Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why I love UGC

The real bonus with Web 2.0 is that it easily facilitates ordinary web users to create their own content and contribute to campaigns. This was forwarded to me by one of my students, no name! I guess they lean away from the Conservatives!
After a little investigation I found a lot of different posters, all of a similar vein though perhaps less blunt, floating around on Twitter. The site where these originate is very simple and allows anyone to generate the words to fit around the now famous, possibly airbrushed, picture of Cameron. It is a creation of Andy Barefoot who supports neither Labour or Conservatives, maybe a Liberal Democrat (??) and his site has a few more sophisticated versions. But the power of these is that all those online activists can create them, circulate them, some may go viral, a lot of people have a laugh but, in political terms, it may have an impact on overall perceptions of David Cameron. This may not be based on the message itself, though they may be reminders of negatives linked to Cameron's history or persona, the above links to the Labour 'Dave the Chameleon' video and his background in public relations as negatives. But such offhand allusions to a negative message that makes this powerful; impact is based mainly on the fact that people we know (our friends on Facebook, Bebo and social networks or those we follow on Tumblr and Twitter or email contacts) do not like Cameron and oppose him as prime minister. I wait to see the same done to Labour and Gordon Brown, or is deemed too easy a target?

Monday, January 18, 2010

New style of government or new style of gimmick

As the ever-interesting (and I do mean that) Dizzy informs readers last week, the Conservatives are clear winners in engagement online. Whether this is old versus new, so there is more interest in the Conservatives because Labour have been around, and in government, for a long time, is a question? It could be that the engagement tools are the right ones, or that people want to engage more with the Conservatives, perhaps as they are seen as the next government, this is not an analysis of the audience unfortunately beyond simple indicators of engagement.

But the party seems to have a new strategy, one that will allow greater public participation in government. They want someone to design a platform, and will offer £1 million, that will create an online public sphere. If you are wondering about the idea of the public sphere, this should be autonomous (possibly in this case), inclusive (definitely), political (as before - and clearly) and rational. A space where people are able to find solutions to common social problems. Such ideas are surrounded by much hype and are attached to many ideals of democracy. There are two ways of looking at the notion of creating public spheres, it can be hailed as a means for getting people empowered and in touch with government, as in the case of this article by Tim Bonnemann, but there are dangers.

It is easy to source a crowd online, after all this was achieved to create the UK's Christmas number one single, or at least to block Simon Cowell. But what sort of crowd will be sourced? You can find a crowd that will decide that hanging is the best deterrent for serious crime, would that be good policy though? Would this allow minority opinions to be voiced? Or just those of extremists? Would it break the spiral of silence or create a new silence, of the majority perhaps? Most worrying would it abrogate the responsibility of a government over decision making, or indeed would a government be tied to the crowd by the terms and conditions of participation. Of course these negative outcomes can be avoided, to an extent, but they need to be considered. Initiatives that bring the governed and government closer together are all worthy of support and encouragement, the danger is though that these initiatives can be ill-considered gimmicks rather than real proposals for public participation in the democratic process. It may take more than £1 million to not only build the interface but also to ensure all the checks and balances are in place; that or we may find a place for consultation and participation that becomes unusable as anything but to embarrass the government that thought it up and paid for it.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Its going to be a dirty fight

There is a lot of money being spent on playing up the Conservatives, with a glossy backlit ad dominating Piccadilly Circus at one point over Christmas. But the majority of campaigning, in this period of phony campaigning, is on the cheap and on the web and via email. The above is from Labour which I have been forwarded twice this morning already. This will perhaps be the major impact the Internet will have on election campaigning. YouTube allows anyone to get a video out to an audience (few may watch it but it is a route to publicity). Facebook and Twitter does the same with these photo-shopped ads. It may replace the street hording as it is possible to target them a little better, but may get the same views. They are only peripheral cues, reminders of campaign messages and slogans that will only appeal to those already converted, but they will be used and lot and may encourage some to turnout if they are worried about Cameron caring for the less well off or Brown's various (in)competences!

Monday, January 04, 2010

Will online campaigning make a difference?

It seems there is a received wisdom that the Internet played a crucial role in the 2008 US Presedential campaign - and everyone is asking much the same of every other country's election. In this vein, there is a fascinating article on the Channel 4 news site which asks whether online campaigning will be an important feature of the forthcoming General Election campaign. There are real advocates who proclaim that the Internet could fundamentally shift the style of campaigning. Toby Flux from Labour Matters says in the piece that hits, clicks and tweets really count and that 2010 will be the "first general election of the social network age" he, like Labour's Twitter Tsar, believes news stories which break online will dominate the campaign. Others are more circumspect, Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes suggest much of what happens online will be swamped by the deluge of coverage across mainstream media, and I guess their websites also which can steal the audience away from the parties.
It almost seems that Labour want it to make a difference, though perhaps this is dangerous unless they have an online strategy that is yet to be launched as the Conservatives are massively ahead in terms of the blogosphere and the sophistication of their homepage - not to mention the number of MPs using social networks or microblogs. While Kerry McCarthy may be right in saying that online tools can reach younger voters, she may also contradict herself when observing that too much online political communication is in-fighting. It can, as Fawkes says, mean that bloggers (MPs or not) are simple preaching to the already converted and not really encouraging anyone else to become involved.

The key thing seems to be Obama, everyone wants to emulate him and his success. The Conservatives have already tried to create an Obama-esque social network and many consider his model of campaigning to be something to emulate. This misses the point in a number of ways. Former Liberal Democrat communications manager Olly Grender argues in the piece that the campaign "has to have the charisma and hope and excitement of the Obama campaign to add magic dust and that is nothing to do with new media"; it was the man, his image and what he stood for that drew in the audience not his social network. One must precede the other! Also the campaign organisation was very much a grassroots operation that empowered activists, some of this work could be done online, so it worked, but you cannot contrive that and create an activist base (Shane Greer agrees, he just said so on BBC News 24) - perhaps the Conservatives will garner both the enthusiasm and the will to create an offline and online activist base that will push MyConservatives as an important tool - Perhaps! Labour have a less public network for supporters, perhaps avoiding the fanfares and brickbats such tools can bring you.

It seems the media are playing up the idea of an online because it is new, and it is in many ways as the advances in online technologies have facilitated a higher level of use to make it a way of reaching a lot of people. But you cannot guarantee an audience. Perhaps Iain Dale is right, confirming the Downes and Mui thesis that email is the killer application - if you have a big enough database you can reach a lot of people and mobilise them. Perhaps they can also be pulled to other online campaign tools and drawn into the campaign. The Conservatives are far more organised in using email strategically. I hear from them once a week, I signed up to Labour from three emails and have received nothing - either I am on a blacklist or they just don't want to talk to me, or they are not using their database very well (anyone from Labour know the answer?). Liberal Democrats are less frequent and the e-newsletter is less flashy, but they also seem to have grasped email.

Online campaigning needs a pull - an audience needs to be drawn to the sites of parties, their social networks and their Twitter feeds. Obama provided a pull unique to him it could be argued (I think it was unique to the time and mood); in the context of low trust in politicians generally; when the party leaders have been around for a while; when support is not unequivocal for either party and many may be voting for the least worst option, parties in the UK need a big pull factor if the Internet is going to be a vote winner either as a tool for activists or for voter engagement.

Is Brown really Britain's worst dressed man?

GQ magazine have published their best/worst dressed man list, something which is usually of little interest to someone like me (probably as I would fall into the latter category - before anyone else says it!). It is unclear exactly who all the panel of experts that determine the rankings are but they include fashion designers/gurus/experts. Interestingly Gordon Brown has come out as worst dressed, though he is in interesting company with Boris Johnson, Russell Brand and Peter Stringfellow, and only narrowly beats French President Nicolas Sarkozy into second place. David Cameron, in stark contrast, is eighth and the write up talks of him being Britain's next prime minister - which does make one wonder if the review is politically biased in some way.

The bigger question is though, is Brown really that badly dressed. How could this be given he must have a wealth of staff to advise him on presentation (though admittedly they have had little impact in a number of areas thus far). Is there a lingering perception of him as someone bad presented and badly dressed that overrides our reading of each individual appearance? Is there a bias against him regardless? It is interesting that he emerges bottom, especially when the story on the BBC news site is accompanied by a picture of him looking quite smart - or is that just me? The question is, is it just Gordon who never quite looks right, or does he actually dress badly?