#G2010 – what I said (and didn’t get the chance to say)

by Stephen Tall on October 27, 2009

I mentioned last week that I was speaking at the Government 2010 conference as part of a panel discussion on ‘Blogging, Social Media and New Media’. 45 minutes might be enough time – at least if you believe Tony Blair – for the Iraqis to have launched weapons of mass destruction directed against the UK; but it was enough time only to scratch the surface of this topic.

With four speakers, Iain Dale as chair instructed us all to stick to a strict 5 minutes. As I (too often) find conferences are long on theory and terminology, and short on real-life practise, I used my one-twelfth of an hour to offer case-studies of some of the exempla of Lib Dem e-campaigning as highlighted by this year’s Lib Dem Blog of the Year awards.

I even went so far as to dissent from the verdict of my fellow judges in giving the award to Jo Swinson for her live-tweeting during Prime Minister’s Questions; personally, I thought Daisy Benson’s or Steve Webb’s uses of Facebook to engage directly with their constituents were better examples of the utility of web 2.0 (though to be fair to Jo, she is also very active on Facebook).

I summed up, a tad tritely, that the best e-campaigning – like all the best campaigning – succeeded if it scored highly against the following three key criteria: had it resulted in better information being made available, more effective consultation being undertaken, and greater empowerment for voters?

Fortunately the rest of the session – the two-thirds of an hour when I wasn’t speaking – has been very effectively sumarised by Andrew over at the DavePress blog: so if you want to read more about what the other speakers – Mick Fealty, Craig Elder and Adam Parker – had to say, then head there.

In truth, I’m not sure whether the audience learned much that was new: trying simultaneously to cover blogging, social networking and open-source government information all in one session meant we skated over evrything and deep-mined nothing. In any case, despite the fact that each can be umbrella-ed under the term ‘new media’ doesn’t mean they actually have much in common.

The challenge for making government information online is not whether you can do so technically, but how you can do so meaningfully – as Adam Parker put it during the Q&A, how you can ‘localise’ information to make it relevant to people, rather than simply spew out copious quantities, and splatter everyone with information overload? I don’t think government, let alone councils, have really grappled with that issue yet.

Yet blogging is a totally different phenomenon. Its universal reach is pretty irrelevant. After all, Iain – one of the top two best-read bloggers – attracts roughly 100,000 readers each month. But The Independent – the least-read national newspaper – is read by some 650,000 people every day. Blogging, and bloggers, are small-fry, for all that some of our number like to deride the ‘dead tree press’.

What we do have, out of all proportion to our readership, though, is influence. Iain’s blog is read by a few thousand people a day; but they include a high number of people who run the country, or tell the rest of us about how it’s being run.

It reminds me of the old story about Peter Jay, a former economics editor for The Times. As Jeremy Paxman retails in his book, Friends in High Places, he

… was once assailed by a not-very-clever sub-editor laying out a piece he had written for the next morning.
‘I can’t understand your article,’ he said, rather truculently.
Jay drew breath for a moment, then replied:
‘You’re not supposed to. It’s written for three people. Two of them are at the Treasury and the other’s at the Bank of England.

It’s easy to mock Jay’s old-school attitude, yet he was merely anticipating the impact niche opinion in the media (of which blogging is one element). Richard Littlejohn’s Mail columns are read by millions; but it’s Peter Riddell – scarcely a household name – whose words are weighed carefully in Westminster. Reach and influence depend on who’s reading you, not solely on how many are reading you.