I have recently put my toes in the Twitter water, where all the little birdies go tweet, tweet, tweet. Up to now, I have dismissed Twitter, Facebook and the rest as social media, froth and triviality for the young - and the not so young, mid-thirties to early forties, uneasily aware that youth is vanishing, but hoping to maintain a foothold in popular culture: these days, popular culture is overwhelmingly youth culture. (That wasn’t always so.)
I attended an event (the organisers don’t like it being described as a conference or a seminar) called PICamp in Edinburgh last Saturday, mounted by Paul Evans and Mick Fealty of Political Innovations. Political Innovations is linked to the highly influential Irish blog Slugger O'Toole. Its focus was on the use of new media in political campaigning, and it was a paradigm-shifting day for me, and judging by the excitement and buzz on the internet thereafter, for many others too.
The experience of a room full of people with netbooks, iPhones and iPads tweeting away, and the sudden, shocking appearance of the tweets on two huge projection screens from the venue broadband service gave me – and not a few of the tweeters - a real jolt. Whatever the trivialities of the medium in total, this astonishing potential for mass communication was one I could not afford to ignore. Nor could any political party. It was the Obama campaign lesson brought suddenly and startlingly to life, and I and many others are grateful to PICamp for the experience.
I include in new media blogging, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Facebook I have personally stayed clear of, and will continue to do so. PICamp also steered clear of YouTube – I don’t know quite why …
A week and a bit on, the stars have gone out of my eyes, and more considered judgments can be made. But I am now firmly and permanently in the Twitter water, tweeting away, sometimes with purpose and sometimes as vacuously as the others. The incredible speed of response to events and the nature of the interaction still astonishes me.
Starting out as an attempt to simply record one’s mundane activities, this has metamorphosed into, amongst other things, an alternative political and social journalism and news reporting. What was the tipping point? Maybe the Baghdad Blogger– who knows?
The driving forces behind political blogging are many, but for a Scottish National Party supporter, they are a vital response to a biased and hostile media. You can’t be accused of paranoia if you support Scotland’s independence – just about everybody - the unionists, the Establishment, the Government, the London-based parties and the media - really is out to get you, to silence or neutralise your voice and your views.
If you are a professional salaried journalist or freelance (I am neither) then your livelihood is under threat unless you mute your voice and views to the point of inaudibility. There is no balance, no equity, no fairness.
Not the least of the problem for political bloggers is the attitude of their own party to blogging. Obviously, a political party want to control the message emanating from their supporters, insofar as is consistent with freedom of speech: the response of political parties is always guarded, and is characterised by caution – as well it might be after damaging scandals like the storms that blew up over The Universality of Cheese blog, and the Damien Green affair.
Endorsing a blog is a bridge too far for most mainstream parties, but caution can be taken too far. I can only speak for my own experience. I had a moderate volume of private correspondence from MPs, MSPs and others in both the Scottish and Westminster governments before the ‘Cheese’ debacle: after it, communication virtually closed down completely. I had never breached a confidence, never reproduced a privileged comment, never claimed an insider’s view even when I sometimes had one – but no matter: there was a great silence, one that has only relaxed a little of late.
And other things have changed in the world of media and politics. From failing to understand the new media to deriding it, politicians and the old media have now embraced it, sometimes as incautiously and with much the same effects that they criticised the early blogger for causing.
The results initially ranged from the embarrassing to the damaging, but old and new media have settled down to a guarded, but so far peaceful co-existence. Professional journalists can be a bit patronising and dismissive, and freelances perhaps see a competitor in a tight market, but by and large, old and new rub along together fairly well. Twitter and YouTube are perhaps better examples of this than blogging because they are truly new media – different species - whereas blogging is simply a kind of print journalism.
Some bloggers, e.g. Iain Dale have almost become part of the media mainstream, and get invited on to political programmes as guest commentators, sitting side by side with professional pundits and politicians. Slugger O'Toole occupies a similar position in Ireland. The dangers of the clammy embrace of the media and political establishment have so far been evident to such bloggers, and they have not become emasculated or suffocated by it – yet.
There is another, less obvious tendency beginning to emerge – the favour and endorsement being extended by the politicians, the traditional media -and some of the more powerful bloggers - to blogs that are essentially trivial and unthreatening to them. No examples that I want to quote, but I’m keeping my beady eye on this little trend.
I was initially cautious about the copyright aspects of YouTube, but I got into the water, clipping news items and comment that seemed relevant to me.
I wanted to -
1. Capture items and clips that I felt would have only a limited life in the maelstrom of 24 hour news coverage
2 Offer my perceptions of the item, and comment
3 Use them to enhance text material on my blog (a picture worth a 1000 words, a moving picture with words, 10,000 words?)
My rationale in face of the copyright issue was – and is – as follows -
My clips are just that – clips from a longer broadcast. They are selective, and do not try to supplant BBC iPlayer and other channel replay facilities. I believe them to be in the category of fair quotation, and that they supplement the intention of the broadcaster to inform, and where the intention of the broadcaster is hostile to my beliefs, to counter with an alternative viewpoint. I believe that this facility should be available to all, including those with viewpoints I disagree with, providing they do not advocate violence of illegal means, or are deliberately abusive or obscene.
I do not believe in megaphone/PA political and media uni-directional comment and news – I believe in participative democracy and free comment within the law – a vital dialogue between professional broadcasters, politicians and the electorate. The new media have dramatically opened up that potential across the globe, and the consternation and attempts to suppress the new media emanating from totalitarian regimes everywhere - including those masquerading as democracies - demonstrate fully why the new media are vital.
If someone is going to shout at me through a bullhorn, I am going to shout right back at them.
If any broadcaster object to my clips and regards them as a breach of copyright and artistic and professional creativity, let them tell me, and I will immediately take the offending clip down. If however this begins to look like an attempt to muzzle free expression, then I will seek financial help to legally challenge undue censorship or influence.
I also decided that I would reject Google regular offers to let me profit from my videos – by carrying advertising - on the rare occasions when they began to hit higher numbers. Since they were not my work, but someone else’s work, this would have been wrong.
Twitter, until recently had been something I avoided, believing it to be trivial, ephemeral froth – adolescent texting for immature adults – with no potential for serious comment or serious political campaigning. Thanks largely to the PICamp epiphany mentioned at the start of this piece, I realised that I was utterly wrong in that assessment.
Twitter is all of these things, trivial, ephemeral, frothy – but it is also, today, a deeply serious, and potentially hugely effective medium of communication.
Politicians – and democrats – ignore it at their peril.
I just hadn’t understood Twitter, and had dismissed it because I just didn’t know how it worked. For the uninitiated, who are many, probably a majority of the population, let me offer my Twitter newbie analysis.
First insight – you don’t have to read all the crap.
You decide who you are going to follow – only those tweets will then come up. You build your follow list gradually, partly from your own searches, partly from obvious media links (every major media outlet tweets and most significant media commentators, e.g. Jon Snow), and partly from Twitter offering you recommendations to consider, based on your initial follow patterns – rather like Amazon builds a preference profile from your online purchases.
If you don’t like the tone, style or content of some of your initial follow choices, then unfollow, i.e take them off your list.
Your tweets (messages) are limited to 140 characters, including punctuation and spaces. This imposes a tight editorial discipline, one which I found valuable.
If you tweet and have second thoughts, you can delete the tweet swiftly and easily. You can direct your tweet to another tweeter or to the world at large. You can tweet from your blog, your mobile phone, etc.
If you have an extended message you can continue it over a couple of tweets, but I wouldn’t recommend going much beyond that – the sanctions are swift, and with no appeal – people will unfollow you, i.e. stop listening to you.
As you attract followers – those who want to listen to you – you get an idea of how you are being received. Remember, your political opponents will follow you, and you should follow selected political opponents. There’s no use preaching to the converted, but at all event, you must know your enemy.
You have total control over what you tweet, what you read, and who you share ideas with.
New media is all about links and linkages – these are multifarious and can be confusing, but you will only learn by doing.
If you have something to say, you can’t ignore this medium.
If you only want to hear what others are saying, you still can’t ignore it.
A cursory look at the people and organisations who consider it essential will tell you all you need to know about the power of Twitter.
YouTube is very different medium – you can consume the medium- i.e. watch – very easily, but if you want to communicate, you need some technical facility to produce your own videos. But you can also share – by email, texting, etc. the URL links to YouTube videos with others, and you can often embed them in your blog, if you have one, using the embed code provided. You can clip TV programmes or other media providing both you and YouTube are OK about any possible copyright breaches.
You can add quite extended comments to your videos and insert search terms. The title of your YouTube video will have a major – perhaps the major – impact on your hits – the number of times it is viewed.
You can allow, pre-moderate or bar comments. You can allow or bar embedding of your video. You have control.
NEW MEDIA IN POLITICAL CAMPAIGNING
There is a series of generational – or half generation – gaps on Twitter, or at least in the sector – if that is the right word – that I have elected to explore. Politically, I would identify a number of age bands roughly bounded by the half generation of about 9 to 15 years . Professional psephologists will have more complex and more arcane definitions. For me, the cultural aspects are inextricably linked, in the new media at least, with the political dimension.
Age band One I would define as early adolescence to early maturity – say 14 years of age to 23 years of age, from secondary education through higher education, college, university, etc. This might be described as the years of emerging political, social and cultural consciousness; eligibility to vote at 18, and early entry to a career or vocation. (Since I am neither sociologist, nor psephologist nor anthropologist, please regard this as a highly personal, and doubtless flawed perception and analysis.)
Age band Two I see as 24 to around 40 years of age – the early maturity years of intellectual development, increasing political sophistication, and of the development of cultural and musical taste (if they develop at all: some stand still for ever, tastes frozen in time). The end of this phase is usually the beginning of what will be a growing awareness of mortality, which generates its own anxieties and pressures, a crisis of values, of ambition, and often a desperate wish to cling on to youth.
Age band Three, in my perception, is 40 plus to 55 years of age. This is either the age of opting out - of simply settling into the rut of career autopilot, political cynicism, with the focus moving away from social consciousness, wider political and cultural awareness, into the purely local and personal – or it becomes the age of new vision, new energies and new directions. Regrettably, many seem to die politically and culturally at some point during this phase. The illusion of youth cannot be maintained, and cultural and musical tastes and political awareness either ossify, or continue to develop; if the latter, then they are likely to continue to do so indefinitely.
Age band Four, 56 to around 6o/65, can be the age of consolidation, but often of peak career and life pressures – economic, family, health – and the lead-in to retirement. The world is perceived with greater clarity, but that clarity of vision often reveals aspects of the human condition that had previously been invisible, and this can be a disquieting experience.
Age band Five is a shorter span – mid-sixties to 70/75. The great realities – of mortality, of inevitable physical decline, of loss of loved ones - must be squarely faced or there can be a destructive descent into denial and despair. But this age can lead to absolute clarity of focus, and a burning wish to concentrate on the the things that really matter, and to make an impact, however slight, on the society of which one is still very much a part.
The final age – for those who reach it, an increasing number in our society – is one of which I cannot say too much: like the French Revolution, it is too early to evaluate.
If you have managed to stay with me during the above analysis, I will now attempt to relate it to new media and politics.
Virtually all of the above age bands have a vote. Whether they exercise or not depends on many factors, analysis of which is the proper domain of the psephologist. Not all of them have access to computers. Of those who do, not all will go beyond email and texting.
But many do watch YouTube, read blogs and read Twitter – the evidence is there, including the evidence that they cross all the age bands, although what the distribution across the demographic is, I don’t know. How many post YouTube comments or videos, how many post blog comments or write blogs, how many actively tweet I don’t know either.
But I do know this – those that do read and participate tend to be of good intelligence, commitment, social awareness - and they communicate with, and influence others. I would hazard the guess that they also vote.
So the new media matter. How much I don’t know – print media are still influential, and television is hugely influential. Knocking on doors and delivering leaflets, cold canvassing and direct telephone contact also yield the significant results they always have, and there is no suggestion, least of all from me, that new media are anywhere near supplanting such traditional campaign techniques or replacing them.
But who would have guessed at the growth and influence of Google ten years ago?
Who would have forecast that Amazon and online sellers would seriously impact on certain retail markets?
Who would have forecast that a satirical comedy show (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) could be influential in the election of an American President?
Who would have forecast the new media would prove to be a significant fund raiser for that Presidential candidate, and indeed a factor on securing his election?
Politicians and activists – whatever you think about the new media, don’t underestimate them.
The medium is the message … MARSHALL McLUHAN 'Understanding Media.’
(Marshall and I are probably the last two people in the world who remember that medium is the singular and media is the plural – so don’t talk about “a media of communication" within earshot of either of us. Come to think of it, Marshall died in 1980. R.I.P.)
THEY ALL LAUGHED ... Louis & Ella