A few friends were at, and Twittering from, the Oxford Social Media Convention today. Among others, a couple of quotes about online political engagement caught my eye. Here’s the first, this version from Kathryn Corrick (who I don’t know, but whose twitters are public):
[Andrew] Raseij - 9/10 political videos in the 08 US election were voter generated.
It’s quite impressive as an indication of how much media was created by, rather than just consumed by, individuals.
A little later Kathryn Corrick posted this quote:
@iaindale The only party in the UK who really understand the internet are the BNP. (unfortunately). The 3 main parties don’t.
Putting these quotes together, we can see that the mainstream UK parties don’t know how to get people involved with their campaigns online. It’s not hard to find quotes like this about Obama’s election campaign, in which all those videos were made:
3 million donors [only 1% of the total US population, but that’s still good] made a total of 6.5 million donations online adding up to more than $500 million. Of those 6.5 million donations, 6 million were in increments of $100 or less.
You only have to read something like that and you can hear the thunder of thousands of social media consultants stampeding towards party headquarters. There is a lot of money and power at stake and if parties who want that money and power don’t fully understand how to make this internet thing work, many people will be very keen to show them the secrets for an immodest fee.
Of course, these secrets won’t work. Even the secrets given by social media consultants who know what they’re talking about (there are some, right? They’re not all bandwagon-jumping shysters with one eye on the cash and the other trying not to miss the Next Big Thing?). If the BNP is the only party doing well with the internet it’s not because it’s the only one that “understands the internet”. Well, not just that.
The BNP is getting people involved online because it makes people excited.
It’s worth taking a moment to read this post from April this year by Meg Pickard, ‘Social Media - don’t believe the hype’. She discusses a very simple idea, but one that people wanting to make a splash on the internet seem not to grasp:
Why do people get excited and talk about stuff?
Because they care about it.
Because it’s good.
Because it’s worth talking about.
Employing all the social media marketeers in the world won’t get people talking about your product, online or off, if it’s shit. Or, worse, if it’s unremarkable. The biggest reason people don’t talk about your product online isn’t because you haven’t “got on Facebook” or “started a Twitter” or “posted a blog” but because no one cares about your product.
The same applies to political parties. Obama’s team no doubt did some wonderful things online and I’m sure UK parties could learn a lot from these techniques. But their biggest advantage was Obama himself. Not only was he an alternative to a party that growing numbers of people actively disliked but, somehow, he captured a mood and inspired people more than previous opponents of unpopular governments have done for years.
Obama didn’t raise half a billion dollars online because he had staff who understood Facebook. He raised half a billion dollars online because people wanted to give him the money. It helped that his staff made it easy for people to do so, but without people caring in the first place he’d have a lot less cash in his electronic pocket.
Similarly — unfortunately — with the BNP. If it’s true that the BNP is doing well online (and, frankly, I don’t want to investigate in case I find out it is indeed true) I suspect a big part of this is that people who are interested in the BNP are really interested in the BNP. Some people are excited about the party, they want to talk about it. To inappropriately quote Obama, these people want “change”.
And this is the difficulty the mainstream UK parties face. The problem isn’t that Gordon Brown doesn’t get Twitter or that the Tories haven’t sufficiently leveraged the power of their online social networks. They can get all the advice they like from social media consultants but it won’t fix the basic problem: most people don’t care enough.
Sure, there are people who would rather Cameron beats Brown. Or there are people who want a sort of lukewarm, not-too-scary kind of “change” and would like the Lib Dems to make some progress. But, the usual party fanatics aside, not many people care. If we cared we’d be much more likely to Twitter and write on Facebook walls and PayPal some money and email our friends to do the same.
I don’t think this is just me. You feel this too, right? I used to be fully Labour supporting — I was even secretary of my local party for a while, until not long after Blair took charge. Since then my enthusiasm has gradually withered and slithered away, leaving me with only an instinct to vote Labour because having the Tories in charge would make me retch, rather than simply tolerating the sense of nausea I’ve suffered over recent years of Labour governments.
I suspect there are people whose instincts lie with the Conservatives or LibDems but who feel similarly apathetic. The parties are all so keen to jump on any populist bandwagon that any policies you or I might feel passionate about get hidden away in case they offend someone else. We’re left having to poke around to find the differences between each party, to choose the ones who seem the least bad. I hate having no desire to vote for someone apart from to keep an even worse candidate out.
I really, really want to care about a party.
I want that party, my party, to be honest and open and have integrity and firmly-held beliefs and I want to care about it enough to tell all my friends, and I’ll do that without anyone having to employ a single social media consultant.