Book review: What should you be getting up to on the internet?

Should politicians blog? Does it matter if a local party has a website that allows comments or not? Is it a good idea for a councillor to stick a film of themselves up on YouTube? Is the local party organiser really doing something useful on Facebook?

Answering any of these questions requires more than a technical understanding of how you use the services. It requires instead an understanding of what your organisational and communication objectives are, and then how these technologies may, or may not, help you achieve them.

Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff’s Groundswell makes this point for commercial organisations. It sets out to help organisations answer the question of whether, and if so how, they should be making use of social computing – those tools which heavily rely on interaction between people, feedback and content generated by the public such as YouTube, Wikipedia, MySpace and blogs.

Unlike many books in this area – often called Web 2.0 – it therefore doesn’t set out to give you a detailed set of technical skills or clever tricks. Instead it focuses more on the impact of technology, and in particular how groundswells of opinion can be created, shaped or steered. It then provides a series of step-by-step process for working out which technology can help with which of your objectives. Although the case studies the book is peppered with are nearly all from the commercial sector, the lessons are easily adaptable to the political arena, making it a handy guide for organisers, candidates or other interested parties to help see how their political needs may be assisted by technology.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book sings the praises of the research work available from the authors’ employers – Forrester Research – and argues for analysing who your audience is, and what it might want to do online, by employing Forrester’s categories for internet users of creators (who upload videos, write blogs posts etc), critics (who comment on other people’s content, rate videos, etc), collectors (who tag comment, subscribe to feeds etc), joiners (who sign up to social networking sites etc), spectators (who read and watch but don’t take party) and the inactives (who do none of this).

Whether or not you use Forrester’s work, the point that you should work out who your audience is and how they are willing to use the internet is a good one. For example, party activists are more likely to be in the creator / critic end of the spectrum than members of the public reading about politics on the internet and so depending on your target audience (party activists or floating voters?) different opportunities and technologies offer themselves.

The authors’ approach is labelled POST: people, objectives, strategy, technology. Who are the people you want to communicate with, what are you trying to get out of the communications, how is that change going to come about and then – finally – what technologies might help? Listening to voters in order to get a better idea of what issues to campaign on may suggest polls and surveys and blog comments, whilst energizing members to get them to help out more may more suggest videos and emails.

Having identified the way technologies can help, the book then addresses the issue of how you get an organisation to change, suggesting a three step approach that may well work well for bringing about change within a local party (or more widely in the party): take small steps that have big impact, have a vision and a plan, and build leaders into the plan.

At under 250 pages of main text, it is a light and easy read and a much better starting place for people thinking about how better to use the internet in their political activities than books that dive in with explanations of how to use the technology. You can buy the book from Amazon here.

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This entry was posted in Books and Online politics.
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