I popped along to represent We Are Social at The Albion Society’s latest breakfast debate on Wednesday. Up for discussion was ‘Digital Democracy’ and, boy, what a panel we had: Guardian Editor, Alan Rusbridger, Mumsnet founder, Justine Roberts; Tess Alps of ThinkBox and Dan Thain from Blue State Digital.
Alan was up first and didn’t disappoint. He stated boldly that the media industry was undergoing a massive upheaval that’s splitting the 'Us' and 'Them' dichotomy of traditional journalism and changing the model of media from one of expected Authority to public Involvement.
Driving this shift is, of course, the Internet – and social web in particular. It’s empowering people to no longer be the passive audience it once was but to want to get involved.
Alan suggested this was a massive, almost inconceivable challenge to journalists but is ultimately leading to better things.
As examples he contrasted the traditional model of foreign affairs reporting: usually written by one ‘expert’ but non-native correspondent. Now we can call up multi-media news content direct from people on the ground with first-hand experience.
Travel news no longer relies on a journalist traveling to a country for three days and writing up their experiences as the average trip. Travel reporting can turn to other traveler’s experiences and those living their lives in the destination.
Complex issues such as tax avoidance which is often too complicated for the average news journalism can be exploded into dramatic news by throwing the investigation and analysis process open to a better informed public.
All of this leads to newspapers becoming focal points for involvement and following Jeff Jarvis’ famous maxim: ‘Do what you do best, link to the rest.’
So how this link to democracy? Well, drawing an analogy with the Authority vs Involvement model, Alan suggested that the attitude some MPs have that they should be trusted because they’re MPs and they deserve our vote is broken.
Smart politicians and parties will understand that political and democratic value in the future will lie in the involvement model. Social media and networks will create a new politics, imbued with greater trust generated through peer-to-peer involvement.
Adapting the concept of online news paywalls, Alan also suggested that while openness was key to fostering involvement, closed (i.e. paywalled) content and networks reinforced perceived authority and critiqued parliament for still being too closed off from the rest of society. This, he argued, was fueling the crisis of trust being experienced.
Justine Roberts from Mumsnet approached digital democracy from a similar perspective and revealed some fascinating inside facts about politicians courting – and even infiltrating – the leading Mums community.
Justine questioned why so many politicians were keen to get in front of Mumsnet members. She suggested that unlike Twitter which is still largely mysterious to a lot MPs, Mumsnet is an easy concept to grasp: 95% female community; 1m uniques a month; on the media’s radar (since the media claimed the election will be the Mumsnet election) meaning their opinions are more likely to be reported.
Given this high-level of awareness does Mumsnet have any real political power, Justine asked?
Firstly she dispelled he myth of a block vote. Their own internal surveys of members how’s that party support is fairly evenly split across the three main parties. Despite this the BNP was actually caught trying to infiltrate discussions and shape debates towards a fascist/far-right agenda.
Where Mumsnet real political potential lies is through driving single-issue campaigns relevant to members. Justine gave an example where members had vociferously opposed plans by the Government to change the childcare voucher scheme. The campaign eventually caused Gordon Brown to change the unpopular policy.
Given this effect on policy Government was now engaging the community proactively. The wisdom of the community is being exploited by the Department of Health who are involving Mumsnet community members to help develop its policy towards women that have suffered miscarriages.
What this all adds up to, Justine suggested pragmatically, was that while Mumsnet may not have political power in the traditional sense, it certainly has power to mobilize its members in the same way organisations such as 38Degrees can.
“Mumsnet,” she concluded, “is a non-aligned mouthpiece for its community. It’s not a union bloc vote; it's more like an octopus with pre-menstrual stress.”
Tess Alps from ThinkBox took on the counter-argument by suggesting that without professional media internet conversations would just be “noise”. In terms of democracy she als suggested that while we think that unmediated access to politicians is a good thing when its Obama, what happens when its Nick Griffin. I kind of thought that was undemocratic in itself, but didn’t challenge her.
Tess also suggested that politicians are lazy when they turn to Mumsnet because it’s easier than visiting a working men’s club. Of course, no-one was suggesting politicians shouldn’t visit other communities of voters so this point fell rather flat.
You could equally make the same argument when politicians first clocked that visiting working mens and other social clubs was a good thing to do instead of just talking to the local chamber of commerce when voting rights were extended.
Finally Blue State Digital’s Dan Thain, presented a case study from their anti-BNP Hope Not Hate campaign (it seems the far-right was a recurring theme of the morning).
Dan argued that the campaign, like most political campaigns, was driven by email marketing and reinforced their prowess for all things email – the same strategy that mobilized Obama’s votes in the US election.
Unbelievably the Hope Not Hate campaign has an email database greater than any of the UK’s main political parties – although I wonder how it compares to the BNPs? If you like data driven, transactional email campaigns it’s a great case study.
All in all it was a great breakfast briefing and good coffee too. My beliefs fall firmly on the side of Alan Rusbridger and Justine Roberts.
I was chatting to Justine afterwards and we both agreed that single-issue communities are likely to be powerful tools for political organisation in the future. They are built on social capital and work together to achieve shared goals regardless of traditional party affiliation. While the mainstream media may have coined the term Mumsnet election as a short-hand for the power of that specfic platform, they probably don’t realize how close they are to the truth.