Thought I had better write this down or I’ll never get to it. I leave for the States in a few hours.
The use of existing online services was the marked difference in our online efforts for Teachers’ Day this year, namely using Flickr to create a slideshow of photos or videos submitted by contributors and using Twitter as the means to send dedications to the teachers.
The overheads that come with using existing services are substantial – most of our participants would likely have to create a new account and learn how to use the interface. All we actually need, from the user’s perspective, is a means to upload photos, and a means to type in a message. Riding on Flickr and Twitter served some of our needs on the backend: the slideshow would be dynamically generated once we approved the photos and messages would be constrained to a reasonable length (a constrain we wanted) and the creation of the Twitter account would ensure some level of spam control as users would need a valid password to acquire a Twitter account.
The problem of complexity is especially pronounced in our use of Flickr as an image uploading tool. Flickr is an online service with a vast amount of functionality, and we were using its “Send to group” function to enable users to submit photos for the Teachers’ Day website. This function is an advanced feature within Flickr that even longtime users ignore. After approximately a month, we received only a handful of submissions from a grand total of two users.
We were also surprised to learn that users need a minimum of 5 photos in their accounts before their photos could be generated on the slideshow (shown in the group).
Twitter’s beauty is in its simplicity. We were originally concerned that Primary school children, which traditionally sent in the bulk of Teachers’ Day messages, would not be able to navigate it. We had intentionally shifted this year’s focus on a more retrospective note, hoping to see greater participation from adults. We were pleasantly surprised that many Primary School students started sending messages. Rulang Primary, I believe, created a school account @rulang to help their students send messages, bypassing the need to create individual accounts. Mr Kwan Tuck Soon (@mrkwantucksoon), a teacher at Rulang, even created a screencast giving students instructions on how to send messages. I was personally pretty ecstatic to see empowered users.
One of the first considerations when embarking on using user-generated content is that of editorial moderation. In my experience, this is the aspect least likely to be overlooked by the public sector. It was a calculated move on our part to pull a live Twitter feed off the hashtag #tday09 without any moderation primarily because we felt it would take a considerable amount of malice to slime teachers on Teachers’ Day. To be perfectly honest, there was a healthy amount of fear on my part that the conversation could spiral downwards.
We had planned a few levels of control that we would implement should that happen.
1. The use of filters. We had to invoke the use of language filters to exclude specified words to the live feed. A user had used the #tday09 hashtag with a uncouth colloquialism for “go home”. It wasn’t malicious by any means, just careless.
2. If things really got hairy we would only display favourited tweets. The brilliant suggestion to use favourites as a means of moderation came from @choonkeat who had picked it up at a recent barcamp.
The other factor was that when we used these services, we were subjecting ourselves to their reliability. This became an issue as Twitter showed sporadic quirks, such as us being unable to favourite a tweet, or deletions taking a long time to effect themselves.
Response to Feedback
A lot of the feedback was positive, though there were some reactions to the display of above-mentioned uncouth colloquialism. It was revealing that the initial reaction on the twitterverse was akin to students egging on a fight. There was a bit of talk about us clamping down on the user who had posted the tweet. It was revealing because it showed what the public thought of the government: heavy-handed and authoritative. Perhaps so for more sensitive topics, but I’d like to perpetuate this fact:
The government is made up of people serving other people. We are as diverse as the human traffic on Orchard Road.
My first reaction was to remove the offending tweet via filters, but we found that the user had already deleted it after discovering his tweet had appeared on our website. It was still showing due to Twitter’s caching of search results and the lag between deletion and removal of tweets. By this time there were a number of tweets signaling the anticipation of punishment as the user was a student in one of the schools. I hurriedly sent a direct message ensuring that no action would be taken, and that we knew that no malice was intended.
If you were wondering, at that time I added a filter to remove mentions of the person’s twitter nick. It wasn’t to remove all his tweets (besides, the filter doesn’t do that). It was because in my own carelessness in asking him to remove the hashtag, I had mentioned the hashtag, thereby adding my own unintended tweet on the Teachers’ Day homepage. The filter was to remove my own tweet.
The other piece of feedback comes from Daphne who helped us poll teachers’ awareness about the website. She was astounded that none of the teachers she had asked knew about the Teachers’ Day website.
I conceded that publicity could have been better managed, but I do not agree that the entire effort is implementation gone awry. Publicity was two-pronged: 1 for the public so that they’ll send dedications, 2 for teachers so they’ll know if dedications were sent to them. Posters were widely circulated and put up, electronic billboards in Suntec City and Ion Orchard were used. There was a hard deadline for the submission of dedication messages (Teachers’ Day), but teachers could, and still can, search the dedications.
It was a learning experience for us, and we have absolutely no regrets doing it. The cost of setting up the site was extremely minimal – I designed and coded it outside of office hours, no thanks to the office network that crawls like a dialup modem on LSD.
I appreciate all the feedback received, good or bad. On a personal level I don’t deal well with criticism, but I’m learning to roll with the punches and glean what I can, hopefully producing better products the next time round.