Friday, February 04, 2011

Book Review: Politicking Online

The subtitle to this collection of essays, edited by Costas Panagopoulos, is 'The Transformation of Election Campaign Communications'. The book seeks to map out the ways in which the tools facilitated by online technologies are changing political communication and how campaigners are adapting to the online and digital environment. The analysis is purely focused upon U.S. politics, apart from two chapters, one covering Germany and the other Spain; which do not really offer a real comparative element but place developments in the U.S. in the context of global developments. We find offline inequalities prevail between presidential, gubernatorial and house races, with the lower in the political order a candidate is standing the less likely they are to be campaigning online. We also find that campaigning online can matter, though this is mediated by a range of variables and what comes across clearly is that online and offline must work contiguously in order to generate awareness, support and GOTV. In terms of learning how campaigning work, we learn how tools must be used in combination with one another and how the very latest tools can be used both to measure impact as well as gaining support.

The last of the essays provides some evidence of a Facebook effect, though the discussion does temper the findings putting them into a wider context. The fact that the essays look at social networking sites and new and untested shows how fast paced innovations are. Not in terms of innovations in campaigning but in the social uses of online tools which in turn drive campaigning. Despite being published in 2009 the book seems a little dated purely because of Obama, it raises the question whether academia can fully keep up with real world developments their uses within society, business or politics and their impacts. But, as with all good academic works, Panagopoulos leaves us with five lessons that both those engaged in political campaigning as practitioners or researchers should learn. Adaptation is key, he argues, within practice one has to adapt to new social communication styles and use the same tools as those with whom we wish to converse. Equally academia needs to adapt to new theories that help explain these new practices and their impacts. In practice it is key to know the limits, and this equally follows within academic study where we have to understand that new techniques cannot always replace but complement those which are tried and tested. While it seems odd for a study of U.S. campaigning to say look abroad but there are always lessons to be learned and practices to adapt to independent of how superior the developments in the U.S. are due to the resources used within campaigns. Academics also need to map across nations, not simply focusing on single nations; comparative studies offer means to truly understand the nature of evolution and revolution in terms of campaigning practices. The final two lessons suggest we should all stay alert and keep up. Minor developments can be easily overlooked, but turn into key innovations and so both practitioners and academics should look at each other's work more closely in order to understand and reflect upon what can and should be guiding the search for the communicational edge.

This book provides the grounding for these lessons and offers much thought-provoking data. While it may date quickly, as many studies of campaigning do, each essay provides a basis of understanding within one area of campaigning which we can use as basis for comparative work of both a temporal and spatial variety. Hence, this book should really be on the shelf of anyone interested in political campaigning and the impact of new technologies.

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