Monthly Archives: May 2011

When is a quote not a quote ?

The theme of this post is on “sound-bite culture” and whether it is a good or a bad thing. I believe that social media (and possibly Twitter itself) are going to radically shake up the traditional  transport industry, just as it has done for many other industries. The problem is I’m not 100% sure when yet.  Every idea has its time and I’m just not sure whether it is the time for Twitter, in the pretty conservative transport industry.

Undoubtedly, it can really help for your idea to be “sticky” so that it catches on, and hence it helps if you are able to articulate it quickly and succinctly. Thus, there are a lot of benefits to a sound-bite culture and some would argue that it is an absolute necessity.  I’ve previously blogged about memes and their importance in behavioural change.

Today’s post was penned on AV referendum day (or super-Thursday as it has been coined) has largely been cribbed from the Independent with my own slant added. Two related stories caught my attention, because they cast doubt on whether social media is 100% a good thing and how we need to exercise caution when quoting others. The two articles were:

The conspiracy theorist in me then got wondering whether the two articles were connected … …

1) “AV is a dirty little compromise” – This is a true quote from Nick Clegg, one which he probably regrets, but he did say it. The No campaign have certainly capitalised on it.  My first key point is  about quoting other people.  Even if the quote might be perfectly accurate, it doesn’t mean that it is set within the right context. In this case, it is important to both look at the context of within which Clegg actually made this statement and the wider context at the time. I think this is a general danger for quotations and dealing with the media, who both like to boil a subject down to its essence and also turn it into something newsworthy. After all, they have to “sell copy”. (Equally, we have to sell our ideas in behavioural change campaigns.)

In this case, the wider context was mid the live US-style television debates for the last election, which resulted the coining of the phenomenum Cleggmania. The Liberal Democrats were being courted by both Labour and Conservatives alike, but at the time, still during the election, Clegg was rightly sticking to his guns on what his party stood for.

The full quote is:

AV is a baby step in the right direction – only because nothing can be worse than the status quo.  If we want to change British politics once and for all, we have got to have a quite simple system in which everyone’s votes count. We think AV-plus is a feasible way to proceed.

The Labour Party assumes that changes to the electoral system are like crumbs for the Liberal Democrats from the Labour table. I am not going to settle for a miserable little compromise thrashed out by the Labour Party.”

I think you’ll agree that the full quote puts quite a different context onto what Clegg actually said, especially when it is viewed in the context of the time and the on-going electoral hustings. For instance, who at that time, would have predicted a Conservative / Liberal Democrat Coalition ?

We’ll have to wait for the votes to be counted to see whether the Yes or No campaigns won the argument with the public.

2) The second piece was  by Natalie Haynes in Viewspaper and had the headline:  “Credit where credit is not due?”.  There were three or four social media angles to the death of Osama Bin Laden that Natalie could have taken. Firstly, the news was apparently first broken on Twitter.  Secondly, we watched the viral effect of news headlines in which the typo: “Obama Bin Laden” was spread around the world even in traditional news media.  However, Natalie’s article focussed on the apparent quotation from Martin Luther King, which spread like wild fire on the Twitter-o-sphere: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”

For those people concerned about the glorification of another person’s death, the quotation seemed to capture the moment and was tweeted around the world. The only problem was that Martin Luther King never actually said it, instead it was traced to an English teacher working in Japan. I’m not sure that quoting the previously unknown Jessica Dovey has quite the same cache, but nevertheless the captured the mood of a significant proportion of the Western population.

The second key point is that things that are catchy might not necessarily be fully accurate, but perhaps they are “good enough” for their purpose?

Out of interest, King’s actual quote was (although there will be a real irony, if I get this wrong, especially as I have just copied it from the internet):

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.”

Dovey’s quote got added in to King’s words, then for reasons of space in Twitter’s 140-character limit, her quote became King’s. Except he never said it. Twitter is just an exaggerated case of how our stories get truncated and simplified, if they are to spread.

Above I mentioned the possibility of a conspiracy theory – perhaps, the editor of the Independent was seeking to re-enforce the meme that “memes are flawed” in that edition of the paper, because he felt that the largest AV meme was currently not pro-AV and hence was detrimental to his message. He might have wanted to change the media landscape.

However, if there is a choice, I nearly always plump for the cock-up theory over and above the conspiracy nature. It’s just inherent in our human nature. We make mistakes. We are flawed.