Now this… THIS is a good use of technology

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:

Method 1

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?

Method 2

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.

Method 3

Ha, if I knew that



  1. You have driven me to look up Nathan Barley on Wikipedia.

    I think ignorance was bliss 😉

    Remember, one “nerd” is worth ten “normal people” (I actually regard normal as a deadly insult, and am baffled by the fact that people who aren’t intelligent think of being normal as a great achievement, and think there must be something wrong with anyone like them).

    “The support of one X is worth the support of ten Y”. Have we heard that sort of language before: have you written about it, have I? I think we might have done…

  2. I love techie geeks

    Well, hurrah for that! 😀

    You’re right, of course. The latest whizz-bang technology won’t appeal to the masses, and even when we do manage to get thousands of people to join a Facebook group it’s rare that anything comes of it (though I bet there have been some successes which we don’t know about).

    The Sean Tevis campaign is interesting because he’s primarily soliciting for money and this is something that I don’t feel we (Lib Dems) do enough of. Our efforts seem to be more geared towards getting Focus-deliverers on board, which works well on a local level but is pointless in a non-geographic medium like the internet. Money is great because it’s fungible – you can take money from one group of people and convert into almost anything else – advertising, staffing, training or whatever you need. I’m convinced that if we could just be a bit more compelling in explaining what we’re here for, we could raise enough money from like-minded souls who may more easily open their wallets than deliver focusses.

  3. Um, Rob?

    soliciting for money and this is something that I don’t feel we (Lib Dems) do enough of

    That’s not the feedback I get from a whole lot of members—appeals for money arrive in the post all the bloody time, and given I already give what I can afford (ie not much plus a bit) they annoy me. Of course, what we don’t do enough is recruit new members, and that’s how I’d translate it. As I said in my post I think the XKCD readership are one of our natural constituencies and we should be able to recruit on that.

    Hence I tagged it for attention of Meestors Pack and Howells to see what they can run with (I don’t do the art thing, I barely do visuals).

    Oy, Mortimer! It is considered good etiquette to link back to ones source—gotta get my wikio ranking up somehow…

  4. Sozza, mate! All better. I hadn’t actually seen that you had posted about it, to my shame, I’d just seen you post the site link on Facebook.

    See what I mean? Bloody multiplicatory technology. Mind you, it probably just means I’m not using Twitter properly. 😦

  5. @Squiff: “have you written about it, have I? I think we might have done…”

    Indeed, only He Who Is Enlightened will Detect the Subtext… 😀

  6. The problem with internet based campaigning of all stripes (including blogs I’m afraid) is that it’s almost entirely passive – people have to make the effort to find things. In fact mostly it’s sort of limited to people into the internet and politics – something of a a specialist subset.

    But you know there is another way – a method by which we can actively take the message out to people. THa t way my friends is by delivering ENORMOUS NUMBERS OF FOCUSES!

    I know this is unfashionable in some quarters these day but seriously, delivering enormous numbers of Focuses (and indeed knocking on enormous numbers of doors) remains the most effective campaigning tool we have by some margin. Also, delivering enormous numbers of Focuses is truly skill. It’s the political equivalent of skag. But you know, good skag.

  7. “Bah, I’ll just buy him a Great Big Bar of Chocolate.” Best thing I’ve read online all week 🙂

    I agree with both you and the previous comment in that the internet is not a great way of getting at a large audience of voters (some very exceptional circumstances aside). It’s strength is in helping get at various niche audiences, such as internal communication, journalists and some local opinion formers.

  8. Would I? COULD I? Non non! My meaning was just the opposite: he’s the acme of sophisticated political comedy, therefore any attempt at political comedy on our part basically has to aim at his level (hence the “we might as well give up now”).

    That’s not strictly true, of course. Armando Ianucci makes a living from being that funny, and we don’t, and no-one would seriously expect us to. There are other political comedies which, while not quite as niche, remain funny (I’m thinking of Absolute Power, which never really did it for me, but seemed to do it for a lot of other people whose opinions I generally trust). But still worth using Armando as a guiding light for political humour, because if you aim for the mountain top then you’ll probably at least make it through the foothills, etc.

  9. PSA: You’ve been nominated by another blogger for an award. The actual voting will begin soon, but until that point, if you’d like to check out what you have been nominated for, and maybe even snag a banner to tell everybody, click the links!

    If you’re not interested in awards then just ignore it, or if you’re utterly against them, let me know and I’ll remove you from the longlist.


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