JScott.me //Citizen participation in new media

British Gas - Open interviewing

Written by Jonathan Scott on October 18, 2013.

Yesterday, British Gas attempted to... actually, I'm not really sure what they were trying to do here. They started a Q&A session on Twitter using the hashtag #AskBG on the day they raised prices by 9%.

To look at British Gas's Twitter profile, it looks like a pretty typical PR exercise, chosing the questions they can answer easily and attempting to make themselves look like they're bravely trying to keep prices down but unable to.

Because of how Twitter works, many users were watching the #AskBG stream rather than the British Gas profile. This meant that British Gas had created a highly visible platform for people to express their anger and had no way of controlling it. In a more typical Q&A setting these questions would never have been published but on social media there's little British Gas can do.

And there are many, many more. I had to cut some from this post because there are far too many to show.

The backlash then hit the blogs and news sites, including The Daily Mirror, The Guardian (twice), The Independent, The BBC, The Telegraph, etc. etc. The Q&A gained a lot of publicity for British Gas but not the kind they expected when they devised this social media experiment.

Despite the Q&A session ending yesterday at 2PM. The questions haven't stopped coming.

This situation is a bit unfair really, because there's nothing the British Gas social media team could have done in this situation to placate those complaining. In a more typical Q&A (such as those on /r/AskReddit) the open format really highlights questions which the interviewee doesn't want answered and stops them avoiding them. When the interviewee is on the defensive from the beginning, there's only really going to be one outcome and again I have no idea what the British Gas social media team was thinking when they decided to do this.

Hugo Chavez - Where are all the people?

Written by Jonathan Scott on March 13, 2013.
Image from laiguana.tv

Since the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez last week, those who follow the media have heard a range of opinions about him as a person, his time in office, and the efficacy of his policies.

We’ve heard from British Leftists, American Rightists, Venezualan Americans and, moving away from the mainstream media, American Venezuelans. There are a range of angles taken on the life of Hugo Chavez, some of them quite bizarre.

Chavez invested Venezuela’s oil wealth into social programs including state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor families, free health clinics and education programs. But those gains were meager compared with the spectacular construction projects that oil riches spurred in glittering Middle Eastern cities, including the world’s tallest building in Dubai and plans for branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in Abu Dhabi. - Associated Press, March 05 2013

If we look more carefully we can find opinions from Venezuelans actually living in Venezuela. But to accept these views as representative of the people is to fail to understand the limitations of this type of journalism.

Though it has been improving, the internet still has very limited penetration when looked at from a global perspective. In the UK, a rather more developed country than Venezuela, 15% of the population have never used the internet, every one of them earning less than £500 per week (ONS, 2013).

In Venezuela, only 42% of the population have access to the internet (CONATEL, 2013). Though they don’t break down the figures by income level it’s a good bet the majority of this 42% is made up of wealthy people.

Adding to this problem is the fact that, thought it is taught in Venezuelan schools, English is not spoken to a good degree by a large proportion of the population. Wealthy people are far more likely to have to time and resources to learn a foreign language.

This adds up to placing a high barrier to entry for people wishing to add to the story. The web has been claimed to be capable of giving power to the people, democratising the news process and to increase representation of minority groups. But due to the requirement that people commenting on Hugo Chavez both have internet access and speak English, we’re excluding people who have a unique perspective and very valid points to make.

If we’re to claim that the media is telling ‘the truth’ then they need to be able to get information from the people on the ground. To be able to find out what poor Venezuelans actually think of Chavez, we need to find ways to allow them to contribute to the debate for themselves. Rich compatriots and sympathetic foreigners are no substitute.

  1. ONS. (2013, February). Internet Access Quarterly Update, Q4 2012. Retrieved from http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/rdit2/internet-access-quarterly-update/2012-q4/stb-ia-2012-q4.html
  2. CONATEL. (2013, January). SERVICIO DE INTERNET INDICADORES AÑOS 1998 - 2012. Retrieved from http://www.conatel.gob.ve/files/Indicadores/indicadores_2012_anual/internet_13.pdf