Barts-MS rose-tinted-odometer: zero-★s
The Barts-MS blog is having yet another existential crisis.
Have you been to Speakers’ Corner on the Northeast point of Hyde Park in London? If you haven’t I would recommend visiting and spending an hour or so watching and listening. Speakers’ Corner is where anyone, who is anyone, can stand on a soapbox and speak their mind on any topic that takes their fancy. A Victorian version of the modern podcast, but only live. Another example of an early form of social media was pamphleting. The so-called pamphleting wars started in the 1600s shortly after the printing press. Individuals and Societies used pamphleting as a means of getting their message to people on the streets. Popular pamphleteers, dare I say early influencers, were Daniel Defoe, Thomas Hobbes, Jonathan Swift, John Milton, and Samuel Pepys.
I came across pamphleting when I was preparing my talk for James Parkinson’s memorial day and discovered that Parkinson used pamphleting as means to run political campaigns. Interestingly, Parkinson wrote under the pseudonym, ‘Old Hubert’, and was a prominent member of two campaigning societies for reforms at the time: the London Corresponding Society and the Society for Constitutional Information.
Another pamphleting example I discovered whilst researching diet was by William Banting, a portly Victorian gentleman, who discovered by deductive reasoning and trial and error that a low-carbohydrate-high-fat diet led to rapid and sustained weight loss. Instead of writing a book, he wrote a pamphlet and the LCHF diet is now eponymously referred to as the Banting Diet and the practice of being on his diet as ‘banting’. Tilly Tansy, a medical historian and colleague, refers to pamphleting as being the equivalent of Twitter in the pre-digital era.
I wonder what Georgian and Victorian Londoners would have thought about YouTube and vlogging, a very modern version of the Speakers’ Corner, and the new generation of influencers it has spawned? Surely they are the modern equivalents of James Parkinson and William Banting, except with more rapid global appeal.
What all social media platforms have in common is that they allow almost everyone a platform, be it writing (Twitter, WordPress, Blogger), pictures (Instagram, Pinterest), voice (podcasting), music (Soundcloud) or video (YouTube vlogging), to compete with each other and sometimes head-on with the traditional media.
I argue that social media is the ultimate expression of a mature democracy, which is why as a liberal I am extremely concerned about the mounting level of political interference in social media and the governance of the web. Censorship and loss of net neutrality are existential threats and should be resisted. This has come to the fore during the US 2020 Presidential election and more recently with the backlash against the anti-Vaxxers.
A few years ago I was referred to at a public meeting as being an MS influencer. A modern term to describe someone who uses social media to influence the people who follow them. What makes one person become an influencer and stand out from the crowd is no different from a speaker on Speakers’ Corner who draws the biggest crowd. The most important characteristics are reputation, i.e. being trustworthy or honest, having standards and sticking to them, and being consistent. Another characteristic is novelty; being prepared to put your head above the parapet and not follow the crowds. You need to have something new to say or at least have a new spin on an old idea. The problem with this blog is that sometimes what one blogger writes is assumed to represent the opinions of the other bloggers on the site and the Barts-MS collective. This is clearly not the case and explains why we often disagree with each other. Do I really have to remind this audience that debate is healthy and that calling each other out over a bad idea is how science works?
Very few ideas are original, but how you communicate them is key to novelty and stickiness. Stickiness is an adjective to describe how well ideas stick and are transmitted in society. Less is usually more when it comes to social media. Addressing an unmet need is also critically important. The unmet need, however, is in the eye of the beholder. You can’t please everyone so you need to define your audience and be careful not to stray off target. The real power of social media is its ability to segment the world; what is important to one person may be irrelevant to another. Having a narrative is another important component of successful social media influencers. In a world where eyeballs mean everything having a compelling story to tell often makes the difference. My daughters who are both digital natives only follow people who have a narrative.
From a personal perspective, an important part of using social media includes forced self-reflection and using it as a form of documentation; a modern version of a diary. By using social media to think aloud and develop my thoughts with feedback from my colleagues and followers allows me to be less rigid in my thinking, think more laterally and be more accommodating of other people’s ideas. Having a sounding board and a collective of thinkers can only help with the adoption of ideas and the impact they have on the wider world.
I am acutely aware that there are many critics of social media platforms and the new generation of influencers these platforms are producing, but this is usually out of ignorance of the historical role social media has played in society. Be it the speakers on Speakers’ Corner, the Pamphleteers on the streets of Georgian, London, or us Bloggers of today we are the underpinnings of an old and threatened political movement called liberalism.
Social media is a genre that should be championed and protected from the rising wave of populism and autocracy. There is currently a larger debate on whether or not social media platforms should be responsible for their content or are just providers of a platform for free speech. Shortly after the US elections, Donald Trump’s account was suspended on Twitter and Facebook and Parler, the alt-tech microblogging and social networking service, was taken down by Amazon and its app was removed from both Apple’s and Google’s app stores. Parler was being used by Donald Trump supporters, conservatives, conspiracy theorists, and far-right extremists. It is clear that correcting, then deleting and apologizing for offending content is not sufficient; critics want a mechanism in place to prevent the content from being posted in the first place. Apple has only just allowed Parler’s app back onto Apple’s store. “In a letter to two Republican lawmakers on Monday, Apple said Parler had made updates to its app and content moderation policy that would lead to it being reinstated”, BBC 6-April-2021.
Over the year’s this site has had its fair share of complaints. As it is not an official website of Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry nor Barts Health NHS Trust who is responsible for its content? Apart from several of us moderating comments from readers the actual posts of the individual bloggers, such as this one, are not edited or moderated by an editor. The content is the responsibility of the individual writers (see disclaimer below). Despite this and as a result of a recent complaint we, Barts-MS, are being asked to take responsibility for the blog’s content. Unfortunately, we don’t have the resources or the time to moderate each blog post.
The analogy of this blog being a modern soapbox and the speakers using the soapbox having to take responsibility for their own words is not going to wash with our critics. So we have a dilemma. Do we make the blog an official publication with a board of editors who then take responsibility for its content? This will make the content boring and turgid. Do we censor and/or ban individual bloggers? This will upset their loyal followers. Do we close down the blog and let each writer go their separate ways? This will at least do away with the need for collective action. Any advice would be much appreciated.
This is not the first time this blog has had an existential crisis, however, it may be its last time.
General Disclaimer: Please note that the opinions expressed here are those of Professor Giovannoni and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry nor Barts Health NHS Trust.