Opinion: No social media identity? Be very afraid

Twitter logoYesterday 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 councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk.

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This entry was posted in Online politics and Op-eds.


  • Paul Holmes 23rd Jan '13 - 1:16pm

    Yet Rebecca Tidy wrote a piece here on 21st Jan that noted that ‘Research shows that social media such as Facebook and Twitter have very little if any effect on election outcomes’.

  • Andy Boddington 23rd Jan '13 - 4:30pm

    Paul, Rebecca’s article is about past experience. Foresight reports look at the future

  • Richard Dean 23rd Jan '13 - 5:52pm

    Absolutely, and we probably need research and then training in how best to use social media. It appears that more than half of the UK population use Facebook, probably skewed towards the young and so towards future voters. Interestingly, almost half of Twitter messages are classified as “useless babble”, so there are opportunities there too.


    … and of course opportunities to make contributions to Wikipedia and the like.

  • David Allen 23rd Jan '13 - 6:08pm

    “almost half of Twitter messages are classified as “useless babble”, so there are opportunities there too.”

    What opportunities, to double the babble fraction?

  • Facebook is dying; it’ll have a long tail because of the number of people signed up to it, but it’s dying none the less. Which is why it frustrates me that the party insists on using it for so many vital things (Connect support, for example).

    That said, this article reflects my thinking for about the last ten years. It’s a terrible thing being ahead of the curve… Glad to see everyone else catching up though.

  • Liberal Neil 23rd Jan '13 - 8:01pm

    Hi Jennie – my understanding is that the Connect team set up the Facebook group because a lot of Connect Users were on Facebook. It was not intended to be the main source of advice but an additional route alongside the SR system. Personally I’ve found it very useful because one of the other 500+ group members can often answer questions more quickly than waiting for an SR request to be dealt with. The SR system remains the ‘official’ channel for Connect queries though. If there are any other platforms that would also reach significant numbers of users I would guess the Connect folk would be happy to set something up there too. Similarly if Facebook is indeed dying the Connect group will die with it.

  • Richard Dean 23rd Jan '13 - 8:31pm

    To give people something meaningful to talk babble about!

  • Have read the report now and whereas Andy concludes ‘have no online presence, you will fade out of existence, be very afraid’ my reading of the report would indicate ‘have online presence, be very afraid’.
    The report for example notes the scope to ‘promulgate misinformation which can quickly be widely disseminated’ and the wealth of private data ‘which can be mined by private companies and Governments…and the potential for criminal exploitation.’
    Politically we can all quickly think of a list of MP’s, MEP’s, Cllrs and candidates of all kinds who have come to bitterly regret their instantaneous ‘twittering’ and ill judged blogs. Tweet in haste, repent at leisure!

  • Richard Dean 24th Jan '13 - 12:38am

    Tweet in haste … get dragged through mud, hedges backwards … experience … learn … see … discover in this way how to tweet fast and effectively… power !

  • jenny barnes 24th Jan '13 - 8:43am

    I’m sorry, I’ve read the article, but I’m still at a loss as to what Facebook and Twitter are actually for. Why would I bother, rather than just getting on with my life? As to the multiple identities online. Yes, of course. While you might want everyone to know about all aspects of your life, mostly they are only interested in one or two of them.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Jan '13 - 12:01pm

    Isn’t there anyone in the Liberal Democrats whose attitude to Facebook, Twitter etc isn’t “we must all get involved in these wonderful things” but rather “the way in which these private companies are using social pressure to get us to sign up to use software they control and to get us to give information about ourselves they can use to make money our of us for them is downright worrying”?

  • Mike Falchikov 24th Jan '13 - 1:12pm

    Matthew. I’m certainly a Lib Dem who falls into your latter category. Coming from the pre-computer generation, I’ve happily embraced e-mail and the internet, but I think I know who my real friends are and how to get in touch with people with whom I might genuinely have something in common. I cannot understand the compulsion to tell it all to the whole world. It’s either terrible loneliness – which is very sad, but there are better ways to deal with that, or desperate self-promotion, which is equally troubling.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Jan '13 - 10:48am

    I’ve been using email for communication since the early 1980s, I was involved in internet discussion when the prime vehicle for it was usenet. So I’ve seen this move from something which was primarily a tool for academic researchers to becoming what it is now. My experience of how easy it was to get involved in usenet discussions and spend hours of your life in it, and also to divulge personal information you might because it looked like it was a small group of friends but had worldwide global access,has very much informed my scepticism about Facebook.

    However, with Facebook and Twitter and the like, we have the additional aspect of corporate control. In the early days, and in fact until not that long ago, internet involvement wasn’t corporately controlled in this way. You set up your own web page and you were in control of it. So far as I can see, Facebook is just about them providing you with some sort of template, and in return they not you are in control of the information. Why? As for Twitter, so far as I can see it’s about signing up to receive yet more emails, or communications like emails. Why? I already receive far too many, why should I sign up for more?

    What I resent in particular is the social pressure being exerted on us that says we are somehow old dinosaurs if we don’t sign up to these things, the way they are pushed as if everyone is on them, as if there’s no alternative. If I buy a new mobile phone, for example, I find it already set up with them, and what little information is provided with the phone is oriented towards me using it for them. So much promotion for organisations starts by inviting me to follow them on Facebook and Twitter – as indeed we find right at the top of THIS web page.

  • Andy raises a real issue which bothers me. I have an online identity as a poet and as someone who can do consultancy jobs on voluntary sector – statutory sector relations. Already I wonder if someone interested in the latter is going to be put off by the mainly literary focus of my LinkedIn identity (I uses Facebook rarely and have so far avoided Twitter). So OK, I can see that if as is likely I get back into being a candidate, I need a social media identity, but will voters be put off if they see me as being more interested in myth, the sea, death and rebirth than in potholes? And will literary contacts be put off by partisan Lib Dem stuff? Or should I become a politician on Twitter and an artist on LinkedIn?

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