Tweet and see

TO City University, that hotbed for fast-tracking, fast tweeting £4,000-a-course student journalists, and a special debate with Nick Robinson and others on one of their favourite topics down that way: social media.These are the lecture halls where the next generation of graduate scheme journalists get lectured on the impact of Twitter, while tweeting sarcastic funnies from the back row.

Search #cityvote on the site and see for yourself.

I went along on Tuesday night to try and learn more about how websites, blogs and quickfire sites like Twitter might alter political communications in the near future; the talk was after all billed ‘2010 election: the first new media election’. Yet people far more savvy about these things were not exactly doling out the gung-ho go-for-it pills.

Tweets won’t win elections, Matthew McGregor, whose company Blue State Digital advised Barack Obama during his presidential election campaign, told us. Twitter is better used for organising activists.

Comments left on blogs are not proper discussions, they are all about abusing people and there’s no mechanism for ordinary people to ask for more information, said  Robinson – who also made the unverified claim to be the author of Britain’s first political blog.

Twitter is a joker in the pack – it’s anarchy, chipped in City’s Professor Ivor Gaber.

People just leave comments on my blog about the university where I work being an old a polytechnic and that I’m not as good looking as my sister, said Rupa Huq, a Labour political blogger. Konnie’s sister.

They, of course, did not confine their comments to gloom, everyone who spoke is clearly excited about the instant, far-reaching platforms that social media provides. But what I had expected to be a trail of celebratory chatter about the manner in which political discussions are being taken online and the way they might affect voting in the upcoming elections was actually set to a more cautious tone.

It’s as if the experts on the panel know this box of tricks can do something special but haven’t got to the end of the instruction manual yet, haven’t quite figured out its full capacity. I guess that’s how the non-experts feel as well.

There was also an underlying sense, albeit unsaid explicitly, that Twitter, for  prominence in the media today, could one day be replaced in popularity by other networking sites and that the social media of the future will not be confined to one service.

In Camden’s political battleground, there is sporadic council-is-great versus council-is-rubbish tweeting from the candidates who will fight the local elections in May, comments fired off you would imagine without the authors really knowing what impact they are making. Aside from drawing a ‘retweet’ from people who already agree with them.

In the Hampstead and Kilburn parliamentary seat, new candidate Tamsin Omond promises to win votes through the use of social media. Labour’s current MP in the area Glenda Jackson has yet to see the appeal of tweeting. Her closest opponents Ed Fordham and Chris Philp have, however, spent time on Twitter and YouTube videos. The City uni panel suggested these methods could be successful in enthusing people in the key streets, but only if the content is interesting.

In the end, our host at City, Evan Davis, the Radio 4 Today show  presenter, asked for a show of hands, asking whether he thought social media or the TV debates that the party leaders will undertake in this year’s campaign would prove most important. At least three quarters of the room, probably more, went for the debates. I wonder if people will still be thinking the same if we fast forward five years and whether the next election rather than this will be the first genuine social media election. We’ll have to tweet and see.

3 Comments on Tweet and see

  1. I think you’re under-estimating the impact that online campaigning can have on a local audience when done well. Agreed that twittering the equivalent of boorish behaviour at PMQs doesn’t win much public approval, but there’s much more to local online campaigning than that – and as Alex Perkins pointed out in the questions, it’s an angle the panel mostly neglected. (Spookily, I’d just blogged recently about how panels tend to do just that! )

  2. Richard Osley // March 3, 2010 at 11:06 am //

    Thanks for your comments Mark. I don’t think I personally under-estimate local campaigning – the number of by-elections in Camden in the last few years has helped reveal how politicians are changing the way are connecting. I was just surprised last night by the guarded comments of the panel, as if they were worried that too much enthusiasm would come back to haunt them. As if it’s all a passing fad, which seems unlikely to me. Rupa Huq was so bashful about her blog, it was almost as if she was sheepishly embarrassed by it.

    On an earlier post, I wrote about how people signed up to the ‘Save Akmal Shaikh’ on Facebook, and left it at that – rather than really get out there and protest. Thousands clicked a mouse, only a small gathering were outside the Chinese embassy to make the point. What I would be worried about, in terms of getting people invigorated by politics, is that online networks should not replace going to meetings, organising, challenging politicians at their surgeries and if necessary marching in the streets – like the amazing turnout for the Whittington march on Saturday. Surely it should all inform and assist, enthuse where possible, but never replace.

  3. Fair point Richard, especially about how the impact comes when you get people to do the simple one click action – but then follow up on that too, such as using the internet to help marshal people to turn up at public meetings or write to MPs.

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