I’ve just read The Wired’s gripping Joshuah Bearman’s ‘Untold Story of Silk Road’ (part 2 is flagged at bottom of part 1). I can’t wait for the book (and the movie too, I hope), but for now Bearman’s piece (with others credited) is more than worth spending an hour on, along with the other super links provided by Wired. On an internet rebel theme, you might like to take in Andrew O’Hagan’s brilliant literary piece on ghosting Assange for the London Review of Books, upon which a million people hit the first few days it was up.
I’m a co-founder of the UK’s parliament’s ICT Forum (PICTFOR) and maintain an interest in the broad area where technology meets politics. And, having read the Bearman piece, I put the piece down – like when you walk out of a good movie – thinking about daft wee tech mysteries of my own. So here’s a thing which struck me a few months ago – there might be a perfectly reasonable explanation; or maybe not. Let’s see who replies…..
Just before the election, the BBC website ran a Demos think-tank piece about MPs replying to tweets. Some MPs use Twitter as a crude press release device and others actually engage with folk, apparently. I was named as one of the 10 who ‘replied’ most, and so were 3 other Scottish MPs (who all lost their seats, and mine is now an SNP seat so draw you own conclusions about the local electoral importance of social media from that…) I recognised as very engaged on Twitter. Tim Farron, though, presently standing as leader of the Lib Dem rump, was the absolute star of the Demos ‘study’. 93% of his tweets were replies – blimey that man is ‘engaged’ the BBC – and everyone else Demos had contacted with their research – screamed.
I was bemused by the statistic, and I’ve a feeling the other MPs mentioned in the ‘study’ were too. It wasn’t so much that there were 4 Scots (2 of whom were Lib Dem MPs) in the ‘top’ 10 – the analysis doesn’t really have any political or academic value at all as it’s presented but Scotland’s an interesting case and non-SNP MSPs behave like Councillors with no scope to engage at national level – more that the figure attributed to Tim Farron looked really weird and the whole thing gave the impression of being a Tim Farron ruse for a cheap headline. Maybe that’s wrong, but I’d be interested to know what folk think.
Think about how you use Twitter and imagine that 93% of your tweets are replies. There’s something odd about that for a start, isn’t there? Over a one week period, Farron apparently sent 876 tweets and of those 816 were ‘replies’ – way over 100 ‘replies’ every day including weekends. Now, I don’t doubt that’s true, I just wonder what was going on there? A glance at Tim Farron’s Twitter account shows that he (not ‘staff’ – surely, or that undermines the whole story) uses ‘replies’ very much and in a quite unusual way. You can draw your own conclusions, and you’ll quite likely be a better analyst than me, but I did wonder at the time if the stylised way Farron uses his account, and especially during that ramped-up week (you can check the last week starting in Jan if you fancy it…), bore an uncanny relationship with the subject of Demos’ study. Indeed, the timing of the ramped-up week of many tweets seems to have co-incided exactly with the Demos ‘study’, in fact…..hmmmmm.
What I wondered at the time was whether the Demos ‘study’ was designed to come out just at a time which served Farron’s interest – just before an election everyone knew would likely see the Lib Dems screwed and when most Lib Dem MPs were thinking about working hard for an election, Farron seems to have been thinking mainly about how he could prosper from a Lib Dem wipeout. After all, pretty much everyone Farron is ‘replying’ to at the time is a Lib Dem supporter and this remains true from his tweets since (as a quick glance at his timeline today shows). I did notice that none of the ‘research’ was public and had a brief exchange with the Demos staff, Carl Miller, who chose to credit me with being a good ‘replier’ rather than direct me to the source material. But, to be perfectly honest, I then reflected upon the Demos imprimateur and decided that it was probably just a co-incidence. Demos is a credible bunch, after all.
Bearman’s piece reminded me, in that coming-out-of-the-cinema way, of that whole oddity. I googled Carl Miller and found him on ‘Lib Dem Voice’. Uh oh.
So here’s what I wonder. Did Tim Farron, thinking less about the election than the way he’d benefit from a wipe-out, have prior contact with a Demos staffer who is also a Lib Dem activist and fix a daft study which would use Demos’ brand and contacts to get him some cheap coverage in advance of a near-inevitable Lib Dem leadership race? If so, most politicians would say full credit to Farron for cunning.
But where does that leave Demos?
Or, you know, maybe there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation…blah, blah….