Don’t get me wrong. I love techie geeks. Really I do. I love the open-minded culture and the sophisticated humour and the liberal politics. I’m really just a techie geek in medieval historian’s clothing (there’s a mental image for you). And no-one is more of a fan of pressing quirky little fields of esoteric knowledge into the service of liberal campaigning than I.
But sheesh, you guys don’t arf jabber on. This piece from the good Dr Pack was so brimming with enthusiasm for the future of social networking that he forgot to even mention its relevance to political campaigning. And there may, as I somewhat sarcastically suggested in the comments, be a very, very good reason for that (I’m afraid I may have gone a bit overboard. Bah, I’ll just buy him a Great Big Bar of Chocolate).
Seriously, everyone can see that the internet offers boundless potential for innovative political contact, but any idea which involves the entire voting population wuv-wuv-wuvving extreme techie geekery as much as the average techie geek does is barking up the wrong protocol.
There are three ways you can use technology if you’re hoping for actual things to actually happen in actual real life on a mass scale:
Aim what you’re doing at the masses. That means that (a) it has to be VERY basic (baseline: most people are confused by Facebook, have never heard of Twitter and have one email address for home and one for work; harsh but true) and crucially (b) it has to ask them to do something they might consider doing anyway (most people’s natural instinct for filming themselves doing or saying something serious is simply not that high, hence the low and nerd-heavy response to the YouTube hustings during the leadership elections).
In fact, it has to ask them to do something full stop – how many Facebook groups are you in? How many people/organisations are you Fans of? How much practical action has any of this resulted in?
Aim what you’re doing at the nerds, with the idea that if enough nerds take it up and it involves some sort of quirky/snowballing/viral element, it will become news in its own right. I came across an absolutely sublime example of this, courtesy of MatGB. If you’ve not yet received your Nerd Induction Pack into the world of XKCD, a quick look here first (we also keep a permanent link on the sidebar of the People’s Republic) will ease you in.
Done that? Now, go here. Take your time – as they say on ebay, you will not be disappointed.
The artist, you will note, is running to be a State Representative for a little town in Kansas. And as a result of that single cartoon strip and the associated fundraising drive, he got into the Los Angeles Times under the national news section. Technology and extremely niche cultural references were successfully used here to drive print media with its far broader audience.
So what do we notice about that comic, children?
(a) it’s highly specialised – ideally you need to already like XKCD to get the full impact.
(b) it’s GOOD. This cannot be emphasised enough. Remember that dreadful anti-Boris viral video we put out during the mayoral campaign? Gave the word “viral” a whole new meaning. There’s absolutely no point in adopting a technology which normally packages something quirky and filling it with middle-of-the-road dross. The kind of people who were being targeted with that video are the kind of people who like Armando Ianucci. He was therefore our benchmark in that case and there’s no point pretending otherwise (Christ, let’s just give up now…)
(c) it celebrates the culture of the people it’s trying to attract. Yes, even at the expense of Normal People.
Now, a team of Nathan Barleys would have looked at that comic strip and complained that it didn’t have wide enough appeal, I’ve no doubt. They wouldn’t get half the jokes, and those they did get they’d blue-pencil because Normal People wouldn’t like them. Normal People wouldn’t buy a product which associates them with geeks, the Nathan Barleys would say.
Yes. But Sean Tevis wasn’t looking for Normal People, we would reply, before shooting all the Nathan Barleys’ kneecaps off and then firing them. Sean Tevis only needed 3,000 other people like him. And once that was secured, it not only got him his $26,000 – it became a story in its own right in dead tree land. This is cross-media viral transmission at its best.
Note also that the 3,000 was only a story because it hadn’t been done before. It oustripped a previous statistic. This is a vital ingredient to any attempt to use technology to start a dead tree story.
But, you might be grumbling, why use technology to start dead tree stories, however successfully? Isn’t that a cop-out? Isn’t the whole point of innovation and mass online collaboration that it enables escape for the individual from the dead tree media and its associated top-down information flow?
And you’d be quite right. It’s a problem. Method 2 is still ultimately shackled to the mainstream media, which is exactly what we need to get away from, and no-one to my knowledge in any British party has yet pulled off a truly successful mass movement along the lines of Method 1.
Ha, if I knew that…