In Blog we trust

Arseniy Rastorguev (known to his UK friends as Archie) works in the Moscow office of MMD, a leading corporate communications firm for central and eastern Europe. Clients include IBM, Visa and HSBC.

MMD’s regional director in Moscow, Stephen Locke, is ‘a big fan of social media’. Archie started as a consultant with MMD’s technology team two years ago. He’s now working across corporate communications, charged with masterminding MMD’s embryonic social media arm.

I met Archie at Tuttle last week, but now we’re sitting in The Hospital, having a chat about the social media scenes in our respective cities.

Archie says local firms in Moscow tend to be very ‘top down’ and that he’s found a big difference between dealing with the straightforward pyramid hierarchies at home and the more matrix-ed multinationals: “In Russia, the CEO is very much ‘in charge’; with international companies it’s a very complex chain of command”.

Whatever their structure, all businesses show a similar caution when it comes to participative media:

“Companies perceive social media as too risky and too freakish. They see it as a nerd sitting there with a computer.”

In contrast with what most people might think in the UK, Archie cites Starbucks as one of the first companies to ‘get it’.

“Starbucks attempts to be a good company. It was one of the first companies (with to understand that there isn’t a difference between PR and how your company really operates. Everyone loves Starbucks in Russia because the local coffee shops have bad service, terrible coffee and terrible food. We hope that Starbucks will kick out the local coffee shop owners.”

When most companies decide they want to do something with social media, says Archie, it always has to be on their terms:

“I like what Olga Rasulova of Edelman says (at least, I think it was her idea), that building your own social network is the equivalent of building a beautiful boutique in the middle of the desert. Many kilometres away, on the edge of the desert, there’ll be whole cities with streets and shops and ports and people. Your boutique may look amazing, but what’s the point? You need to go to where the people are.”

Archie knows all about where to find Russian consumers online. He’s been a paid-up member of the Russian blogosphere since he first got an invite code to Livejournal six years ago.

“My first degree was in political science. When I graduated, I got a job as an assistant to the director of the Higher School of Economics. At the same time, I was doing some writing for an educational journal. They were putting together a board of experts and invited me to join. This board based all their discussions on Livejournal.

“Livejournal is the core of the blogosphere in Russia. For four reasons, firstly, you can have a friends feature and can read all their blogs [similar to RSS]; second, you can have a closed community – post private posts to friends only; third, comments are threaded – this leads to an instensive and structured discussion, fourth, Livejournal is based around user communities. In Russia it’s the communities that are important rather than the individual bloggers themselves.

“The blogging community in Russia has grown up not around geeks but around the intelligentsia – academics and political commentators. Blogging gives people a way to express themselves outside the boundaries of traditional media. Since the press is not very opposition friendly, the blogosphere is the main outlet for opposing viewpoints.”

Blogging is so popular in Russia that Yandex – the leading Russian search engine – lists the top-ranking blogs on its home page every day – having your blog featured here, says Archie, is the equivalent to having your by-line on the front page of a national newspaper.

So, how about business? Why does he think blogging has great potential for business in Russia?

“Before Glasnost there was obviously a lot of propaganda but now the business press in Russia is pretty impartial. Journalists have mastered the art of the non-biased report. People are bored with the bland, balanced, two sides to every story approach.

“In the blogosphere, you don’t have to pretend to be impartial. People express their opinions – and then get corrected if they’re wrong. The press journalist won’t write a piece about a company putting out a crappy press release or a company’s PR representative constantly phoning him or her, but the blogger would. The blogger is much closer to the consumer.

“This is not really about ‘new’ media. It’s the normal human conversations we’ve always had but they’re now accessible.”

“With old style PR, as long as you were nice to the press, you’d be fine. Today, everyone is a media outlet. Companies are having to become more and more genuinely transparent. PR and corporate social responsibility are stretching from being a business function to being an integral part. And, more than anything else, the blogosphere is a stock-market for trust.”


Are you performing, publishing or just watching?

On the same panel as Russell Davies, Channel 4’s Matt Locke talks about social media spaces.

All our existing communications policies, he says, are based on the idea of having to ask permission to publish and there being a difference between the public and private realm.

Well, that separation doesn’t really exist any more.

And the implicit set of assumptions about how we communicate is now obsolete.

Instead of two spaces, public and private, there is now just public, although this can be broken down into six different layers. See Matt’s definitions here.

The most important thing to consider in all this is the use of our data. We may have become search-literate, but we’re not at all data-literate. We’re essentially trading our data to get better services, but we’re not fully aware of how this is happening.

We’re only just at the beginning of creating a whole new public space, with a new set of epithets.


Whatever would Noel Coward have said?

Dominic Campbell of Futuregov lives what he calls a ‘declarative lifestyle’.

With multiple web presences on sites such as Flickr (photo sharing), Twitter (microblogging), LinkedIn (professional networking), Facebook (social networking), YouTube (video sharing), (musical taste) and Upcoming (events diary), he’s the first to admit he holds little mystery.

This doesn’t bother him. Why should it? He doesn’t see the need for any distinction between his public and private, personal and professional identities.

On this steamy summer’s evening at the Royal Society of Arts, Dominic has been invited to defend his ‘lifestyle’ in front of a ‘Moral Maze’ style panel and public audience under the topic Private Lives – A Thing of The Past?

The panellists, Claire Fox, Matthew Taylor, Iain Dale and Stephen Whittle are all at least a decade older than Dominic and waste no time in setting about (very nearly) dismantling his argument.

The conversation goes something like this:

Stephen: In a previous life you might have been described as an exhibitionist….why don’t you care?

Dominic: There are major benefits through revealing yourself online like this. I’m the kind of person who tries to live a really honest lifestyle. I’m trying to break down the barriers. Everyone goes to work and ‘acts’, but I don’t feel I have to be a different person at work to the one I am at home.

Matthew: You’re young, idealistic and pure – can you not see any moment in your life when you won’t want to be like this?

Dominic: I can see that once you’ve started on this path, you’re effectively trapped and there’s no way out later. I guess it’s very unlikely that I’ll ever get to be a politician.

Claire: One of the great advantage of our modern cities is that we’ve moved away from the ‘curtain-twitching’ of the village. You seem to be doing your best to replicate village life – with yourself as the village idiot. Do you really have to grow up in front of the rest of us?

Dominic: No-one has to look at this stuff if they don’t want to. I’m talking to my friends. No-one else needs to care. Tweets [microblogging on Twitter] are inane and pointless.

Ian: If they’re pointless, what’s the point?

Claire: Don’t you see that this is demeaning to yourself?!

Dominic: I probably don’t have an answer to that. In many ways it’s about being a micro-celebrity – and that’s the celebrity of the modern world.

With comments from the floor falling into line with what we’ve heard so far (young bloke: “I guess I represent Generation Y – I’m searching for an identity, for love and affirmation”; older gentleman: “We’ve crossed the boundary between public and private in such a way that we’re heading for calamity,” etc), the generation gap is palpable.

An important point from the floor raised by John Lloyd, was that all this online activity pre-supposes a benign state. Dominic is assuming that no harm will come to him. We don’t have a Robespierre or a Stalin in charge at the moment – but that’s possible.

Dangerous fanatics aside, I’m all for a bit of online soul-bearing. So what if Dominic wants to detail his private life on Twitter or show his friend’s stag party photos on Flickr? Personally, I’m up for it. But then, like Dominic, I earn my living as a consultant. And most consultants would favour the old adage, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”.

Let’s hope history doesn’t prove us wrong!