Social Networking Blog

Guy Clapperton on the evolving new media

Different rules for public sector?

Barack Obama @ Twitter
Image by comicbase via Flickr

A good blog post from Simon Wakeman raises the issue of following and unfollowing on Twitter when you’re a public body rather than an individual. He doesn’t particularly want to be followed by a council and you can see why not.

I’d actually extend that and ask people in the public eye why they follow back. For example, I follow Stephen Fry on Twitter. He doesn’t follow me but then I wouldn’t expect him to – 300,000 followers watch what he’s up to, he posts interesting stuff from time to time but he can’t possibly have an interest in following all of us.

President Barack Obama, on the other hand, follows me. He never replies to my messages and speaking as a lone journalist in the UK I can’t say I’m in any way surprised. He’s quite a busy man, funnily enough. But he follows me. So does famous comedian in the UK and small-time (so far) film star, Russell Brand. Once more, why he’d bother I have no idea.

Probably he and the Prez are using some sort of automatic following software, which I’d guess they regret now. The issue Wakeman highlights is that the councils appear to be following people who aren’t following them, which is plain odd. Why would a council follow an individual?

The chances are very good that the councils employ individuals who kind of forget that they’re acting on behalf of a public body. They see someone saying something of interest and they follow, which is good, it’s what the system’s for – but you end up with a confused person being followed, who thinks that it’s Wandsworth Council following him and not his old mate Wilf from school who hasn’t identified themselves.

This is going to sort itself out in the end as people develop more and more sophisticated internal rules as to what you may and may not do on this sort of system (and let’s not pander to the idea that Twitter is where development stops). For the moment I’ll be interested to see what happens when someone like M15 or the CIA start following innocent civilians on Twitter, all because an employee was at the same college.

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March 30, 2009 - Posted by | social media trends | , , , , , , ,


  1. @GuyClapperton For me the reason an individual may actually prefer to be followed back by that public body is that it then allows them to Direct Message. Given their relationship with that body (e.g a council) they may feel more comfortable communicating this way on a specific issue. The only problem there is if you are advocating it as a two-way form of communication (which it should be) there has to be someone from the council monitoring regularly and able to field any communication that comes through a direct message.

    Comment by @Phil_ryan | March 30, 2009

  2. I can see that OK, but what when they start following someone who doesn’t already follow them? I can see that feeling pretty intrusive.

    Comment by guyclapperton | March 30, 2009

  3. Surely the issue is more – should Twitter users identify themselves ‘as’ their organisation? I’m personally very careful to not talk about my organisation on twitter or facebook – even though I have colleagues in both networks who I am facebook friends with and with whom I am in a follower/followee relationship. If I do set up a ‘work’ twitter – which I might, I suppose – then it would be separate, under a different username (which wasn’t Doctor Who related!) Is there not a ‘holding out’ issue here, possibly?

    Interestingly I am followed by Stephen Fry and Wossy – but not Russell Brand. Obviously not pretty enough.

    Comment by Gill | March 30, 2009

  4. And indeed whether the bodies involved know their employees have set these accounts up; there was an embarrassing case a couple of weeks ago in which a well-known airline had two execs set up a Twitter account that looked really official, but which was dedicated to insulting users of social media. Very funny but damaging to a business.

    Comment by guyclapperton | March 30, 2009

  5. I think to try and be both (individual and organisation) you are right, you are skating on thin ice. Because of the open nature of Twitter, it lends itself to your professional voice – where as a closed network like Facebook its easier to be more personable (although let’s not pretend anything on it is*private*). I think it’s only celebs that can use Twitter in this way as their personality/job is one and the same in many cases.

    And on the Orwellian following individuals that don’t follow you, I guess it’s what is the reasoning behind the follow is. If it’s to monitor and react in a positive way, then great, but if it was ever used for more intrusive reasons (I read about a council using Facebook to catch out benefit cheats the other day) then yes that probably oversteps the mark.

    Great area of debate though and I think it applies to companies as much as it does public bodies. E.g. company X (Acme Shoes say) following me and messaging me about their brand when they notice I say I’m going shopping for a new pair of shoes – crude example i know, but is this just fair game marketing or going a step too far….

    Comment by @Phil_ryan | March 30, 2009

  6. I think there is great PR value for any organisation whether public/private/council/politician in following people or following back. If Birmingham City Council started following me I would see it as them ‘caring’ a bit about their real constituents. Maybe it’s got no substance, but at least it looks good.

    Comment by emily_hatchpr | March 30, 2009

  7. Another interesting aspect is staff journalists and writers on Twitter. In Germany, I follow tweets from several news outlets, most of which follow me back. In some cases I know that former colleagues of mine are running the official twitter accounts for their various news outlets, in other cases I don’t know the people at all. Are they following me in the hope that I will write or link to something newsworthy?

    And what to make of friends of mine in journalism who have private Twitter accounts but who tweet almost exclusively links to the stories from the news websites they’re working for?

    Comment by Brian Melican | March 30, 2009

  8. Surely an interesting question is the relationship between media outlets, journalists (both staff and freelance) and Twitter.

    As an example: I as a freelance am followed by news outlets where I know personally the staff writer in charge of the Twitter account. I am also followed by some other news outlets where I don’t know anybody. And I am also followed by friends of mine who are staff writers but use their personal Twitter account to link to almost all stories carried by their news outlets.

    Confused? I am!

    Comment by Brian Melican | March 30, 2009

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