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#30J : a striking conversation

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There's never been more fuzz in Belgian media about Twitter and its users than last week. One hashtag ignited such explosive debates that it started to trend worldwide soon after its launch. In terms of exposure and impact, #30J was definitely a hit. However, for its creator, it probably felt like the explosion of a hand grenade, just after you realised you threw the pin at the enemy.

January 24. Socialist trade union ABVV wants to rally supporters for their national strike amongst students. And because they're fed up with their corny image, they decide to use social media to get their message out. They boldly go where no union in Belgium has gone before. They set out to start a conversation on Twitter and launch the now infamous #30J.

The hashtag doesn't immediately catch on. It isn't untill the morning after, when @ErwinDeDeyn from the ABVV complains why the debate in the media is narrowed down to a poll: are you pro or con the strike? He uses the #30J hashtag in this status. It doesn't strike me as a particularly controversial status, yet it seems to have triggered an avalanche of messages. It is immediately followed by a rater agressive reply from a certain @oliware who warns the trade union that he will run over whoever hinders him on his way to work, "even if they only try to hand out a pamphlet." He too ads #30J to it.

The topic starts trending soon afterwards and the trade union gets way more than what they bargained for. Strong opponents hijack the hashtag to air their dismay with the unions in general and the strike in particular. The hashtag becomes a bashtag for the union. The vast majority of opinion makers, both on traditional media and blogs, designate the trade unions as losers of the fight.

The fight will continue untill the day of the strike 5 days later. On Twitter, the trade union is outgunned and outnumbered. Employers organizations VOKA and UNIZO openly question the legitimacy of the strike "when clearly, the majority of the people is strongly opposed to it." Polls are held in national newspapers: do you think trade unions are still relevant today? Surely, this is not what ABVV president Rudy De Leeuw had hoped for when they launched #30J.

Errare humanum est.

First off, even the die-hard non-believers begin to realise it's hard to overestimate the power of social media. And everybody will agree that that power is capricious and it may backfire when you try to put it to your use. As the saying goes: if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. But if you want to start cooking, you better learn how to deal with the heat.

Errare humanum est (pardon my Latin, but I'm told it's a thing to do if you're discussing politics these days). Errors were made. By the union, sure, but also by the newsmakers. Journalists have jumped to conclusions and forced the trade union in the defence at a time when there was no need for that. On Terzake, the twitter initiative was called a failure before it was. At that time, most of the tweets mentioning the hashtag were neutral, so the journalists were in fact plain wrong. My guess is they made a common mistake. Bear with me, because here, it becomes ugly, yet interesting.

The mistake? My guess: the journalists trusted their peer groups to be representative at that time. Because that's what happens on Twitter: you surround yourself with peers. People you relate to. And you follow people who inspire you, people you look up to. Journalists add to that: policymakers of all sorts. Instead of analyzing all tweets with #30J, they see what their peers and some so-called influential tweeps are saying about it. Most of them are pretty negative. They think that is representative and it's a headline on prime time TV news. In hindsight, we know the journalists were wrong, because now we have had time to analyze them.

Analyzing sentiments can't be done in a couple of hours on a trending topic. It's simply too much unstructured data. The facts presented at Terzake were nothing but a gut feeling that proved false.

The Trade Union didn't know that: they probably thought the journalists had properly investigated it and they got into the defensive. Their defence went something like "We have nearly a million and a half members, and you are saying a couple of thousand overeducated managers on Twitter are representative?"

Auch. That hurt. Not so much the people on Twitter, as it hurt the trade unions. What had started as a noble initiative towards new media, what was meant to be an attempt to reach out to students, was swept away with this one answer. Because, if you were educated, you were suspicious. If you didn't agree with the union, you were clearly a manager or some kind of boss, whose very goal in life is the suppression of the proletariat.

Guess what that answer did for the #30J.

It did however, have a very interesting side-effect. Both pro and contra strike ventilated their opinions under the same umbrella. Because of all the media attention, people were very consistent in the use of #30J. But what could have been the start of a great conversation, was nothing short of an ordinary mudfight, with one party reamining deaf to the other ones' arguments.

And that is a pity. Because you'd hope for more on so-called social media. Consider the hash itself: it's actually a crossroad. Why so rarely for thoughts?

Because something pretty rare happens: very different people start talking to eachother on Twitter. Yes, that is rare. Because people tend to surround themselves with peers on Twitter. And they follow people they look up to.

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