Clever politicians are using the social web to make humanity scaleable, says Jon Bounds

Despite its sneering disregard for politicians, the biggest hit at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York earlier in the month was Cory Booker.  The two main threads of the conference were platforms and tools (some promising, some not) and a desire to discover whether the internet could “fix” politics. The general assumption was that trust in politicians is irretrievably lost and that political mechanisms are broken and need reforming in new ways.

Cory Booker is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey.  The mayor of a city in the shadow of a big neighbour, a city of around a million people with a high non-white population, a city often unfairly characterised in the media as dangerous or dull.  Philip Roth, who grew up there, has not been kind about contemporary Newark.

Late night talk show host Conan O’Brien once joked that “the mayor of Newark, New Jersey wants to set up a city-wide program to improve residents’ health… the health care program would consist of a bus ticket out of Newark”.

Strong advocacy for a downtrodden area is something that elected mayors have the power to give to a city, and if that description of Newark sounded like I was writing about my own home town of Birmingham, then good — it was meant to.  We need some of what they’ve got.

The 2007 documentary about the mayoral election, Street Fight, portrays Booker as a powerful force, ready for the big stage.  But it has been his groundbreakingly human use of the social web as a force for his city that had 800 of the most cynical people in the world (politically active people who spend a lot of time on the internet) enraptured.

His main weapons are openness and accessibility.  Every so often he’ll personally message a Twitter follower directly about their issue.  He will also tweet about his caffeine consumption; and in almost Ice Cubian honesty he’ll proclaim that ‘today was a good day, no-one had to use their AK’ (or at least that Newark had a murder-free month for the first time in 50 years).

What it provides is true leadership.  Yes, Booker uses his connections to nudge and campaign, but what is more important is that it establishes him as a visible hub in a network, a person who is both human and responsive. This fosters more political engagement than a hundred expensively advertised, staffed and graphed consultations. (Again, his messages reach more than a million people on one very easy-to-manage, free, channel).

This isn’t a million miles away from what another conference speaker has done en-route to becoming a multimillionaire and destroying the business models of the local press all around the United States. Craig Newmark is the Craig of Craigslist, the free online local classified website that has grown from a tiny email list in 1995 to a $150 million operation in 2009.

As soon as there was money and company structure, Newmark appointed an experienced businessman to the role of CEO and himself became the customer service representative. The point  of contact for, and voice on the side of, the site’s customers was its founder and majority shareholder.

While it might sound crazy, Newmark answers emails and talks to people across his constituency all day and the company is better for it. This method isn’t without issues of scale; whether you could expect David Cameron to address people directly in this way I don’t know. But at city level it can certainly be sustained by a man as charismatic as Booker.

Inevitably, such openness – being in conversation with everyone online if they so wish – means time spent talking to non-constituents. This asks questions of whether that is in the best interests of the city.

On the internet, it is said that no-one knows you’re a dog.  And surely a politician entrusted with the wellbeing of a geographical area will be pressured by ‘outside agitators’, organised campaigns and pranksters.  Notwithstanding that it is perfectly possible to mine the data trail we leave for much more powerful signals of real intent these days, perhaps voices from outside the city present a gentle pressure to wider interests and a change of cross-civic altruism. It also does no harm at all to the image of the city.

This is more important for being the one goal that any figurehead can achieve.  There is no budgetary or legislative support needed, it costs nothing but the will. With local authority spending under spiralling pressure, it may be the most powerful goal too. If the slack of the state must be taken up by volunteers then they will need engaging. They will need to feel supported, appreciated and listened to. You can’t pay people to engage emotionally, but you can do it and do it at scale online.

If mayors are to be elected, then they will achieve more if connected too. It works.

You can see the Booker session (a panel also including Tim O’Reilly and Arianna Huffington) here.

Jon Bounds is a social media consultant.

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2 Responses to “Clever politicians are using the social web to make humanity scaleable, says Jon Bounds”

  1. […] is using the social web to engage people. Here's a short article I wrote for Labour Uncut. [link] by Jon Bounds | Posted in | View Comments | Tags: corybooker, socialweb, work View […]

  2. […] Clever politicians are using the social web to make humanity scaleable, says Jon Bounds – Chum Jon appears to be writing for The Party. This should be interesting to watch over the next few years.   […]

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