“Measure the Muttering…” Detecting ‘Weak Signals’

Definition – ‘to mutter’; “A barely audible utterance, especially in dissatisfaction or irritation”. In other words:

  • something spoken,
  • very quietly,
  • so quiet that you can hardly hear it,
  • it might not be exactly clear who or what it is about,
  • It’s not exactly a fully formed complaint,
  • it’s not written down (so it can’t be carefully examined),
  • It’s JUST THERE, and
  • It can be easily ignored.
  • A ‘weak signal’ of something that might not be quite right, or about to go wrong.

Doing things differently. Last week I was at the excellent Research in Practice event focusing on how communities are coming together to do things for themselves. There were plenty of examples of Communities and Public Services doing things differently (and better) in response to things like the 2008/9 Banking Crash, Covid19 and preparing for whatever is coming next… The details of the event are available here: Considering resource beyond the graph of doom: Leaders’ Forum.

There was also a Twitter hashtag you can look at (#LeadersForum21), which brings me on to the epic Tony Bovaird… Tony was there to close the event with a bang, and he did that. I’ve enjoyed seeing Tony speak many times, and every occasion I take away something different. This time it was ‘muttering’.

Muttering, Twitter and Weak Signals. Tony was using an example of how one London Council had engaged with people on Twitter after snowfall. The point Tony was making is that people are ‘telling’ Public Services what they think – for free……Public Services just need to ‘listen’. He beautifully captured what was going on under the description of listening to the ‘muttering’. Tony is someone who can say ‘muttering’ in way that gets across the deeper meaning of what is going on.

The key point for me is that ‘muttering’ represents things that are; quietly spoken, barely heard and easily ignored. Absolute classic ‘weak signals’. Indicators that something ‘isn’t quite right’, or is ‘about to go wrong’. The things that are so often ignored, just before a catastrophe. The ‘warning signs’ were there, and are gleefully pointed out afterwards by the ‘investigators’ (you’ve seen the film).

So, should we be using social media to ‘Measure the Muttering’?

But Social Media is a Nest of Vipers… Yes it is. But that doesn’t mean we can totally ignore it. My own history with social media, and how we might use it to ‘listen to the muttering’ is a bit complicated.

Back in the early 2010’s I was a massive enthusiast. I became fascinated with a train company – London Midland Trains. Basically they were a social media pioneer among train companies and were engaging positively with travelers through Twitter. As I recall, there was even talk of Twitter posts (mutterings) informing train maintenance schedules. I was so enthusiastic that I wrote a number of blog posts, which 10 years on all feel a bit naive:

Troll Farms and Astroturfing. By 2015 my enthusiasm for the social media bubble was quite deflated. Things like general ‘trolling’ and the rise of ‘troll farms’ (unscrupulous people ‘corrupting’ the environment to further their own agenda) worried me. One of the more alarming aspects was the idea of ‘astroturfing’. The deliberate creation of a false, ‘grass roots’ opinion through false social media accounts. Details below.

Can You Really Trust Social Media in a Crisis? The Rise of Troll Farms. (September 2015)

Astroturfing: Is Grass Roots Opinion Real or Manufactured? (February 2016)

The idea that it would be possible to detect weak signals, or listen to the muttering with all of this going on was a challenge. If people chose to ‘ignore the muttering’ you could hardly blame them.

And just to make things more interesting, the arrival of increased data protection requirements (GDPR) made ‘listening’ to people on social media – without their explicit permission – difficult. So, in some ways it felt like listen to the muttering on social media had gone in my ‘hard to do’ box. Tony made me think again…

But were does this leave me? Well, I’m absolutely convinced that listening to the mutters is something we should try to do. As I said earlier they are classic ‘weak signals’. Measures of things being ‘not quite right’ or early indicators of things going wrong. It’s still a place where people say things, quietly that are not quite heard and easy to ignore. The worst thing we could do is to choose to ignore the mutterings because of the impact of the trolls, GDPR requirements (and the general hassle of poking around in the Vipers Nest). It’s often easy to make excuses not to do something.

Easy to say, hard to do. So, in the spirit of being helpful, here’s what I suggest:

  • Go to where people are. Find the communities you should engage with, get involved and listen to the conversations they have – including the mutterers. This might involve ‘leaving the office’ and going out and being part of things (to quote Dez Holmes).
  • Triangulate. Do not rely upon single sources of information. Social media is not the whole world, and bubbles can become echo chambers. Diversity isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s essential (in everything).
  • Really listen. The whole point of ‘muttering’ is that it is barely audible, so you’ve really got to listen (without judgement).

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. ‘Muttering’ represents the things that people say which are: very quiet, barley heard and easily ignored. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t important. However quietly spoken or muttered, it probably means something.
  2. For anyone who thinks that ‘prevention is better that cure’, mutterings are classic weak signals that something might not be quite right. So best to to listen carefully.
  3. Social Media can be a Nest of Vipers. But ignoring it is as risky as jumping in with both feet. You need to be careful.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

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