Anyone who thinks Facebook will soon revolutionise politics should be shot. Ok, maybe I exaggerate slightly, but military-style executions aren’t so bad, are they?
But seriously, since Social Networking and Web 2.0 become increasingly used buzzwords in the media landscape and journalists sign up in droves, I expect this question to crop up much more.
(picture from this Guardian profile of founder Mark Zuckerberg)
I have now been fervently addicted to the website Facebook for several months now. Of course my excuse is that I wanted to learn how social networking works and what political opportunities it can offer. Unfortunately the short answer is: not much and not anytime soon. So if anyone out there is trying to sell you a political campaign through social networks now, fire them.
To be fair, Facebook has many advantages over its competitors for those interested in politics and social issues.
The most important is the homepage, which notifies you of developments on your own profile and offers a glance at what your friends have been doing. It works brilliantly as the electronic equivalent of word-of-mouth hype because everyone can be plugged into what their peers are reading, buying, watching at the cinema or checking out on YouTube. You can even announce that you’ve split up from your partner and are now ‘Interested in Random Play’. Anyway, I digress.
For niche commercial or non-profit organisations hoping to build up a profile through word-of-mouth this is the holy grail. For politics the evidence is less clear. While I’m not sure it helps politicians attract more people to support their campaigns, it certainly accelerates the proliferation of social issue groups.
For example your friends know if you’ve joined a group for vegetarians; to end honour killings; build inter-faith dialogue or even to boycott Nestle. They may be tempted to follow you or you can invite them with ease.
The recent introduction of outside applications has taken this to another level. Barack Obama’s team almost instantly introduced their own application informing you of their candidate’s activities. Another application list all the US politicians on Facebook, allowing you to declare support for.
And there are applications that engage users in other ways. You can list and join causes and donate money to them; make a pledge; work with others to drive change or simply display a clock telling you when Bush will be out of office. Hours of fun, if you’re a political junkie like me.
The technology is still naescent and it is likely that more sophisticated applications will eventually arrive to allowing more interactivity and involvement. But while the future looks bright, right now the sky is fairly overcast.
The first obvious limitation of Facebook is numerical – there aren’t enough people using it compared to traditional tools such as email, for political engagement.
More than that however its Groups system is fairly useless. People sign up to Groups more as a form of fashion statement, indicating a vague interest, rather than a plan of action. Even though Plane Stupid has over 600 members for example, I doubt anywhere near would go on a demonstration. Plus the functionality is bog standard. The only useful function of starting a group is being able to easily email all its members. Constructive discussions are rarely had.
Unsurprisingly then, politicians are unsure how to use Facebook. Among my ‘friends’ I can count Ming Campbell, Hilary Benn, Hazel Blears (actually I ditched her recently) and Peter Hain. None of the Labour deputy leadership candidates sent any email to their friends during the election. The only ones I got were from Jon Cruddas’ campaign, and he’s not even signed up.
So while I share some of Mark Hanson’s optimism in an article on CIF earlier this week, social networking is unlikely to offer tangible benefits to politicians here or in the United States in the near future.
Platforms such as Myspace, Bebo and Facebook do however present themselves as great places to recruit members. But they then have to be taken out of the platform to ensure proper interaction.
On current form it offers more opportunities to single-issue groups such as Greenpeace to raise money and awareness of campaigns, or for others to mobilise people around peace demonstrations. How all this changes in the long term is anyone’s guess. But the future is not yet here.
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Filed in: Party politics,Technology