Sunday, 15 June 2008

Am I wasting my time?

After watching Country File on BBC1 today, I turned over to avoid the normally dreadful Politics Show. Instead, I switched to BBC Parliament where every Sunday lunchtime they have three hours of programmes on American politics, courtesy of C-Span.

This week was a bit different from normal. Rather than having speeches or campaign events from the presidential candidates, it featured a discussion - sponsored by Google, YouTube and the National Review - on how blogs and new media generally are transforming election campaigns in the States. This featured three people with varying involvement in new media, plus people who had worked on the Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney presidential campaigns.

The discussion was quite interesting. The panel were all in agreement that spreading political messages has become both more complex but also more immediate and accessible, as candidates can now put their message more directly without necessarily having it interpreted by a media outlet. However, there were concerns that the new media boom has led to even more of a focus on political trivia, to an additional shrillness in political debate, to candidates having to deal with internet-spread rumours and gossip.

All of these are valid points to make about new media's impact on politics. Certainly blogs and services such as YouTube can help to spread political messages more easily and more directly. But I don't think that people like me should be under any illusions as to the power we wield.

For a start, let's look at some of the campaigns where new media has been important. There was Howard Dean's presidential bid in 2004, Ned Lamont's attempt to unseat Joe Lieberman from his Connecticut senate seat in 2006 and Fred Thompson's campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination this time round, which was apparently based mainly around new media rather than traditional political campaigning. Another Republican hopeful, the libertarian Ron Paul, also attracted fairly widespread support in the blogosphere.

You'll notice something about all of these campaigns: they were all ultimately failures. Howard Dean crashed and burned in 2004, Lamont won the Democratic primary thanks in large part to mobilising support among bloggers but lost to Lieberman in the actual election, while Thompson made precisely zero impact on the Republican race this time, mainly because he didn't put in the actual legwork required. And Ron Paul didn't have the same support in actual elections that he managed to attract in cyberspace.

It's therefore entirely fair to argue that candidates who may have fairly widespread support in blogs and the like don't actually have the same appeal to the vast majority of the electorate who may not be quite so wired. There are reasons for that, as us political bloggers tend to be partisan and there is often a fair amount of hyping of our favoured candidates or parties.

And political blogs and YouTube videos are still very much a minority pursuit. I suspect a seven-second soundbite on mainstream media outlets is probably worth at least a thousand blog posts. Any candidate or party worth their salt is still going to put most of their effort into traditional media rather than new media. That is slowly changing, but I can't think of any examples where support among blogs has been the difference between success or failure in an election campaign.

In my own case, although I don't bother monitoring stats about my site (life's too short), there are a couple of things I can say with confidence: (a) this blog is a fairly low traffic site and (b) most of the people who come here are my fellow Lib Dems courtesy of the Lib Dem Blogs aggregator.

Does that mean I'm wasting my time and I'm just preaching to the converted? Well, maybe, but the reason I blog is not because I think I'm going to have a major impact, but because I enjoy it. I have things that I want to say and if people happen to read them and it has an impact on them, so much the better. OK, I don't have anything like the influence of Iain Dale, let alone Nick Robinson, but I hope in my own small way I'm contributing to better understanding of political life and to building a more liberal society. Those aims are sufficient for me to keep on blogging.

And finally, a word of advice to people thinking of starting a political blog: try to have very few posts as long as this one. If you've made it all the way through to the end, many congratulations.

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