Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The shape of the new: Greens and the internet

This article has just appeared in the ever improving Green World that's landing on door mats all over the country as we speak. I thought I'd reproduce it here as it involves you lot (I'm using my text so there might be a couple of minor alterations in the magazine itself).

The shape of the new: Greens and the internet

The internet is a powerful educational tool that is changing the way we access information. 'Bloggers', writing in the 'blogosphere' were more accurate about the outcome of the Iraq War than the Government involved in waging it. Jim Jepps looks at the potential for blogging to become a powerful green tool for democracy and campaigning.

If you think that Twitter is just the noise a bird makes and social networking means getting another round in making that first step into using the internet as an effective campaigning tool can be daunting. For many the stereotype of a Blogger is someone in the early hours of the morning furiously typing out irate messages whilst dressed only in their underpants. However, this is only 90% of the story.

Most of us know that the net is important but answering the questions of how and why is much more difficult. So even when we do set up a site or Facebook group it sits there neglected and unloved, of no real use to anyone, when it should be making an impact with real people in the real world.

It’s not that long since the web began to transform itself into a utility that almost everyone could use. Gone are the days when you needed skills and money to set up a workable and half decent website. Companies like Blogger and Wordpress can provide easy to use free templates that allow anyone to set up a site. It’s no longer the case that someone needs to know how to code in order to gain a workable web presence.

That has meant there has been a flowering of discussion and ideas on the net with people being able to connect to resources, engage in debate and learn about events both near and far in a way that was never before possible. This means the web has become a vital political tool that we ignore at our peril, but that very newness has meant sometimes it takes experimentation to get things right.

That blossoming pluralism is both its strength but also why traditional political campaigns have found it difficult to utilise properly because they’re too centrally directed, too distrusting of their members to give them free reign.The decentralised ethic of the Green Party fits the new technology like a glove if only we are ready to embrace it. This redistribution of resources and ideas allows activists to download materials in a cheap and easy way and persuade armchair sympathisers that there is something they can do about the things they feel passionately about.

It is possible to reach and mobilise wider audiences in a far more immediate way. The Green Party election broadcast was seen by far more people than those who happened to catch it on TV because we had it available for anyone with access to the net at a time of their choosing. More than that it meant that in places like Norwich they could produce their own broadcast, featuring local candidates and focusing on particular local issues at almost zero cost. That’s phenomenal and something we can direct towards both electoral work and taking on the issues that matter to us directly.

Whether it’s mobilising against George Bush, distributing window posters or building support for an emergency campaign, used in the right way the web can help us make a real impact. But it’s also true that a lot of effort that we put into our web presence is time poorly spent.

If you look at Facebook for instance, a site that’s the subject of contempt and adulation alike, it’s difficult to use well in this context. The Green Party has an excellent supporters’ page with over a thousand members and continuous, interesting discussions but it also has some rather lacklustre and underused pages that were set up purely on the basis that it’s so easy to do.

Usually these pages are for local candidates that are just too small to keep up a decent momentum, which means even a lively campaign can become associated with a page that gives the appearance that there is far less support out there than there really is. We should not be afraid to delete these pages. Facebook can be a useful tool when directed at issues that people want to debate passionately, but seems to have less purchase when it comes to gathering support for Parliamentary candidates.

Whilst we should always recognise that spreading the word on the net is no substitute for "real world" campaigning, especially for those without the time or inclination for the web this ability to talk to people direct, without having to go through the mediating lens of the media, is something that could potentially transform our ability to campaign effectively, cheaply, and in a environmentally friendly way.

We even need to explore and engage with services like twitter (that provides updates direct to your friends/family/supporters) and play to the strengths of online social networking - which is a bottom up and pluralist approach, organised and run by the very people who use it. We can reach out to a wider progressive community who are open to our ideas if only we take that step that allows them in.


Leftwing Criminologist said...

youre right to emphasise that the web should be second to actaully campaigning, but if you use it correctly it can help support that (ie. by providing material like elction broadcasts or other things that people can use to find out about your politics)

Douglas Coker said...

Interesting piece Jim. Things have certainly moved on from the days of ILL. For younger readers this was a system used by libraries (Inter Library Loans) which produced a loan copy of a book or a photo-copy of a must read article if you were lucky, many days, sometimes weeks IIRC, after requesting them. We were information starved.

The ready availability of so many documents now means we need to deploy a new set of skills to avoid complete overload. I have read the nef published "A Green New Deal" and recommend it to all. A call for dismantling finance capital? I might get round to skimming the Garnaut draft report - an Aussie version of Stern and maybe I'll read the detail of the OFCOM ruling on swindler Durkin's TGGWS.

But texting - pressing all those footery wee buttons and having to ignore predictive thingy and not being allowed to use two spaces between a full stop and the next sentence - not for me.

And e-mail has brought on some new form of incontinence if you ask me.

And Facebook is a complete wind-up. Fearsomely difficult to navigate and it just dumped my draft text when I went off elsewhere to collect a link. Grrrrrrrrrrr!!! Grrrrrrrrr!!

And now twitter - gimme a break. What's that for?

Douglas Coker
Enfield Green Party

The View from Steeltown said...

Great post. I am currently writing a longer piece on the subject and appreciate your thoughts on the matter. If I wanted to quote the article how would I reference it? (I am writing an old fashioned traditional article).

Jim Jay said...

Academic/journal stylee? Well the website of GW is at but it doesn't have the new issue up yet.

I'd go for something like;

Jim Jepps, Green World (issue 61), London, Summer 08. (see also )

- but obviously you may be using slightly different conventions, but you should have the right info in there somewhere.

Jim Killock said...

Twitter is generally for idle gossip and remarks that make you smirk. Great for promoting blogs and sending links, where a sentence can provoke a reaction and get you to click on a link.

It’s a bit of fun in general and easier to bother with than masses of email.

scott redding said...

I think Facebook is somewhere where each local party should plant a flag and keep it updated on a fortnightly basis with what they're up to. It can bring younger people into the Green Party, i.e. Facebook members tend to be 15-35. It was helpful in our 2008 local elections, where a number of people who had been silent Facebook group members were very willing to be paper candidates. That being said, we have 50 members on our Facebook page (Coventry Green Party), but we still have only 5-6 people coming out to monthly meetings. Look upon it as a contact point for people to find out about local Green activity ... without them necessarily taking an active role.

Rayyan Mirza said...

Facebook is largely a waste of time. It had potential but is now oversaturated. Direct e-mails are slightly better, but I agree with Scott that we might as well have a presence there. I disagree with there being a page for every local party - we should have subpages for each under the main Green Party, or just a list of links to regularly maintained websites.

I haven't joined Twitter yet, but it mostly seems like a stripped down version of Facebook which consists only of status updates. Might be useful for posting times for meetings/activities but again, you have e-mail for that.

Great article in the GW, Jim - you truly are the Blogfather of the GPEW!

Rayyan Mirza said...

Must say, though, it is odd that an article about how the internet and social networking can be used to aid political campaigns makes no mention of the Barack Obama campaign in the US! To my mind, other than Howard Dean's presidential primary bid in 2004, the Obama campaign currently showcases the most prominent and successful use of the internet in a political campaign - so much so that I am writing my dissertation on it to garner as many lessons from it as possible to aid future GPEW netroots initiatives!

Jim Jay said...

I had a word limit so Obama and Dean didn't make it into this piece - but you're right they are very important - particualrly Dean. H

aving read Jo Trippi's book on the use of internet and social networking in the Dean campaign I'm more than convinced this is a very fertile area for political camapigners.

Which is probably why I don't agree that facebook is useless. But I do think alot of the attempts to use facebook are useless - like the dead local pages.

I think if there is a simple way to find your local party and see their site (which is updated and relevant) via the main Green Party fb page that would be great, the effort needed to support a, say, Cambridge Green Party page compared to reward just doesn't make it worth while.

What is worth while is local campaigns websites. Cambridge GP were it silly enough to have a local page would probably get 20 people to sign up, but the stop the local eco town has almost 2,000 people, the anti-tesco camapign has 1,000 the social centre has 700(ish) and they all have discussion on the wall and boards and push out useful info.

The issues is where we can make headway in reaching out to people who are very sympathetic to what we say but have not yet joined the party. That's my view anyway.

Green Gordon said...

Twitter seems to me quite a good way of spreading news quickly. A nice grapevine.