A hashtag and photo alone does not a call to action make

I want to make clear from the outset, this is a viewpoint expressing on how people use social media for good intentions – but their intent doesn’t deliver effective results. This isn’t either for or against a specific, current missing person, but uses an online exchange in relation to them to highlight the problem.

Now, with that out of the way – let’s get to the point.

As my fingers touch keys, law enforcement authorities in the USA are working to find Isabel Celis, a six year old girl who has gone missing from Tuszon, Arizona since last week.

And is the fashion, people across all social media channels have commendably mobilised to assist in what ever way they can to help the effort to reunite this young girl with her family. From Facebook groups, twitter hashtags and the like – the users in these communities are at least helping to raise awareness about the case.

Image of a tweet that appeared in my twitter timeline today relating to the missing US girl Isabel Celis - Click to view full sized image.

Image of a tweet that appeared in my twitter timeline today relating to the missing US girl Isabel Celis.

This case came to my attention today when this screen-captured tweet was retweeted in my timeline, and is the basis for this post.

My issue with this tweet is this: It requires the user to do too many things for the information to be useful and actionable. Or put simply – a poorly crafted tweet, and a badly executed call to action.

When you hear or read about a missing person, and if your mind is anything like mine; you ask yourself a couple of important questions such as:

  • who is it?
  • where are they missing from?
  • how can I help find the person?

This of course goes back to the Five W’s of basic information gathering; which we were all taught in primary school. I’ll avoid talking about their origins in Latin for reasons of brevity.

Problem one: Reliance on prior knowledge

Only the first of these three questions comes close to being answered, provided and buried by way of a hashtag – a method on twitter for indexing a group of tweets or discussion – denoted by the string of words prefixed by the hash (#) symbol.

If you’re an inexperienced twitter user, you’re not likely to know what a hashtag is. This is most likely amongst the 17% of US internet users over the age of 30 who use twitter.

The use of a hashtag to convey important information is a poor choice. It is reliant on the assumption that the user knows what they are and how they are of value to the message being conveyed. The problem is best summed up by the following, and less offensive expression:

To assume is to make an ass out of u and me

Problem two: Key questions not answered

We move on to the second and third questions asked by the inquisitive mind when seeing a message about a missing person – where are they missing from, and how can I help.

The tweet doesn’t provide any answers to these important questions. It repeats the same mistake of assumption, and hopes that the user will click on a hashtag, to find a tweet, that contains relevant information, so they can get the answer to the questions they have.

The response from a user after being called out on a poorly crafted tweet that did nothing to inform interested parties on how they can help - click to enlarge.

The response from a user after being called out on a poorly crafted tweet that did nothing to inform interested parties on how they can help.

And the problem with this was highlighted by the somewhat flippant and idiotic justification received from the tweet’s original author (see right) when I questioned the original tweeter on his methodology and message, and its poor use of the medium that helps rather than harms the search for this girl.

How does looking at only the photo of a missing girl as an isolated act help with her recovery? Short answer – it doesn’t. Just ask people who write Missing Persons Investigative Best Practices Protocols, let alone the social media operatives for various agencies who already provide this information (and do it well), on how they think the tweet in question would be more hindrance than help.

However, this clicking creates an unnecessary barrier to providing the user with information. In order to answer their question, they will have to click on a hashtag, to scroll through a list of tweets until finally, amongst the signal to noise ratio that is social networks; find a message that gives them some of that information.

At least three to six clicks, and two minutes wasted trying to find it by my count. All of it unnecessary, and could have been easily fixed with a properly crafted message.

So what would the solution look like?

A screen capture of how the tweet should have been composed to ensure maximum effectiveness of the message - Click to view larger.

A screen capture of my tweet showing exactly how it should have been composed to ensure maximum effectiveness of the message.

So given Twitter’s 140 character limit, If I was the person sending that tweet – how would I have crafted it to actually be useful?

These are my two suggestions for crafting a better tweet in issues such as this:

  1. The message is the medium: Add as much relevant information as possible; so people who want to help can, without them getting frustrated, disinterested and ultimately taking no action.
  2. Use easily understood shorthand to maximise real estate: wk. for week, pic for picture, yr for year, fr. for from.

Here’s exactly what should have been tweeted (and I did by the way):

Isabel Celis, 6yr old fr. Tuscon AZ missing since last wk. Pic http://t.co/LF6bMmMl Info http://t.co/wljNonWM Please RT #findisabelcelis

And yes, I know I broke one of my own rules in this tweet – asking/begging for the reader to take action (by including the phrase Please RT). However, I make a small exception for this one because I can; and no parent (no matter how dark your heart is) should have to live with the uncertainty of a missing child.