Do we think?

The PoliticsOnline website ran this book review from me last week. As it touches on wider issues about how political parties should, or shouldn’t, approach the internet, I’ve reproduced it here:

We-Think, last year’s Charles Leadbeater book, is – as you would expect from him – an interesting and thoughtful study. It clearly and persuasively lays out how “an unparalleled wave of online creativity” is upon us, with collaborative efforts such as Wikipedia providing information for free and in a way that would have been previously unthinkable.

Underlying it though is an assumption which features on the book’s cover: “The generation growing up with the web will not be content to remain spectators. They want to be players.” The extent to which this is true matters in particular for those seeking to use the internet for politics, for in the political arena online collaborative generation of content is relatively rare. Is this because those in politics just don’t get user-generated content, Web 2.0 and the whole modern way of doing things? Or is it because they understand the limitations of such approaches – and that only very few people want to stop being a spectator?

Wikipedia: many readers, few writers

To Leadbeater’s credit, he himself provides evidence which undermines the breathless excitement of the book cover. For example, as of January 2006 less than 50,000 people worldwide had made even just five or more edits to Wikipedia. That is a tiny proportion of Wikipedia’s visitors, with the vast majority happy to remain as spectators, consuming the work of others. It’s a large enough number to provide an impressive collection of information – but that is far from saying we’re all moving away from being spectators.

This asymmetry appears again and again in his book. Another example: he received around 200 emails in response to his online drafts during the writing of the book. That’s a large enough number to add significantly to the quality of the final version, but is still a tiny number of the total readers a best selling author like himself can get to. Moreover, in this and other cases, it is far from clear that we could all cope with a scaling up of collaboration on a scale sufficient to make the number of collaborators more than a tiny proportion of the audience. 200 emails would be great, 2,000 challenging and 200,000 a nightmare.

What is the lesson from this for politics? It is that an openness to user-generated content, collaboration and making producing content more like a conversation is really about making what you produce better; it isn’t about involving the public on a significant scale in a paradigm-shifting manner.

Barack Obama’s campaign – and what it didn’t do

Think back to Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign for example. It certainly featured massive successful use of the internet, but that was in aid of getting out his chosen message, his chosen policies and to his chosen strategy. They may have been better informed and selected due to dialogue and feedback, but policies, messages and strategy were not written collaboratively, wiki-style.

Political use of such approaches also has another hurdle: politics has a strong adversarial streak. Voting, after all, is about choosing who to vote for – and who not to vote for. That means political online collaboration and the like is in practice far more vulnerable to online vandalism, negative comments, votes to bury content and so on than most other areas of discussion. There are tools which make handling this problem easier, but the existence of this underlying dynamic is one reason why politics is, to a degree, different.

Involving the public more in politics would certainly be a good thing; it’s just the Web 2.0 world of collaborative and user-generated content isn’t a primary means to do so. Wikipedia gives huge power over the public’s consumption of information to 50,000 people. That may be better than it being only in the hands of a small number of publishers, but it is still a fundamentally elitist structure.

An elite is still an elite

A bigger elite people can opt to join is a nicer, cuddlier one, but still an elite. Part of the reason for that is that, as Leadbetter points out, “communities that share and develop ideas usually start around someone who donates their knowledge.” In other words, the usually start around someone who has something that others do not – and that core role and power is not a position anyone has been elected to. Hence my use of the word ‘elite’.

We see this with open source software projects, where the most successful almost always have a small elite core of people making key decisions and driving the project forward. Linux is many good things, but it is not a democratically created or formed piece of software. Linus Torvalds really has the role of benevolent dictator. And that doesn’t make him or the Linux process a great role-model for how our politics should operate.

You can buy the book here.

UPDATE: There’s a neat short summary of the argument in We Think here.

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This entry was posted in Books, Online politics and Op-eds.

One Comment

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Jan '09 - 9:47am

    This is something I’ve said all along about web political involvement. A lot of starry-eyed stuff was said early on about people being able to communicate directly with politicians, but I didn’t see that it added anything fundamental in that respect to what was already there – they could write letters to them. Email made it more convenient, that’s all. If it really did mean huger more numbers of writing emails than wrote letters, politicians would be overwhelmed by them.

    Web discussion does offer something new – rapid turnaround of comment. It works beyond face-to-face discussion because we don’t have to meet up to do it, we don’t have to be local to each other to do it, we have a written record of what we’ve said, and we have bit more time to think about what we say. It’s a big change from the days when written discussion would have to involve articles in some magazine with a month’s turnaround to reply.

    Nevertheless, web discussion breaks down if it attracts a large number of ill-informed contributors. I’ve seen enough forums break down through this. We just began to see it in this forum with the Baby P thread, somehow this thread came high up on search engines, and it began to get large numbers of comments that didn’t advance much on what had been said before and in fact were people who wanted to let off steam and emote rather than say anything useful. Once a forum gets a large proportion of its comments from obsessive extremists who have a lot of time on their hands (and there are a lot of such people around) the worthwhile contributors drop out.

    If Wiki has only 50,000 regular contributors, that sounds to me why it works. If it had millions tweaking the articles to add their own slant from an ill-informed background, it wouldn’t. I imagine there are a great many more who are happy to have added one or two articles to Wiki on subjects they have a particular interest in, and left it at that. So they would have contributed greatly to one of the reasons Wiki works – you can often find a reasonably informative article on something very obscure – without showing up on the “five or more edits” figures.

    This is why if open structures really do get large, some degree of editorship and control is necessary. Nevertheless, open contribution systems do work so long as in reality the number of contributors is small even though in theory open to all.

    The thing that gets me most about the Liberal Democrats is how such a small number of people can often have a big effect. The party is open to all, yet what do we have – about one in a thousand of the population as members, and only a fraction of those active. Yet it works. We’ve taken control of councils and turned them round on the basis of local membership of 1 in 1000. Anyone could have joined in, few did, but those few did it. Mostly the control is light-touch – if you want to be active you can, but it is there. In theory we can expel people for not keeping to what our party is there for, and we have elections for local officer posts. I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a local party where there are hotly contested elections for committee positions, however. In practice we’ve succeeded in those places where a small bunch of people, quite often just one leading figure, has taken it over because no-one else was there to do so, and had the time and energy to make the go of it. Astonishing, and what a slap in the face to those “it’s not worth bothering, you can’t change anything” people who make up, oh I’d say 950 out of 1000 of the population (the other 49 aren’t LibDem members but are doing something else worthwhile).

    Elitist? It can be. If it is, it breaks down. If it takes on an atmosphere which is unwelcoming to new recruits, erects barriers (formal, or informal) to people with new ideas progressing, and doesn’t pay some attention to recruitment work, it loses its momentum, or never gains it if it didn’t have any in the first place. And I think many of us will have seen that in local associations as well.

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