New media and how to use it
Received wisdom is a terrible thing. In the aftermath of 1997, the collapse of the Conservative Party became a truism. Last year, it was the “clunking fist” of Gordon Brown. Today it’s “the death of New Labour”. None of these things are particularly true and none of them have enduring relevance to political analysis, not that this will stop journalists endlessly repeating some of them.
In the US, the success of Obama’s grassroots campaign and his use of “new media” – bloggers, small donations, a website dedicated to refuting lies printed about him – is received wisdom. Obama employed a 24-year old, one of the founders of Facebook, to work on his “new media” campaign; the result was my.barackobama.com, a website where activists could sign up to local groups and know what was going on.
Last night there was a meeting of some veteran Lefty bloggers, a couple of techie types, people who’ve been involved in e-democracy and so forth. The purpose of the meeting was to outline some ideas for adapting new media to a left-wing movement in the UK. A lot of people want to see if they can duplicate Obama’s success – and I wanted to write out some thoughts on the matter.
I’ve long lamented the fact that it’s incredibly difficult for people like bloggers, who are basically just activists with a website, to get information about industrial disputes and other important events across the country. It’s even harder when news has to move over international borders and languages. If there’s a way to remedy that, it would massively intensify the effectiveness of blogs.
There are sources from which we can get international news, reported on by people in the relevant countries and translated into English: the CWI have a good site, there’s Common Dreams, there’s sites about the Middle East and ABC video journals on “liberal” issues such as abortion. Nevertheless, it’s still difficult to find out about the small issues – the demos, the pickets, the sackings of union workers etc.
The sexy issues are covered already – but we need the capacity to focus on smaller issues that matter to working people and to socialist activists. A network of the regular and well-written blogs, communicating via an email list and linked to a much larger email list of people who don’t blog but are sympathetic and want to communicate, even in confidence, is a way to do just that.
My suggestion last night was that a group of bloggers would elect a small executive committee to oversee both email lists, to represent a point of contact for people looking to disseminate information and to organise investigative efforts by playing to people’s strengths. For example, if tipped on a story, they could pass the tip onwards to someone who could a) find out more about it and b) do it justice in the writing.
Additionally, as was suggested last night, the NUJ run technical training courses and courses on news and production values. If they were willing to help train bloggers, many of whom are very supportive of or even members of the NUJ, then we might actually have a chance at dramatically improving the quality and range of blogging output all across the Left.
As far as I’m concerned, bloggers should regard themselves as journalists. We’re never going to win over the newspapers to a left-wing agenda so let’s build our own centres where people can find reliable information, reported in an accessible way. That’s not to say we should surrender political views – our ideologies should be incorporated into our stories. However at the same time, we need to escape from the rather formulaic methods of analysis that plague a lot of the left-of-Labour parties.
Using the blogosphere might be an innovative way to do that.
A lot of the people in attendance seemed in broad support of the move of the Left towards facebook, described as talking to people where they live when online. I agree – it’s good to have large groups and to invite people to events and so forth. It’s important that people know what’s going on around them, but the major disadvantage is that it’s inconsistent.
Facebook is divided into regions and not everyone is connected to all the other regions or to the people who are. There’s a vast number of would-be political types who just have no means of engagement. They may not like Labour, or may dislike their CLP culture but yet, especially if young, may be faced with no alternative. Political activity in such circumstances is very difficult.
This is where setting up a new site would be concerned; some like my.barackobama.com where each campaign event is listed by region and people can join up to it and decide if they want to take a role. A site like the LRC website would be advantageous for that, though that probably throws up problems of partisan allegiance – a traditional plague on all Leftist houses. With the right know-how, even a UK-orientated socialist Youtube channel would be possible, whereby people could upload their own interviews on political subjects etc.
Labour Members Net was discussed briefly but it was largely agreed that it was badly designed, poorly run and attracted far too many armchair types. It didn’t have a huge selection of resources and what good resources it did have were largely only available to people selected by their CLP and given the correct passwords. Even then, it’s uses are still limited.
Outside of Members Net there are other things afoot too. Apparently John McDonnell’s constituency website has within the last few months become a purely video-blog. Frankly McDonnell’s website is much better presented than most other constituency MPs that I’ve seen – Hazel Blears demonstrates at her site what appears to be the standard layout for Labour MPs.
Whilst I personally wouldn’t choose a video blog just for the sake of it, preferring to write, I think video blogs would be very useful for interviews and filming events. Again, if sympathizing members of the NUJ or people who are hobbyist techies wanted to offer technical training in things like editing, we’d have a very effective tool, especially for those people who don’t read well or feel intimidated by walls of text.
At any rate, the attendees agreed that this “Left New Media Forum”, or whatever it goes on to be called, will become a group that meets regularly. The aim is to choose an event as a testing ground for these new strategies, to see if we can put in place any of the myriad ways which Obama’s campaign have shown the way on. I think that this is a very welcome idea – though I feel compelled to list a few deficiencies.
Most obviously, it’s still London-centric. Whilst I didn’t know where everyone was coming in from last night, I knew that a great deal more people had been invited than actually turned up (about sixteen, though this was compensated for by the attendance of several heavyweights). I imagine travelling to London puts a lot of people off. Still, with this dedication to New Media, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that we create some sort of live-chat feature which enables us to conference without serious expenditure.
Secondly, the issue of accountability concerns me. At MembersNet I’ve debated with several people who have in the past believed that being active on the internet can take the place of pounding-the-pavement activism. I seriously disagree with that – and moreover, where being an internet warrior takes over from real activism, I think it damages our sense of collective responsibility and decision making.
Our activism in real life is never so independent as it is online, where we can fund our own domain names or have a free website so long as we have the money for a net connection. If bloggers are going to begin banding together, to create associative structures which allow the dissemination of information, there also should be accountability for how those structures are used.
The community of bloggers should, therefore, be self-regulating. Each blogger, once accepted to the group, would be able to vote on the small group who would be in charge. If a communal resource is established, such as a video-camera for video-blogging, allocation of such a resource would be an important question. This aspect is, I feel, very important on the grounds that we shouldn’t be trying to cultivate an individualist stance. Every blog is not an island – they are connected by a movement. How we work online should reflect that.
Such structures also allow us to be much more effective and provide a locus through which funds might be raised, whether from the trades unions or other sources. These resources would in turn enable us to pursue our strategy much more aggressively – one idea being a communal video camera as suggested above. This sort of thing would be endlessly useful in filming and editing protest events, and on a protest day there’s no reason why multiple bloggers couldn’t film what they wanted to film and then pass on the camera.
These are some of the opportunities offered by heightened communication between bloggers and by the additional technology open to us through Web 2.0. I’d like the opinion of some of my fellow bloggers on just these subjects, so I’m going to tap Peter Kenyon, Mil, Paul, Susan, Tom, Stroppybird and Penny for their own comments or articles, because I think each of them will have a distinctive point of view ranging from those of feminists to community activists to internet-lovers to ideologically aware Marxists. Also, The Yorkshire Ranter seems to have given this some thought already.
On a side note, it was definitely an odd sensation to be meeting in the flesh no few bloggers with whom I’ve had debates with online, or whose blogs I read regularly. I don’t name anyone – they can name themselves in their own good time. Even still, it was an interesting experience and the range of views on offer were definitely wider than at your average CLP meeting.