How will Facebook change politics? (pt 2)


by Sunny
15th June, 2007 at 11:55 am    

Almost every day the Guardian’s well-informed technophile Jemima Kiss plugs something about Facebook on her Digital Digest blog. That’s not surprising, I’m becoming a bit unhealthily obsessed by this social networking platform too. But from a different perspective; I want to see how Facebook can change politics.

Earlier this week Bebo, a rival to Facebook, hosted a discussion at the House of Commons with Joe Trippi, the man credited for helping Howard Dean harness the web for his 2004 campaign, explaining what impact the internet will have on politics. I’ve been spending an extraordinary time thinking about this lately. But rather than write a full thesis here I want to touch upon something I wanted to say at the event.

Firstly, I would make a distinction between Teh Interweb, with now old-skool technologies such as email and campaign-websites-as-brochures, and what is referred to as Web 2.0 – social networks such as blogs, Bebo, Facebook, and Myspace. Are political blogs a social network in themselves? I would say so.

Why is this distinction important? Because the old-skool way of politics on the web was about talking down to people with targeted messages. Web 2.0 is a different ballgame because close social interaction poses further challenges: the message can get out there quicker but it can also destroy you quickly if distorted. I’ll expand on this more later.

My feeling is that most British politicians, judging by a related New Statesman talk I was recently at, are just about trying to get to grips with Teh Interweb. A few have Facebook profiles but they have not yet figured out how to work it.

This brings me to my second point. Politics on the internet is about a tension: between politicians trying to use it to attract supporters and people trying to use it to influence change. The tension is that most of each group see the other as a necessary evil that needs to be harnessed. If neither fully understand why the other is in this new space then their interaction is minimal.

The Times’ comment editor Daniel Finkelstein was also there and made some very good observations. But near the end made a remark dismissing the netroots almost as a bunch of cranks. I would disagree with that. The netroots are slightly nerdy, a bit obsessive about politics and very partisan towards their party. But they are a power to be harnessed cheaply and effectively. Just ask Joe Trippi how he did it.

And this is why, I believe, the Americans are way ahead of us in online politics. They understand this tension. And Web 2.0 is the ideal way to break down this tension.

The supporters understand politicians need them to sustain their campaign, so they donate money and volunteer their services after watching targeted messages. The politicians need to raise money so they have to harness those supporters (netroots) and enable them to channel their energies so people feel like they’re being heard and are making a difference. Both parties win and the internet increasingly becomes the dominant medium for conducting politics.

Update: More related thoughts by Charlie Beckett, Anthony Mayfield and Darren Lilleker


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9 Comments below   |  

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  1. steve — on 15th June, 2007 at 2:40 pm  

    To the average man in the street, who has a computer but uses it only for emails and pron, it will have no impact whatsoever.

    I feel those who use such things as facebook and myspace are overhyping what they actually do, pass information from one to another.

    The only people who interact via web2 are those who see themselves as better, or want to be seen as forward looking when in fact I wouldn’t take any advice from them, on any subject and would not in any way let them try to influence what I belive in.

    Next month, it’ll be another ‘revolution’ in social networking that is held in high esteem….

  2. leon — on 15th June, 2007 at 2:44 pm  

    I think the line is being drawn a little narrow here Sunny, politics is more than political parties.

  3. A councillor writes — on 15th June, 2007 at 3:07 pm  

    I have had a fair number of emails recently, saying ‘Cllr/MP/Candidate/Desperate Party Hack X has added you as a friend on Facebook’. I’ve always replied with “I don’t do Facebook”, not because I have anything against social networking sites, but because there’s not enough hours in the day. If I’m going to spend some time on a social networking site (which I sometimes do), it will be for relaxation not for politics.

    My other employers, the large educational establishment, are thinking about a presence on Second Life. No comment.

    Perhaps I’m just a stuck in the age of Usenet fuddy-duddy :-)

  4. Darren Lilleker — on 16th June, 2007 at 8:54 am  

    Not everyone uses Facebook and the delights of Web 2.0, that is a reality; but the generation most likely to are politically interested but cynical and disengaged from national democratic processes. Hence there are social groups supporting Fair Trade, ending Third World Poverty and huge masses can be mobilised to demonstrate at G8 summits.

    The use of the web to attract funds is the brochure style shovelware use that will only gain attention from supporters; there is no pull factor for anyone else. However by using Web 2.0 as any other user, interacting on issues, learning from discussions, wall postings etc and going to where there are existing social groups, there is a potential to reinvigorate demcoracy through forming connections. Brands are doing this all the time, political activists have harnessed Web 2.0, elected politicians are slowly catching on.

    But this is not simply about politicians engaging with net-nerds. The young people who use Facebook, Bebo are simply using it to keep in touch with the various friends they make as they move from job to job, school to uni etc. They learn about things through Word of Mouth (WOM), if one gets excited about an issue they pass it on; if one gets excited about what a politician is doign within a social network they will tell their friends. Ming Campbell has over 600 Facebook friends, most send him words of support if nothing else, he in return talks about issues of the day, could this draw more young people to him or other politicians and get them int othe voting booth?

    Noevidence either way but there is potential and to dismiss the political potential of Web 2.0 is a little like those people who said, cars and computers wont catch on!

    [I apologise for the typos I have missed. Darren]

  5. Charlie Beckett — on 16th June, 2007 at 10:39 am  

    Hi Sunny,
    I was there, too, and was reminded how much people are investing politically in the internet. Even Finkelstein is convinced that it represents a political paradigm-shift. But I agree with you we must start discriminating about which bit of the web. I don’t think that social networking sites like Bebo or Facebook are going to have much impact on conventional politics. Even sites like YouTube only have an occasional impact. Bloggers are a niche part of the political system now, but not so different from conventional media in their effect. No, what will make politics change will be more about what Stephan Shakespeare spoke about. It is when the internet (which bit? I don’t know) throws up “its own heroes and presidents” that politics will start to change. So far it has all been about conventional politics going online – when will online go political? (er.. not on Facebook anyway…)
    regards
    Charlie

  6. Sunny — on 16th June, 2007 at 3:36 pm  

    Thanks for your comments everyone.

    steve: I feel those who use such things as facebook and myspace are overhyping what they actually do, pass information from one to another.

    In the short term maybe. But I think in the medium to long term, social networks like Facebook and Bebo/Myspace will have a huge impact in spreading news and information that may be political, or mobilising them around issues.

    Leon: I think the line is being drawn a little narrow here Sunny, politics is more than political parties.

    Agreed. I was going to explore that too but I didn’t want to write a long article. I think I should have said it though, as you pointed out.

    Councillor: If I’m going to spend some time on a social networking site (which I sometimes do), it will be for relaxation not for politics.

    I have a feeling you’ll soon realise the potential that Facebook can offer once you sign up and start exploring.

    Hi Dareen – good points well made. I think that ties in with what Leon was saying – it is more likely that Facebook and such platforms will get people mobilised around ‘political issues’ such as poverty and environment rather than political parties as such.

    But I think Ming using it to merely talk to his friends (he hasn’t done it yet! I’ve been his friend for months now), is only the beginning of what can be done. Have you seen the Obama applications on there?

    Hi Charlie, I think the impact over the medium-long term will be huge, even if it hasn’t manifested in the short term.

    I think we should look at the United States as an example of what is possible and the impact the likes of YouTube, political blogs etc have. They may not be one of the main cogs but they’ve certainly added a huge dimension to the process in terms of:

    1) Dissemination of ideas
    2) Breaking out of the MSM hold on news reporting
    3) Allowing people to connect with others for political mobilisation.

    Facebook will eventually go politics. Have you seen the ‘Causes’ application on there? It’s pretty funky and a good example of how social networking can help causes.

  7. Sunny — on 16th June, 2007 at 5:45 pm  

    By the way, anyone who thinks YouTube will have negligible effect on politics only has to watch ‘The Obama Girl’.

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=wKsoXHYICqU

  8. Zak — on 16th June, 2007 at 7:43 pm  

    Sunny..you do know how Dean imploded in the primaries?

    I feel uncomfortable with things like Orkut and facebook..i don’t like mixing my friends in real life!

  9. The iLL Man — on 18th June, 2007 at 12:11 am  

    Facebook = bebo for grown-ups.

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