Sunday 1 March 2009

Labour 2.0

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to speak at the Labour 2.0 conference in London, organised by Progress and sponsored by MessageSpace and Blue State Digital. It was a really great day and bought together all strains of practitioners, campaigners, bloggers and academics working in this area and supportive of progressive political aims (you can see how it panned out by following our twitter hashtag here).

The keynote was founding partner and Barack Obama new media director Joe Rospar. His presentation was interesting, and very impressive. For me the standout fact was a comment he made about – namely, that it had a completely separate user base to other social networking sites online. Or, to put it another way, the attractiveness of the candidate was persuading people who had never signed up for SNS before to do so, in order to support him.

I also have give a big hat tip to Andrew Chadwick of the New Political Communication Unit, Royal Holloway (who also happens to be my PhD supervisor). Andy gave an awesome – and I suspect intentionally perverse – speech, were he spent most of his time discussing the various factions that were present at the foundation of the Labour Party in 1900, and the values they aspired to. Of course, the logic of this argument was that the Internet and new communication technology does not threaten Labour’s founding principles, but quite the reverse – it will allow us to rediscover them in a way that was previously not possible.

In my presentation, I wanted to talk about the idea of web 2.0, as a structural concept. The very title of the conference alluded to the concept and plenty of people had referenced it during the course of the day, but as yet no one had actually dived in and attempted to define it.

(My presentation PowerPoint is online here).

So what is Web 2.0? For my money, a couple of points need to be made. I would outline three key elements of web 2.0:

  1. User generated content.
  2. User organised content.
  3. Personalisation of information experience.

So the obvious one is user generated content. We all know about that. But then, with that comes the user organisation of content, through reviews, ratings, or even behavior – what we access and when we choose to access it. The third point is a by-product of the previous two – with more information, organised in more ways, the media experiences of individuals within a society are likely to be more differentiated. 

But there is a second important point here too, which I also made. The term 2eb 2.0 is actually quite narrow – it makes us think about our computers. But the same processes are at work with other technology. Think, for example, of the development of TV on demand.

This is a really profound change, as, in these broad terms in amounts to the total reversal of the information relationships that existed in the mass media era: we are moving from an age of narrow inputs and broad outputs, to broad inputs and narrow outputs. The production and publication of information is being democratized, while the control of a limited elite is being eroded. In turn, broad and uniform media consumption of the past is being replaced by a far more complex information eco-system, where individuals can choose their own news, be their own editors or completely abstain, if they choose.

This change has huge ramifications for the way we are going to practice politics in the coming decades and for civil society. In both cases, I think it is a good thing, as it will herald a return to supporter participation both on and offline as, in relative terms, these activities will be becoming more useful and effective ways to communicate.

Now, I have to confess, I might have misread the mood on this. I really did expect this argument to be pretty uncontroversial – after all, it is little more than the systemization of what is pretty much established wisdom on the subject. But that maybe just shows my naivety, as it all got a little heated in the question and answer session.

To be fair, I think this was largely a product of misunderstanding and talking in different terms. To be clear, I see the relationship between old and new media (which is, by the way, not an unproblematic term, as plenty of new media sites are run by old media companies) as being dialectic (and I mean that in the Hegelian “will lead to synthesis” sense, not the Marxist “one will ultimately triumph” sense). There is huge scope for interplay between the two, and where we ultimately end up in a few years or decades time will, I suspect, involve elements of both structures. And I am also unapologetic that I think of these things in terms of years not 18 months to the next election. These changes are simply too big and too profound – they are up there with printing and industrialization – to understand in that context.

Yet I do also feel that there are political lessons to be drawn in the shorter term from this analysis. I would say two things:

  1. Reiterate a point I made during the original presentation: a national newspaper or evening news headline is still important, and it would be foolish to argue otherwise. But, the cost-benefit analysis for parties with limited resources in achieving that has to be constantly recalculated, as it is not as valuable as it was twenty years ago. If it limits other activities which might, for example, plug them into social networks of activists, then they need to think what is in their best interests. Certainly, the command and control politics forged by New Labour was highly effective in the mass media era, but arguably has detrimental effects on civic participation and the party’s ability to be successful in new media spaces.
  2. The way in which a national newspaper headline is created has changed. The much more complex news environment means that big stories can be generated by the blogosphere. The Conservatives, in particular, are very good at feeding their bloggers leaks and using this as a way to allow stuff to build up steam before hitting the mainstream press.

In response to the question, I also made one other point, which is clearly articulated in the conclusion of my Fabian Society book The Change We Need, coming out a week on Monday. This was the idea that social democrats should have parties that are both ends – namely, win elections to pass good legislation, and means – that is, they promote civic participation and allow supporters and the wider community to engage in politics. For those on the left, that should be central to our definition of the good society.

P.S. Also, from the other side, appearing as a friendly Tory, Tim Mongomerie of ConservativeHome, who I have always thought really gets this stuff, gave an excellent speech. He offers his thoughts here.

[Previously published on]

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