Thursday, 28 June 2012

Farewall my summer love...(a letter to the Edinburgh Book Festival)

Dear ebf

Your letter arrived this morning. It remains unopened. I am trying to be strong and I fear that if I even glance at it I will crumble.

Yes, I'm afraid it's over. I won't be spending my summer holidays with you this year.

Hey, we've had six fantastic summers together. I have some great memories. I can still recall the thrill of being first in the queue for my first ever Iain Banks event (and then getting a seat in the front row!). And I still feel pretty smug at having pulled off the same feat several times since! And of hearing Neil Gaiman read from one of his books for the first time. And seeing Alasdair Gray (and awesome supporting cast) in full flight performing Fleck. I could go on.


It's not you, it's me. Well OK, it's mostly me. But a little bit you. I've made a significant investment of time (and money) into our relationship over the years. Not that I regret any of it. But I've changed quite a bit over those six years. And you haven't. Not really. And maybe you shouldn't.

In those six years, I've seen the internet (and social media in particular) breaking down barriers and hierarchies. I've been introduced to unconferences and hacks and jams and the like. Truely interactive events. The result being that I just don't get very much out of the traditional book festival format anymore. I want to have a conversation. I'm just not willing to pay to sit passively and listen for an hour and then maybe get the opportunity to ask a question. However unrealistically, I expect a more frictionless interaction with my favourite authors these days. Fortunately, many are willing to interact with the likes of me on social media.

So, I guess I've just outgrown you. But the final straw? Well, you have to admit you had some significant personal hygiene issues last year. The lingering odour was getting to be a bit embarrassing. Not pleasant to be around at all.

There's no-one else in case you're wondering. I have no intention of flirting with the likes of Aye Write, or Word, or the Borders Book Festival. I am swearing off your kind entirely.

I do hope we can part on good terms. You are good - probably the best - at what you do. It's just that what you do, doesn't do it for me anymore.

I wish you all the best for the future.


Friday, 8 June 2012

This time it's personal

The recent publication of social media guidelines by the Cabinet Office has prompted a discussion on our internal Yammer network. There are mixed views as to how practical the guidelines actually are, particularly when dealing with the old personal/professional chestnut. One colleague has questioned whether paragraph 7 essentially requires "that we are civil servants 24 hours a day and that we cannot comment to anyone on any controversial issues at all".

This post is effectively my contribution to the discussion - it got a bit long for Yammer. And, anyway, I've been trying to blog about this particular topic for a while...

I jumped on the old social media bandwagon fairly early doors. There was no social media policy for civil servants when I started blogging. Or when I joined Twitter. What I did have, and still have, is the Civil Service Code (pdf). And my some several many years experience of working in a very prescriptive environment.

And yes, very soon after joining the civil service, I was sat down by a big scary boss man and indeed told that I 'was a civil servant 24 hours a day'. That didn't mean that I couldn't have a social life. But it did mean that anything naughty I got up to out of work could reflect badly on the civil service if I was caught getting up to it. 

Prescription comes with the territory. The Civil Service Management Code (doc) - which sets out our conditions of service - is 90+ pages for goodness sake! I've never really had a problem with that. If I had, I'd have left long ago.

Social media hasn't changed any of that. What has changed, is that it's more difficult to keep the different parts of your life separate online. If you veer away from the code in a online environment, you're more likely to get caught doing it. Engaging in political debate online - even if it's with friends on Facebook - is not the same as having a good old rammy over a pint or two in the pub. Comments you make in an online environment are rather more permanent and open to being re-purposed, re-published and/or taken out of context. And keeping separate personal and professional accounts accounts is no guarantee of safety. Determined people can (and have) made connections between accounts and anonymous users have found themselves named.

We shouldn't have any expectancy of real privacy online - that's not how the internet works. And right now, the reality is, the media is interested in the 'off-piste' activities of public servants. I'm not saying I like it, or agree with it, but I've accepted that that's the way it is.

So, yes, I am 'always on' and very conscious of who I work for when using social media. I avoid politics. I think twice before I post. I would certainly never use social media while under the influence of anything stronger than a cappuccino. 

But I don't really mind the blurry lines. My status as a professional librarian and a civil servant go some way to defining me as a person (although not the whole way I should point out!). I do take work home (mentally and physically) and that's OK, mostly. A wise woman once tweeted to me "work is so much a part of who we are". And I think it was Mark Twain who said "work and play are words used to describe the same thing under differing conditions". But then, I'm lucky enough to have an interesting job that I'm pretty passionate about. Not everyone has one of those. And I can certainly understand why people want to switch off completely when they leave the office. 

And I don't use social media for purely personal purposes - and have no desire to do so. I'm not on Facebook. I prefer other ways of communicating with friends and family. I don't have interests out of work that I want to blog or tweet about.

It's also important to point out that I don't work in a sensitive policy area. I have the sort of job that allows me to talk in fairly abstract terms about what I do. My blogging and tweeting is generally confined to professional issues.

But what of my colleagues who are still trying to work out the rules of engagement? What of those who are active on social media in a purely personal capacity? What of those who don't want the lines between their personal and professional lives blurring?

Well, yes, the guidelines will reassure some. And we have some Scottish Government guidelines on the way that may help further clarify some of the grey areas. Support from senior management will help. It's a bit step that the Head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake appears to have wholeheartedly embraced social media. A supportive environment will help - and that will come as more of us use social media without the world coming to an end. But some of my colleagues will remain unsure of the boundaries and will, quite understandably, decide that it's safer just to give social media a wide berth.

As I've alluded to above, my use of social media is affected by many factors - including my personal circumstances. Indeed, something happened to me recently that made me completely reappraise my use of social media. It was a blip, but I was actually on the verge of deleting my Twitter account.

So we can have all the guidelines and policies and training courses in the world. The nature of social media is such that there will be many factors that will influence the way people use (or don't use) social media. And that's something those of us responsible for writing the guidance, developing and delivering the training and generally evangelising about social media would do well to remember.