Digital Daydreams, Network Nightmares and Convergent Technologies

Do you remember “convergent technologies”?

Actually, I’m sure they’ve not gone away, but I’ve heard the expression rather less often lately. I think my introduction was as a mountaineer. I had a watch, I had an altimeter. Separate. Then someone started selling watches that were also altimeters, and soon there were altimeters that were also watches. One of these saved my life once, skiing alone in a sudden white-out in a remote part of Norway. Another story.

Then we had GPS units, and wished we could have a GPS that we could use like a wristwatch. Wish granted. I now have a GPS-altimeter-watch-MP3 thingy. A bit of me loves convergent technologies like this, even if it was basically the same stuff that gave us abominable music centres in the 1970s. Remember, one bit broke and all the rest were, in effect, useless?

I suppose that smart-phones are where it’s at right now with convergent technologies, upping the game to an extent that was probably inconceivable even ten years ago, when we had PDAs, Psions, etc.

Now, despite the impression I’ve given, I am not that much of a gadget freak. I describe myself as a devout non techie too. Early adopter of good stuff at best, but I am increasingly interested in the convergence possibilities of the apps that run on our modern shinies. And that’s made me realise how much tunnel vision there is on these things in the public and voluntary sectors, where my experience lies.

For some things I am doing these days, I’d been mentally mapping out the strengths and weaknesses of some of the basic components of public and civil engagement for a while. You know, Twitter, FB, LinkedIn, YouTube, Flickr, public meetings, webcasting, and so on, and on, and on. My reverie was halted by the elegant simplicity of something friends in Monmouthshire did recently, which was to post on YouTube something which has, I bet, in almost all local authorities, up to now been the province of public meetings – a presentation on the prospects for the forthcoming year’s budget, and the considerations behind precept setting.

Forgive me, those who have been doing this for years and keeping it a secret, but Monmouthshire’s piece nicely un-picked for me the view that some things are best at one thing, and other tools are necessary for other things. A quick test where I used to work confirmed that, say, YouTube was simply not seen as being “for” stuff like budget consultations. No, that was fodder for public meetings, where a highly polished, pre-packaged product could be launched according to script. Duty done, go home, move on. My personal cynicism extends to wondering whether there is a fear that putting something on YouTube might lead to it being seen by “the wrong type of people”.

I bet Monmouthshire have seldom found a more cost-effective way to get their budget proposals seen by more people, either. Yes, cost effective. The overheads for webcasting seem to me to be huge. The tech needed to webcast even the simplest meeting amazes me, when a couple of Flip cameras, or a few smartphones could do just as well for many events if the need is just to capture flavour, key issues and a few video-bites. Yet there is a mindset that web casting is “the way”. Like Twitter is “the way” if all you have to say will fit 140 characters, of FB is “the way” to get a young audience. You know these myths.

Now, I’m not claiming any Damascene revelations here. You and I see YouTube clips linked to tweets every day. But do we see them from government and local authorities? If not, what’s holding that back?

Unscientifically, I just did a quick search of ten local authority web site sections about Freedom of Information Act requests. Actually, it started out as more than ten local authorities, but there were several where I just got bored and gave up looking for their advice for would be FOI enquirers. All of the ten know very well that it’s legal and permissible to put in an FOI by Twitter. One of them even mentions this. However, in none of those I looked at (and it was a completely random trawl) did any give the Twitter address to be used in such cases. My conclusion? That deep down, those in charge of that content would really just prefer you didn’t use Twitter, thank you very much. It’s not “for” that sort of thing, is it?

Hardly a week goes by without me hearing from somewhere, of a local authority or voluntary organisation web site that encourages users to pick up the ‘phone to further an enquiry, rather than use e-mail to a specified address. Again, usually for the sort of stuff that those in charge deem to be best done (within their own comfort zone) by a telephone call. And so on.

I’m not saying there aren’t good people out there who are trying to get truly convergent with their communications and engagement channels, but I do think they are being held back by a rather limited tunnel view of “what works best”.

I suppose that now, I need to put this out on YouTube or tar myself with the same brush.

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