The real way that Twitter can change society

How we use social media may be up to us but it is also shaped by our culture, politics and governmen

As London descended into chaos and looting, data and social media took on a surprising dual role as both bogeyman and white knight. Whilst some used Twitter and BBM to coordinate their criminality, others used live-reportage to quickly develop maps of areas to be avoided and to warn their peers of trouble pending. In the aftermath, Twitter especially was used to inspire and organise a civic response -- hundreds of broom-wielding street-cleaners organised by the invisible hand of technology. Neither the censor-happy "ban the net" crew nor the internet evangelists are wholly right about the role played by data and technology in disturbances like those we witnessed. The truth is that how we use information and social media may be up to us but that it also shaped by our culture, our politics and our government.

Equally, what citizens expect from government is shaped by the culture they inhabit, the aspirations and expectations people have, and their sense of what they are entitled to. Social media and the web are remaking those expectations: how we expect to get information, make our voice heard, connect to others and receive services. Even if social media does not become a platform for overtly political activity, it is already changing how citizens expect to be treated and so what they expect of government. As people are being inducted into a more open, participative and expressive culture in their everyday lives, they are bound to carry those expectations into their interactions with government.

Decades after the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the web is creating a parallel but arguably more effective universal set of expectations among citizens. Facebook and social media are creating the expectation that you will be able to link to people, to find allies. Wikileaks, and the wider movement towards transparency and open knowledge, is creating the universal expectation that no secret can be kept for long. Google has created the expectation that if a piece of information exists it should be discoverable. YouTube and mobile phones with cameras are creating the expectation that if something has happened we should be able to see it. Twitter has created the expectation that if something is happening we should be able to hear about it first-hand, from people close to the real events. Blogging, feedback forms and collaborative rating have created an expectation that we should be able to give our assessment of virtually any experience. Social media is creating the conditions for the emergence of a civic long tail, a mass of loosely connected, small-scale conversations, campaigns and interest groups, which might occasionally coalesce to create a mass movement. From now on, governments everywhere will have to contend and work with this civic long tail.

But far from being threatened by the rise of social media, governments may yet find that through the masses of data it generates, social media offers a way to understand the shifting sentiments, interests and demands of citizens. If government can analyse and understand these data cleverly and quickly it should be in a better position to respond to emerging needs and even to forestall them. Government could become more intelligent, use its resources more efficiently, and create personalised services and localised solutions more easily. If government was good at using the tools and the data which the social web is making available, then it could become more accountable, collaborative, innovative and effective all at the same time. Just as importantly, communities and citizens should become more capable, adaptive and resilient. Better government and stronger communities could grow together.

In contrast to the speed of response people get from online and digital retail services, such as ASOS and Amazon Prime, public services often still seem slow and cumbersome. Through social media sites like Twitter and LinkedIn, people are used to connecting with people easily. In contrast, public services can often seem inflexible, departmentalised, obdurate and unyielding. Given this track record, it seems unlikely that government will be well placed to take advantage of "big data" to make its services more attuned to citizens' needs. It lacks the skills necessary on the scale required. Opening up the data to allow private companies, such as SAS, civic entrepreneurs, like Dr Foster Intelligence, and campaigners like the Open Rights Group to draw on it will help. But openness per se is not the answer. The key will be in crafting the right relationship between government as the holder and collector of data and the civic long tail of people who want to put it to public use, creatively and effectively.

The promise of "big data" to make government more intelligent will only be realised if government learns how to open up data so citizens, entrepreneurs and campaigners can start using it for themselves. "Big data" or, as Francis Maude has termed it, "Freedom of Information 2.0", and the civic long tail need to work in tandem. Together, these powerful concepts translated into reality can mean we see a lot more of the civic activism of the riot clean-up and less of the disenfranchisement and rage that, just possibly, contributed to their happening in the first place.

Charles Leadbeater is an associate of Demos.

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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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