When I tell people what I do, most people look at me pretty blank-faced. Of the few that are a bit more web-savvy and know all about blogs and the rest, most invariably ask if I do political campaigning (we are based in Brussels after all). By this stage I know what’ll come next… Howard Dean. He was really the first high-profile politician who sought to use the web for something more than just bombarding candidates with emails. Had he not come across as a bit batty during a speech made shortly before the Democratic party was set to choose its candidate for the upcoming Presidential elections in 2004 (see picture left), he might even have won the election, thanks probably in large part to the fact that he was able to match the Republicans in campaign funds. Dean was able to raise a fortune via online donations – $40 million – of which over half was raised from contributions of less than $200, demonstrating in full the power of the “long-tail effect< on the web i.e. how lots of smalls (in this case donations, in other cases usually sales) can together result in a big.
The Dean campaign also revolutionised another facet of political campaigning that is arguably more important, namely getting people involved. It is widely acknowledged that his campaign was able to gain momentum due in large part to the support he had from bloggers. Not necessarily journalists or members of the political establishment, but mainly just regular people with an interest in politics. The effect of this has been that grassroots mobilisation in politics is at long last on its way up as people have a medium that is easily accessible. In the past, grassroots mobilisation involved political organisation in the form of political clubs i.e. people congregating in person to formulate their own campaign strategy in their neighbourhood etc, while in some places, trade unions were very active politically. This sort of mobilisation has dwindled pretty much everywhere but is now being replaced by similar autonomous political groupings now working online.
Since 2004, Internet campaigning has developed even further. All the talk now is of Barack and Hillary, who are incorporating Web 2.0 features in their sites, from links to Flickr pages with photos from the campaigns, to videos on YouTube, and perhaps most interestingly, social networking, involving both profiles on MySpace and Facebook, as well as centralised mobilisation and networking hubs – “Team Hillary Action Centre< and “my.barrackobama.com<, which enable people to sign up, create profiles and groups, blog, organise events etc.
With all the hype surrounding their campaigns, you’d think they were the first to do any of this, yet many of the politicians running in the US midterms last year were at it, with the number of blogs in particular proliferating, Angela Merkel launched her Die Kanzlerin Direkt vlog early last year, David Cameron’s Webcamerom, which includes his own vlog as well as guest and open vlogs, is causing a stir in the UK, while even the candidates in the Mexican Presidential elections were doing it last year, with a variety of viral games and chatrooms.
Barack and Hillary have admittedly taken it a step further though – check out their sites, impressive stuff – mainly by their unabashed promotion of social networking. Not so much social networking as in having profiles on MySpace and Facebook, although they do have these, but in particular the centralised mobilisation and networking hubs I mention above. People are given the opportunity to blog on their own, develop their own networks, meet up, campaign together etc, without the candidates’ camps doing anything other than providing the tools (and probably supervising at a distance, one would expect).
This is great news. It allows those interested to really get stuck in, mobilise like-minded people, and most importantly, phrase their support and the issues the way the want; the way that’s most relevant to them. This is the sort of stuff that’s been missing from politics for years. Are the politicians not taking a risk by allowing unknowns to drive their campaigns to such an extent? Maybe in some cases, but the advantages are awesome. With minimal effort, candidates are getting support from potentially huge numbers of people who are mobilising locally based on local interests. Due to the obvious constraints placed upon them by time, candidates have to focus on major national issues, yet by providing the tools, they are helping their supporters to localise their campaigns i.e. focus their national policies on local issues that often interest voters more than nationwide policy.
Amidst the excitement it’d be worthwhile to step back and take a breather however. These developments are very exciting, sure, but judging by some of the headlines describing Barack and Hillary’s online presence, you’d think the nature of politics is radically different compared to just a year ago. I’d still argue this is not the case. The nature of campaigning has definitely changed – politicians are able to show themselves in a different light, their campaign messages are able to spread faster and more effectively due to the points raised above, while even constituents’ concerns can not be ignored as easily as before.
Nonetheless, candidates are still pretty much saying the same stuff in the same way. Web 2.0 is characterised by user empowerment that turns a monologue into a dialogue etc, yet despite all the Web 2.0 functionalities now being used by candidates, even the social networking espoused by Hillary and Barack, political strategy remains top-down: there is no real dialogue going on between the candidates and their constituents; no sudden empowerment of bit-players outside the realm of campaigning. Nor can I see any way in which it could radically alter the distribution of power even once campaigning is complete and elections have taken place. And frankly I don’t have a problem with this: politicians are after all elected officials whom we in theory trust to make decisions. As long as the web helps their constituents to express their concerns; and helps the politicians themselves to communicate more effectively, and maybe even be more accountable, I’d say that’s enough for now!