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Welcome to the #politicotragicmedia wankersphere. How can we help?

27 Sep 2010

US Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich was first up, and with him his security detail – two clean-cut, serious, suited dudes scanning the room during Bleich’s presentation on the Obama presidential campaign’s pioneering use of social media.

The dudes didn’t have much to worry about with this crowd, the only real and present dangers being excessively snarky tweets or a tussle over an ipad charger.

The Media 140 ‘Oz Politics’ conference at Old Parliament House last week brought together Twitter commentators, activists, journalists, academics and politicians, collectively known as the #politicotragicmediawankersphere.

With a diverse agenda, a couple of hundred highly competitive tweeters, live twitter feeds and live cartooning, Media 140 was not a celebration of concentration or focus.

The online/offline chatter went a bit like this…

Social media can be a great way to engage with the electorate, but a lot of politicians just don’t have the resources / That coffee’s cold/ By offering a voice to marginalised groups, can Twitter bring about real social change? / You lot are wankers / Yes, we are wankers / I’m not / To add to the ‘technology gap’, many people don’t have the social capital to participate in online conversation at this level. How can we engage them better?/ Social media is a good tool for journalists, but we still need the time and resources to do proper journalism / You’re a wanker / Look, there’s a UFO / WTF?

That’s social media – it can be busy, it can be silly, it can be confusing, it can be inspiring, it can be boring. Ditto social media conferences.

But amidst the chaos there were some useful insights into the question on my mind – how to help progressive organisations use social media to engage members and supporters to bring about political change.

BBC Social Media trainer Claire Wardle Social media’s great strength, humour, shouldn’t be underestimated as a form of political engagement.

(Claire’s presentation on Social Media and the UK election was a highlight of the day – see it here

During the UK election, Facebook actions were developed that allowed people to slap candidates during debates; and Twitter memes emerged – particularly around Social Democrats leader Nick Clegg, like #iagreewithnick and #nickcleggsfault – that spread so quickly and powerfully they forced traditional media to reverse their rabidly anti-Nick editorial line and transformed the political dynamic.
Perhaps not as high impact, but we saw similar memes emerge here during our own federal election – think #bobkatterfacts, #boatphone, #mofo.

Claire made the point that just to engage in the chatter takes a high level of political knowledge and the humour often spreads outside the social media sphere. People talk about it at work, traditional media report on the online memes.

While it’s not always useful or possible for organisations to produce online material that goes ‘viral’, engaging in the online comedy that social media invariably generates is a good point of connection.

But being funny on Twitter isn’t always enough.

The most important but often neglected element to online campaigning is to bring it into the real world. Using social media networks to activate supporters into taking ‘offline’ action is where campaigns have the most impact.

Obama’s use of social media during his election campaign was so successful because he thought like a community organiser, Jeffrey Bleich told the conference.

Social media wasn’t just about getting a message out; it was about mobilising supporters. People were asked to do something; to donate, to reach out to their friends, to knock on doors, to attend a meeting.

The most effective use of online/offline campaigning during the UK election was the ‘Not in my name’ campaign against the far-right anti-immigration BNP; which asked people to sign petitions, upload their photo with a handwritten message ‘Not in my name’ and mobilised people to campaign against BNP candidate Nick Griffin in Barking, where the BNP had been expected to win its first seat in parliament.

Not only did Griffin lose the Barking contest, but the BNP has also since lost local council seats it held in the area.

Social media platforms, along with our understanding of the way people use it and the best ways of engaging audiences, are evolving rapidly. But the fundamental rules of engaging with people haven’t changed that much.

As Jeffrey Bleich pointed out:

“Don’t assume that content that fails in offline world will succeed in social media. New media shouldn’t be thought of as a new method of communicating – it’s the ability to communicate through media the same way as we communicate in person.

“An online community is not built on technology but, like a real community, on trust and sincerity. It must be a real genuine conversation.”

For many organisations, engaging in a genuine conversation with supporters requires a new way of thinking around communications, less top-down, more two-way. There are challenges and risks in that, but also plenty of potential, so #getcracking.

–  Jackie Woods