Page last updated at 08:45 GMT, Tuesday, 16 September 2008 09:45 UK

Stay briefed with online networks

Blogger lounge at the Democratic National Convention, Denver
Many political conventions - like this one in the US - now welcome bloggers

Online friends help Bill Thompson understand the world better.

Although I won't be heading to Bournemouth, Manchester or Birmingham for the annual conferences of the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative parties I suspect that I will be a lot more tuned in to their political manoeuvrings this conference season than I have been for many years.

I used to be sad - or committed - enough to watch television coverage of the conferences in the days when this meant more than the odd highlight on news programmes and the party leader's speech.

But even though the BBC Parliament channel has lots from all three conferences, I have lost the habit of sitting through mind-numbing speeches from local delegates that make this time of year such a delight for political wonks.

Fortunately I can now rely on my extensive online network of friends, acquaintances and even comrades to keep me briefed on LibDem tax policy, the latest plots against Gordon Brown and Tory plans for public spending.

Diverse commentary

There will be blog posts, tweets, Facebook postings, Seesmic videos, Digg recommendations and perhaps even the odd e-mail pointing me towards news stories, online videos and other resources, many of which will come from sources outside the mainstream media.

Some of my informants will be there in the conference venue, especially since bloggers are now offered media accreditation by the parties.

One or two, like blogging government minister Tom Watson, will even be at the high table themselves.

Many more will be watching from afar, looking at the mainstream media coverage, surfing the party websites and reading their own selection of blogs, picking out items of interest and adding their own commentary.

Bill Thompson
If one of my Twitter friends posts a link to a sports story, the fact that they have found it interesting enough to pass on means I am more likely to open it and learn about an area that I would normally ignore.
Bill Thompson

Just like the hive mind that enables a colony of termites to build and maintain a mound even though each is a biological machine operating on a stimulus-response model with minimal learning, my social network will provide me with a take on what is happening over the next three weeks.

And that will be far richer, more nuanced and - as much as these things ever can be - more objective than even the best political correspondent could ever offer.

I'm really looking forward to it.

Perhaps those involved in orchestrating the events themselves will pay attention to what is happening online too, rather than simply focusing on what the front pages say or what makes the headlines on the evening news.

But even if they don't, things are different now, and our ability to understand what is happening inside these major political events has been significantly enhanced.

This change in the way we do politics is part of a broader shift in patterns of engagement that is most clearly seen in its impact on the mass media but spreads much further and penetrates much deeper.

We have moved far beyond the ultimately sterile debate about "citizen journalism" and "user-generated content" to a clear acceptance that everyone with access to the internet who was formerly a member of an audience can now be a contributor in their own right.

Closer connection

We still need to do something about the billions of people who do not yet have easy access, but those of us who are online now experience the world in a new way.

For example, hearing about the bombings in Delhi from my online friend Sanjukta, whose family were only a few metres from one of the bombs, connects me to what is happening there far more vividly than any newspaper coverage can.

Creating my own news feed from blog posts, short notes on Twitter, updates on the FriendFeed social network and posts from people's phones on allows me to get close to the old idea of the "daily me", personalised news tailored to my interests.

But the filters I make for myself are imperfect in just the right way, because they let my friends' interests and activities percolate through and ensure that I'm kept aware of things that are important but which I am not especially interested in.

In that sense they replicate the serendipity that comes from reading newspapers, but in a more nuanced way.

Social tools

If I buy The Guardian I know it has a sports section which I will discard, unopened, around 99 times out of 100. But if one of my Twitter friends posts a link to a sports story, the fact that they have found it interesting enough to pass on means I am more likely to open it and learn about an area that I would normally ignore.

The random, pervasive and occasionally intrusive nature of the new generation of social tools like Twitter, FriendFeed and Seesmic also seems to correct the selection bias that can easily happen with online reading.

Some time ago I started subscribing to blogs written by people I disagree with profoundly, to ensure that I didn't settle into liberal complacency based on the erroneous assumption that everyone is fundamentally like me.

But with micro-blogging services, the lack of any real information about the people one follows means that this sort of broad spread happens without the need for deliberate effort, giving my online life the breadth and depth it needs if I am to understand this world of ours.

I am pretty sure that I would really dislike some of the people I follow online if I got to know them well, but like any good community we can disregard our differences and work together to build something from which we all benefit.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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13 Sep 08 |  UK Politics


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