Life on Marr’s


‘A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting. They are very angry people.’

Andrew Marr

This is a limited view from Marr, the BBC’s former Political Editor. There is no evidence to suggest that a lot of bloggers are anything like Marr suggests and, indeed, this is a personal view with no research to back it up. A blog, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is ‘a personal website or web page on which an individual records opinions, links to other sites, etc. on a regular basis’. In fact, when taking even a quick glance at some successful blogs, it is clear that bloggers come from a wide cross-section of society and their output varies greatly.

So, many bloggers are not ‘pimpled, single and bald’. Ree Drummond is a woman originally from Los Angeles, who left to live on a cattle ranch. Her blog, ‘Confessions of a Pioneer,’ details her transition from spoiled city girl to homely ranch wife, and what it shows us is that there are people who are far removed from Marr’s stereotype since she is often out and about, producing regular insights and comments for her readers.

Another example is Joe Romm, a physics PhD from MIT who took Climate Progress from a hobby quickly into a full-time passion. Ree and Joe are anything but the types of characters Marr envisions. Marr has said that he sees journalists as crusaders and yet he has glossed over the fact that, while there are many bloggers who write about their lives and hobbies, there are also those who crusade for social change.

There is a growing group of individuals who are calling on government – both national and local – to publish and make available a whole range of information – from bin collections to crime statistics – which they collect in the course of fulfilling their statutory duties. This campaign also has potential benefits for companies. Will Perrin, for example, runs King’s Cross Environment, a hyper local site which holds his local council to account and ensures they live up to their statutory duties. He does this by using the Freedom of Information Act, presenting the data he gets hold of in the most simple and readable manner. King’s Cross Environment gets things done. Here is Clay Shirky’s argument writ large, where an individual, seeking to bring about change in his local environment, taps into his cognitive surplus. The accessibility and affordability of blogging, unlike TV, has opened up the production process to relative newcomers.

There is, inevitably, an amateurish approach to much of the work by these people since this is still early days and the tools and the very concept that people can now easily produce their own content are quite new. However, that is not to say that people more versed in media production aren’t up to the job or that blogging is merely the domain of amateurs. Many prominent people in the media blog. Indexed, the BBC has over 300 blogs by it’s staff, which also refute Marr’s stereotype.

Another refutation of his view can be found by delving deeper into the BBC’s blogs, where you can find healthy debate amongst the bloggers and their audiences. We took a look at Gordon Farquhar’s blog – Farquhar works for BBC Radio 5 – where in a blog post from the Commenwealth Games in India, he posted about the noise spectators were making and the complaints that competitors were making about this. Issues such as racism and cultural differences were brought up in the piece and subsequent comments. Here is a great example of the BBC fulfilling its public service remit. Eliciting response and comment from a wide range of individuals.

On the other hand perhaps it would be better for the BBC to brief its journalists on social media because the lack of understanding in Nick Robinson’s view of bloggers may have effected how the audience responds to content, so we find on Robinson’s blog little in the way of comments. He is a contemporary of Marr’s and is said to be similarly dismissive of the medium. The result may be a static, half-hearted effort, leaving the audience with little desire to participate. This is what another BBC blogger does better at. Maggie Shields blog is more a conversation – it’s about sharing knowledge and understanding, which would suggest that Marr’s isn’t the only view about blogging at the BBC.

According to Channel Four News’ Khrishnan Guru Murthy, in a response to Marr in The Guardian, there is a point to blogging and microblogging, because they enable you to interact with your audience through different channels, including face-to-face communication. Blogging, then, affords people to share knowledge, which can be too much of a break from the norm for the likes of Marr, who is accustomed to the traditional approach of the mainstream news media. What is surprising, though, is how someone who is supposed to be unbiased and well-informed can be so wide of the mark.

Frank H Little, a Liberal Democrat Counsellor who blogs, sees Marr and his peers as out-of-touch with what’s happening outside of the London Media ‘village’ and goes some way to putting into context the role and behaviour of bloggers as well as the important role they serve.

‘We are seldom vituperative, and, if we are angry, it is with good reason. We pick up on aspects of the news which are ignored by the professionals in the London village. We fill in the gaps which the commercially-dominated media leave.’

Frank H Little, I May Be Inadequate But I am No Longer Pimply

Marr represents a tradition which sees the mainstream media as better able to report the news than the general public. Although we can’t say for certain what the motives for his comments are, we can point out that negative comments about social media in the mainstream media do support the commercial and professional interests of journalists like Marr.

‘BBC News blogs can be seen a new genre of journalism offered by the corporation, but it is one that has been largely defined by established professional parameters. The BBC experience suggests established news organisations may be taming the “black market journalism” aspects of blogging (Wall, 2004) by subduing it within journalistic norms and practices.’

Hermida (2010) THE BLOGGING BBC: Journalism blogs at ‘the world’s most trusted news organisation’ p. 13.

Methodology

The group undertook individual research around particular areas in seeking to look at Marr’s statement objectively. Following our individual research, we collaborated via email and, more specifically, the online collaborative writing tool Writeboard to share and edit our research.

Conclusion

Due to the accessibility of the technology available, there are bloggers who use the Internet to air their personal grievances, but our society has always had those individuals, whether it be the serial letter writer, the campaigner, and so on.

The web works best when it’s collaborative. Marr’s vision is that where there are the viewers being given media by the producers. The blogosphere is more a conversation, a debate between producers of content. We believe Marr has made a sweeping generalization.

by Jason Antoniewicz, Jez Collins, Qiya He and Karen Kiely.

MyTime, Our Times


Let’s imagine what an empathic society might look like. It would be a society where people are fearlessly open about their lives, where they’re more intimate with one another in a culture where all sorts of people work together to solve not only political, economic and social problems, but psychological ones, too. From what I saw last week at Hello Digital, that’s the society that’s on offer if social media reaches it’s full potential.

But such a society seems a long way off for people with mental health problems. We live in a society where people are all too often discriminated against on the basis of their health, where widespread prejudice in official as well as informal settings is casually dismissed with what can easily lead to detrimental effects on the health of an already disempowered section of British society. How might you react and what implications could that have on your health if there was no way out of such an environment? Like it or not, in 2010, that’s the society we live in.

The solution could be for people to use social media to familiarize themselves with new people from diverse communities leading, perhaps, to better understanding and a common purpose: to improve one another’s lives. This may sound like an overly ambitious fantasy, but it’s already happening on some parts of the Internet. On Facebook and Twitter people are opening up their private lives like never before, with amazing results. Rather than being shunned and judged, they are usually supported and helped by their peers.

If social media is going to fulfill its potential, there’s clearly a lot of work to do but, judging from what’s happened since 2007’s Power of Information report and what’s said to be on the horizon, it’s work that could quite conceivably happen. If social media can, as was outlined last week, change how we make decisions, how open we are about ourselves and our institutions, how we interact and how our society functions, then it isn’t a great leap of faith to imagine these influences benefiting everyone, even those who are currently excluded.

I’ve been to three very different events since I moved to Birmingham to study social media and yet all of them – ‘Hyperlocal Govcamp’, ‘Hello Digital’ and ‘The Lost Voice of Mental Health in Birmingham’ – were all concerned with improving services for people. The former two looked at how this could happen with social media, whereas MyTime, the people behind ‘Lost Voice’, concentrated on direct involvement with some of those who are digitally and socially excluded: those who’ve had serious social and mental health issues.

The emphasis at these events was on how organizations can help people gain better access to improved services. However, the way people are being targeted for inclusion right now appears to throw up many of the same faces you’d expect to take part in community activities – people who, from the outset, aren’t as disconnected from their wider communities. If this doesn’t change, the real power of information may result in the tragic scenario where even the transformational power of social media is threatened by existing social structures that are going to be unwilling and perhaps unable to change for a while yet.

Media_httpjaseantonco_ccetb

MyTime is a small social enterprise in Birmingham, run with a high proportion of service users in its management and care team. It uses a holistic approach in taking people, many of whom join the programme with severe mental health issues, and works with them to make improvements in their psychological and interpersonal functioning. MyTime’s methods and aims are not dissimilar to those who advocate social media as a panacea. Key phrases spring to mind: ‘empathy’, ‘a client-centred approach’, ‘empowerment’, ‘peer-to-peer support’, and so on. Such an approach is said to be beneficial not only to the clients and the organization, but also to the economy, with psychological therapy estimated to be a cost-effective approach to the financial demands psychiatric care has on the state.

A similar economic case can be made for the increasing use of social media. For example, if everyone was online, it would save the Government an estimated £900 million annually. And yet the poor, those with little education and people over 65 are not online as much as other sections of the population: better off people, younger people, healthier people. The challenge for digital inclusion, then, is to get the excluded involved so that existing inequalities don’t win out. There are signs that these fears may be groundless, though, with ample examples of people working on their own and in groups bringing about important changes in their lives and communities, of people offering peer-to-peer support, of getting their message across and engaging others. But, as yet, that isn’t really happening with the mental health community in Birmingham.

At this week’s Beyond 2010 conference in the city, the Government’s Chief Information Officer, John Suffolk, spoke of a ‘paradigm shift’, of things happening in the next ten years that would bring about the biggest changes we’ve ever seen, with implications for services, the economy and our well-being. And yet the third of people not online may miss out on these opportunities, which will effect how services are run. This should not be the case, since the debates around open data point to some interesting and relevant themes for mental health, like reaching out to people we may ordinarily not interact with in ways that offer peer-to-peer support.

Innovation, it’s said, starts with people, so while there are initiatives by Government to use technology to improve services, do we – the public – need to do more? These are our lives. Surely it would be foolish to wait for others to find solutions when the accessibility, the affordability and the sociability of social media give us the chance to make beneficial changes for ourselves and the people around us. Empathy enables people to come together. It breaks down barriers because it’s all about understanding. It’s based on good communication and can lead to better relationships.

As a vehicle for increasing empathy, social media seems ideal. But, while the emphasis of Hello Digital and the Hyperlocal Govcamp was on what organisations can do for people, little was said about what individuals can do with their own data to become more open themselves, about what we, as individuals and communities, can do to make social media work as it perhaps should. We could bring about closer ties so that not only do people hear about the issues, but that, because they’re close to them and can see their relevance for the wider society, they care about how those issues are dealt with.

My view is that we need to have more open government, more open data, more public and private sector organizations working with communities and people. But we need more than even this. We shouldn’t wait for others to improve things for us. We need to be more open and transparent about our personal lives to benefit fully from the social and psychological opportunities social media promises.

Admirable though MyTime’s work is in turning individual lives around, I saw little to suggest that they have a realistic and practicable answer to the question of how to engage the wider society and therefore tackle discrimination, which is surely a crucial step. At the moment, though, those with mental health conditions are not benefiting from what social media has to offer because they are not being reached by the people, like social media surgeons, who could help them get their message across to become active participants in this paradigm shift of technology. What may be needed is for both surgeons and the mental health community to both realize that they’re concerned with social and digital inclusion and that they both, therefore, could benefit from becoming involved with each another. MyTime wants to engage, but the only mention of social media during the day was to call for people to make use of The Guardian’s web site to complain about cutbacks in services.

This is too much like the bad old days, where you wrote to the editor of your local paper and got a polite response if you were lucky. No doubt people would get exposure of sorts, but the benefits of this approach would surely be buried in a mass of comments. Indeed, why rely on methods like this when the affordability and accessibility of social media make it possible for the mental health community to make their own sites, to build bridges with other communities and to engage more fully.

Media_httpjaseantonco_dbhvt

Organisations are often slow to change. MyTime, progressive as it is with its psychological work, is still behind the times with little knowledge or understanding of the potential of social media. For example, I asked for a video that had been presented during the day to post in this piece. One of the service users who’d worked on the project rejected this since ‘it wasn’t ready’. While it’s up to the organisation whether or not to release the video to a more general audience, this showed that, to bring about a strategy that would be in keeping with the spirit of Beyond 2010, they would need to realize just what the implications of social media could be. To hear ‘we’ve got our own site and we’ll put it there’ is not good enough, but that’s the way organizations have traditionally worked with the web and audiences (I must add that MyTime’s Managing Director did say I could have access to any materials, but the other comments show that this paradigm shift of technology isn’t anywhere near the top of their agenda).

That My Time’s web site, despite its use of social media tools, is more a one-way communication with the outside world than an involving conversation backs this up. Although there are, no doubt, more mentally ill people online than there once was, three years after the Power of Information report was published, the patterns of digital inclusion suggest that reaching those who are as socially excluded as those with mental health conditions is nearer, but still some way off.

So what of MyTime’s involvement on the web? Their site is quite static: although there’s a blog, there’s not much in the way of meaningful engagement. While it can be difficult to get people interested in mental health issues, the whole approach of the site is outdated and misguided in today’s world. For example, while there’s a link to Facebook, it merely points back to MyTime’s web site, not to a page or a group which could further attract and engage people. Additionally, there is no link to a Twitter account, and yet these are basic things which enable better feedback, iteration, and so on. A problem I find with trying to get people’s message across is that organisations like MyTime, while they do good work, tend to preach to the converted and suffer as a result.

An alternative approach would be to let people use social media to speak for themselves, to interact with other people, making use of what could be a different narrative than that framed by the organization. That way, we may even hear the voices of those who dropped out of MyTime’s therapeautic programme (a majority of those who initially took part). Many people with mental health issues have lived at the extremes of what it is to be human and yet, after clawing their way back to a life more ordinary, they can still be faced with shocking prejudice that threatens their well-being.

What’s more, some of these experiences can be at the hands of people who work in mental health – the very people charged with caring for the vulnerable. An effective approach to social media can be so important because it can bring people together so that they can highlight where things go wrong. You can’t implement a solution if you don’t know what the problem is, and for that to happen effectively, it pays to engage with people.

Media_httpjaseantonco_eaqvb

Donovan is a service user at MyTime. He has a story to tell and has extensively written about his experiences. He wants to set up a radio station to reach more people. While this is good in itself, it should only be part of the story, since there’s so much more people can do. But Donovan may not know where to go or what he could do to make the transition from service user easier. For Donovan, a conversation, rather than merely a piece to a mic, could expose him to people outside the confines of MyTime, peers who could build upon the initial work the organization does. A big part of social exclusion is bad relationships. Because better communication can lead to improvements here, surely anything that helps improve how we talk with one another has to be applauded.

But, still, little changes for the mentally ill. Michael Lilley, of MyTime, believes that ‘we need to have a revolution in mental health’. Remember the Government’s Chief Information Officer? Remember talk of a paradigm shift? Social media may well be the tool to bring about Lilley’s revolution, but he’s not aware of it. That’s a failure on his part, but it’s also a failure on the part of others who’ve failed to reach organisations like MyTime and their clients.

There is a need for good quality services which deal with people face-to-face, but with cutbacks threatening services similar to MyTown, the mental health community has a choice. It can wait for society to change or it can be part of that change in ways that are new, which don’t repeat the failures of past campaigns. We can either push our own agenda or join together to break out of our comfort zone, engaging with people from our wider communities and working towards tackling discrimination in our society. For that to happen, it takes more than a static web site. It takes involvement from individuals via the many online channels there are, not to mention the new ones that could be created, not to scare people off by telling our life stories when we first meet them, but to befriend people, then share information about our lives and the injustices many of us face.

Individuals need to be heard, but not at the expense of those who are less vocal, because that would be a piecemeal approach to the very real problem of social and digital exclusion and would threaten to create a new underclass. There are people who are trying to find ways to improve communities and services through social media and, to a certain extent, they’re starting to succeed. However, one of the most important aspects of these initiatives is feedback. Without much of a voice, those with mental health issues can’t be part of such processes, meaning another lost opportunity and services which may sideline these people.

Granted, many of those with mental health issues can be difficult to deal with, but there’s reasons for that which, ironically, are often contributed to by the very people who most vocally criticise the mentally ill. Meanwhile, former and current service users have often been exposed to restricted, toxically damaging environments, characterised by bad ideas of relating to the world, bad communication and bad relationships. This situation can be all they know, so it’s little wonder that they can present themselves in ways that other sections of society often find difficult. Part of the reason for this is that the mentally ill are rarely heard on their own terms.

Social media, then, offers a different approach: exposure to a wider community, the chance to communicate more effectively, improved relationships, greater acceptance of alternative viewpoints, the opportunity to think in healthier ways and the ability, in the face of all this, to search for effective new ways of doing things. Many mentally ill people can be unreliable, because of what MyTime calls ‘chaotic lives’, but these chaotic lives also need looking into. If we can use our collective, shared intelligence to highlight what goods and services to buy, if we can harness it to increase our knowledge and use it to learn more about where we live, surely we can use that shared intelligence to make improvements in our thinking towards people who are socially and digitally excluded.

However, as for the transformational potential of social media, even though there’s a lot of reasons to be optimistic, my experience of last week suggests that, for those with mental health conditions, now is not the time.

Is Anyone Crazy in Birmingham?


‘As human beings, we have the dichotomous psychological need to be our own individual, yet we also want to feel that we belong to and are accepted by a much larger social set. People are willing to keep open running diaries as a way to stay connected because their ultimate need is to feel accepted.’

Erik Qualman, Socialnomics

Last year, I started Imeus, a site for people with mood disorders, like depression and bipolar. At the time, there were no British sites that were polished enough or social enough for people with mental health conditions, which were run by people with mental health issues. We chatted, we blogged, we debated and we shared things. Most of the time we kept a check on one another and engaged in small talk, having a lot of fun.  But there were moments when we told one another about what happens to people like us. We understood and got to know one another better, leading to greater revelations about ourselves and, therefore, stronger ties. We were a healthy community and we felt healthier in having that community.

What I learned from Imeus was that a social site could make a difference in people’s lives both socially and psychologically and that pretty much anyone could do it – the tools, the simplicity of them and their inexpensiveness meant that such a venture was accessible to many, but relatively few knew about it. But the rewards were many: people could come together and, by placing more of their lives online, there was a more open and communicative community with an atmosphere that was different to that on other sites that were still rooted in web1.0. What’s more, Imeus was our site, our community, and we behaved as such.

Media_httpjaseantonco_lbjbc

I’ve been involved with the mental health community for over a decade and I’ve both experienced and witnessed how myself and other people with mental health conditions are discriminated against, how many are neglected, with little chance of being heard or having their ideas implemented into policy which, of course, has implications for initiatives like the Government’s ‘Big Society’. It’s often the case that well-meaning people start initiatives, but the power and access to the debates are beyond the majority of mental health clients. There is therefore rarely meaningful action and inequalities remain largely unaffected.

People with mental health conditions are often at the lower strata of British society, often coming from economically deprived backgrounds, often with diminished life chances, with consequences for their confidence and inclination to do something, so they’re often left unheard and, if their experiences are given expression, this is granted by others who structure and filter these accounts with their own values, influenced by their own experiences.

Media_httpjaseantonco_sgoyu

I’m convinced social media could help change that, but there are few signs in the Birmingham blogging scene that it is right now. Of the prominent blogs that there are, there is a lack of a conversation between people who have conditions. Birmingham City University’s mental health blog, The Mental Health Nursing and Learning Difficulties Lecturer’s Tea Party, for example, is a blog written by lecturers that covers the issues, but it is not user-based or user-led, meaning that, again, the people who need to be heard, aren’t. North Birmingham Community Arts, a user-led blog, has been running since 2006. Admirable though it is, it only has a total of 16 posts, only one of which has been commented upon. Twice.

Media_httpjaseantonco_qdayh

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are other blogs, the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust UserWatch, for example, but these sites seem to be run by the same people. Again, this hardly empowers the majority of clients.

Media_httpjaseantonco_xhcdm

So there aren’t many people who are openly blogging about mental health in Birmingham. Why? I think it is primarily down to a lack of self-confidence among many mental health clients, fear of prejudice in revealing a mental health condition and the digital divide. This does not bode well for any ‘Big Society’, since the mentally ill are likely to be sidelined by yet another initiative. In mental health, we’ve seen it all before and have perhaps become defeatist in the process.

Phatic communication, I believe, is a blessing in disguise. It is said that we need to focus more on more substantial topics, like civics, which is true, but we still need small talk because it is social and it’s more of a starting point than an end in itself, leading to the possibility of more substantial relationships. Talking about the weather today means that, tomorrow, you may have built relationships which can be the springboard for tackling topics that are of more heartfelt concern. Getting together with others can then lead to other things, increasing the chance of productive action and effective changes in mental health policy.

Again, the starting point for this is the sociability of phatic communication, the channel for which could quite easily be social media. However, people with mental health conditions often feel excluded from such processes. What people fail to see – or if they see it, are too apprehensive to do anything about it – is that social media can be a way of combating this ignorance by allowing people to become better informed and to have a personal interest in the lives of many other people. There are conversations taking place, but they’re usually closed off from the wider public, on sites like Facebook. The lack of open blogging activity in Birmingham in the area of mental health isn’t, therefore, the full picture. Microbloggers’ talk is not merely about people’s last night out, as it sometimes appears, but there are moments when people discuss deeper things that are personal to them, off the radar of Google and Technorati, be that through messages, phones, face-to-face conversations and so on.

But to get to that stage, we need to get to know one another.  This is a strength of phatic communication – that it leads to greater things.  We are, in the end, more likely to want to know people we like and are less likely to discriminate against someone we understand than someone we have little idea about. There’s quite a lot happening in Birmingham’s blogging scene around the subject of social media. The sad thing is that this does not involve people who, perhaps, need a voice the most. That said, social media proponents are trying to increase participation with people from diverse backgrounds, empowering them in the process. Let’s hope they succeed and that people who currently fear the wider community help bring about one that they need fear no longer.