Research shows that social media won’t halt political disengagement (aka "I told you so…")

I wrote a rather lengthy post-cum-essay earlier this year speculating that MPs and elected politicians might be out of a job within the next 10 years time.

My argument was based purely on my own thoughts about how the participatory web is rapidly overcoming barriers which made full participatory democracy (as opposed to the representative democracy we have currently) more viable as a political system.

This contrasts the populist line you get in mainstream media where journalists and others like to ride the band-wagon that the Internet and ‘Web 2.0 tools’ such as blogs, YouTube, Facebook etc is allowing people to reconnect with politicians and politics. David Cameron is the usual UK example trotted out with Obama now the figure-head in the US.

I’ve said all along that technology itself is not capable of reconnecting politics with people. People feel politically disenfranchised because the political systems in most Western democracies are specifically designed to keep most people removed from processes of empowerment. In the same way that businesses traditionally kept ‘consumers’ at arms length.

If politicians and political parties want to reconnect with people then they need to change the way they do things. Doing the same old thing using new technology *will not* politically re-enfranchise people. 

This is a slightly contentious view but since posting it I’ve discovered an unpublished PhD thesis by Kerrill Dunne from Sussex University which examined the role and effectiveness of political forums in renewing political engagement – or rather stemming political disengagement.

Kerrill’s research takes an empirical look at the value of using online forums to reverse political disengagement and it concludes that political online forums will not reverse political disengagement. More specifically discussion forums do not fail because of some inherent design fault, but because political disengagement is tied to citizens’ dislike of liberal thin democracy (i.e. British democracy based on representative
democracy, liberalism and a free market economy).

In discussion about his research on the DoWire E-Democracy forums, Dunne, explained his findings in more details. Political disengagement he argues boils down to two main theories: firstly a reaction to the fact that in representative, liberal democracy as long as enough people vote (or engage in the process) then the system works thus by its very function it fails to maximise participation. But secondly:

“political disengagement is growing because modern democracies do not support strong participatory or direct democracy […] this theory argues that political disengagement is a disease of the liberal thin democratic model. (i.e. representative, liberal democracy)

Offering a favoured theory in light of his research, Dunne remarks that:

“I agree with the latter [second theory, because research (see chapter 4 of thesis) has shown citizens are dissatisfied with the current political system and are turning away from it because representatives are unresponsive to them the political system does not support any form of direct democracy and individuals are not interested in politics because they do not identify with political parties or trust politicians […] Offline citizens are saying that they are not satisfied with the current political system and online, they are less likely to participate in forums rooted in it.”

Based on Dunne’s study it would appear that public disengagement is not something that web 2.0 tools can solve alone. Rather the political and social system in which these tools exist must change for people to reconnect with politics.

Technorati tags: participatory democracy, Kerrill Dunne, digital politics

Doc Searls on digital capacity building in the new admnistration (and what Lord Carter can learn)

A few weeks Doc Searls laid down his vision for how the incoming President Elect could use the Internet to stimulate the US economy. coincidently, Docs’ post came about a month after the UK government’s Department for Business, Economy and Regulatory Reform (BERR) launched its own plans for using the digital economy to regenerate the UK’s economic fortunes. I have my own concerns about BERR’s plans for what it calls ‘Digital Britain’ which I laid out recently. Doc’s vision is inspirational however, and the UK government should read his blog post carefully. In case it doesn’t however, here’s a few things worth noting.

Doc outlines a number of key issues for consideration but at the core of his vision is the need for greater infrastructure – specifically “fiber-optic” – although a solid case for wifi is also made.

And then what to do with this increased infrastructure? Doc believes that it can only lead to greater productivity among everyone – individuals as well as small businesses; thus boosting, creativity, production, consumption, the economy and mankind:

“new devices based on open source technologies demonstrate how easy it is to scaffold and build innovative new products and services that make money and expand the scope of civilization.”

However, one of the major barriers to this potential great leap forward lies not in the impracticality of increasing infrastructure nor does it lie in the predicted costs of the investment program (estimated at $300bn).

No, the big barrier to making this significant economic and social step forward lies in the thinking and strategic mindset with which the government and business approaches the issue.

To quote Doc again:

“We can’t see the potential for that [digital economic] growth as long as we’re blinded by phone and cable company offerings, which treat the Internet as the third act in a ‘triple play’. Even though most home phones are now digital, we still “dial” to connect and get billed by the minute. And while analog cell phones are gone, even “smart” digital phones are locked up by phone companies and their phone-making partners. Next February [By 2012 in the UK] all over-the-air television broadcasting in the U.S. will go digital, matching cable and satellite TV distribution systems that have been digital for years. Yet we still watch “programs” on “channels,” just like we started doing in 1950.”

Doc’s argument is for an American market, but there are clear parallels with the UK and its current situation – not least the shared desire of national Governments to inject stimulus into their domestic economies.

Which is where I want to shift my focus to the UK. In the US they are still riding high on the optimism of a new administration. Doc’s post is aimed as a piece of pre-emptive advice for Barack Obama. Here in the UK, the Government has already unveiled its plans to use the Internet to improve the economy. My concerns are that its planned review will not even head in the right direction, let alone go far enough down the right route to really make a break through.

In fact, researching this post I googled ‘Digital Britain’ to see if there was an update on the Carter Review. I found a Marketing Week article from earlier this month (this in itself maybe gives us a steer on the *actual* aim of the Digital Britain review).

The article revealed the review team assembled by Lord Carter. These experts are (in no particular order):

  • TV presenter and child psychologist – Dr Tanya Byron
  • Chairman of Japanese investment bank, Nomura International – Francesco Caio
  • Chairman of the Digital Radio Working Group – Barry Cox
  • Editor of political magazine, The Spectator – Matthew d’Ancona
  • Former ITV commercial chief – Ian McCulloch.

So all in, a well qualified team of digital experts.

Doc ends his post by urging Obama:

to make constructive and realistic suggestions about what this new administration can do in just one area of infrastructure investment: expanding connectivity and network capacity in ways that open innovation and growth opportunity for everybody.”

I wonder in which direction Lord carter’s review will go? Towards greater infrastructure investment and opening up peer production; or towards regulation and centralised creative production?

Technorati tags: Carter Review, Lord Carter, Digital Britain, BERR, Doc Searls

The Longtail: reports of its demise are greatly exagerated – a clarification

As an update to my excitable post below announcing the demise of the Longtail, it’s worth directing people to Chris Anderson’s post which responds robustly to MCPR-PRS’s claims.

Rather than being "thoroughly debunked" it seems that a real interpretation of the The Longtail’s validity depends on the type and scope of data used, and presumably the methodological approach taken by the researchers.

Now I should have checked my enthusiasm at debunking, especially as I am only too aware of the different results thrown up by different approaches to research. In fact I suggested as much in response to Jed Hallam’s comment below!

Sorry to Chris Anderson for being to hasty to snack on an internet scandal :)

Technorati tags: Longtail, Research, debunking

The Longtail is thoroughly debunked by empirical research

I posted back in July reminding those of us who take current Internet theories such as The Wisdom of Crowds at face value that many of these ideas are primarily marketing tools, rather than tested, research-based approaches.

As a fascinating follow-up to this, Alan Patrick from Broadsight has posted a fascinating analysis of Internet uber-theory, The Longtail, titled: The end of The Longtail?

Alan posts about a recent presentation given by an MCPS-PRS Alliance economist, Will Page, which argued that The Longtail is "fairly completely incorrect".

Page apparently helped Chris Anderson write The Longtail thesis, but has since carried out empirical research on a huge volume of global online music sales. The research found:

"while there was a long tail, it was extremely poverty stricken and much of it is moribund […] even Free doesn’t work – when Radiohead gave away their music for free, there were still 400,000 illegal downloads in the UK. Not only that, they have found that illegal services focus on the “hit head” even more than the average."

Hypothesising further, Alan reckons that most demand curves are Log Normal rather than Pareto Power Law Curves, an opinion strongly supported by one of the researchers.

A full and thorough debunking of The Longtail based on the research can also be found by Andrew Orlowski over at The Register.

As a footnote to this, it is maybe worth adding that the researchers work for an organization that enforces commercial copyright on behalf of composers, songwriters and music publishers.

Technorati tags: The Longtail, Internet Theories, Power Law, Log Normal

CIPR Social Media Guidelines: an open response

The UK’s PR industry professional body, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) recently opened up its Social Media Guidelines for consultation. It does this once a year and this year only two bloggers I know posted about it.

I received a very polite reminder from the CIPR today asking me if I wanted to contribute. I hesitated submitting my views this time around after my previous experience left me with a distinct “we’re listening but not hearing” feeling from senior CIPR protagonists.

But after re-reading the amended guidelines I decided to submit a response. What follows is a version of my submission. I must stress that this submission represents my personal rather than professional views and I am a fully-paid up member of the CIPR.

The consultation asks two specific questions:

  • Do you believe this document covers the issues highlighted in sufficient depth?
  • Do you believe there are other important issues which should be addressed (and if so, what are they)?

But it also welcomes “general views”

To my mind the guidelines document does cover the issues highlighted in sufficient depth and also covers off all of the major online issues.

However, whether the issues are the right issues and whether all other issues included, e.g. online advertising and SEO, are directly relevant to PROs remains to be seen.

In short my more general contribution is this: Firstly, I am not entirely clear why the CIPR social media guidelines are required seeing as so much of the core social media behaviour PROs need to adhere to is subsumed within the CIPR’s Code of Conduct: integrity, competence and confidentiality.

This is especially highlighted when there appears to inherent contradictions in the guidelines. For example, the Guidelines state:

particular care should be taken when ‘ghosting’ a blog

as this behaviour may break the CoC if the ghost-blogger isn’t transparent about their motivations/intentions. I went further and suggested that ghosting is pretty much condemned and denounced by all bloggers so in my opinion the CIPR should make a blanket recommendation to its members to avoid the practice.

However, further into the Guidelines ghost-blogging is flagged as likely to be illegal anyway in light of the recent OFT’s ‘Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008’. Here the CIPR goes as far as to state that  “[e]xamples of social media activities outlawed under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations” include “Creating Fake blogs (‘ghosting’)”. This to me is confusing and risks sending mixed messages.

Secondly. the CIPR seems to have maintained its position whereby social media is an additional ‘channel’ to traditional PR rather than addressing the fundamental shifts in media (and thus PR) that the Internet is bringing about.

As an example, the guidelines specifically recommend:

  • flagging up your professional role every time you leave a comment on a blogs
  • no deep linking
  • using copyrighted material
  • employers curtailing – through policy – personal use of social media during working hours

I suggested that none of these practices are realistic. No deep links? WTF?

In light of the way the social web functions PR professionals who really want to succeed in ‘social media’ must immerse themselves and learn how the online space operates in such a radically different way to traditional media.

The idea of following top-down stipulations that fundamentally contradict the environment in which they’re designed to apply seems counter-productive.

While I totally understand that the CIPR needs to appear as if it is dealing with the issue at hand, I still stand by what I said in my letter to PR Week in January 2008. It was this: that the PR industry (in the UK at least) is losing (has lost?) out in terms of industry leadership to other industries that are investing greater effort to understand social/digital media (indeed it’s perhaps no surprise to find the CIPR directing it’s members to the ASA’s guidance on social media!).

I suspect I am being too critical or at least taking the guidelines apart in an overly forensic way. If I am being constructively critical then I get the feeling that the Guidelines are too equivocal. I’ve already highlighted the discrepancy when it comes to ghost blogging. There’s a similar tension that runs throughout the Guidelines. They suggest PR professionals should “err on the side of disclosure” but then draw attention to legal requirements.

This – to me, at least – is a tension between following the existing rules and listening the emerging best practice of online communities. Rigid, trenchant laws fail to take into account the messiness (to paraphrase Weinberger and Shirky) of media/PR on the Internet. But they are the domain of the traditional organisation to which it can fall back on.

The challenge here is for the CIPR to get ‘social and abandon formalised consultations to learn real-life lessons form those immersed or involved in social media. Only then will it start to get a ‘feel’ for the way its Guidelines should be developed and take a real and significant step towards leading the PR industry (and related industries) into a digital future.

Technorati tags: Chartered institute of Public Relations, CIPR, Social Media, Guidelines

Bit of a refresh around these parts

So after thinking about it for a while I decided to stay up late at the weekend and give my blog a new lick of paint and layout.

I had a few instant comments via Twitter saying the new layout is cleaner and makes the blog easier to read – which is good as that’s what I had in mind.

I also took the opportunity to update my Essential Reading aka blogroll.

I’d love to get any thoughts or feedback etc on the new design (actually I like to think of it as an ‘undesign’) and if you;re not on my blogroll but think you ought to be then let me know.