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Social Media Fail #2: @Sweden and the Average Sven

30 Dec
Curation Rotation - the @Sweden twitter account

Curation Rotation – the @Sweden twitter account

During the week or so that I’ve been listing these social media fails, some of the most frequently trodden ground I’ve covered relates to the leap of faith required in hiring someone to manage one’s social media.

It’s easy for something to go wrong.  One mistake and the wise denizens of the internet start punching you mercilessly and holding you up to public ridicule.

And it’s possible you may deserve it, particularly if you’ve forgotten that while the person handling your social media may be responsible for what you share, you are still accountable.  It’s your brand.  The buck stops with you.

So consider the leap of faith required to hand your social media over to someone with no professional social media credentials – someone who is, in fact, a complete stranger.  Consider the risk in telling them that they can pretty much say whatever they want.

Then, if by some miracle it works out, consider taking the same risk a week later by giving the responsibility to a different person again.  And again.  And again.

And, the biggest leap of all, to have your entire nation judged by what these strangers choose to say.

Welcome to Sweden, where in late 2011 the idea of giving control of the @sweden twitter profile to a different member of the Swedish public every week was considered a good idea.

The idea came, not surprisingly, from an ad agency, Volontaire of Stockholm.  It was a brave idea, a new idea, an idea so full of both promise and pitfalls that the bravery of the agency in suggesting it dwindles to insignificance when compared with the bravery of the client that approved it.

The concept was borne of the idea that the world would better understand Sweden if the world understood the Swedish people.  Giving Average Sven control of @sweden would allow people to get a better understanding of what makes Swedes tick, what’s important to them, their likes and dislikes.

And so, in December 2011 and throughout the year that has followed, Svenska Institutet and VisitSweden gave one Swede every week the responsibility of curating the @sweden twitter profile, thereby pioneering what has become known as ‘Curation Rotation’.  The only rules were that you must be a Swede, you must tweet in English, and you shouldn’t do anything criminal.

Miss @Sweden, Sonja Abrahamsson

Miss @Sweden,
Sonja Abrahamsson

And do you know what?  It wasn’t the public relations disaster that might have been expected.  Erm…..for the first few months.

The first time that most people in the US will have heard about @sweden was in June this year, which coincidentally was exactly the moment that it became a much bigger story than it had been up to that point.

Folks who work in marketing may have heard about it a little earlier (it won a Gold Clio in May) but on June 10, @sweden moved into the mainstream in the U.S. as a New York Times article shone a spotlight its first 6 months of operation.

The article was interesting, gave a number of examples of some of the points of view tweeted and took Erik Isberg, the curator of the moment, as its main subject.

What's the fuzz?At the end of Mr Isberg’s week, just as the NYT article came out, Sonja Abrahamsson took over and by the end of her week the publicity of the NYT piece had been dwarfed by the publicity surrounding her tweets, which ranged from mundane to potentially anti-semitic to certainly gross and generally bizarre. An article on Mashable collected some of the most ‘memorable’.

In addition to Ms. Abrahamsson’s high profile tenure, yet more light was shone on @sweden when the campaign won a Grand Prix at the Cannes festival.

Across the remainder of 2012, the @sweden handle settled down again into the mundane, the everyday, with only the occasional blip.  That is not to say that there has not been some interesting stuff – there has – but none has even approached the levels of social media hysteria reached in June.

In general, the Swedes have shown themselves to be good natured, humorous, down to earth people.  Their ability to communicate effectively in a second language should put most English speaking nations to shame.  Given the opportunity to make a name for themselves in representing their country, the vast majority of them have behaved with grace and good nature, have taken their responsibility seriously and have been conscious of the impact they may have on their country’s global image.

That said, while clearly the unpleasantness of some of Ms. Abrahamsson’s series of tweets is likely to live longer in the memory than those of all the other, more mainstream-minded curators, can it really be said to have failed?

Gold Clio

The coveted
Gold Clio

No, and yes.

No because the campaign won a Clio award in New York and a Grand Prix at Cannes.  No, because the number of followers has increased.  And no because it can probably be said that followers of the @sweden account have a more rounded view of the Swedish people than they did before which was, after all, the objective.

But yes because for all the good things that may potentially have come of this experiment, the one thing that will most likely be remembered, the thing that received the most media coverage, was an image of anti-semitism and lack of education.  On the basis that perception is reality that is a sad legacy, and particularly sad for all those curators who provided excellent content only to see their efforts, thoughts and feelings swamped under a blanket association of bigotry and ignorance.

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

And remember that it could be said that the perception of bigotry is only a perception, and not reality.  Reading Ms. Abrahamsson’s tweets with an open mind, in the views of some Jewish commentators, leads to an understanding that she is not being bigoted, but is rather asking questions that many people might share, and that these questions stand on a foundation of naiveté, not one of prejudice.

At the end of her tenure as Curator of Sweden, she posted a somewhat bizarre video to summarize her week, and told people to make up their own minds.  Around the same time, she also gave an interview in which she explained a tattoo on the back of her neck  The tattoo actually reads “hej hej” (Swedish for hello hello) which could be seen as a link to her twitter handle @hejsonja but, from a distance, it could be read as something else, a coincidence that Ms. Abrahamsson explains as “a mistake”.

So, what can we learn from the @sweden experiment?

Well, clearly we can learn that handing over control of your brand without putting strict guidelines and safeguards in place is a very dangerous thing.  But perhaps more importantly, we can learn that tweeting half-formed thoughts or open questions is likely to result in a backlash.

It is not unusual in this day and age for people to extrapolate from any position that leaves any middle ground, in order to infer a whole host of other positions, and usually assuming these positions to be either black or white.

And so it proved with @sweden.  Ms. Abrahamsson’s tweets were largely taken to be an indication of an assumed set of values.  That assumption may be right or wrong, but 140 characters does not give much room for clarification.  Or as Time Magazine put it, “long enough to say something stupid, but not nearly long enough to explain yourself when you do”.

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