In a variety of different ways I’ve been working with politicians on the net for more than a decade now. At one level it’s fine work – everyone knows the future is going to be online, right? It’s cheaper to communicate online than it is through traditional media, so the potential amount of work increases.
Yet all these years something has been nagging at me, and I know I am not the only one thinking about this. Why are politicians not better at communicating online?
The most commonly advanced argument is that it is a matter of time, a matter of generations. Wait for Generation-Y politicians, and these digital natives will be better in their web activities than their predecessors.
But – in my personal experience – it doesn’t seem to work that way.
The most interesting UK online party political campaign I’ve been involved with was Harriet Harman’s Labour Deputy Leadership bid. Harriet is a baby-boomer with no interest in, and little knowledge about, tech and the net. But she’s a stubborn and determined politician whose commitment to get a woman to a top position in Labour made a good story, a good narrative, for that particular campaign, and that worked well online.
Conversely I still maintain and host websites for more than a dozen politicians, and among them some of the young, supposedly up-and-coming MPs that will dominate UK politics in the future. Yet the total number of individual visitors reading this blog each day is more than the visitors to all of these politicians’ websites put together. And there are not that many visitors here either!
Yet if the generation-change argument were correct then the outcome would surely be the opposite.
Instead I’ve been thinking and reading a lot over the years, and a combination of Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind and Drive, Manuel Castells’ Communication Power, and Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky might have helped me nail down the real problem.
In short, our economies and societies are changing, and a lot of that change is driven by the internet. The dynamic and interesting firms – Google for example – are workplaces lacking a traditional hierarchy, places where the purpose of the work and the mastery of it are the things that keep people going, and where individual innovation is actively encouraged. Others have rejected regular workplaces altogether, doing what I am doing and operating in networks of creatives between small firms and the self employed.
To use Pink’s argument, these are ways of behaving where both left and right brain thinking can thrive, where design, story, empathy, symphony, play and meaning are important. If people are not lucky enough to have this in their workplace, they do at least in their free time, with net access abundant (>60% of households online in Western Europe, and >50% of the populations of countries like the UK using social networking).
Compare that to a political party. Hierarchy is still vitally important – you have to do your years of service delivering leaflets before advancing anywhere in party politics – and then once you have ‘made it’, the capacity to think and innovate is not something that is actively welcomed, due to the danger of being ‘off message’, probably because – despite the net – our political communications environment is still conditioned by a dysfunctional relationship between politics and media (see Jay Rosen for interesting reflections on this).
Then throw in a couple of additional factors which further contribute to this basic problem.
The first is the hollowing out of political parties; they are no longer the broad participatory movements of the past, and the question is whether they ever could regain that position. There are no simple solutions to that one (as highlighted by John Palmer).
Second, politics has become a more and more professional undertaking, where polling, focus groups and marketing techniques brought in from the private sector increasingly supplant grassroots activity, narrowing the field in which politicians can actually lead and inspire, an issue I’ve examined in this blog post.
This, in turn, explains why social networking such as My Barack Obama or the SNP’s Nationbuilder experience can work within parties for the sake of mobilisation – these are the latest modern marketing techniques to win elections, while leaving the essential party political system untouched. This is especially so in Europe where the party political structures are more entrenched and less personalised than in the USA.
Viewed this way, the enduring problem of individual politicians being uninspiring on the web is not so odd at all. A young politician conditioned in this environment is almost certain to be conformist and highly risk-averse per se, before online engagement is even brought into it.
Some constructive mavericks still exist from a previous generation – Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Paul Flynn or Ken Livingstone for example – but where are the equivalents born after 1970? That’s not to say there are no thoughtful, critical or intellectual voices in politics today, but I suspect those people are more likely to steer clear of party politics, and network online from outside the party political system instead.
So – in conclusion – do not expect any change in the quality of politicians’ net communications any time soon, because the problem runs much deeper than the technologies themselves.