Politics 2.0?

I started this as a comment to D’Arcy’s post on how Canada’s political parties stack up as adopters of social software, but since my output here is so slim, I decided to cut and paste it into my own space.

D’Arcy and Rob before him make lots of good observations and assessments on the various approaches to the web demonstrated by our political parties in the heat of an election. At the same time, however, I wonder if such assessments account for the limitations of blogging here at the end of 2005.

I agree that if the political parties are going to use the web effectively, then blogs (real blogging, which as D’Arcy notes is not really what these blog-like substances are) will eventually be part of it. But it’s likely that candidates are not blogging with real abandon because they feel that their time might better be spent doing the things candidates always need to do to win votes in their ridings — making a lot of appearances, trying to make news in the big media sources (which may be dinosaurs, but still reach more real voters), raising money for media buys, and just getting out and meeting voters in coffee shops, bus stops, and in their homes.

All it will take to get blogs added to that set of tried and true campaign tactics is for some candidate to turn effective blogging into votes, including votes from outside the digerati (who are a minuscule percentage of the electorate). The case of Howard Dean in 2004 is instructive. He blogged like crazy, did everything in fine Web 2.0 fashion, did guest-blogger spots with Lessig (et al), had David Weinberger and the rest of the social software aristocracy drooling all over him… And in the early primary campaign stages, it seemed to be working. He was able to use the power of tools like Meetup.com to gather impressive crowds, and he raised a lot more money than a longshot candidate should have been able to do. (It helped that he was pretty much the only serious candidate who was clearly against the Iraq War at that time.) The blogger crowd went nuts with this success, began drinking its own kool-aid and started talking about a revolution in politics. The mainstream media, impressed by the crowds and the money that were rolling in, not to mention being intimidated by this new-fangled technology they didn’t really understand, began declaring Dean the frontrunner. By the time that actual primary voting was set to begin, Dean was seen as unbeatable.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the White House. The appearance of massive support online did not match the sentiments among voters at large. The echo chamber effect of the blogosphere had massively inflated Dean’s real appeal. Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire (who prize their tradition of personalised, “retail” politics) didn’t care what A-List bloggers thought and took their votes elsewhere. The mainstream media then showed how it can destroy a candidate when it senses weakness (by incessant and out-of-context replays of the “Dean Scream”), and in a flash Candidate 2.0 was Candidate Dot.Com flameout.

Another thing to keep in mind when assessing how politicos use blogs is that while blogs prize candour, informality and spontaneity, those qualities can be death to a politician. Citizens can complain about candidates spewing talking points like automatons all we want, but face it, every time a politician goes “off message” it is usually framed as a gaffe, and is exploited to the advantage of her or his opponent.

I’m not arguing that new technologies can’t be useful to politicians. RSS, wikis, or whatever can be very useful for tapping voter sentiment, building strategy, staying on top of developing news stories, and generating rapid and accurate responses to the twists and turns of a campaign. I don’t doubt that the NDP’s decision to go with Drupal will save the party money, hassle, and make it easier to scale its web presence. And there’s one new technology that is apparently indispensable to Canada’s federal politicians and strategists — the Blackberry.

But as it stands, I don’t think blogging is the killer app for Canadian politics.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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2 Responses to Politics 2.0?

  1. I think there needs to be some education of the general public, to help them let go of the need for people in the public eye to be perfect. “Gaffes” aren’t necessarily bad. Nor are they flip-flopping. They’re human. Imagine if JFK had to worry as much about being perfect. More likely than not, he’d have never set foot in the white house…

    I would forgive gaffes and would personally encourage going “off message” – hell, I’d even like it if my candidate(s) screwed up publicly every now and then (within limits, of course) – at least then I could be reasonably comfortable that they were human, and likely capable of acting on their own if necessary.

  2. It’s this damned need for everything to be as homogeneous as possible – to get the most votes, the candidate has to be the most bland, meaningless, corporate lackey possible. Any candidate that strays is doomed. And that’s the tragedy of the current system. Not just for politics, but anything that aims for broad “markets” – movies suck because they have to. Candidates suck because they won’t get elected any other way. Music sucks because anything interesting/relevant is automatically a niche product.

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