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July 15, 2003

Early Days of a Better Nation?

I enjoyed the VoxPolitics blogging seminar, though I think it fair to say that more heat than light was generated.

I didn't take my powerbook, and regretted it hugely when I saw a Hydra springing up around me. Hydra is the perfect application for an event like this; everyone in the room with Hydra could automatically see the document, and it meant that people could comment on the seminar as it was going on.

Speakers were Stephen Pollard, Tom Watson, Steven Clift, and Pernille Rudlin.

All very good and thought-provoking, with the exception of Pernille Rudlin, whose text appeared to be "Isn't moblogging exciting! Of course, it was invented in Japan, you know. It's much more important than computer blogging because so many more people are enfranchised. Not that you can blog anything of consequence from a phone anyway; and in fact, it turns out that most people use their phones for networking."

Tom Watson and Richard Allan were there; and promised us a third MP blogger shortly in the form of Sion Simon. Tom Watson explained that he'd taken up blogging because his website was dreadful and nobody visited it. He started websurfing and came across Bloggerheads; suddenly realised what weblogs were and that he could do it himself. He struck me as being a very typical, salt-of-the-earth, back bench labour MP; not at all the technophile I'd been expecting. He sees blogs as a tool for political participation, and is encouraging people to discuss political themes as part of Blogathon on 26 July.
He pointed out that about three members of the public, on average, come to a committee session, but the room was full for this seminar. (The commentator in me points out that this is because nobody realises that the public are welcome at nearly all sessions of standing and select committees. You don't have to queue; find out from the House of Commons site when the session you want to hear is on, turn up at St Steven's gate and explain to the policeman what you're here to see.)

Stephen Pollard initially used his site to collate his writings; after a while he realised he could write pieces for the website even when nobody was paying him. Although MPs are excited by the potential when they learn about blogs, journalists always say "but why would anyone write for free?"
He sees a clear link between blogging and political journalism. Believes that blogs are very influential in the US now, and this will spill over into the UK; that posting to a blog means that unlike writing for a newspaper, the debate continues, and the quality of intellectual argument is moved forward. Although he's not paid for blogging, he often gets ideas from his blog that he can then write paid articles about. He mentioned the possibility of fomenting grassroots involvement through websites and blogs. Quote: "People who don't see what's going on are living in the 20th century".

Steven Clift saw the power of blogging not as a democratising tool, but as a politicising one; that a few bloggers can influence policy in the US, and increasingly in the UK. He felt that the power of the web had been ignored for a while after the dotcom bust; the prevailing atmosphere was "if it doesn't make money, what possible good is it?" He spoke a little about Dean, and asked "If you have a blog and nobody reads it, do you really have a blog?" (Yes.) He points out that bloggers are overwhelmingly on broadband, feels it isn't connecting as many people as it could yet. He spoke about the Minnesota state legislature, now online all the time; legislators have desks with computers in the chamber, can get emails during debates, or correct facts, and be influenced by them. He was the one person who didn't automatically assume 'America is ahead of us'; he said a couple of times that no US representative or senator has a blog -- something I knew but that most people neither knew nor picked up on. Tom Watson is a real trend-setter. He sees blogs as a tool for local people to get involved with local politicians.

The quality of the Q&A was varied. Some discussion of whether the party machine would prevent free speech in blogs (the prevailing view was that MPs who were on message would stay on message in their blogs, and the Awkward Squad will be awkward in any case.) A worry that this technology really only supports people who are articulate, literate and informed, and who's looking out for the lumpen proletariat? (Blogs are hardly the guilty party here.) "Green ink is invisible in cyberspace"; but in fact, blogging provides a means for less extreme constituents to get in touch with their MP informally. Most people have no idea how to do this.

No serious discussion of aggregators, where next (apart from a brief mention of wikis), how to help people become politically active, issues of propriety and privacy, or the many other uses of blogs that are not political. Nor yet the notion that this may provide a way to make the political process more transparent to a huge swathe of people who believe that they currently have no power to change anything. This last is the point that really excites me; that if by blogging, Tom and others can help ordinary people understand how you use politics and politicians to make things happen that you want, people can begin to pursue their aims more effectively.

Posted by Alison at July 15, 2003 08:58 AM


"...he said a couple of times that no US representative or senator has a blog -- something I knew but that most people neither knew nor picked up on."

Not quite true. Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) has a blog on his presidential campaign website.

Is it for real? Well, it's written in the first person, has comments, an RSS feed, and a Creative Commons license. And one of the most recent posts natters on about Harry Potter. Looks like a blog to me.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden at July 15, 2003 02:04 PM

Have I mentioned lately that I hate it when people configure their comment section to silently disregard HTML linking markup? Here's the Kucinich blog:


Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden at July 15, 2003 02:07 PM

Yes, you're quite right. Sorry.

Posted by: Alison Scott at July 16, 2003 10:28 PM

Also, Howard Dean, former Governor of Vermont and current candidate seeking to be the Democratic nominee for President, has been blogging at Lawrence Lessig's blog. Further, Gary Hart, former Presidential candidate, former Senator, and perhaps a future candidate for President, has a blog: http://www.garyhartnews.com/hart/blog/

Posted by: Gary Farber at July 21, 2003 02:57 AM

Lessig's blog, with Dean as guest blogger, is here.

Sorry to hear about your fall; glad it wasn't more serious!

Posted by: Gary Farber at July 21, 2003 03:00 AM

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