The Public Petitions Committee fails to get social media

I saw this story on today about the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee attempting to reach out by using social media. Of course, I am all for the correct use of social media as a sensible and low-cost way for any organisation to communicate with the public and to allow people to get in contact. But there was something about this story that just seemed odd.

HOLYROOD chiefs are to use blogs, Wikipedia and YouTube to make Parliament more accessible to the public, they said today.

People petitioning Parliament will be able to provide videos and photographs.

And Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee is to have its own blog and Wikipedia page.

It’s the mention of Wikipedia — twice — that tweaked my antenna. How exactly does Parliament intend to “use Wikipedia” to become more accessible to the public? Perhaps they meant using wikis, and got that confused with Wikipedia.

I decided to delve a bit further in case The Scotsman got the wrong end of the stick (which, let us face it, is fairly likely). But the Scottish Parliament’s press release seemed even odder.

As from today blogging, Wikipedia and YouTube will be some of the new social media tools introduced by the Public Petitions Committee as part of its report publication. The report is the result of a year-long inquiry into improving awareness and participation in the public petitions process.

Petitioners will be able to provide videos and photos about their petitions as part of the committee’s new blog page. A podcast, Wikipedia page and dvd about the Parliament’s public petitions system all signal the committee’s commitment in encouraging access to and awareness of the petitions process. The committee also supports the creation of local petitioning systems with local authorities.

I was still confused, so I took a look at the Public Petitions Committee’s report to see what the plans actually were. You can read the details of its plans to use social media under the heading “E-Based” (paragraph 84 onwards).

In paragraph 119 the Public Petitions Committee says: “We are launching, alongside this report, a dedicated Public Petitions Committee Wiki page.” The footnote takes you to this Wikipedia article. This is an article which was already deleted when I checked it early this afternoon, and remains deleted as I write this article.

The Public Petitions Committee’s attempt to use Wikipedia like this completely misunderstands what Wikipedia is for. A page such as the one the Public Petitions Committee tried to create is completely against Wikipedia guidelines. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not some kind of worthy version of Craigslist. They could try reading about What Wikipedia is not, notably that Wikipedia is not a soapbox:

Wikipedia is not a soapbox, a battleground, or a vehicle for propaganda and advertising… Therefore, content hosted in Wikipedia is not… [p]ropaganda, advocacy, or recruitment of any kind, commercial, political, religious, or otherwise…

[Content hosted in Wikipedia is not] Self-promotion. It can be tempting to write about yourself or projects in which you have a strong personal involvement. However, do remember that the standards for encyclopedic articles apply to such pages just like any other, including the requirement to maintain a neutral point of view, which is difficult when writing about yourself or about projects close to you.

An subject is considered worthy of an article on Wikipedia by the bottom-up processes upon which Wikipedia is based. It is not for the Public Petitions Committee to swan in and create a page for itself. Nor can it be the final arbiter on what that article contains. The report somewhat states in somewhat Orwellian fashion:

We are of course mindful of the ability to amend text given the ‘ongoing principle’ under which Wiki pages are created. Our clerks will monitor the page carefully to ensure it remains a factual and authoritative source of information about our public petitions process.

Moreover, Wikipedia is not a manual, guidebook, textbook or scientific journal:

Wikipedia is an encyclopedic reference, not an instruction manual, guidebook, or textbook. Wikipedia articles should not read like… Internet guides. Wikipedia articles should not exist only to describe the nature, appearance or services a website offers, but should describe the site in an encyclopedic manner, offering detail on a website’s achievements, impact or historical significance…

In paragraph 109, the Public Petitions Committee itself says of its attempts to use social media that it is “not seen as ticking a box which says ‘look, we are doing this because everyone else is!’”. But this Wikipedia stunt has box-ticking written all over it. It has Dad-dancing written all over it.

I’m sure using Wikipedia to publicise the Scottish Parliament’s petitions process seemed like a good suggestion in a meeting room somewhere. But they could have done with having a bit more of an understanding of what Wikipedia actually is before actually proceeding with the idea.

Luckily, the Public Petitions Committee didn’t put all of its eggs in one basket. There will also be a “pod cast”, which currently seems to be a solitary MP3, tucked away at the bottom of the press release. Other than that, there is a promise to link to the Scottish Parliament’s own podcasts. There is no RSS feed and no option to subscribe.

Let’s look it up on the Public Petitions Committee’s new best friend Wikipedia. The article for Podcast is currently illustrated with a massive RSS icon. It says:

A podcast is a series of digital media files, usually either digital audio or video, that is made available for download via web syndication. The syndication aspect of the delivery is what differentiates podcasts from other ways of accessing files, such as simple download or streaming: it means that special client software applications known as podcatchers (such as Apple Inc.’s iTunes or Nullsoft’s Winamp) can automatically identify and retrieve new files in a series when they are made available, by accessing a centrally-maintained web feed that lists all files currently associated with that particular podcast. The files thus automatically downloaded are then stored locally on the user’s computer or other device, for offline use.

I therefore await the launch of some actual podcasts, not just MP3s branded as “pod casts”.

The Public Petitions Committee will also have a “blog page”. That can be found here and, in fairness, it doesn’t look all that bad. It looks like a good way to highlight the work of the Public Petitions Committee.

I think organisations like the Scottish Parliament should be using social media and web technologies more. So the Public Petitions Committee’s steps in this direction are welcome. The blog looks particularly promising.

But engaging with the public is about so much more than tossing around buzzwords like ‘Wikipedia’, ‘YouTube’ and ‘podcasts’. A proper understanding of social media would provide a better service to the public and waste fewer resources.


  1. Don’t be so bloody pedantic! To those of us with years of experience in social media, the use of terminology and approach here is a little amateur, yes.

    But don’t forget; everyone is learning. To slam a group of people for trying like this goes against the very grain of what we do. This is certainly no worse than that of many of the PR professionals out there that claim to be experts just because they regurgitate social media text book phraseology on their mediocre blogs.

    I was involved in a digital summit organised by the Scottish Government for its PR people recently. There’s a huge appetite to invest in social media, which is sadly curbed by fear of the unknown and a lack of proven expertise and skills. We should applaud and support, offer suggestions and get involved where we can. Not just snipe. We all started somewhere, we’ve all made mistakes and now it’s our duty to share our experience and move the conversation on.

  2. Thanks for the comment, anonymous.

    I don’t think my points about trying to use Wikipedia as a soapbox are pedantic, and I can’t imagine what they were thinking by trying to use an encyclopedia to reach voters. So I totally stand by my points on that matter.

    I’ll concede that my points about podcasts were pretty pedantic though.

    You make a good point in the final paragraph, and anything that puts off organisations (particularly in government) using social media should be avoided. I did point out that the Public Petitions Committee was moving in the right direction with the initiatives announced today, and I by no means wish to discourage it from pursuing the social media angle further.

  3. My impression of the article was at least the Scottish government are trying. As you know I’m hopeless on technical stuff, but I do admire the website and the fact they’re introducing podcasts for the younger folk to submit.

    I’m not sure what podcasts really are, videos I suppose with a different name, but I’m all for technology – even though I’ve just spent 2 hours hopelessly unable to help a friend get her microphone working on Skype!

  4. Subrosa, I have nothing negative to say about the Scottish Government’s approach to social media. I know for a fact that there are people there who have a healthy approach towards it, who are interested in utilising it sensibly and won’t get sucked into gimmicky projects like this Wikipedia thing.

    It’s some aspects of what the Scottish Parliament has done, and particularly this one committee of the Scottish Parliament which has managed to totally get the wrong end of the stick, at least as far as Wikipedia goes.

    I understand that the Scottish Parliament is working on its website, and that includes an overview of how it might take advantage of social media. That is of course to be welcomed and I look forward to seeing what they come up with.

  5. I, with respect, tend to agree with the comments about you being a little pedantic. After all, one of the most disheartening things about the UK media is the way that it ferociously exploits any attempts by politicians or political institutions to try to ‘open up’ in more open and public ways. The Holyrood folks haven’t get it quite right first time, but can’t we give them a little more constructive support, even guidance, on a laudable intention? After all, Holyrood didn’t (eventually) get it mostly (albeit only mostly) right on Members’ expenses, so maybe they could show the way on social media.

  6. Edward, thanks for your comment.

    I’m not too sure their intention is actually laudable. Like I say, it smacks of an organisation which is desperate to look like it is listening rather than actually listening. I cannot imagine there were ever many people that said to them, “It would be great if you had a presence on Wikipedia…”

    I’m all for Holyrood leading the way on social media. That’s why it’s important to call them out when they get it wrong.