It is always good to see an academic article generating debate and Andy Williamson's report for the Hansard Society has done just that in certain quarters. Well it will if you spin it a certain way. Andy's report is based on research among MPs to discover how they use the Internet. The findings are not earth-shattering though very interesting to those into such things. The conclusions are equally highly sensible; he argues for MPs to have a clear policy and strategy for going online, one linking with offline communication strategy, that MPs should think about the multiplier effect when using social networking (that one reader may tell another 10 or so), and to think about engaging with the communities that are key to them. That broad brush was spun by Emily Bell to argue that most MPs do not want 'connectivity' and 'avoid using Facebook or even email' and suggests that MPs who do not 'get' the Internet are about to be kicked out of their seats.
The most interesting thing about Bell's article is the comments it has generated, a 100 to this point which can be separated into a couple of camps broadly: the sceptics that think 'connectivity' is a good thing for MPs but something they would never consider - Almosta argues "they are scared s***less of being confronted by real people". Then there are those who suggest Facebook is the wrong place for politicians or indeed anything serious citing research to suggest it creates an audience of attention deficient and selfish individuals. Some of the inaccuracies are wonderful, such as the delightful comment by TristramShandy that "Lynn Featherstone, is great at responding promptly and constructively to emails - precisely because she's not the kind of bandwagon-hopping moron who thinks the illusion of accessibility is more important than the reality", sorry Tristram, Lynne is one of my friends on Facebook and quite and active user! But at the heart of the debate is the age old question of what is appropriate for political communication, is it the latest public fad or the old tried and tested methods? Facebook is not elitist, it may well be changing the way children interact, but if it was not the current sites it would be others. Should MPs embrace where the people are and will not doing so make them appear aloof and out of touch? Williamson's report shows some interesting data and raises interesting questions particularly about the future - email was once a minority communication tool among MPs, as were websites; now they are common and expected of all including parliamentary candidates. Will the future demand MPs have a version of Facebook or Twitter or something we have not yet even thought of, or should they resist and leave such innovations to the 20% or so early adopters? Big questions!