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.
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