Social media and the soapbox

Gosh, there’s nothing like a few well placed words for kicking off a party political crisis. Or, rather, there’s nothing like a slightly weird video that presents the Prime Minister of this country looking like a strange gurning alien for kicking off a party political crisis.

Earlier this week, Hazel Blears, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, wrote in the Observer:

“YouTube if you want to. But it’s no substitute for knocking on doors or setting up a stall in the town centre.”

It’s pretty obvious what her target was here: the YouTube video where Gordon Brown announced plans to reform MPs expenses without telling Parliament first. It also contained a few somewhat frightening impromptu smiles that didn’t help his image one jot.

Sadly, this kerfuffle has somewhat shown British politics in a somewhat unfortunate light again when it comes to social media. You’d think when you’ve got Barack Obama and his supporters embracing the web, that politicians in the UK from all parties could learn from this.

But, no. We’re still on either dismissing tools like YouTube out of hand or, worse still, condemning any attempt to engage online as a waste of taxpayers money. 

Take this rather ignorant post from Conservative MP Nadine Dorries on her attitude to Twitter.

In some respects it’s no different from what you’d hear from others who don’t get or don’t want to get Twitter. But to hear it from an elected representative is somewhat disappointing.

It essentially implies that she’s quite simply not going to bother engaging in a growing platform that provides an excellent way to directly connect with voters. As Chris at Clicking and Screaming says:

“I see little difference between the banal comments of the Twittersphere about ‘In the Loop’ and the banal opinions of a Member of Parliament on anything outside her remit. If it’s interesting to you, follow it. If not, don’t. But don’t lash out at those who do.

The compulsive need of those not involved to discuss it at length shows a fear of the unknown which, for a politician (and I generally have more respect for politicians than most do), is short-sighted.”

Let’s come back to Blears’ comments that You Tube is no substitute for door-to-door canvassing or taking the soapbox on tour. Again, it’s dismissing a wide-reaching social media tool used by a lot of the voting and non-voting public. It sounds a lot like one of those people back in the day who thought email would never catch on.

Local electioneering still has its place but YouTube has the potential to reach millions – many more than the town centre soapbox [1].

A few MPs even have their own YouTube channel, including Blears’ colleague Sadiq Khan [2]. But even then, this reveals a whole new set of problems. The most popular video on Khan’s channel has 227 views. The rest average somewhere between seven and about 150. Still, it’s a start.

The problem, to me, is one that’s all too common in any business or organisation or industry. You have some people who get social media and want to engage. You have some that know that they should probably be on these sites in some way, shape or form but aren’t sure how, and you have those who just don’t want to know.

Politicians, largely, are in the second and third groups. Brown’s office is probably in the second – they’re making the right moves but aren’t really utilising it properly.

So, for Brown’s YouTube videos, it has a feeling of somebody suggesting it as a good idea but with no real strategy behind it or a proper feeling for how YouTube works.

It feels somewhat like The Thick Of It special where the opposition MP’s advisor starts a blog, while the politician himself doesn’t really care.

In all honesty, it probably wouldn’t take a lot of work to join together all the aspects. There’s no reason why, say, Brown couldn’t have announced the expenses measure to the chamber and then had a YouTube video posted immediately after the announcement (sans gurning, you’d hope) and then followed it up with, ooh, a blog post and the like.

Then, on the other side, perhaps Labour (or perhaps an apolitical body) could pull together all the politician YouTube videos, and Twitter accounts, in one place so it’s easy for constituents to find and engage with their MP (which is, after all, one of the main reasons why they were elected, right?).

And there’s no harm in giving the Twitter feed or YouTube channels a plug. I only stumbled across Sadiq Khan’s feed when I was looking for something else – in 18 months living in Tooting, I’d never had information offline that he had a web presence and it wasn’t top of my agenda to look. Many other voters probably have similar mindsets.

As The Register points out, moderating comments isn’t that difficult (and it doesn’t seem as if Downing Street had even thought of it) and there’s so much untapped potential for politicians in this country to get involved in social media, engage and perhaps win back some of the trust that they seem so keen to squander on a regular basis.

But instead Labour (and, via Dorries, the Conservatives as well) have managed to get social media, their strategy and response so spectacularly wrong. Which leads to another spat. Which turns voters off even further.

Add to this the smeargate emails, and the media’s obsession that Iain Dale, Gudio Fawkes and the unlamented Derek Draper, are the only web-politics that matter, well, it just doesn’t want to make you get involved online.

In the US, Obama used social media and the web to bring about a positive movement that engaged the average voter in politics. In the UK, all we can do is sling political mud at each other online. How very depressing.

[1] It’s worth saying that the soapbox offers politicians a direct way to engage and spend time talking to constituents, but there’s no guarantee that the constituents want to engage. With social media – You Tube, Facebook, Twitter et al – you can measure the level of success much more effectively AND engage in conversation.

[2] The only reason I’ve chosen Sadiq Khan is he used to be my local MP so I’m slightly more familiar with his online presence (he has a Twitter feed as well) rather than any particular like of dislike of the politician.

jfffffffI see little difference between the banal comments of the Twittersphere about ‘In the Loop’ and the banal opinions of a Member of Parliament on anything outside her remit. If it’s interesting to you, follow it. If not, don’t. But don’t lash out at those who do.
The compulsive need of those not involved to discuss it at length shows a fear of the unknown which, for a politician (and I generally have more respect for politicians than most do), is short-sighted.
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