truly productive ever came out of it.)

And I do see this as part of a continuing trend. Digital media, as a whole, is maturing. We see how things which happen online are often now treated with the same sort of import as things which happen offline. And it’s probably true that the coffeshop-level chatter on the various social media platforms is never going to go away – you can’t stop people from doing it offline, either – I expect to see official engagement with the Government increasingly migrating onto the Internet. Meanwhile, the masses will continue to mouth off and make dirty jokes on the Internet. C’est la vie!

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