2008/10/13 Andreas Jungherr

Should Politicians Blog? Part 1

In 2004 the French blogger and serial entrepreneur Loïc Le Meur [loiclemeur] posted on his blog 10 Reasons why Should a Politician Blog. For him blogs are a great way for politicians to start closer and deeper conversations with their constituencies. Le Meur’s reasons are convincing and blogs have proven their value as communication tools (see for example: How Companies Blog. Yet German politicians seem hesitant to use blogs.

The German journalist Christian Stöcker writes on German politicians and the net:

Das politische Netz hierzulande ist in einem erbärmlichen Zustand, die paar politisch orientierten Weblogs, die es gibt, haben kaum Leser, eine Debattenkultur existiert so gut wie nicht. Deutschlands Blogger sind immer noch zu einem großen Teil damit beschäftigt, entweder über den eigenen Alltag oder über das Bloggen selbst zu bloggen. Und die deutsche Politik betrachtet das Netz vor allem als etwas, das es zukontrollieren, reglementieren und überwachen gilt – und ist ansonsten weitgehend frei von Kenntnissen über das Medium der Zukunft.

This is not only a German phenomenon. In the article Political Blogs: Why the Internet Frightens Politicians the author states:

The internet frightens politicians. They can’t control it, so they see it as a threat; websites and blogs are time-consuming and dangerous, containing words that could later be held against them. What other explanation can there be for the fact that only 30 out of 650 MPs in Parliament have blogs?

The advocates for the status-quo are quick to find reasons why blogs do not matter as a tool in the political communication kit:

Blogs would be no part of the serious political discourse of the established media and even poison the political discussion through extreme partisanship (see as an example for this reasoning: A Parody of Democracy by Oliver Kamm).

The conversations on a blog would lead to a loss of control for the politician (see as an example for this reasoning the analyses: Blogs im Dienst politischer Kommunikation).

A blog would simply be a waste of time since the number of readers would be too small to play a significant role on election night (A recent Harris Poll seems to support this argument, stating that only 22 percent of US citizens regularly read political blogs. Although, this percentage is probably high in comparison to other contries). This critique seems to me quite shortsighted. In the coming days, I will explore the possibilities of web-based political communication and discourse by further examining the usefulness of blogging for politicians.

The first post in this series will deal with the nature of conversations on blogs. I will take a closer look on how professionals in different career paths use blogs to connect with communities in their fields. Accordingly, I focus on professional and career blogs, i.e. blogs that are maintained by professionals in different fields for means of professional development. In turn, I will disregard news aggregation blogs, gossip blogs or mere diary blogs. Professional blogs most closely resemble the genre, tone, and conditions under which politicians would blog.

It is save to assume that blogs are here to stay. What started out as a way to log one’s private thoughts in a public confessional has grown into a tool for social change. Professionals in different fields use blogs to connect with their audience. Novelists accompany their books with blogs (see for example the blog by the English novelist Neil Gaiman). Journalists embrace blogs and use them as an open notebooks during their work on more traditional articles (see for example the blog by The Atlantic corespondent James Fallows or even as a substitute for work in more traditional media outlets (see for example Mike Smithson’s blog Political Betting). Corporations try to connect to their customer base through personal blogs by employees (see for different corporate uses of blogs this post by Steve Rubel [steverubel]). Political Activists use blogs as a tool to surpass censorship and to break the information monopoly of their respective governments (see for example Global Voices an aggregate site for blogs by political activists).

Why do these professionals with jobs and already busy schedules decide to blog? The Überblogger Robert Scoble [scobleizer] writes on his reasons for blogging:

I blog for a few reasons: 1) I’m a geek and love telling people about cool things I’ve found. 2) If I put them on my blog, I know that Google will be able to help me find them later on. 3) It lets me have a conversation with a wide variety of people every evening. 4) After reading me, readers of my blog often teach me more than I knew on a specific topic. 5) I’ve been given a certain amount of “Google Juice”? and I enjoy pointing at people and sharing my GooglePower. Even folks I don’t always agree with (you do notice that by linking to Microsoft’s competitors I’m helping out their ranking in Google, don’t you?) 6) I like telling stories about people and situations I’ve been in thanks to my view of the high-tech industry. 7) I am impelled to write it. Translation: I’m addicted. I want to write down some of my history and keep track of interesting things I’ve done so that I can go back and enjoy them later on (and so my son, wife, and family can stay involved in my life too). 9) I enjoy learning about conversational marketing. I really do believe that blogging will someday be a “new PR arm”? of most major corporations. By blogging every day, I can learn a set of “best practices”? that I can teach to others at Microsoft and at other corporations. 10) I’m a news hound and enjoy reporting things before other people (or now, services like Technorati or Daypop) can get to them.

Thus, Scoble’s motives are delivering a service to the community of interest that formed around his blog and the sheer joy of communicating with his readers. His blog is not just about getting his message out or selling stuff to customers.

Another reason for blogging is learning. The Social Media Analyst Jeremiah Owyang [jowyang] states the paramount reason for his blogging:

It helps me learn: every topic I post on, someone will add additional thoughts in the comments, so more is gleaned than just me mouthing off. In fact, I get over 7 comments per post on average, so that’s at least a few more perspectives that just mine.

Some non-fiction authors even accompany their writing process with regular blog postings and extensive discussions with their readers; these discussions often influence their work in progress.

A good example for this scenario is the blog The Long Tail by Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson that he established as a collection of open research notes during his work on his book The Long Tail, a process that he decided to continue in his work on his new project Free. In a blogpost in 2006, Anderson stated how the blog and the discussions it started helped his work on the book:

Part of the reason the book is successful, I believe, is because as I was writing it the smart readers of this blog helped improve the ideas, catch my errors and suggest dozens of applications and dimensions of the Long Tail I never would have thought of myself. So today’s recognition is also a recognition of the power of tapping collective intelligence. I couldn’t have done it without you!

Earlier in 2008, the blogger Hugh MacLeod [gapingvoid] started to develop his ideas on Social Objects on his blog and in his Twitter-Feed. His three posts on the topic Social Objects for Beginners 2007/12/31, Why the Social Object is the Future of Marketing 2008/01/02 and The Social Marker – The Social Object on Steroids 2008/01/16 with their respective comment-sections are perfect examples for the process of group learning. Here we witness how the author and the readership of his blog develop a new idea through intensive dialogue conducted in an online envorinment.

These examples show that the power of blogs lie in the power of the conversations they start. These conversations allow the rapid prototyping of ideas and concepts. An idea can be stated by an author, tested by a community of interest and if necessary further developed. All this in a manner of days if not hours.

As our survey shows, several scholars, political analysts, and writers of fiction have acknowledged and embraced the benefits of blogging and incorporated them into their works. Meanwhile, the Net itself has long become an outlet for more philosophically motivated posts. In 1999, Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls [searls] and David Weinberger [dweinberger] wrote in their still radical Cluetrain Manifesto about this process:

While the outcome of these debates did not invariably constitute wisdom for the ages, the process by which they took place was honing a razor-sharp sense of collective potential. The conversation was not only engaging, interesting, exciting – it was effective. Tools and techniques emerged with a speed that broke all precedents. As would soon become obvious, the Net was a powerful multiplier for intellectual capital. (The Cluetrain Manifesto. 2000. p. 5).

While this statement was relevant for websites and online-forum discussions, it is even more relevant for blogs. Blogs made it even easier to publish on the web than HTML. For instance, micro-blogging tools like Twitter increase the speed of online conversations even further.

Still, there is a flip side to these positive notions. Not all commentators see a force for intellectual progress in online conversations. For example, Adam Curtis, a director of political documentaries, calls bloggers bullies:

Quite frankly, it’s quite clear that what bloggers are is bullies — they’re deeply emotional, they’re bullies, and they often don’t get out enough. And they are parasitic upon already existing sources of information — instead of leading to a new plurality or a new richness, [online conversation] leads to a growing simplicity. The bloggers from one side act to try to force mainstream media one way, the others try to force it the other way. So what the mainstream media ends up doing is it nervously tries to steer a course between these polarized extremes.

This negative view on the blogosphere was recently reinforced through a case of conference twittering. An audience, connected through the micro-blogging service Twitter, turned hostile during a podium discussion that was moderated by the journalist, Sarah Lacy [sarahcuda] (for two accounts of the event see: The “Nuclear Disaster”? At SXSW Was Nothing More Than A Witch Burning and Audience of Twittering Assholes).

Should politicians choose to become part of this often volatile online conversation? How can they use the benefits of a closely connected community and yet stay clear of hostile and partisan online behavior? In the coming days, I will explore these questions in greater detail. Meanwhile feel free to chime in.

I want to thank Damien Schlarb, who proofread this post and so ensured that it roughly resembles English.

, ,