The Future of Online

Social media is here to stay, and whilst people have become very good at selling on the Internet, actually engaging with publics, developing the brand and establishing credibility is very different; so Vicky Reeves (@vickyreeves) opened this plenary session on the second day of the conference. Reeves predicts that the future will be focussing on engaging with diverse audiences, be that social minority groups, different age groups or going international.

Shane McCracken (@shanemcc) focussed instead on trends in government and civil society. The Martha Lane Fox Report proposed a single domain for government so that citizens can find what they’re looking for. is the result of intensive development project (see their blog), focussing not only on information findability, but also on exposing data so that it can be consumed in mash-ups and other applications.

For example, local government have to publish details of any spend over £500, and the progressive councils are using XML (a format computers can use to convey data to other computers) to expose the information. This is being exploited by Openly Local to hold councils to account for their spending.

Other examples include Open Corporates which exposes information about revenues received from government, and Who’s Lobbying which shows who is lobbying government.

Remember that if you want to engage with the public, then you can’t control the discussions, but if you want to hold people to account, ensure they have to register using their real name. This helps to ensure that timewasters are weeded out. The recent outing of Ryan Giggs as a superinjunction beneficiary on Twitter is an example of mass civil disobedience facilitated by social media.

There are questions on the future of search; Google and Facebook are engaged in a face-off because of hidden content on Facebook which you can only access if you are member (and which is therefore invisible to the Google search engine). Google have introduced Plus One to capture the social dynamic of the Facebook Like button. It’s vital to ensure that your information is findable, and if you want to publish data then publish it: the BBC’s blog syndication (RSS) feeds only include the first paragraph of stories, which will limit the amount of people who will read the full content.

The main error people make when moving into social media is to jump in with both feet, starting with the premise “we need to do some online engagement”, but without identifying objectives or understanding their audience. For example, Barnado’s advert in 2009 caused some controversy by people who were upset at seeing the effects of child abuse. However, instead of wading in and defending the advert to all and sundry, Barnado’s held back, listened to the contributions from different people and were able to post an appropriate response from an individual within the organisation. In contrast, the BBC’s online editor lost thousands of hits by responding in a way that appeared to alienate the audience.

By ensuring you have a clear set of objectives, you can focus on the message you are intending to convey and the audience you want to hear it.

Daniel Glaser (@bnglaser) outlined some of the work being done by Wellcome Trust in the online world. All papers produced as a result of Wellcome grants now have to be placed into a public access repository so anyone can access the information generated. They’re looking at how to ensure accreditation of work by using ORCID, a system which manages the identities of researchers, even where there are name collisions, as Daniel noted, “there’s a lot of Wangs in China.”

Wellcome Trust also found it difficult to write the blog post in which they celebrated 10 years of the Human Genome Project (HGP). There was plenty to write about, but the outcome and benefits of the HGP are still unrealised, the genome being more complex than originally thought. Glaser also highlighted the decision taken by Cancer Research UK (CRUK) which showed that one of the first places that people go for information about cancer is Wikipedia. CRUK therefore decided to commit resource time to maintaining the accuracy of relevant Wikipedia pages.

Wellcome aren’t sure if the time investment needed to maintain personal profiles on all of the available network has a good return on investment, and they’re not sure how to exploit the existing networks to their maximum potential, or whether they should build their own. Reeves pointed out that 5 years ago she’d probably have advised developing their own network, but now expectations for social networks are so high that the investment isn’t worth it. She recommended that people engage with people where they are (ie. Facebook), and that this is part of the “never leave Facebook” strategy.

In addition, Reeves said there was talk of developing a single sign-on identity which would allow a single profile to be managed across multiple social networks simultaneously.

Sue Nelson (@supersue), chairing the session, told how she had found that Facebook, and in particular photos, add real value to the podcasts, adding a new dimension to the listener experience.

Fiona Fox (see Fiona’s blog), from the Science Media Centre, said she felt like a rabbit in the headlights, that she must tweet, that she would be no-one if she wasn’t tweeting. She likened this to the Today programme’s message boards: they were excited when they started, but soon nobody had the time and it rapidly became an echo chamber for one or two contributors. She asked “What two things should we do before diving in?” Reeves stressed the importance of firstly identifying why you’re doing it, and secondly how you’re going to measure its success.

Reeves also stressed the importance of ensuring that if it’s someone’s job to manage online media that they are given the time to do the job; just because the tool is free doesn’t mean there are no time implications. An alternative to being on Twitter all day is to schedule tweets at the beginning of the day to go out periodically, and then to monitor Twitter to engage in conversations. And whilst Twitter may run its course (cf. MySpace and Friend Reunited), social media as a concept will continue, whatever its new format is.

McCracken summed this up as “listen first, talk second”.

The Research Information Network highlighted the availability of their report on using social media effectively, and asked about the idea and benefits of sharing data using an open access model, particularly when raw data is not usable, so it would have to be published as a translation or interpretation. They also asked about trust and attribution issues around such sharing. McCracken pointed out that trust increases with openness, and that a Creative Commons licence requires attribution if the data is reused.

In summary, the future of online is the future of people interacting using social media, and communicators using the appropriate tools for engaging with them.


About David Waldock

Open University graduate, health and life science at undergraduate level, science and society at post-graduate. Interested in how the Internet is transforming the ways in which the public(s) engage with science(s). Also interested in "the skeptical movement" as a form of science activism and it's effectiveness in achieving its goals. Interested in the representation of LGB types in science and in the periscience communities. Work for a well known and loved public institution. Views are mine and not necessarily my employers.

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