Saturday, 15 May 2010

Personal Democracy Forum - GE2010 replay

So, as mentioned I went along to the PDF event on the General Election. For an overview of speakers and event take a look here.

I think its worth being fairly up front and saying that of the UK people who spoke at the event, I was almost universally unimpressed. There was a clear sense that not only did they not understand social media, but they also didnt understand why it hadnt had the impact that they had assumed it would do in the General Election.

The Conservatives in particular were on the defensive. I'm sure there are a lot of recriminations behind closed doors at the moment and its not hard to see why. With a huge budget and a massive lead in the polls, there was no victory, and I genuinely think that the failure to open a dialogue with real people is a substantial part of that. The attempts to communicate electronically were aimed at the Westminster bubble, not at the people they thought they were targetting, undecided voters.

I'd like to know how much opinion research was done into the online platforms being used by the Conservatives. I get the sense from all I've read and see, that there was far too much of an attempt to copy the "Obama model" rather than to form a real campaign based around social media.

The various bloggers on the panel were okay, but I didnt get the sense they were particularly abreast of the platforms or how they could be used. Certainly when the extremely suspect Tweetminster polling (essentially using the appearence of words on Twitter to measure the success of a particular party) was mentioned as a valid source of information by one of them I had to roll my eyes.

Bloggers could be useful in this sort of discussion, but to my knowledge the ones on the panel are largely what I would call "transmit" bloggers. Their blogs exist to transmit their views, rather than to disseminate ideas or provoke conversation.

The one person who really impressed me on the panel was Stella Creasy MP for Walthamstow. She was the only person on the panel who actually understood the purpose of social media is to offer a way to create a dialogue with people. Its not supposed to be used instead of other ways of communicating, but rather to suppliment the more traditional ideas and support them.

Stella royally scolded the Conservatives on the panel with a clearly superior knowledge of the platforms, albeit in a manner that suggested her understanding was instinctive, rather than based on a strong technological knowledge. An observation, not a criticism, since technical knowledge isnt necessarily vital to utilising these tools effectively.

Mindy Finn and Joe Trippi, both American strategists working for the Republicans and Democrats respectively, also stood out. They clearly understood the necessity of using social media to open a dialogue with real people.

They also had a clearer understanding of the fact that although the Obama election had used social media heavily, it was not an internet election. In fact they made a point I firmly believe, there will never be an internet election. There are only tools which can be used in an election to further your own goals and hamper those of an opponent.

Two observations that I want to make overall...

First, lets all agree to stop talking about The Obama Election, as if it is some sort of mantra by which all things can be explained. The Obama Election was precisely that, the election of Obama. You can't simply copy it and turn it into The Cameron Election. Lets learn the lessons and build something better. Just because there was a website called that was succesful, doesnt mean your website will be succesful.

Second, lets demystify social media. Its not a magic wand, its simply a set of tools which exist to be used. The best thing any campaigner can do is go out, learn about every platform, from direct mailers to virtual phone banks to Facebook groups and treat them as a unified toolkit.

I think that'll do for now. Overall a fairly interesting event, but I was almost embarresed to watch the guys from the UK try and get their heads around concepts which Americans campaigners get almost instinctively.

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