Labour’s iPhone app mobilising supporters

Mzl.edgauvsh.320x480-75 There’s a great blog post from Stuart Bruce about Labour’s iPhone app that serves as a timely reminder that new media and the Internet isn’t primarily about ‘social meeja’.

Stuart’s post come as uber-Tory blogger Iain Dale writes in the Telegraph that this so-called Internet election isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Of course, it was largely the media that set the standards for the ‘Internet election’ and Iain’s blog post seems to argue that because candidates aren’t blogging and Twitter is "useless as a campaigning tool" then the digital election is a failure. But let's not forget it's also meant to be the Mumsnet election as well but everyone seems to have forgotten that already.

As a timely rebuttal, Stuart observes that when it comes to creating virtual networks of activists, then the Internet is doing a great job, thank you very much.

In fact, many political activists I know argue that what really matters at an election is  feet on doorsteps, canvassing phonecalls and ultimately crosses on ballot papers.

And let’s face it, until we have some concrete evidence to prove otherwise it's widely accepted Twitter or Facebook aren’t necessarily going to deliver these – although that’s not to say they don't have other important roles to play too.

And this is the mistake the media and many others in the PR world seem to make. They look to Obama and say: "it’s social media wot won it" and make the logical progression that we aren’t seeing that campaign replicated in the UK in 2010.

Those in the know, however, are acutely aware that it wasn’t social media wot won it for Obama but rather email marketing. Obama’s team judiciously used huge volumes of targeted data to motivate voters ahead of polling day and mobilise them on polling stations.

Data protection laws differ in the US from the UK and while no UK political party yet seems able to replicate Obama’s email campaign, Stuart runs through some of the successes Labour has been having with it’s iPhone app in identifying and mobilizing voters.

The app has been designed and built using feedback form grassroots activists and is packed with functionality that empowers people to get out on the doorstep, make phone calls and attend events.

Specific features allow users to access the Labour manifesto in text or video format, use GPS to locate party campaigning events happening near them, read Labour Party tweets, call and canvas people using Labour's virtual Phonebank tool (crucially, it this works within the UK's data protection legislation – something the Tories failed to take into account recently).

In fact, the app is so good, even the acerbic Popbitch gives it the following praise:

“The ‘Inside the Campaign’ section is, surprisingly, not mind numbingly dull.”

Stuart tells us that Labour’s learning is: “if you want to mobilise large numbers of people in a network to do things for you then you need to involve them.”

And on that point he couldn’t be more right.

Mumsnet election: an analysis

The following was posted as a guest post at Royal Holloway University's New Political Communications Unit blog.

Justine Roberts, founder of online mums and parenting community, Mumsnet,
spoke at an Albion Society event on digital democracy last week and
provided a fascinating insight into the future of politics, digital
campaigning and organisational structures.

Justine questioned why so many politicians were keen to get in front
of Mumsnet members and suggested the reasons may be more conventional
than first thought.

Firstly, Mumsnet, as a concept or new media channel is much easier
to grasp than other social media tools, such as Twitter. While Twitter
is still largely a dangerous and mysterious tool to a lot of MPs, with
inherent etiquette, esoteric terminology and demanding, difficult to
manage real-time functionality, Mumsnet is much more like the Richard and Judy of media politics.

You have a 95% female community; mass membership (1m uniques a month) and since the media claimed the election a Mumsnet election
the community has been on the watch-list of most Westminster hacks
meaning what MPs say is likely to get reported in the traditional media.

Given this high level of awareness, does Mumsnet have any real political power, Justine asked.
The
answer in short was, yes. Because, despite MPs' perceptions that
Mumsnet is just another traditional media channel with a mass, passive
readership, they've overlooked one major difference: participation and
self-organisation.

Mumsnet real political potential lies in driving single-issue
campaigns relevant to members. Justine gave an example where members
had vociferously opposed plans by the Government to change the
childcare voucher scheme, challenged the prime minister on a live
webchat on the site, and pushed the most popular current Downing Street ePetition (currently standing at 99,000+ signatories). The campaign eventually caused Gordon Brown to change the unpopular policy.

Given this potential effect on policy, Government is now engaging
the community proactively. The wisdom of the community is being
exploited by the Department of Health, who are involving Mumsnet community members to help develop its policy towards women that have suffered miscarriages.

What this all adds up to, Justine suggested pragmatically, was that
while Mumsnet may not have political power in the traditional sense, it
certainly has power to mobilise its members in the same way
organisations such as 38Degrees, the single-issue political mobilisation platform, can.

This was a fascinating comparison, given that Mumsnet is also a
peer-to-peer support community for many other members as well as a more
traditional news portal for even more.  I couldn't help wondering about
the potential for a study of Mumsnet to test its organisational hybridity.

Finally, Justine dispelled the myth of the bloc vote in Mumsnet.
Their own internal surveys of members' voting intentions revealed that
party support is fairly evenly split across the three main parties.
Despite this, however, the BNP was actually caught out trying to
infiltrate discussions and shape debates around a fascist/far-right
agenda.

While not entirely conclusive evidence of Mumsnet's organisational
hybridity, Justine's conclusion could certainly be interpreted as
reflecting the complex socio-technological structures at play within
the community. “Mumsnet,” she concluded, “is a non-aligned mouthpiece
for its community. It’s not a union bloc vote; it’s more like an octopus with pre-menstrual stress.”

MyDavidCameron: some post event analyses

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With the buzz about the remixed Conservative Party election posters and Clifford Singer’s MyDavidCameron website a few days old I thought I’d reflect on the debate and offer up some analysis about what might be going on here and what it means for political parties ahead of the election.

But before I can do that I need to jump back to September last year when I discussed Manuel Castell’s theory of networked power and suggested how it could be applied to the UK’s political blogosphere.

In a nutshell, Castells argues that power in networks is fundamentally about the ability to establish and control particular networks.

This can be achieved by one of two ways:

  1. the ability to constitute network(s), and to program/reprogram the network(s) in terms of goals assigned to the network (largely by setting and controlling the way we perceive issues and information)
  2. the ability to connect and ensure cooperation of different networks by sharing common goals and combining resources (i.e. identifying like-minded networks with which you can work to challenge the dominant program)

Castells calls actors in the first mechanism ‘programmers’ and those in the second mechanism, ‘switchers’.

I argued that Conservative and right-wing blogs were successful because they had programmed the UK’s political network by a) adapting early and b) creating a broad anti-government debate which resonated with the media and wider public.

This meant that left and liberal bloggers had to find common issues and threads with each other and the public with which to try and switch the dominant power in the network away from anti-government/right-wing debate.

So what does this tell us about the MyDavidCameron success? Firstly, I think it supports my original hypothesis. That is, Labour have identified a wider – albeit smaller – network outside of the UK political blogosphere with a shared value (mocking David Cameron/the Conservatives and graphic design).

They are then co-opting this network, forming a strategic partnership but letting the idea and content go where it goes, as opposed to trying to centrally plan and control what happens with the David Cameron imagery.

In my opinion, a political party having the foresight and ability to spot an opportunity like this and use it to help try to ‘switch’ the dominant discourse in the political blogosphere is smart.

Yes, there may be those that say: “well, who wouldn’t jump on an opportunity if it arose?” But I’d argue that the traditional approach to this kind of online meme would be to try and own it: take it in-house.*

I think Labour have deliberately avoided doing this, having learnt the lesson from last summer’s #Welovethenhs grassroot campaign that which Labour co-opted, arguably tried to centralise and quickly destroyed the value in the network. Compare how they're currently using a Labour Party version of MyDavidCameron (i.e. becoming another node in the network) versus their mini-campaign site for #Welovethenhs which argubly tries to own the decentralised campaign network.

But thinking logically about the MyDavidCameron campaign: would Labour seeking to ‘own’ the network really kill it in the same way that it killed #Welovethenhs?

I’m not so sure for two reasons:

  1. Firstly, the #Welovethenhs campaign was not a pro-government campaign; nor was it an anti-tory campaign. It was a pro-public healthcare system campaign. It’s an issue that traditionally has a shared value for with liberal/left networks but not solely. Labour arguably killed this campaign as it tried to go further than switching and instead reprogram the networks’ values as pro-government/pro-Labour.
  2. Secondly, network alignment based on shared opposition to David Cameron and/or the Conservatives is one thing, but the reality is that only Labour can defeat the Conservatives at an election. Therefore, Labour trying to reprogram the goal of the networks driving the MyDavidCameron campaign to be pro-Labour is actually a smart move.

What this says to me is that now we’re entering the run up to an election, the political discourse is no longer split broadly between anti-government/right-wing ideology and pro-Government goals (that were largely indistinguishable form Labour policy).

Instead, Labour is starting to reprogram the UK’s political networks through creating a discourse of Conservatives vs Labour. It’s early days and the Conservatives still have the upper hand but I’d argue that the MyDavidCameron campaign plus the recent emergence of distinct left and Labour-aligned voices is starting to re-balance the pro-right-wing goals of the UK’s political networks.

Footnote:
* What this reveals is Labour’s ability to switch between a traditional command and control political party and a node in a fluid, participative network. Something Andrew Chadwick has defined as “organisational hybridity” – the internet driven phenomena that enables organisations and institutions to switch between being member-led hierarchical institutions, single-issue campaign groups or temporary, loosely joined networks of like-minded individuals. I believe this is what political parties of the future will look like: political parties in all but name, But that’s something for another post.