I am not the most enthusiastic fan of social media. I love new technology, but at some point I associated social media with children (I know, I was wrong), and only now do I see the error of my ways. I use Facebook solely for the purpose of entering competitions, I have just this evening started using Twitter properly, and that’s about it.
So when the Information Commissioner’s advice that it was acceptable to use Twitter to make FOI requests emerged, I wasn’t a happy anorak. Is it really unkind to see it as the regulatory equivalent of Dad Dancing, something to show that the ICO is down with the kids? Every time I’ve run an FOI course in the last 18 months, I have mentioned to my punters that it was entirely possible that a tweeted FOI was a legitimate one, but my heart sank every time I said it. Twitter is instant, urgent, of the moment, and for the most part, it’s transitory. The little box into which one deposits a tweet says ‘What’s Happening?’, not “What Do You Want To Know In 20 Working Days Subject to a Rigorous Process of Searching and Decision Making?”
An FOI request doesn’t have to be huge and momentous, but it should be considered. It should be thought through. I would defend to the death the right of people to make justifiably silly or trivial FOI requests (if the person who asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office how much they spent on Ferrero Rocher ever identifies themselves to me, I promise to buy them a drink), but especially in the current climate, it’s not unreasonable to ask FOI requesters to ask themselves: what do I want to know, why do I want to know it, and am I asking the right person? 140 characters might oblige some FOI requesters to boil their queries down into coherence (some users of What Do They Know really need a word limit), but equally, it might just encourage people with itchy tweeting fingers to go crazy with a swarm of FOI one-liners.
Time will tell whether this will amount to anything. But as an experiment, I have just made an FOI request via Twitter to the Information Commissioner’s Office. After all, it’s always nice to see them following their own guidance.
I would say that it’s equally nice when they don’t follow their own guidance, but of course *that never happens*.