Will the General Election in May 2010 go down as the first ‘internet election’? No. The unusual — if not entirely unexpected — result has seen to that, but it was an election in which people using the social web changed forever the way campaigning works in the UK.
Talk before was of which party could “do what Obama did”; that is, use the internet to harness support, and to fundraise. Well, no one really did — and politics in Britain was unlikely to suddenly start to work like that: we’re too conflicted, too cynical and have too many choices. We sometimes have to make decisions about how to place our cross where the local and national aims seem flatly contradictory — it was never going to be a simple case of joining one Facebook Group over another. The web can handle nuance, even if our electoral system can’t.
There was significant grassroots activity though, and perhaps the best way to see the difference between us and US is to look at the difference between my.barackobama.com (‘Organising for America’) and mydavidcameron.com (‘Airbrushed for Change’). One is a social network ‘lite’, directed at organising and nudging (very much in line with the theories of Richard Thaler) support, the other a crowdsourced Private Eye, with all the mix of clever satire and fart jokes that that might entail.
In the end, Obama won because he was offering something different to a wildly unpopular administration and he made great speeches — that doesn’t sound so unusual when you think about it. But that’s not to say that the web isn’t changing politics.
What sites like mydavidcameron did was to facilitate the pub-joker, and the politicised satirist, to help what would have been simple slogans become memes. Meme theory, developed by everyone’s favourite evolutionary geneticist Richard Dawkins, believes that ideas and thoughts can work like genes — that is, strive to spread for survival and alter in order to do that. Memes evolve, merge and change beyond all expectation — and in the political arena they survive longer if they have been tuned against the originators, and if they’re funny. The best are both, and make serious points at the same time. It’s now a brave move to release a simple-to-alter poster, and the Tory ones towards the end of the campaign seemed deliberately to be harder to photoshop.
Memetics ensured that the spin was quickly countered, that transparency has at least a chance; but did more direct, and orchestrated, online campaigning fail?
I didn’t see any great movement from the parties themselves. For every mild success (Labour built a site that made it easy to donate avatar space – changing your profile picture on social networks – in the direct run-up that worked much like putting a poster in your window) there was a horrible failure (security and social failure from the Tories’ ‘Cash Gordon’ site that not only pulled in tweets indiscriminately without checking for content, but allowed code through that meant it was quickly hacked). Obama’s online team, at least the ones I heard speak at the Personal Democracy Forum this year, talked about the success being in allowing supporters access — I don’t think anyone did that at a party level.
But there were pressure groups, petitions and campaigns that operated almost exclusively online — economically that’s the only way they can reach people.
Sky’s Kay Burley seemed sure that they had failed — or should. Her “go home… watch it on Sky News” comment to David Babbs of 38 Degrees sparked howls of outrage online. It couldn’t have seemed more a collision between that old politics, where large party donations for advertising and influence on the media favour the right and the rich and a more distributed set of influences in which the left — with its tradition of and roots in community organising — should thrive. Newspapers (and increasingly other forms of media, under Murdoch) are leaning and will lean right, whatever the mood of the nation, whatever the issues, whatever the real good of the country.
Here was that simple, quickly organised direct action that the disciples of Clay Shirky have been talking about – and the media was uncomfortable with it. Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, was one of the first to document how it was now possible to “organise without organisations” using the power of the social web to make ad-hoc connections around an aim. Individual protests may not succeed, but a culture of organisation can help keep debate open.
Think of the way you voted: was it on a single issue? Or was it on some combination of issues, some you felt strongly about, some not so much. Single issue campaigning will exhaust you and your social capital too, each chain email to your representatives will hold less and less weight. Each Twibbon you add or group you join will mean less, but that doesn’t mean that online organisation can’t work.
During the passing of the Digital Economy Act, thousands engaged online with the political process, many for the first time — and sites like 38 Degrees helped organise them into action. They built the databases and contact books like Obama had, and then used them to get a head start in the next single issue — but more than that they were good at making connections.
I’ve a hunch that there will be much more campaigning to do over the coming months, over issues big and small, and those connections will be crucial.
Jon Bounds is a social media consultant.