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Sideways Looks #16: When Bins Go Viral, also A.I. Theatre


Hello,

Earlier newsletter than usual this week. But A Twitter Moment has happened, and I wanted to capture it. More on that shortly.

Usual request – if you have thoughts on this newsletter and/or data skills courses, please do go to this link.

Have great weekends, Oliver

 

Thought for the Week: Bin Collections & Context Collapse

 

At 7.48pm on Wednesday, Twitter user @Kav_Kaushik tweeted:



just found out i can monetise my twitter account by hosting spaces so ladies and gentlemen i announce i will be doing “spaces” soon to talk about bin collection timetables of different uk local authorities!!! stay tuned to find out more.

To deploy the old Buzzfeed-style headline, what happened next will shock you.

Social media platforms are often stereotyped in the following ways. Twitter is full of mainstream elites setting media narratives which most ‘normal people’ don’t care about. Facebook is where (increasingly older) people hang out and overshare about their lives. On Instagram people turn their brunch into an extravagant visual experience. And so on.

But these platforms don’t force people to behave a certain way. Sociologists say they have ‘affordances’, which encourage certain behaviour – but can also be used in surprising ways. Facebook turns out to be a ripe source for targeting political ads at swing voters. The visual nature of Instagram supports appeals on behalf of charities or missing persons. Journalists are turning to Tiktok. And last night, Twitter was the go-to place for discussions about bin collection.

What does @Kav_Kaushik mean in her tweet by “hosting spaces”? This is a feature Twitter has recently added, where people have real-time discussions in the old-fashioned way – using their actual voices rather than tweets. It’s a format copied from the app Clubhouse. Previously Twitter has tried to copy other forms of media, including Vine videos and Instagram stories, with little success. But last night’s ‘Space’ on bin collection may have broken the curse.

I personally only caught a short amount of the actual Space (and, in a very un-Twitter-like way, I’ve struggled to find any archive of it). However, looking at tweets about #BinSpace, it clearly escalated. This thread from Kav captures the sense of how her joke spiralled with first 100s, and then over 1000 people joining the space. It lasted for many hours, well into the night. Topics apparently ranged from bin strikes in Bexleyheath to the climate crisis. Amongst those who spontaneously joined in were various councillors and DEFRA officials, The Economist’s head of data journalism, a former Love Island winner, and – apparently – the official account of the Eurovision Song Contest.

The brilliant sociologist danah boyd – whose book It’s Complicated should be on every social science syllabus – has talked of ‘context collapse’. This is when lots of different audiences co-exist in one space. The traditional example is a wedding, where family and friend groups mingle. Some social media encourages context collapse. Facebook is the major example, when a risqué joke to your friends could easily get a response from your gran.

Twitter can in theory do context collapse, but in practice it’s quite two-tier. If you’re an elite, it’s very easy to just broadcast or talk to other elites; if you’re not an elite, there’s a decent chance your tweets get no notice. But the format of Spaces, with real-time speaking and listening, collapses that two-tier system somewhat. As one Tweeter put it “Sorry but you wouldn't get Fiona Bruce asking to hear a question from @I’m_a_vaccine_slut” on Question Time, would you?”.

(Though let’s not get too excited. Even a hierarchically flattened group of Tweeters will not be representative of the general population. And the people who were willing to actually speak up to 1000s of strangers are probably even less representative. But arguably more open than ‘normal’ Twitter discussion).

Given the audience comprised council and DEFRA officials, alongside bin-users, this context collapse might have taught various parties something about bin collection and attitudes towards it. But might it have broader lessons for communicating local politics? That question is politically zeitgeisty. It’s a long-held truism that British voters care more about potholes and bins than ideological differences. That has intensified as the local has moved increasingly to the centre of our politics, with Conservatives talking of ‘levelling up’ and Labour looking to their mayors and councillors – a point I saw very clearly when I (virtually) attended both Labour and Conservative Party conferences in 2020.

So was #BinSpace that dream of political scientists, a citizen engagement event which actually engaged citizens? Well, one issue here – it was a somewhat spontaneous event, attracting people through novelty value and humour. As one member remarked “I thought I was coming in as a joke, but I’m now furious at my council.” Some councils do use humour as a great communication tactic (from some previous research on council Twitter, I found that Doncaster is particularly good at it) but it can be hard to do well. Novelty value is also hard to sustain; when anyone online can easily copy the approach, it gets old quickly. And for citizens’ engagement, you do ideally want to give interested citizens plenty of notice, and also expect that you’ll get representatives of interest groups turning up with pre-prepared lines – running somewhat counter to the attractively spontaneous spirit of #BinSpace.

But let’s see. Apparently Kav is going to host more, on topics such as housing and transport. Let’s see if they can maintain the novelty, while also attracting relevant audiences who may have missed the first one. Whatever the case – of the moments I’ve witnessed on Twitter, #BinSpace was one of the less…

Pause

… rubbish.

(Sorry, not sorry).

 

Fun Fact about: Manchester

 

I shall be spending the bank holiday weekend in my old stomping ground of Manchester. Fun trivia about Manchester isn’t hard to find (though I’ll dispute the claim in the linked article that Manchester was “the birthplace of vegetarianism” a mere 200 years ago. I think a fair few countries might have something to say about that). But as I’m staying with an historian friend, I took the opportunity to ask him for a couple of historical facts.

The first was about the rivalry between Manchester and neighbouring Liverpool. Apparently this has all sorts of relations with the economies of the different cities. During the American War of Independence, Manchester manufacturers generally backed the North while Liverpool’s merchants backed the South. Then there’s the Manchester Ship Canal, built in the late 19th century as a very expensive way of bypassing shipping costs at Liverpool.

Also, the first passenger railway in the world fan from Liverpool to Manchester. During the opening ceremony the MP William Huskisson – recently recovered from surgery and unsteady on his feet – tragically fell in front of the train, becoming the first death on a passenger railway track. One can’t help but wonder what effect that had on public perceptions of passenger railways; comparisons could be drawn with self-driving cars today.

On a more fun note, when the two main Manchester universities merged in 2003 – to create the imaginatively named ‘University of Manchester’ – the multiple colours of the universities were retained on the PhD gown. Which means their PhD graduations look a bit like a joyful menagerie of clever parrots.


 

Recommendations

 

🎭 AI theatre: Apparently AI is writing plays now. More excitingly, live in front of an audience. Sadly I heard about this on the closing night. But this and this were interesting discussions of the performance (first link also has a broader discussion of AI hype). My previous thoughts on AI creativity here.

🔮 Future of Work: I’m doing some work on the Future of Work. As part of that I’ve encountered a few useful repositories of content, including the Resolution Foundation’s Workertech Newsletter and this collection from ComSkills.

🎧 Planet Money, again: I recommended last week, but this fun economics podcast has been continuously churning out particularly great content recently. Including an episode on someone steadily trading up from a single hairpin to a whole house. Stacey Vanek Smith raises so many great questions while also being one of the most engaging presenters I’ve ever heard, managing to make continual enthusiasm sound genuine.

✏️Finally, comics: Nathan Pyle is best known for his quirky and heartwarming ‘Strange Planet’ cartoons. But he also does standalone pieces. These two (here and here) recently crossed my screen and really tickled me.

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