UK Election 2010 – Wasn’t this supposed to be the first web election?

Iain Dale in the telegraph has been musing on the failure of the web to define the 2010 UK election, we’re only eight days away and he has yet to witness that poll-shaking expose whose origin can be traced back to teh mighty interwebs, why is this?

The truth is that it has been, but not in a way that is recognisable to partially web-literate journalists who don’t understand how fast the use of the interwebs is evolving, it’s not sufficient to view the web merely as a new medium for producers to reach consumers.

Iain Dale is a massively successful blogger, and rightly so, but he is also a creature of his generation that appears not to understand that the producer > consumer dynamic of the twentieth century no longer reigns king. Now everyone is both a producer and a consumer, at least in so much as they are a publisher in the traditional sense. Everyone who fully partakes of the of the intertubes is now part of a network of friends, commonly part of hundreds of dissociated networks and every time they forward a link or post a rant they are acting as a publisher. The difference is that none of this involves contact or even visibility to the traditional media.

To provide some excerpts from the article:

Way back when, when Derek Draper (remember him?) was still the apple of Gordon Brown’s eye and the driving force behind Labour’s web strategy, he predicted that stories from the internet would dominate the news agenda for four or five days of the campaign. So far, they have done so only once, when the Labour candidate Stuart MacLennan was ditched after his obscene twitterings caused his party too much embarrassment. But MacLennan is very much the exception, for two reasons. First, candidates have found that Twitter, as a campaigning tool, is useless. Most have so few “followers” that their tweets are irrelevant unless they say something a journalist can make a story out of – and of those followers they do have, only a small minority will be resident in their constituency.

This blog hates to be blunt; but you’re wrong! Right up and down the interwebs there are people talking right now about Gordon’s gaffe, and they are doing it everywhere. There are tens of thousands of specific-interest forums totally unrelated to politics, each of them has an general or off-topic board where people are right now talking about the election, it doesn’t matter if it’s a bunch of twenty-something tech-savvy gamers on a World of Warcraft forum, or a bunch or forty-something dads on a Triumph Herald owners forum, they are talking about politics. Even as we speak there are hundreds of thousands of inter-connected social groups on facebook talking about the election, it doesn’t matter if it starts with something as meaningless as a snide comment about Gordon’s terrible gurning, it leads to a comment, then two, then a debate and so it continues from there spilling over into a different social group on different topic, it is generative. Most invisibly of all, there are millions of people using aggregation sites like digg or reddit, or tools like twitter to communicate with their network on the latest outrage committed by a British politician, and they are talking to opt-in groups of people who share the same interests and are therefore likely to check out that gossip. All of this is invisible to the news pundits and politicians alike, because they aren’t net creatures with a network of net friends through whom their message can propagate.

Second, MacLennan is an exception because very few people are leaving such hostages to fortune. Hardly any candidates are writing blogs during the campaign, for fear of saying something they might regret: the Conservatives are so anxious that party officials insist on vetting new material before it is posted (with good reason, as the suspension of Philip Lardner shows). And even those bloggers who are, in theory, independent have fallen into line. Sites such as ConservativeHome, which could normally be relied upon to maintain a critical distance from the official party, have openly acknowledged that they don’t want to rock the boat – and I plead guilty to the same thing with my blog.

Here again, you miss the point, the original story may well have originated from a mainstream media outlet but the discussion, the transfer of views and opinions around that story, happens on a multitude of darknets, and believe me they are not shy about leaving hostages to fortune. It is all out war with reputations built and destroyed and then built again, welcome to the immortal struggle of internet society.

That’s not to say that the internet has been completely ineffectual. Perhaps the biggest impact has been on the parties’ poster campaigns. Never again can a party produce a poster that won’t be Photoshopped and spoofed.

The posters are not really the point, it’s the fact that images of these photo-shopped posters are distributed virally across and between the darknets that really matters. Before their buzz is played out and everyone has seen it, done it and bought the t-shirt, that one instance of the image will have been passed and linked hundreds of times, multiplying by hundreds more as it changes hands again and again. How different this is from traditional media where there is one producer and a multitude of isolated consumers, the two do not compare.

Then there is email, an even more powerful player: if the Conservatives win next week, it will be at least in part due to the giant database they have compiled, and the mini-databases candidates have been using to stay in touch with their electors.

This comment is confusing, because email is probably the least relevant use of the internet as far as the election is concerned by some measure, there are forty million voters in the electorate, how many email addresses do these politicians have, and of those how many are still active accounts, and off those how many will lose the email in the spam filter, and of those how many will actually bother to read the email given that it does not come from within a social group? The useful total will be an insignificant fraction, and  talk of databases really belongs in the twentieth century.

Yet if this hasn’t been the internet election, it most certainly has been the TV election. Of course, every election since the 1960s has been dominated by television, but the debates between the party leaders have turbo-charged this process. The entire news cycle is now geared to them: the pre-debate banter, the day of the debate, and then the endless post-match commentaries.

This is a valid point, the leaders debates have certainly grabbed the headlines, and they have enthused a portion of the electorate that was hitherto uninterested in politics, but had they not existed you would still be asking the same question; “where is the internet in this election, why is it invisible?” The answer is because you are not part of the vast majority of it and nor is anyone else, but most people are linked to it even if tangentially, and those links spread to other groups an order of magnitude more effectively than is the case in the world of bricks-n-mortar.

But the fact that so many bloggers are, effectively, professional journalists creates the impression that we’re not online insurgents, breaking down the gates of the Westminster village, but just another part of the establishment.

This is hubris, mainstream media simply does not occupy the position it once did, people will still consume what journalists produce but the fact that a journalist might be considered partial really doesn’t matter, because there are a hundred other sources available within the space of a few clicks who are aligned differently, and an opinion won’t be internalised until it has been thrashed out within and around the various social groups of which the individual is a member. Their peers are available 24/7 for comment, and the journalist will not see or hear of that discussion.

This is indeed the first British e-election, it’s happening right now, continuously, everywhere.

2 responses to “UK Election 2010 – Wasn’t this supposed to be the first web election?

  1. I think one of the problems with the so called political blogs is that they have nothing to say about anything but the trivia of politics, who said what on twitter or what colour someones tie is. All they can do is regurgitate fluff, which is why they think this isn’t an internet election, no one really cares about a lot of the stuff they write i.e. their circle of blogs. Look at their ‘blog rolls’ its just more of the same.

    The only sad thing is that these sites have most of the traffic.

    Sites where real issues, be that defence and security or health, education, EU, immigration or the economy are sadly few and far between.

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