This is entry number 283, published on 11 October 2011, of a blog on the Planning Act 2008 infrastructure planning and authorisation regime. Click here for a link to the whole blog.

Today’s entry reports on the use of social media in consultation.

A current pre-application consultation for a nationally significant highway project allows representations to be made via Twitter and Facebook - the first time this has been done.  Is this the way of the future?

It is certainly an interesting and appealing development and one likely to allow more representations to be made, and allow them to come from some groups who do not normally respond to such exercises.  Having said that, I foresee some issues with using either social networking site as a consultation medium.

Control

First, unlike emails and letters, tweets remain the property of the sender rather than becoming the property of the recipient.  If I send you an email, I can't later change or delete it, but if I send you a tweet, I can delete it.  At least I can't edit it, which I might be able to do with an online forum message.  It may therefore be difficult to keep track of what responses have been made and to decide whether a response has actually been made, if it is later withdrawn, or keeps changing.

Facebook, on the other hand, does not suffer from that problem.  A message sent to another account cannot later be amended or deleted by the sender.  I understand that if you send a message to someone, you can delete it at your end, but it does not disappear at the other end, similar to deleting something from your email 'sent items'.

Size limitation

Secondly, there is the obvious issue of the limit for a tweet of 140 characters - and if you are tweeting to a particular account, it will be even shorter, as the account name will take up some space.  Can you really make a meaningful response in so few words?

Again Facebook does not suffer from that problem - there is no limit to the length of a message.  On the other hand it is possible to 'like' an organisation or issue (but not dislike one) on Facebook - a single bit of information.  To what extent should such an unelaborated indication count, particularly when no counterpart is available?

No subject

Thirdly, tweets and Facebook messages have no equivalent to an email 'subject' line.  Thus if tweets or Facebook messages are directed to a general account, it may be difficult to identify which are responses to the consultation in question, particularly if the respondents don't realise that their responses will be mixed in with other messages.  Having to give a reference may be a solution, but it would leave even less room for tweet text.  It might be better to set up project-specific Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Privacy

A fourth issue is privacy.  All the traditional ways of making representations - including email - are normally private between the sender and recipient.  Tweets and Facebook messages may or may not be private, depending how they are sent.

A tweet can only be private if the recipient 'follows' the sender, and so a project promoter would have to follow consultees before they could respond privately, and even then, the response needs to be a Message (apparently the term 'Direct Message' isn't used any more) rather than a Reply.  On Facebook, messages are private, but can only be sent to people.  Wall posts (which can be for people or organisations) are visible to all.

Having consultation responses able to be read during the consultation may influence responses that are made later (or in the case of Twitter, presumably earlier), either by building up a head of steam, discouraging the need for similar responses if points have already been made, or mobilising contrary views.  The idea seems to me to be inherently undesirable.

Conclusion

Allowing the use of social media for consultation is clearly a worthwhile goal, given its popularity, but in my view some of the differences between it and more traditional ways of communicating should be considered and addressed before fully embracing it.