Yesterday the government chief scientist issued a thoughtful Foresight report on social media and social identity. It has important implications for political campaigning. For those in a hurry, here is the main message in a tweet:
@andybodders No online identity? You will fade out of existence #beveryafraid
The report uses rather more eloquent words to express this:
As people have become accustomed to switching seamlessly between the internet and the physical world, they have begun to use social media to pursue friendships, continue conversations, and make arrangements in a way which dissolves the divide between online and offline.
The authors identify three rapidly accelerating changes:
- hyper-connectivity: we will soon be online all the time
- social plurality: as we network online, our identities will diverge from traditional social categories
- blurring of identities: our private and public identities will converge as we post information about ourselves online.
That’s certainly the way it seems to me. By way of example, I made arrangements to go to the cinema on Saturday using both email and Twitter. My opinions about the truly dreadful film were expressed vocally to a small huddle of people as we left and tweeted to hundreds more online. To me this is a seamless process. It is as natural for me to tweet or facebook as it is to speak to someone directly. My online contacts are infinity more varied than those I meet day to day, so I guess social media has increased my social plurality. And it is very true that you will learn more about me online than you will find out elsewhere. I am a much more public person since I took to Twitter and Facebook four years ago.
But I am far from confident I have my online identity sorted out. I have tended to split my identities – writer, historian, planning & environment consultant – and, of course, Lib Dem. It’s fairly easy to do this when I’m blogging. On Twitter I find myself negotiating a conflict between my jocular online persona and my need to appear serious for my political and professional personas. I am making an utter mess of managing my Facebook personas, yet Facebook is perhaps the most powerful online locale for building social identity.
As the Foresight report says, these online personas are of growing importance. If you want to find out who someone is, where do you look? On the internet of course. You want their phone number? The internet is the first port of call. With smartphone technology you don’t even need to get up from your bar stool to do so.
There is another issue. As the Foresight report notes, these changes are leaving many people behind. Looking around me, that includes a lot of local Lib Dems.
Our focus in the Lib Dems has been on using social media to communicate. There are many tweeters and a lot of bloggers. We are rather less good at engagement – actually talking to the people we broadcast to. And I get the impression that few of us have given much thought to our online identities.
The Lib Dems need to recognise that social media is not just about communication. It is about engagement and establishing online identities too. We need to get ahead before we are left behind.
* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Ludlow, Shropshire. He writes on communities, planning, the environment and history.