17 January 2006

Blogging the Election; Blogging the Government

Oh that Newsworld. Will they ever grow up and become a real TV network? I was invited to do an interview for them about a year-and-a-half ago. It was a capital-T, capital-D Total Disaster. I broke my vow never, ever, to do another interview with them again last evening, having been invited earlier in the day to speak to the national version of Canada Now on the influence of blogs on this election.

It was only a minor disaster, in fact, not even a disaster; I would classify it more as a minor fiasco. At least they’re improving. For the audio link, they use a phone line. About two minutes before airtime, they discovered the phone line was dead. The producers in Calgary said, “reset the system.” The cameraman in Toronto said, “Huh? How do you reset the system?” Calgary: “Push the button.” It took the third technician to know which, among all the buttons on “the system,” to push to reset the line. By this time, half the segment time was lost, along with half of what was to be the conversation with host Cathleen Petty.

They had sent me some questions earlier in the day to prep for the segment. So for those who might be interested in what I did/would have said, enjoy:

  1. How influential are blogs in politics now? Do the parties understand who writes/reads them?

    Unlike the United States, blogs in Canada are only beginning to show signs of influencing the political agenda and discourse. In the U.S., we saw the tremendous political power of blogs in the downfall of former U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott, the remarkable Howard Dean Experience, the "retirement" of news anchor Dan Rather, and the enormous difficulty the current Bush administration is having in keeping control of a story. The Canadian political parties still view blogs as just another broadcast medium; they do not understand the power or the dynamics of blogs, and how they are changing politics. It's not a matter of the relatively small number of people who actually write and read blogs; its a matter of their overwhelming effects relative to that relatively small number. What this election has done is to energize the Canadian blogosphere that will be far more active during the next, and subsequent, Parliaments.

  2. Is the internet different than broadcast media in how a party handles their message? What are the differences in strategies between the traditional media and blogging or podcasts?

    The Internet is not a broadcast medium. Rather, it is a connection medium, one that amplifies voice, potentially for almost everyone. The traditional broadcast media, on the other hand, are accessible only to the privileged and relatively powerful. This means that the former "consumers" of traditional mass media (that is, media FOR the masses) are now producers of mass media (that is, media BY the masses).

    For political parties, this means that, first, they must be willing to give up a great deal of control of their message content (and I would suggest that in this election, the really important campaign dynamics are not controlled by any party, but primarily by happenstance). Second, political parties must encourage their core supporters among all demographics to create online opportunities for their supporters' "little circles" to become involved in conversations that are unique to that little circle. One of the lessons of the Howard Dean Experience in the U.S. was that blogs enabled people to become involved who were previously unreachable by the central campaign. We saw the emergence of hundreds of little specialty groups online - Punkers for Dean, HipHoppers for Dean, Grannies for Dean, Bikers for Dean - people who would never participate in the Democratic Party were suddenly politically active in organizing, bringing people in, raising money and creating a buzz. It's the same thing that Pierre Elliott Trudeau did with the dominant medium of his time, namely television. The first political party that figures out how to do this effectively with the power of the Internet to create connections, conversations and relationships will hold the reigns of power for quite a long time.

  3. Are blogs reaching a new demograph of voters? Are they a way of getting the message to people who would otherwise not hear it, or are they simply offering the message to those willing to listen just in a new form?

    In a McLuhan sense, the "message" is not the information or the content, but rather the effects. And the interesting thing about blogs - and we will begin to see this, I think, beginning with the next Parliament - is that they will be shedding a new light on the government through a phenomenon called "emergent transparency." This is the process whereby one person has a few bits of information, and so does another person (and so on), and they all connect to one another through the blogosphere, enabling a mosaic picture to emerge that reveals what's really going on. This is a new mechanism whereby the people who typically aren't getting the message through conventional media, namely the politicians themselves, will unavoidably be forced to listen to ordinary Canadians in a new way. The next occupant of 24 Sussex Drive, whoever he may be, will have his feet held to the proverbial fire by many more sets of hands than ever before.

  4. Is there a credibility issue with blogs?

    I think there is a credibility issue with all forms of media, and all forms of politics and politicians. The important question, in my view, is not one of credibility, but one of making sense of the country and the world. The blogosphere - that is, the collection of people who participate in writing and reading blogs - enables many more conversations, examinations, and connections of tidbits of information than are available through the traditional mass media. This not only enhances credibility, but puts many more eyes and ears on the job of ferreting out what may be the truth. The other thing that blogs do very well, that mainstream media do not, relative to credibility, is that they keep a story or issue alive, despite the either tacit or explicit political views and agenda of the broadcasting company's executive. It's very easy for CBC, or Bell Globemedia, or Canwest Global, or Torstar, or Quebecor to either maintain or kill a story, if any of them wanted to. Let's face it: for traditional massmedia, a story must capture interest within one or two news cycles or it's dead: a story kept alive for more than a few days risks losing attention and becoming irrelevant. But in the blogosphere, if a story is sufficiently important or interesting, it can stay alive for days or weeks, or come back months or even years later. As further evidence of the influence of blogs, we are seeing an increasing number of instances in which stories that appear in the broadcast media emerge first in the blogosphere.

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