You might have guessed that I am quite a big fan of blogging. As such, I often forget that the blogosphere isn’t the only place where people might be having an interesting discussion. The past few years have seen the incredible rise of social networking sites like MySpace, Bebo and Facebook.
Undoubtedly, such websites these are more popular than blogs. And political activists have begun to notice that they can reach quite large audiences by creating a profile on one of these websites. The nature of social networks gives them certain advantages over blogs.
Perhaps the most obvious difference is the ability to become somebody’s “friend” on a social network. You can’t friend someone on their blog (although MyBlogLog might say otherwise…). This can provide a more personal connection. People feel as though they are actually engaging with politicians.
Witness the Labour Deputy Leadership candidates. BBC News recently reported on the way they were using MySpace. Their success is measured by how many friends and group members they have. But perhaps it is telling that the numbers are quite low by MySpace’s standards.
Politicians putting themselves on social networks are taking a risk. There is a danger that they will look like your dad dancing at the disco. They might end up looking a bit stupid. I mean, would you send Menzies Campbell “luv” (a feature of Bebo)?
Clearly, for an increasing number of politicians, the desire to reach new audiences is seen to outweigh the risks. A lot of politicians can seem distant from ordinary people. The theory goes that having a presence on social networks, combined with blogging, will establish more of a personal profile.
A Facebook profile can also act as a space for voters to leave questions, criticisms or messages of support. Perhaps in instances where face-to-face contact isn’t vital, this could save constituents from traipsing along to a surgery.
One of the most important ways that social networks play a role in politics is through groups. Political groups can be officially run by a party, or organised from the bottom up by passionate activists.
On the one hand, groups can be a great way to galvanise support for an issue. On the other hand, they can be accused of preaching to the converted. Blogging is often accused of preaching to the converted, but Facebook groups take this to a grand scale.
Bloggers can often be found engaging in debate with people who hold opposing viewpoints. You won’t find this in a Facebook group. If you are a member of a group, chances are you already support the cause. People who don’t support are usually seen as trolls and are soon made unwelcome by the community. I suppose it is up to you whether you think that is a good or a bad thing.
I hinted earlier at the popularity of social networks. For people who aren’t at around my age, it might be difficult to realise just how much these websites have become a vital part of life.
Here is an example to illustrate this. Around 23,000 people study at the University of Edinburgh. The University of Edinburgh network on Facebook has 18,652 members at the time of writing. While this figure includes alumni, it is still a mind-boggling figure — 80% of the student population.
In short, Facebook is bloody massive among students. Bebo and MySpace are even more popular among the population as a whole, although the nature of Facebook (which originally began as a website for students only) makes it more fertile ground for political discussion. Whichever site we talk about, though, with such easy access to such a large number of people, it is no surprise that politicians are starting to use social networks.
While blogging attracts the hardcore politics fans, social networks can be used to contact the casual observers. Despite my love for blogging, it has to be said that most people just can’t be bothered reading an in-depth political blog. So why blog when you can use Facebook? Some interesting techniques are being used to reach people.
Today a ‘flyer’ appeared on the University of Edinburgh Facebook network encouraging people to vote for the Greens. Chances are that most Edinburgh students who log into Facebook — a lot of people — will see that advert. Meanwhile, Lib Dem MP Willie Rennie has used status updates to inform people of surgeries he is holding.
The rapid growth of social networks has brought concerns for everyone. Many people treat their Bebo or MySpace accounts as private, when the reality is that they are often just as open as any other webpage. Slowly, people are beginning to realise that uploading all of those photographs depicting debauchery-soaked nights out probably wasn’t a good idea. Employers are increasingly using social networks as a basic screening technique.
The same applies to candidates. 19-year-old Liberal Democrat candidate Stuart Douglas attracted the attention of the media after some drunken photos found their way onto MySpace. In the slightly scary modern world, this can happen to anyone. But the dangers for politicians are greater for obvious reasons.
Facebook is probably the most private of the major social networks. The whole site is based on a series of ‘networks’ (based on university, workplace or geographical location). Users have no access to the profiles of people who are on different networks (unless you are friends with them).
For politicians, this is both good and bad. Good, because it emphasises the local nature of campaigning. I have easy access to Willie Rennie’s profile because his constituency is next door to where I live. From there, it is easy to find other local candidates.
But this is a problem if you are a national figurehead. Menzies Campbell has a Facebook profile, but unless I feel like adding him as a friend I have absolutely no access to his profile. And his constituency isn’t that far away from mine! To an extent, the purpose of having a political Facebook profile is defeated — because most people can’t even see it.
It’s difficult to say how political campaigning will evolve over the coming years. Despite their massive popularity, social networks are still very young and activists are still working out how to best use them.
Today, most politicians’ profiles are run by the politicians themselves. But it is possible that in the near future they will be run by party machines. Politicians might find their presence backfire as constituents leave angry messages available for the public to view.
My feeling is that as a campaigning tool, the utility of social networks is probably quite limited — for the time being, at least. The real power probably lies in the way groups can spread messages and galvanise support.
Because of the organic and somewhat shielded nature of social networks, it is difficult to say what the most interesting groups are. But here is a list of some groups (Facebook unless otherwise stated) that seem to be significant. The official party groups are also a good place to see which politicians are on Facebook.
- I’m standing for election 3 May 2007 — a group made up of candidates in the upcoming elections
- I’m voting Labour in 2007
- The Scottish National Party (and on Bebo)
- Liberal Democrats
- Scottish Conservatives
- I’m voting Green in ’07 (also on MySpace and Bebo)
- Im supporting the SSP in 2007
- Free Scotland — quite a large pro-independence group
- Save our Nation- Stop the SNP — an almost-as-large anti-independence group
- Fareweel tae a’ our Scottish Fame: A Debate on Independence — unusually, this is a neutral group
- Re-elect-my-boss.com — hmm, an interesting approach…
Any other suggestions in the comments please! And don’t forget that Scottish Roundup has its own Facebook group. Not sure what for though!
A big thank you to Jamie McHale, who sent me some brilliant emails which gave me a lot of insight into why and how politicians use social networks. I have come close to plagiarising his emails in this post. He first suggested that I write a post on the subject and gave me plenty of ideas. Thanks!
Next Tuesday — in the last post here before the election — will be a YouTube roundup. So I would like to know your favourite YouTube videos from the campaign (doesn’t have to be from the past week or anything).
After that, there will be a midweek roundup after the polls close on the 3rd of May. I’m sure that will just be the start of the fun!
As always, please send your suggestions and nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org.