Social Media: When you say these words, images of teenagers glued to their smartphones, staff abusing company internet services and the infidelity of spouses often spring to mind…People love to hate everything called ‘social media’. You often hear people saying things like “I don’t do Facebook” or “I don’t see the point of Twitter”. Some refer to ‘Mixit’ and claim that it is used by perverts, writes forensics expert Stan Bezuidenhout.
Of course, most modern, liberal, connected and innovative companies and groups have been exploiting the various social media platforms for everything from broadcasting (think news) to publication (think book releases) and even data mining and market research (think political parties) to great effect. Others have declared all social media out of bounds at the office, have taken active steps to keep staff away from it and have had computer internet connections specially programmed to prevent access to these “tools of modern distraction”.
While all these references, fears, negative connotations, concerns, and judgments have their origin in factual events, losses, and even crimes, how can social media be used to positive effect? Is it even possible to achieve anything positive through mediums like WhatsApp, BBM, Facebook, Twitter, and Zello – to name but a few options?
The short answer is yes. But there’s ‘a bit’. In order for us to even address the claimed or possible benefits of each platform or solution; we need to agree on the basic understanding of what they are, how they can be used (and abused) and how and why a particular platform would be chosen over another. So let’s consider them in turn.
The reason why we started with this is because most companies do not allow access to it any longer for fear of abuse. Those videos staff watch of cats talking, dogs riding skateboards and people falling really hard (how is the funny, anyway?) can burn up data and chase up costs like nobody’s business. When staff start spending their time looking at music videos, cute animals and pranks, they are cutting into productivity and internet bills can soar.
But then there is the ‘free’ education. Imagine a fleet manager preparing for a presentation to management about the cost of a particular tracking solution. He needs to make sense. The group is considering a new technology and they’ve asked him to ‘look into it’. If he spends time with salespeople from various tracking companies, he spends most of his time listening.
Every meeting involves a representative telling him why their solution or gadget is better than anything else on the market. He might need to see five companies. In the end, it comes down to at least five hours spent ‘listening’ and includes tea and cookies and an invariable exchange of emails after. If he wanted to truly understand the industry, he might need to go and attend additional training or a workshop. Because you pay for those, he cannot abandon his interest after five minutes of attending – he has to sit it out. You’ve paid. He can’t waste your money.
If he went to YouTube, on the other hand, he can search for the technology of his choice, immediately watch a training or technology of his choice, immediately watch a training or technology video at his desk, take less than 15 minutes to do so, stop and choose another video within 10 seconds if he prefers, watch it as many times as he wants or even download it and include it in his presentation – all for the relatively low cost of internet access and limited loss of productivity.
The employee becomes more informed, has exposure to a vast amount of intimate technical data, can see and understand the technologies under consideration, compare different products, consider possible options and solutions – all without leaving his desk.
On a cost/benefit analysis scale, this is much more effective than the old, dogmatic ‘meet and greet’ that has now become the ‘con and close’ method, in any event. YouTube is loaded to bursting point with highly educational video content that would be wasted if companies insist on shooting the messenger, as it were. The same goes for Vimeo – another, more business and education-oriented video streaming service.
Facebook is somewhat of an enigma, really. People use it for all kinds of sinister reasons. Husbands have cheated on wives because they “met someone online”. Criminals have used data collected from Facebook to stalk and even rob unsuspecting victims. People are able to create false profiles, completely new identities and even profiles for animals or places – hiding the identity of the real person from plain view.
This exposes companies to immeasurable risk since the details, activities, movements and even work project information criminals could get via Facebook can and has led to serious breaches in company security.
But is it all bad? Not so, it would seem. But using or having access to Facebook and doing so safely takes a number of specific steps which most people never bother to follow. First, you need to use your PRIVACY settings. You cannot have just anyone see who you are, where you are, what you are up to and where you live and work. This is plain irresponsible. You also need to ensure that you don’t simply accept every ‘friend request’ you get.
While it’s cool to feel like a celebrity when you have 5 000 friends on Facebook, you need to understand that those you have no real-world association to might include all manner of unsavory characters. What you say on Facebook does not stay on Facebook. Because the number of people who have access to your comments and opinions, as you share, comment and post, could run into the thousands – ranting about what an idiot your boss is, might very well come back to kick you in the butt – as you leave out the door….
For Facebook to be used as a business tool, users must have personal discipline and they should wear their ‘company hat’ at all times, in order for this social media platform to be of any benefit. But what benefits could there possibly be?
Firstly, live crime and situational intelligence can positively impact on productivity. If you know that there has been a mall robbery, major collision, bridge collapse or flood in a particular area, in virtual real-time, you can re-direct or delay operations or fleet movements and save valuable hours. You could become aware of a new or novel burglary, robbery or hijacking technique within minutes or hours and immediately alert staff and drivers. The possibility of generating sales leads, getting referrals and/or meeting potential business partners cannot be overlooked either. So-as ’evil’ as Facebook can be, it can be a very effective source of real-time operational risk intelligence.
Dishonest husbands have used ‘alternative communication methods’ to communicate with their mistresses for as long as man has been around. Those beeps she hears late at night and her husband’s frantic efforts to prevent her from seeing his phone has been the cause of many a sleepless night for long-married housewives and arm-candy girlfriends. Youngsters use these chat programs to plan late-night escapades, to explore their sexuality by sending revealing ‘selfies’ and even to order drugs. In companies, workers plan parties, agree on drinking venues, send very explicit selfies to lovers, share jokes and read prayers. No matter what they say – the time spent on the cell phone is time taken away from work.
More interference in productivity
Because workers can be in direct contact with literally hundreds, if not thousands, of other non-productive working-class people of seminal interest, the seemingly innocent distraction caused by reading a joke in 30 seconds is considered irrelevant. But when this happens all day long, it can become a problem and impact negatively on work ethics and productivity.
But then there are theme-specific groups. Currently, emergency services, police, tracking and recovery units, hijacking response teams, fire services, and even animal protection services use groups on platforms like WhatsApp to ensure that calls go out immediately. They use groups to ensure that feedback and updates can be sent to crews and services still en-route, to hospitals expecting patients and/or to traffic monitoring services to alert other road users.
Whether you are a traffic officer patrolling a route, a police officer protecting it, a tow service clearing it or an ambulance service responding to it – WhatApp groups enables users to share vital information, which could include live photographs, directly to managing or other responding services.
Police officers are using WhatsApp groups to great effect, exchanging wanted suspect information, stolen vehicle details, shootings in progress and even details on escaped convicts to hundreds or thousands of colleagues almost instantly. Ambulance services can give immediate feedback on the additional services or resources needed at medical scenes and hijacking recovery agents can alert borders immediately of a possible vehicle approaching.
Zello is a relatively new service that has replaced the mostly text-based solutions with a cellphone-based Push-to-Talk Broadcast service. There is little abuse of this service and not many people are familiar with it. Because you communicate using your voice over a two-way radio-type platform immediately to many similarly connected listeners using data streaming rather than cellular communications this solution has been very well received and saves on the cost. With a cellphone, you can typically only talk to one person at a time whereas Zello enables you to have group conversations with hundreds of other users.
While the data streaming saves on cellular call rate costs, there is a down-side: it comes at the cost of data (which is still not cheap) and literally burns through a cellular battery charge in far less than a day on most modern phones. This is a negative, because phones are also needed for regular calls, SMS’s, messaging services, e-mails, and those other social media uses already covered. Zello is also voice-based, so the constant drone of messages – which include relevant and irrelevant discussions – can become distracting and even bothersome, so many people turn their Zello Services to silent. This defects the design and purpose.
On the plus side, small fleets of vehicles can be interconnected, and management can easily ‘broadcast’ instructions, alerts, warnings, lookout and changed meeting schedules to multiple members. Drivers in distress can call for help to all their connected colleagues or friends and since most people already own cellular phones, there is no need for additional expenses to buy radios to enable live group communications. And Zello is being used all over the world to very great effect. A police officer in Cape Town can now ask an FBI Agent in Washington for assistance while dealing with an international suspect – in real-time.
Last but hardly least; many people are not quite aware of what Twitter can do yet. Twitter is seen as a business or personal promotional tool that enables users to ‘advertise’ by posting short comments that are read by their ‘followers’. People would typically use Twitter to follow celebrities like Madonna, world leaders like President Barack Obama or companies like Microsoft. All in the ever-prevalent search for current, live updates, latest pursuits, opinions, etc. The phenomenon is reasonably limited to people wishing to have a voice, promote personal agendas, advertise services or to follow and actively have insight into the daily lives or activities or others they support or idolize.
Many companies have not considered this a true threat productivity yet since the service is more popular on cellphones and tablets than on computers and is not a widely supported in South Africa as in some other countries. But it can take its toll if people become obsessed with following, ‘re-tweeting’ or posting in worlds that consists of micro bites of information.
Of course, Twitter is just another platform for the live exchange of opinions, ideas, events, moments and media. This enables road safety and road user organizations to share collision events, roadblocks, speed trap locations, road works delays, and other relevant information directly to users. Companies can use it to share trends, new product launches, special offers and product-specific campaigns directly to literally thousands of users and benefit from those ‘re-tweeting’ their advertisements. This is cheap advertising. By following specific accounts, like Arrive Alive, Justice Project South Africa, Fatal Moves, the Automobile Association and IBF Investigations on Twitter, transporters have immediate access to very powerful education, road safety advice, event and situation updates, expert opinions and benefit from the constant flow of road safety information.
But all this means one thing more and more time spent on different platforms and solutions, more battery life used more cellphone use more data use and more time spent away from work. Doesn’t it?
Not quite, you see – the cost of interaction is relatively small on some platforms as the size of messages are limited but larger on others as website links, videos, long messages, and multiple images can be added. But this is only an issue if there is no cost-benefit component involved. If a truck driver is using his cellphone to catch up on Twitter while driving, he increases his crash risk and can have a collision causing serious loss, injury even death.
But if the national risk executive of a company is in a position to receive live updates about current events, like hijacking trends, major road closures due to crashes or protest action or extreme weather and flooding, it places him or her in a position to redirect resources, re-route vehicles, delay departures or plan for delays – saving thousands or even hundreds of thousands of Rands.
I have been using social media for years now. I have been friended, followed, retweeted, shared and quoted more than most people care to quote. Equally, I have been reported blocked, kicked off and personally attached on social media as well. In spite of this, I feel that I experienced more benefit from the use of social media than I cared for the disadvantages. When I started Truck Hijackings/Crashes on WhatsApp, I decided to take a number of active steps to make the group effective.
For starters, I introduced a set of rules: No user is allowed to enter into any conversation on the group. It is used exclusively for the dissemination of active or relevant information, relating to truck crashes, truck hijackings, public unrest that will affect transport operations, business robberies or extremely violent crimes. I made the focus narrow.
Next, I select contributors or members of the group very carefully. We have mostly national risk managers, large fleet operators and road safety experts on our group. They are naturally disciplined and are mostly very busy professional people who don’t have the time to sit and type long messages on a cellphone. I do everything I can to limit the distribution of irrelevant or off-topic information: this group has no daily prayers, there are no jokes exchanged, the members use it more for receiving information than for sharing and I filter out relevant information from as many as 35 other groups and from multiple social media sources, from where I handpick relevant posts on a 24/7 basis. This is extremely time-consuming, but I consider it my effort to reduce road transport risk. We often post live and current information on crimes that are still very much in the active/operational stages. For this purpose, I consider the content of posts very carefully and I will specifically remind members of my group that they should not share specific elements on social media. I get information from National Police and Intelligence Groups and sometimes get crime information that is so fresh that current operations and even armed conflict are still on-going.
For this reason, my group members have to respect my request and comply with our rules. In order for me not to violate the trust I have built up over more than two years with some other groups, I have a very strict one-chance policy. If our group members violate this one rule – no posting on social media – they are immediately removed from our group. This is not a social experiment or a platform for being cool because you know something first. I am serious about what I do and fortunately, my group members respect it. I owe special thanks to them all for making the group a success.
I realize that there are many incidents happening all over the country – things like major crashes, hijackings, business robberies, vehicle theft and even murders of truck and bus drivers – but that all these events are disconnected between various social media platforms. As I service primarily my existing clients, I realized that they could benefit from the live intelligence associated with these events. Knowing that there is a new trend developing in the modus operandi of hijackers, that there is a syndicate operating in a particular area, the certain types of vehicles are specifically targeted, that there is unrest and public violence in a particular area or on a specific road, would be something my clients would want to know immediately.
As I started to share the information on this group, I started to realize that there are other transport operators that are not my clients but who would start contracting me for information on current criminal trends, hijacking events, etc. With this in mind, I decided to allow all transport operators who have a risk mitigation mentality to join the group. It has grown and we will soon need to register a second group to accommodate new members.
So how do people feel about my Truck Hijacking/Crashes Group?
“A group of this caliber is a very valuable tool for the trucking industry and law enforcement to collect information relating to risk areas. I’m part of the group because I can be of assistance to the trucking industry, should medical assistance be required. I believe every fleet and risk manager should be on this group to be in the loop regarding factors that impact negatively on transporters. “Ziyaad Warasally, ILS Medic with a national medical emergency service provider.
“We have trucks coming in and out of South Africa, operating mainly in Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Sasolburg, down to Secunda. The reports of strikes, hijackings and other threats from this group helps us to sensitize our drivers to be cautious and sometimes helps us divert trucks along safer routes. Social Media has become part of our risk management efforts, in away. Communications from this group is instant and easy to understand as it often includes photos or even videos of live scenes.” Michael Derrick, senior contract manager: Unitrans Botswana.