Page last updated at 12:09 GMT, Tuesday, 4 November 2008

How politics will change the web

Fallen chads, AP
The 2000 US Presidential election hung on some very manual systems

Online activism will have an impact far beyond the 2008 US Presidential election, notes regular columnist Bill Thompson.

By the time you read this we may know who is the next President of the United States, hanging chads, voter challenges and defective e-voting machines willing, although as I write both McCain and Obama are in the midst of their last minute campaigning.

In the UK media interest in the election has been intense, reflecting the fact that the outcome matters enormously to those of us without votes or influence.

Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle is planning to keep its media lounge open for election night, and some of my more politically oriented friends - the wonks rather than the geeks - have an all-night session arranged at a local pub.

Old media

Some pundits are already claiming that this has been the first real "internet election".

Bill Thompson
As Karl Marx might have noted, if he were around now, the technologists have only wired up the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.
Bill Thompson
They note how the web was used so for fund-raising by Obama, the millions of YouTube views of videos on both sides and the creativity that has gone into websites, Facebook pages and even Twittering.

Yet this is to ignore the millions spent on old-fashioned television ads, culminating in Obama's 30 minute political infomercial, or how much of the online content was actually recycled television from The Daily Show or Fox.

If anything, the election has shown that a campaign cannot do without the internet now, but the network has added to the range of options for reaching out, perhaps encouraging more conversation and interaction but not yet displacing the more traditional forms of engagement with voters.

It's likely to be the same in the US in 2012, or here when Gordon Brown finally decides to go to the country.

As long as television and newspapers survive the political process will use them for what they do best, reaching large numbers of people with the same message at the same time.

And the multitudinous forms of online interaction will find their niches too, whether it's the fake intimacy of tweets from the candidate, the easy activism of a Facebook cause or the angry commitment of bloggers.

Only connect

The growing importance of the internet for all forms of activism is highlighted in a new book from an old-time internet commentator.

Tom Watson is a US-based writer who shares a name and a commitment to the transforming power of the network with the British MP and Cabinet Office minister, but comes from the East Coast rather than the West Midlands.

A decade ago he was one of the editors of @NY, a ground-breaking e-mail newsletter that documented the rise and fall of the new media scene in New York's "Silicon Alley".

Since then he has distinguished himself as one of the saner commentators on the growth of the new conversational media and the companies behind the services so many us use daily.

Screenshot from NBALive 08, AP
Barack Obama was among the first to put election ads in computer games
A few years ago he got involved with the online philanthropy organisation Changing Our World, and in the book Causewired he shares his experience and understanding of the growth of what has been termed "peer-to-peer philanthropy".

The book's strapline is "Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World", and Watson offers a range of examples of the way in which the network is making new forms of fund-raising and activism possible.

It documents the outpouring of online support for the people of New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina through the campaign to obtain justice for Mukhtaran Bibi in Pakistan, via Barack Obama's internet fundraising efforts.

It's a fascinating read, not least because the principles he outlines for effective online organising are based on his own experiences.

"Small but well-connected can be more effective than huge and widely disbursed", for example, is something many online community organisers could benefit from realising, as is the call to "invest in conversations".

As with many US writers he seems to believe in the power of the market to solve all our problems and has little time for regulatory or government-based solutions to problems.

He lauds Kiva.org for providing equipment for US schools instead of asking why public funding was not adequate in the first place, and sees the network as a way to encourage philanthropy rather than social justice.

But he has clearly identified the ways in which the network is making a difference, and given us a valuable primer in the ways in which those who want to change the world can make effective use of the tools and services now available.

As Karl Marx might have noted, if he were around now, the technologists have only wired up the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.


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



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