If you're like me and watched the debates you may well have been struck by the attempts of all three candidates to ram home the folksy 'I met [X] in [Y] and he/she/it told me [Z] and thats why..." Personally I think subtly linking yourself to real people is probably a good thing. The triumvate on stage were a bit ham fisted about it, but I got the point. Of course there were some moments which generated a good guffaw or two, simply due to their sheer clumsyness.
Then, this morning, I became aware of this website. Which lampoons David Cameron specifically by randomly generating phrases which sound eerily familiar to some of the comments which emerged during the debate. This site went up within hours of the debate and contains a vast array of possible outcomes, in the style of the campaign posters.
I find it quite amsuing that everyone is so excited by things like this. "Lols" have been a huge part of the internet community since their emergence on 4Chan. Lolcats, loldogs and demotivational posters are a fact of life to those of us who spend too long online. People adding captions to political posters is hardly a vast stretch and yet the media is reacting like they've never seen a picture of a hampster with the words "this is serious business" under it
This election has been interesting for the ways in which the internet has been percieved by each campaign as sitting at the heart of engagement. The Labour Party got off the blocks early with their call to make this a 'word of mouth' election, with Douglas Alexander boldly declaring that people occasionly speak to each other, and this might be a good way of sharing information.
The satirist side of the internet has been in full swing, posters in particular have been the target. The best known example being the infamous "Quattro" poster. Originally a crowd sourced attempt to attack the Conservatives, it was almost immediately countered with this rather amusing reinterpretation.
The interesting thing is that although politicians and their teams wax lyrical about the internet and the fact it allows crowdsourcing, they rarely actually control them. They simply have to ride it out and do their utmost to claim credit and co-opt the best ideas.
For the rest of this post, a quick note on definitions, when I am referring to online supporters, I mean the ultra motivated type. The sort who will put togeather a funny website to prove a point, or will spend time on photoshop airbrushing a party leader. I dont mean the people who'll join a Facebook supporters group and nothing more.
Politicians are rarely comfortable with elements of their campaign which are out of their control, and the internet is the perfect example of a forum which cannot be brought under control, but which has a significant impact on the campaigns. The Obama campaign was good at reaching down, ensuring that messages from campaign HQ filtered through to their local activists, through videos and emails which were inclusive, making people feel like they were part of the campaign.
The fact is that in order to even come close to controlling your online supporters you will need to invest significant amounts of time in first identifying them, connecting with them and finally convincing them to do what you want. The last stage may sound simple, what with them being your supporters, but in my experience it's the hardest part. If someone is spending their spare time to generate funny websites on their own time, they may not react well to political headquarters telling them how to do it better.
There are two mechanisms which do work in bringing these supporters to the table, competition or collaboration.
Competitions, with or without prizes work surprisingly well. The internet is a forum with a unique power to share ideas and have them judged by your peers. Everyone wants the last word, and to be hailed as the greatest inventor of funny cat pictures the world has ever known. The Labour campaign poster I mentioned earlier in this post was a competition winner, with more than 1000 entrants.
Collaboration, crowd sourced ideas, or a tool which allows people to improve on the efforts of others. I would say that mydavidcameron.com falls broadly into this category. Hundreds of people given a guide from previous efforts, generating new material. I'm a sucker for crowd sourcing, and at some stage I'll get round to reviewing Wikinomics. Just as soon as I finish reading it.
There is still a great deal of work to be done on how to utilise widespread internet activism and guide it. Working out how to do this without limiting the creativity of the dedicated people taking time out of their own lives to generate weird and wonderful websites and alternate posters.