Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Apples and Oranges, America and Britain

Has anyone else noticed that over the past year or so we have repeatedly seen and heard from commentators how Britain is so far behind America when it comes to using the Internet for politics? How Britain is failing to grasp the technology correctly and is maybe five years behind the seppos? It's starting to irritate me I can tell you, because each and everyone of them seems to come from the same silly starting premise that the way the seppos do it must be the direction of travel for Britain because they are successful and we are not (relatively speaking at least). The problem is that they're comparing apples and oranges.

Just think about this for a minute. Let's start with OFCOM and Electoral Law. The UK does not allow political parties to buy advertising space on television and radio whenever it wants too. The broadcasters and media are heavily constrained themselves and there is growing concern about spending arms races. The growing consensus - rightly or wrongly - appears to be that uncontrolled spending is bad for party politics. How therefore can Britain ever expect to be on the same page as the US with its use of the Internet for campaigning? Producing those online attack ad videos don't come for free, and nor does the work involved to make them fly up the YouTube rankings (and that point ignores the ethical questions of that work).

The commentators who make these grandiose statements about Britian's need to catch on seem to fail to understand that the Internet is only a small part of a much greater whole in a campaign in the USA as well. The deregulated media marketplace in the US enables candidates to push their web presence to a mass audience. It is all well and good to have great videos, actually marketing them to people so they gets watched is a different matter. The American political advertising culture is the complete antithesis of the British one. To try to make a comparitative analysis of the success of each is just silly.

But it is not just the cultural and political market place that makes the constant comparison by commentators and bloggers flawed, but the geographical and population difference too. An MP has to appeal to about 60,000 constituents. With turnouts down the reality is that he or she only has to hit about 17,000 people. That puts them on a par with an elected official on a US state legislature rather than a federal (national) instutition. Targetting such a small demographic means that even if there are successes most of them won't be known about. With limited spending capacity and entitrely local issues, it is not worth the time or effort to produce big production style videos and fancy web content.

There's also little point in them spending money even on regional television because the penetration rate compared to price and what they need isn't cost efficient. That means again that, if they have videos they want to campaign with, they have to rely on the very few people that matter looking for them. The best they can do is to take out local advertising pushing their web site. Of course, in real power terms, an MP is much more like a Congressman in the House of Representatives. However, look at the comparison again. A Congressman has constitiuent numbers in the millions, and operates at a state level in the already mentioned liberalised deregulated media market.

In a campaign there will be multiple television channels available to push their message and drive traffic to their online content. Spending the time and money on driving that content up online on a large scale probably wouldn't be cost-effective either. The point is though that the Congressman is very different to the MP, and it stands to reason that the campaign strategy with the Internet will be very different. In fact, the only comparable situation that Britain has to America where a single figure is elected by literally millions is the London Mayor. But, as already noted, that campaign will be constrained by spending limits and broadcasting regulations. Even if the web content for the candidates was superb, without the wider ability to push that content it is only web nerds that will probably watch it.

The fundamental point here is that the Net does not exist in isolation in a campaign, it is simply a complimentary part of a greater whole. As much I hope Ron Paul surprises people in the Republican nomination, his success to date as been almost entirely Internet based. It would be foolish to write him off completely, but his chances of actually winning are small to non-existent. What Ron Paul will actually do is show that the Internet alone does not win you elections, and, in a sense will also show that the obsession of commentators with the power of medium is as misplaced as the .com bubble was in the financial marketplace. That's not to say the medium won't become more important if things like IPtv become more commonplace.

Another area of false comparison comes with the party system in Britain. In the US, whilst there are political parties, they are far mroe disparately connected and they do not have a formal leader. Policy comes down to candidate convictions far more than a party line. As such what you are more liekly to end up with in the UK is lots of sameyness. Finally though, when it comes to comparing Britain and America's use of the internet and politics there is the structural political difference at the very top. Britian is not, technically at least, a Presidential system. Whilst Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Nick Clegg et al may be national leaders they are still only MPs that need about 17,000 votes to maintain their job.

They do of course have a massive impact on national views and do influence people beyond their constituency (as too do Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet ministers in media perfomrance). But again we come back to the culture in which they operate. They cannot just buy advertisement at will, and they cannot spend whatever they like. This makes them very different to a Presidential nominee or candidate. Our quasi-presidential system is such that they could make personal videos, or attack videos, but as WebCameron and LabourVision have found out, getting people to watch the things is not easy. More importantly, getting people to watch them and actually stay tuned requires creative thinking and that means spending lots of money. Yet again we come back to money it seems.

For as long as there are spending limits on party political campaigning. And as long as the ability to hype up an Internet presence is constrained by rules and regulations about when you can air or publish content, then we will always be "behind America". Actually though, we're not behind America really. We're on a different motorway. The Merkins are driving up the M1 whilst we're driving up the M6. Until we realise that we're on different roads surrounded by different landscapes we will continue to make the false comparison between the two.


Newmania said...

Brilliant and informative.Noone close you at the moment Dizzy .It will be fascinating to see what effect the interweb has on the forthcoming GE , I wonder if the MSM will wheel you in to opine on it, you did sky recently didn`t you ?

He went out there a chorus girl and he came back a star ( reverse that equation and you have Gordon Browns leadership performance so far)

Morus said...

Along with your Dept of IT article, this is one of your best yet.

All I would add is that it is British newspapers (mainly) rubbushing the idea that blogging or t'internet is important. Luddites don't take well to a direct challenge to the usefulness of their employment.

There is also a qualitative difference between British and American blogging. The big blogs in the States are Drudge Report, Huffington Post, Daily Kos etc - 80% of output seems to be links to newspaper articles, or to other interesting sites. There is no 'voice', and actually not that much fresh analysis. It is more a new medium to the same material, than the change in material that has been managed by Guido, Iain Dale, your good self, Cranmer, and

anthonynorth said...

And may we always be different. A good analysis.

canvas said...

Dizzy, you're right - it's almost pointless to compare when you put it like that.

However, I think most British politicans underestimate the power of the internet. US politicians seem to understand that they can reach out to a larger audience through the internet - why is there this huge difference in attitudes? I don't get it.

For example, take a look at this blog by Ed Vaizey...I was surprised by his apparent complacency...

Ed Vaizey: "Will the Internet Change Politics?"

"I enjoyed the editor of The Spectator Matthew d’Ancona’s talk on the Westminster Hour last night about how the internet will change politics. Matthew thinks it will change politics fundamentally, but I disagree. The first example Matthew cited was the saving of a local market from developers. Apparently it was all down to the web, until the interviewee revealed it was old-fashioned petitioning. And our own (ie Wantage) John Betjeman saved Covent Garden (thank God) before the web was invented.

The web is a new medium, but it won’t change politics. If anything it will make politics more distant. If politicians are going to be secretly filmed and shoved on You Tube, you will simply get more stage-managed events. The internet hasn’t changed my life politically, except I get a few more letters because it is easier to send an e-mail than lick a stamp. We have been doing democracy along roughly the same lines (give or take the size of the electorate) since the ancient Greeks, and will continue to do so for centuries to come."

Village said...


Keep 'em comming!

John Trenchard said...

good article.

political talk radio is another very important difference - allowed in the States, not allowed over here.

The Ghost in the Machine said...

Excellent stuff, Dizzy.

But there is another way to look at all of this. Rather than analyze it from the perspective (as it were) of "the top" looking down and trying to work out how it can best use IT, &c to further its aims, it is important too to be able to recognise/acknowledge the way in which the individual citizen (increasingly) seeks to use the medium to influence political debate in their own right and on their own behalf.

I make no judgement as to whether the US or the UK is ahead on this front - aside from anything else I am too unqualified to make that call. Be that as it may, what one can say, beyond peradventure, is that political parties in the UK (maybe in the US as well) have singularly failed to grasp the way in which IT and the Web (and their various resources) are fragmenting and diluting their traditional means of garnering support from the electorate. At least in part this in turn explains why turn-out at UK elections is stagnating because, until the parties fully understand how to engage with a Web-based and/or -oriented audience, they will persist in seeming distant and out-of-touch.

Anonymous said...

As somebody who works to build campaign websites I couldn't agree more.

The number one problem that I have encountered is when politicians come to me with a big idea for a website and when I ask them about what the rest of the team think about it they respond either with, 'what team?' or, 'they don't need to know about it'. It shows a clear lack of placement of the website within the rest of their campaigning activities.

Thankfully, I've figured out ways to make them talk... to eachother

Anonymous said...

PS: I also don't agree with the concept of a "web audience" as some kind of mysterious part of society that needs engaging with its own special approach. They are just people and campaigners are much more likely to be successful if they use a broad approach across multiple mediums rather than segmenting.

Anonymous said...

Great post Dizzy. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.

My view is that the likes of the big US news blogs - Kos and so on - are occupying the space taken in the UK by national newspapers, which hardly exist in the USA - with added interactivity.

In the USA that space has not been occupied effectively before.

Our later widespread adoption of broadband may also partially explain the greater penetration of US political blogs.


Matt W

Matt W

^sharper said...

You say in closing that "The Merkins are driving up the M1 whilst we're driving up the M6. Until we realise that we're on different roads surrounded by different landscapes we will ..."

So yuagree that we are both driving north do you?
I guess that we were both around Rugby in the 1770's ... But then GB headed off towds Birmingham!

And the M1 ends at Leeds? What happens then? Them smerkins will somehow get onto the A1(M)? Or will they get onto the M62 for Manchester .. but if they do then they WILL be on the same road as us n headed for Scotland whatever! Is that what you want? Do you want us all to live in Scotland?

I'm worried and confused. It all sounds like I'm being facetious but ... ok I am ... but ... ok...

dizzy said...