The General Election & the real-time web


Yesterday we had a general election in the United Kingdom, and in much of the tradition of British election-watching, the results are counted from the moment polls closed at 10pm until sunrise the next day. A small but enthusiastic clutch of Britons gathered around their television sets and stayed up through the night to watch the results from around the country. Only this time, we had hashtags.

Five years ago, in our last general election, we had blogs, and IRC (I remember being a student, simultaenously liveblogging and chatting), but these communities and the conversations were small and self-contained. This time we had Facebook and Twitter to hand, allowing us not just to talk to our friends, but strangers, journalists, broadcasters and even the politicians themselves.

It’s wrong to say though that we were just using social media – we were armed not just with phones & laptops, gathered round the television watching the coverage, with newspapers to hand telling us the essential statistics and what time to expect results. Elections are media-dominated events, and all we were doing was using every means of media we had to hand.

It was interesting seeing how social and more established media interacted as the night went on. One of the early breaking stories was how an unusually high turnout overwhelmed some polling stations; people were turned away from the polls at closing time, with rumours of polling stations running out of ballot papers. Angry would-be voters were armed with cameraphones and filmed scenes of the chaos. A Facebook group was set up within the hour, by students angry at what they saw was discrimination by election officials. And these were in turn featured and showed on the live television coverage in front of us, with the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones showing highlights of what politicians and activist were saying on Twitter.

It wasn’t all so serious – elections are not without their levity either, especially early on. Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Kirkcaldy constituency was a particularly high-profile event, and at the declaration of results a rival candidate sporting a beard and sunglasses standing motionless, holding a clenched fist aloft. Quickly he became a cult figure amongst election TV viewers, and a Facebook fan page was duly set up. At time of writing, he has 3,308 fans, which is sadly (for him) 3,251 more than the number of votes he got.

As the election got serious and the first results from important marginal constituencies started coming through, the mood got more serious. The online poll site reflected the Twitter & social media world’s political preferences, with a slim majority favouring the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats came third in the election, with fewer seats than their supporters expected, and quickly mood changed. One of Twitter’s most popular MPs, the Lib Dem Member of Parliament for Oxford West, Dr Evan Harris, was narrowly defeated. He Tweeted lamenting his defeat, and his supporters and friends on Twitter responded with an outpouring of support, particularly after another candidate from another party mocked his defeat.

These are all small things, but unimaginable even in the last election that we could watch our politicians report live for themselves from the count, or that they’d respond back. And this bypassing of usual channels is no accident – with this election campaign came an ongoing mistrust of more traditional media and campaigning methods – vis the satirical #nickcleggsfault hashtag or the mashups of the Conservative Party’s billboard posters. And as I write, we have most of the results but no one party has a majority, something which is making a lot of people on Twitter consider the proportionality of our electoral system.

Rory Cellan-Jones has a good post on whether this was an “internet election”, and it’s clear that it hasn’t been – we had live television debates for the first time, as well as a very strong push from the mainstream press. But in lots of small ways, social media popped up, from using Facebook to get more young people to register to vote, crowdsourcing election leaflet archiving and collating candidates’ opinions, using Twitter to organise canvassing. Social media never dictated the agenda or created a scoop but instead it became integrated with our everyday business, augmenting and complementing other media and existing practices. It reminded me a bit of Charlene Li’s blogpost comparing social networks to air – ubiquitous and seamlessly integrated with the greater whole. Best of all, it made watching the election more interesting, informative and dare I say fun for those of us who stayed up till 6am – something we all could do with to help fight political apathy.