Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Just because you can say something…

…doesn’t mean that you should. Of course.

A bit of a Twitter flurry this morning about a case of a civil servant apparently being disciplined because of their use of the service.

The account in question, nakedCservant, is protected, so the updates aren’t public, and as I have never requested access, I can’t see what they are saying. However, according to this report, the civil servant behind the account was critical of ministers and government policy.

Various folk have called this out as being an example of a crack down on public servants being allowed to use services like Twitter in the workplace.

I’m not convinced it is.

The issue here is the message, not the medium, and it reminds me very much of the Civil Serf affair a few years ago. Whilst I don’t know the exact detail of this case, it’s clear that the civil servant is almost certainly in breach of the civil service code in terms of the content of their tweets.

In other words, the Twitter bit of this story is irrelevant. The result would be the same if this person were saying these things in emails, memos, letters to the newspaper, whatever.

I’ll go through my usual list of points when these stories emerge:

1. If you want to stay out of trouble, don’t slag people off in public.

2. Don’t rely on anonymity to protect you. Unless you’re very good, if somebody wants to find out who you are, they can do.

3. Having ‘these are my views, not those of my employer’ in your Twitter biography means absolutely nothing in reality. It’s no protection at all and I worry when I hear people being advised to do it as a way to feel safe about this stuff.

4. Never publish anything on the web you wouldn’t be happy to show your boss, your mother or a journalist. Assume everyone can see everything you write and that way you won’t be surprised when it turns out they can.

5. We’re in a strange situation at the moment where our personal and professional identities are in a state of flux and can’t be separated in a reasonable way. Most people, especially those that work in public services, can easily be traced to their employers online with a bit of Googling.

Maybe at some point in the future this will be sorted out, and we’ll have a common understanding of where work stops and home starts. But until then, be careful and if you have to think twice about posting something online, don’t post it!

Update: Steph adds on Twitter “don’t do politics” – and he’s right.

Update 2: Jimmy Leach blogs the view from the FCO.

Comments – is Facebook the answer?

Commenting on websites is a funny thing. Luckily for me, DavePress is sufficiently niche not to attract too many readers, so the problem of being inundated by moronic comments has never really been an issue for me.

For big, popular sites though, commenting can be a real issue. You just need to take a look through the comment threads on posts on Guido’s blog, for instance, to see how ugly things can get.

It’s not just the offensive, though, it’s the irrelevant that can be just as annoying. People leaving meaningless comments just to draw attention to themselves, or their own websites.

Part of the issue is the ease of anonymity with website comments. With a system like WordPress, all you need to do is enter an email address and your name, and you can submit any comment you like.

There are solutions, like Disqus and Intense Debate, which go a bit further to enable commenters to tie their contributions to existing online identities. This goes some way to improving the standard of comments, but it’s still relatively easy to subvert this and go anonymous. It’s part of the cost, I guess, of keeping barriers to entry low.

One new opportunity here though is using Facebook to power your comments – the page explaining it is here.

The technology blog TechCrunch has already implemented it as an experiment, and interestingly, with comments being tied to personal identities, the standard of commenting has risen:

In the past few hours, most of the anonymous trolls who have come to call TechCrunch comments a second home are gone. Of course, some people don’t want to comment with their real names for good reason (they want to speak freely without fear of reprisals), but for the most part in practice anonymity was abused. It was used mostly as a shield to hide behind and throw out invective…

The other main benefit is social virality. When you comment on TechCrunch, your comment also appears in your Facebook stream with a link back to the post (unless you opt out of that option in the comment box).

Seems good, but it isn’t perfect. Some of the issues:

  • Not everyone has a Facebook account, so won’t be able to comment
  • Facebook is banned in many workplaces, so people won’t be able to access or contribute to comments
  • There doesn’t seem to be a way at the moment to extract your site’s comment data out of Facebook
  • There probably are instances where anonymous commenting is a good thing, and Facebook comments makes it pretty hard to do

So, as always, the answer as to the best way of managing comments on websites is ‘it depends’. Having the Facebook option is a useful addition to the toolkit, though, and it will be interesting to see if any public service types use it in the future.

Bookmarks for August 18th through September 8th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

  • Civic Commons code-sharing initiative bids to reduce government IT costs – "Around the United States, city governments have created a multitude of software. Unfortunately, most of the time the code from those projects is not shared between municipalities, which results in duplication of effort and redundant, static software."
  • Anonymity, trust and openness on the social intranet – "In some organisations, the cloak of anonymity could help to establish the first part of that trust relationship, and reassure colleagues that leaders are, in fact, really listening; once it exists, it’s easier to step out of the shadows with a greater degree of trust and openness."
  • The end of history – "History will, of course, look after itself. It always has. But the future history of our time will be different from our histories of past times, and that will not be because we have an eye to the future, but because we are always relentless focused on the present."
  • Why aren’t we all working for Learning Organisations? – "…the authors suggest a way for managers to switch from a ‘command and control’ to a ‘systems thinking’ mindset in order to achieve genuine organisational learning."
  • Quixly – Cool way to host and deliver paid-for content, such as e-books.
  • Understanding Marin County’s $30 million ERP failure – It's not just UK government that cocks up IT projects.
  • Google Wave open source next steps: "Wave in a Box" – "We will expand upon the 200K lines of code we've already open sourced (detailed at waveprotocol.org) to flesh out the existing example Wave server and web client into a more complete application or "Wave in a Box.""
  • Should Governments Legislate a Preference for Open Source? – "It's easy to legislate a preference for Open Source, and difficult to implement a level playing field upon which Open Source and proprietary software could compete fairly. Thus, a number of governments have enacted the preference as an easy-to-legislate way of solving the problem, but I submit not optimally. Having a preference gives proprietary software an opening to portray themselves as the "injured party", when the reality is that historically there has been a preference for proprietary software in both legislation and internal process of government purchasers, and this still exists today."
  • Wiki life – "The point, in the end, is that Wikimedia by its DNA operates in public and benefits accrue — not just as product and engagement and promotion and distribution but also as strategy. That’s the next step in creating the truly public company or organization."
  • First Impressions: VaultPress (WordPress Backup) – Nice summary of the premium backup service for WordPress (sadly just in beta at the moment).
  • Sink or Swim – Donald Clark on the birth of Learning Pool and why the public sector needs it more than ever.
  • Damien Katz: Getting Your Open Source Project to 1.0 – Great notes on successful open source development.
  • Harold Jarche » The Evolving Social Organization – "For decades, organizational growth has been viewed as a positive development, but it has come at a cost."
  • O’Reilly, Open Government and the Ingenuity of Enthusiasm – "It is quite clear that performance management and procurement, as well as many other government processes, need to be revised, reformed or radically changed. But this won’t happen unless we recognize that government and its employees need to remain in charge, need to stay as the custodians of neutrality and transparency, and we, the people, developers or users, can just help them do a better job but not replace them in any way."
  • Research findings and recommendations for Councils – Some fantastic shared learning here from Michele.
  • sigil – "Sigil is a multi-platform WYSIWYG ebook editor. It is designed to edit books in ePub format."
  • Enterprise 2.0 Perceived Risks: Myth or Reality? – "…security is a personal thing, a personal trait that everyone needs to nurture and treasure accordingly."
  • Using Free, Open-Source Software in Local Governments – "…how is it that local governments have failed to capitalize on the cost-saving and productivity-enhancing benefits of using open source software, especially given the budget crises they face?"
  • Open Government Data – "This event will bring together movers and shakers from the world of open government data — including government representatives, policymakers, lawyers, technologists, academics, advocates, citizens, journalists and reusers."
  • WordPress › Email Users « WordPress Plugins – "A plugin for wordpress which allows you to send an email to the registered blog users."

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Anonymity, community and identity

A while ago, I got a bit of a bee in my bonnet about anonymity online, and why it sucked. This was in the wake of the ‘Civil Serf‘ (remember her?) kerfuffle, when a blogger working in government said some things she shouldn’t have done, thinking she was protected by anonymity. She wasn’t of course, and got found out.

Generally speaking, I’m in favour of people being transparent online about who they are: it builds trust and adds credence to what people are saying. There are exceptions of course, for whistleblowers and political activists, for whom being open about their identity could be dangerous.

For me, the Greater Internet Dickwad Theory usually holds true:

Internet dickwad theory

I was reminded of the topic a few weeks back, when I posted about forums, and specifically 4chan. 4chan is a remarkably popular site, and also a remarkably foul one, which is why I’m not linking to it (not because I disaprove, just that I wouldn’t like to be responsible for someone having their internet access taken away from them). It’s an ‘image board’ – basically a pretty simple forum where people post images or text in thread discussions. Sophisticated it ain’t.

What sets 4chan apart from many online communities is that anonymity is not only tolerated, but encouraged. This freedom to post without reprisals results in some truly shocking things being said, but for those with the constitution to sift through it, also some genuinely creative stuff. Quite a few of the popular internet memes started on 4chan – including LOLcats and Rickrolling. Fine, hardly the stuff of huge cultural significance, but creative and cool, and worthwhile.

Anyway, there’s a great article about 4chan, and its founder, Christopher Poole (aka ‘moot’) in Technology Review, which you really ought to read in full:

Support for anonymous communication often comes down to a standard set of arguments: people should have a place where they can speak truth to power (blow a whistle on corruption, assess whether an emperor has clothes) without fear of reprisal; they should also have a place where they can be true to themselves (explore an unconventional sexuality, seek treatment for a stigmatized disease) without risking ostracism and worse. But while Poole embraces these arguments, what he says in defense of the anonymity on 4chan is at once less high-minded and (in ways he is only slowly coming to understand) more far-reaching: “People deserve a place to be wrong.”

The article links to Poole’s talk at the Ted conference, which is both interesting and short:

Identity is a massive issue, particularly for government, and especially where services are being delivered. Yet in terms of the fluffier, engagement stuff I wonder whether we need to be too bothered about anonymity in every case. I’m obviously not recommending that we use 4chan as a consultation platform. Although… no. It wouldn’t work. Would it? No. Definitely not.

Maybe it’s easier sometimes to keep the barriers to entry as low as possible and be prepared to have to sift through an awful lot of stuff to find the gems. Put the burden on the askers, not the answerers.

Civil servants, blogs and anonymity

Back onto one of my favourite subjects: bloggers’ anonymity. There’s plenty of background here.

Paul Johnston wrote in the comments:

Great to see this upswing in civil servant blogging, but quite understandably they seem to be anonymous. Very understandable in my opinion and in my view quite acceptable if that is what suits the individuals best. I assume these civil servants want to remain anonymous a) to reduce the likelihood of the media doing anything silly with what they write b) to emphasize that what they say has nothing to do with the views of their employer. Are you still uncomfortable with that, Dave?

I replied that it doesn’t make me uncomfortable, just that I think transparency is always preferable. Besides, Mark O’Neill of DCMS has revealed his identity, it’s just Chris the Digital Pioneer who is staying in the shadows for now. I guess it depends on what you are doing, and one of the victims of the brevity of the guidance is that it’s hard to apply it all to every way a civil servant can participate online.

Take the recent example of Dylan Jeffrey from DCLG posting a comment on this blog, giving his department’s position on a topic under discussion. Had he done this anonymously, it would have been pretty useless.

Jeremy Gould blogs openly as himself, and as a result has become influential in the world of eGov, and has done a significant amount to push the agenda forward. This wouldn’t have been posible if no-one knew who he was.

As for the liklihood of media twisting words or messages – well, Civil Serf pretty much answers that one. Point one is that the media will report it even if it is anonymous; and number two is that discovering the identity of the blogger becomes part of the game. In the meantime, the anonymous blogger, perhaps lulled into a false sense of security, has blogged things that perhaps they really shouldn’t and ends up in even more trouble once they are outed, which is inevitable.

I don’t really have that much of a problem with anonymous bloggers, really, I just think that nobody really stays anonymous for long and that whatever they are trying to achieve with their blog in the vast majority of cases would be more successful if their identity is known. There are exceptions: people in oppressive regimes, etc, but for civil servants, as the guidance says, “be a civil servant”!

Anonymity part n

I’ve lost track of how many posts I have written on anonymous blogging. It’s like picking a scab: I just can’t leave it alone. There’s a real debate going on in the comments of my last post between me and Joshua March – Josh is coming up with some interesting arguments, but I’m not swaying on this one.

I knew I had read something by Robert Scoble once about anonymity. Turns out he’s written loads. But this one stuck out for me:

…I don’t advise anyone try the anonymous route: either be straight up with your boss and everyone, or stay off the Internet.

Wise words.

How not to blog anonymously

In the wake of the Civil Serf debacle, the issue of anonymous blogging has once more raised its grubby head. I maintain that it is a dumb idea that encourages dickwadery. Most folk agree.

Some don’t however, and – more dangerously – they put this into action and start an anonymous blog themselves. Take, for example, ‘The UK Libertarian‘ which published its first and only post a few days ago. Now, the UK Libertarian isn’t pulling his or her punches. Oh no!

[Quote removed on humanitarian grounds – see the comments]

Now then, that’s not very nice! Not surprising then, with such incendiary views, that the author notes:

I’ve kept this blog anonymous so that I can shout out what I think, and I want you to shout right back at me.

I would be tempted. Only, I think that whole anonymous thing is about to come crashing down.

The thing is that the UK Libertarian is on blogger. Blogger gives you a global profile which lists all your blogs. If you want to keep a blog anonymous, then it’s a good idea to keep that blog off your profile. Bet you know what’s coming now, right?

Josh Cowan’s blogger profile

The image above is a screen grab of the Blogger profile of Josh March, who writes a blog about PR and social media called Social Marketing Strategy by Joshua (and from which his profile is linked, which is how I found it) and runs a company by the name of inetworkmarketing. It turns out Josh’s other blog is none other than…UK Libertarian! Ooerwhatagiveaway.

Let’s hope inetworkmarketing’s business plan isn’t predicated on getting any government or public sector work…