Is listening neutral?

Things sound different in the fog. (Image Beardy Git on Flickr. Click on the Picture to go to his flickr page)

The core piece of advice for any public service on how to make good use of social media is “learn to listen”.  It’s the one part of the conversation that sometimes gets lost in the rush to publish.

That’s why I was pleased to find West Midlands Police considering recruiting someone who’s job it is to help them do just that.  I’ve already done a little work with WM Police and genuinely admire their determination to value social media for how it connects them to the public through conversation.

Big Brother Watch (a sister organisation to Tax Payers Alliance – very adept users of the social web) raised a number of concerns about this, including:

that this role is designed to prevent criticism of the police from taking place online. Those with understandable grievances should be free to air them in a democratic forum without fear of reprisal. We would appreciate the West Midlands police giving assurances that there will be no black-list created as a result of the web cop’s work.

Chief Inspector Mark Payne, head of comms for the force, responded to this on his own blog:

I can say with absolute certainty that this is not about jumping on people who are criticising us. We sometimes get things wrong, even when we are trying to do the right thing. Policing is a hugely complex business, and it is inevitable, that we will upset some people. If this is the case, we want to hear about it, warts and all. At least if we know, we will have opportunity to put it right, or do better next time.

As I said at the top, listening is the core skill in using social media well.

Having somebody who has an in depth understanding of how to to do that, is experienced in how to respond to what they find and can help others understand the social web is a good idea for an organisation the size of WM Police.

What was curious about the Big Brother Watch piece was the apparent assumption that police listening to the web is automatically a menacing thing.  That in turn got me thinking about listening itself. Can it ever be a neutral process?

I think not.

Any professional organisation does have to listen with intent and how you do that depends on a number of factors:

  • Partly it’s a question of where you stand to listen.  If I chose to stand on the balcony I’ll hear one version of a party.  On the dance floor I’ll hear another. That can also be true of the net – how you filter what you’re listening to is a conscious decision.  My feed reader has some feeds in folders I happily ignore – others get my early attention.
  • What are you listening for?  There are officers who are very skilled at listening to the the net to detect crime.  Comms teams listen for reputation.  The social web type can also be listening for public feedback or practical neighbourhood problems.  They may use similar techniques but with different intentions.
  • Familiarity matters.  We tend to hear what we are used to. In a crowded room I’ll tune out your child but hear mine. I’ll not notice someone use your name but my head will turn at the slightest mention of mine.
  • We are sensitive to criticism.  Sometimes we hear it when it isn’t there.  The web is full of good advice for public services, often this is heard as criticism rather than constructive help.
  • We always filter everything we hear through our own prejudices.  Some professions (I presume including detectives and Judges) should have experience/training  in listening in a more open fashion, helping them see a truth rather than the patterns which reinforce their assumptions. For most of us though listening is a wholly subjective process.

So listening with a purpose is exactly what this person should be doing, otherwise they would be wasting public money. It doesn’t follow that this will be a malign purpose.  Listening to the social web can help  the police improve the way they spend public money rather than waste it.


  1. Dave Briggs says:

    A lot of this comes down to language and that is especially true for services like the police. For example, the traditonal (ha! as if anything in this space could really be described as traditional! Unless of course tradition is speeding up, in which case… er, ah, where was I?) term for this sort of thing is ‘social media monitoring’ – which I think gives the wrong impression entirely, and indeed the final slide when I presented to a room of coppers a few months ago was ‘Don’t monitor, listen’.

    Listening is more than hearing, and it’s much friendlier than monitoring.

  2. Good listening often involves replying; not least in order to reflect: “I hear what you’re saying”; “that must have been awful for you”; “what happened next?”; “let me look into that for you”. This applies as much to social media as elsewhere.

  3. Paul Evans says:

    The Taxpayers Alliance have no interest in anything that makes the public sector do it’s job properly. They will always attack investment in anything that is likely to disprove their base point that no money should be spent on anything unless it is investment by tax exiles in ventures that will further enrich them.

    V good post btw… 😉

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