The addition of a humble # sign at the beginning of a word is an incredibly powerful tool for users of Twitter, as Amazon, the English legal system and an obscure educational company in Australia have found to ther cost this week. By adding a hash sign to a word, you are creating a tag that groups of Twitter users can use to tweet on subjects of common interest. This can be demonstrated most simply by referring to my previous blogpost on the group of teachers and children tweeting about the Gunpowder Plot. Every tweet about the Gunpowder Plot contained the hashtag #gtp2010 so that by using Twitter search you can aggregate all the tweets using that hashtag and thus seeing the full picture of the unfolding plot from the points of view of all the protagonists. Hashtags are used extensively at conferences where people will agree on a hashtag for the event so all tweets for that conference can be simple collected together for record.
This week we have seen 3 controversies that have had the spotlight of public opinion brought to bear upon them through the use of Twitter hashtags. One of these was international (#amazonfail), one British (#twitterjoketrial) and one purely educational (#edsoft).
Without going in to specifics (I don't want my blog blocked by any more education filters than it already is), #amazonfail is an unfolding social media car crash of epic proportions in which one of the most tech and social media savvy companies, Amazon, sought to defend its position on free speech by ignoring Twitter users who were demanding the removal of a particular book title from their catalogue. The ensuing use of the #amazonfail hashtag spread across Twitter rapidly with thousands of users threatening boycotts of the company, removal of advertising and flooding the company with complaints. Amazon eventually caved and removed the book, but to date there still has been no official response from a company that censored the views of 2,000 negative reviews of the book in question by removing them, yet failed to see that free speech didn't extend to distributing books that advocated the abuse of minors. It is perhaps the biggest example to date of the hubris of companies that think they are more important than their customers, and the power of social media to shine a bright light on to their actions.
#twitterjoketrial is purely an English concern as it relates to the English legal system's complete failure to come to terms with modern technology and social media in particular. Briefly, a trainee accountant was so frustrated by the delays to his journey that he threatened on Twitter to blow Leeds/Bradford airport sky high. Foolish, certainly; a major terrorist threat, most definitely not. To read the full background on this important case, I refer you to the excellent JackofKent's blog. Suffice to say, that Paul Chambers has a criminal record, has lost his job and has failed in his appeal to get the ridiculously illiberal court decision overturned. The decision by the CPS to prosecute him on anti-terror grounds is deeply worrying and completely blurs the boundaries as to what our "War on Terror" actually constitutes. I actually wondered, as I tweeted as @tombatesesq, whether my Tweets plotting to blow up the Houses of Parliament could be construed as a terror threat! Again, Twitter, though the #twitterjoketrial hashtag, throws a critical spotlight on the decisions of the judiciary.
Finally, #edsoft concerns the abuse of licensed material by an educational services company based in Australia of the same name. To understand the nature of this particular issue read Tom Barrett's post about how the company in question copied materials from his blog site, removed all attributions and then sought to pass them off at a conference as their own materials. What made this issue particularly reprehensible was the fact that the material was the work of lots of teachers who had freely given of their time and expertise to produce a set of resources for others to download and use without cost or restriction save that if reproduced, the proper attribution should be given to the authors and was not to be used for commercial gain. One of the delegates at the Australian seminar who was a member of Tom Barrett's Twitter network (Tom is based in Nottingham) alerted Tom to the use of our materials and a minor PR disaster for Edsoft has now unfolded. They completely failed to recognise the necessity for a formal public response to a person who has nearly 10,000 followers, the vast majority of whom are teachers.
(note: if you are not familiar with the "Interesting Ways" set of resources, they are truly excellent and can be found here.)
These 3 very different situations amply demonstrate the power of Twitter. Without the extensive international network of teachers on Twitter, it is extraordinarily unlikely that Edsoft would ever have been called to account for their actions. The trial of Paul Chambers clearly would never have happened in the first place without Twitter, but shows in extreme form how anti-terror legislation can be abused by authority to prosecute those who clearly and demonstrably never intended to harm a soul. While the Amazon debacle may not prove to be the "Gerald Ratner" moment for the company, it does show that no company can afford to be so arrogant as to ignore the legitimate questions and complaints of its customers. Without Twitter these 3 controversies would have taken radically different trajectories, Edsoft would have carried on ignoring licence obligations; the Paul Chambers case may have been a conversation point among lawyers; and the #amazonfail would have relied upon traditional media to expose its apparently rotten moral core.
Above all, these controversies demonstrate to those that still think Twitter consists of nothing but the vacuous utterings of minor celebrities, that their opinion is as lazy and wrong as those who deride Wikipedia. I am certain that very wise social commentators will look at these issues with much greater erudition and insight that I can manage, but I am equally certain that Twitter allows groups with a common interest (such as teachers) can easily and powerfully use the platform to communicate, collaborate and advocate in a democratic way, beyond the control of traditional media, or, in the case of teachers, outside the construct of authority based systems such as Learning Platforms.