A week ago on Saturday, I attended a fantastic event in Edinburgh at which political bloggers, campaigners, activists, elected representatives and people who work in public affairs got together to discuss, basically, better ways of doing politics. The Political Innovation event was the brainchild of Paul Evans and Slugger O'Toole's Mick Fealty. It was great to meet people in the flesh who I'd only known online. It's just a pity Andrew Marr wasn't there to see that bloggers actually are very pleasant, friendly, real and genuine people, so he could then stop spouting nonsense about us.
We all had to wear badges, sticking labels on ourselves as to whether we were politicos, wonks, geeks, campaigners or bloggers. I only had a bloggers badge as they'd run out of campaigners, so I felt a bit grim reaperish as they were edged in black while the others had nice bright colours.
So this is my magical mystery tour through a useful and fun day at which arguments were had and friendships made. Part of the reason it's taken me so long to write it up is that almost immediately on going home that evening I ended up with a vile cold which laid me up for a lot of last week. I can't really blame James from Better Nation who was sipping some remedial potion from a flask all day, because I don't think germs multiply that fast, even in my pathetic excuse for an immune system. Anyway, enough distractions:
I almost forgive the University of Edinburgh for taking up some of the car park I used to use to build this marvellous Informatics Forum to house all their various computery sciency departments. The building is beautiful, although I'm not sure the view from the glass wall is particularly spectacular. As you'd expect, it's all very modern and lovely and we all had access to free wifi. Not that I really used it much. Sometimes I think there's a conflict between live reporting on something and actually enjoying it. I actually spent too much time blethering to really have the time to tweet much and there was no question of there being time to blog. It was useful, though, especially to keep up with the F1 qualifying session from Abu Dhabi.
This deserves a section on its own as there was a seemingly limitless supply of cake and fruit along with water and juice throughout the day. I actually missed out on that because again I was too busy chatting. Lunch, though, was sublime. I was expecting the traditional buffet - some chicken legs, sausages on sticks and egg mayo sandwiches, that sort of thing. Maybe if we were lucky we might get a samosa. Err, no. Little tiny bowls filled with various bits of hot food. Sausages and mash with a little bit of onion gravy, or haggis, neeps and tatties, or a vegetarian option which I never got anywhere near. For pudding, the most delicious almondy, apply, fruity crumble with custard, or white chocolate mousse with little cookies. I say or, but you could have had as many as you wanted in whatever combination you liked. It was utterly delicious. So, this is the place to go if you are having an event in Edinburgh as far as I'm concerned.
The Unconference nature of it all
There was no structured agenda although people had been asked to submit ideas for sessions throughout the week. Given the free-spirited nature of assorted geeks, this could have resulted in chaos. It didn't. It was actually very well organised, with quite a firm hand, but without anyone feeling like they were being ordered around. Very clever. At the opening plenary session, each suggestion for a session was put on that most cutting edge of technologies, a yellow post-it and the sessions were allocated on the timetable. There were 5 rooms available so there was plenty of room for all the suggested events. I attended 5 in total so I'll try to give you a flavour of each.
The politician's surgery - and how social media can help
This session was the brainchild of Gill, who writes the lol scum blog, based on her experience of working for the Scottish Government. She felt that many of the queries she had in her government role from elected representatives could have been much more effectively and quickly dealt with had they come to her direct. She'd also talked about the difficulties she'd had in contacting her MP, finding out how to do so, and then waiting a week for a reply giving details about a surgery she couldn't attend.
The session covered people's expectations when they contacted their elected. Sometimes it could be more effective to just refer them to where they could get the information themselves. but people often want their MP, for example to be seen to do something for them.
Mark Lazarowicz, MP for Edinburgh North and Leith, made the point that you did have to be careful about not giving priority to online casework, even though people who e-mail expect an immediate response. You have to be careful not to penalise someone who doesn't have access to the internet. From my experience as an MP's caseworker, we certainly didn't do that. It was the urgency of the issue which dictated the priority. If someone needed immediate help with benefit/housing or any other issue, they got it regardless of how they contacted him. He took casework from all sorts of places - from going out knocking on doors, surgeries (which we preferred to hold where people were, like supermarkets and shopping centres), e-mail, phone, visits to the office, and latterly a fair chunk from Facebook and Twitter.
The main themes which came out of the discussion is that it would be better if people had more information about who the best person to contact was for their issue, that debate shouldn't be dominated by people who had online access and that there was a use for social media in political engagement because people weren't so intimidated by the idea of contacting someone on Facebook as they were by maybe going to a surgery.
Can we win elections online?
This was a much bigger session which basically reached the conclusion that there was no substitute for knocking on doors, nor for having a message which resonated with people. However, online and social media campaigning had a role in reinforcing the message and in organising activists. Obama and the SNP had used phone apps, for example, to organise contacts to get activists phone canvassing.
Someone mentioned that impact of the Leaders' Debates during our General Election. On places like Facebook and Twitter, people could get immediate social proof of how people were reacting to what was going on.
I made the point that online engagement could make the difference in a close election, although on the ground campaigning was most important. I also mentioned how the SNP weren't that great with either their online or on the ground campaigns in 2007 and their success had been based primarily on the air war in the media. I live in Livingston which was closely fought in 2007 and was won by the SNP's Angela Constance. They certainly didn't run anything like the sort of campaign on the ground that I would have thought you'd need to win - and nor are they doing this time, to be honest. It was all about the message for change, their "it's time" campaign which permeated the country's consciousness and resonated with the voter.
Edinburgh campaigner Lily Greenan, (who doesn't blog but should because we could do with some more Scottish based blogosphere feminism) talked about it being easier to disseminate and analyse information online. She mentioned an infographic produced by the Democrats to illustrate that under Obama more jobs were being created than under Bush. I did a bit of digging and found this interesting article showing what I think she's talking about and how Fox News distorted the same figures. Lily also made the point that people were protesting again on a level not seen since the 1980s and the internet was a key tool in doing that more effectively than in the past.
Can Scotland harness the power of its own blogosphere?
This was the first session after lunch and was the only session of the day which was based around a panel discussion. Mick Fealty had asked me earlier in the week to take part in this. He also mentioned that the panel would include journalists, something which scared the life out of me. I said that I'd only do it if he could find some other bloggers to take part. I'm also not quite so confident in my ability to talk and think at the same time, which is why I write. I heard nothing more so I made the mistake of assuming that I was off the hook. Ten minutes before the event was due to start, Mick asked me again to take part and said all sorts of reassuring things about how it would be fine. So, I took my place out front with Shuggy, James Mackenzie from Better Nation, Irish journalist Peter Geoghegan and Pat Kane.
Bearing in mind that I'd done zero prep for this, I was just ever so slightly freaked out when Mick said that each panellist would talk for 3-4 minutes and then handed me the microphone. What followed sounded pretty dire to me at the time, so I was pleasantly surprised when Moridura got the gist of what I was trying to say about wanting my blog to encourage people who might not normally be interested in politics to take part in all sorts of discussion about politics and ideas. I was very happy about his description of me as gentle, consensual, effective and truly liberal. Definitely one of the best compliments I've had online. He did call me a bit for saying that I tried not to be too tribal and then mentioned that I was a Liberal Democrat. Well, you know, I am a Lib Dem, and proud of it, but I've said time and time again that I generally assume that people get involved in politics, in all parties, for good reasons, wanting to improve people's lives and that we should work together wherever we can.
I wasn't taking notes from this session because I was so closely involved in it but it is online somewhere. I haven't watched it and I'm not linking to it because I really don't want you to see how rubbish I was, but I'm sure you'll find it if you really want to.
I did, however, feel a great deal more comfortable with the questions we were asked, first about how the blogosphere could help shape debate in the run up to the campaign next year. I felt, and James agreed, that there wasn't enough proper debate and discussion about how we were going to cope with the cuts. They're coming whether we like it or not, and it would be very useful if there was a proper debate on how we wanted our public services to look like, what we needed, what we could get rid of. Joan McAlpine disagreed, saying that the best use of the blogosphere was to advance ideas for the future governance, independence or otherwise, of Scotland.
Other topics covered included the Twitter Joke Trial - coming the day after the #iamspartacus campaign where thousands of people on Twitter repeated Paul Chambers' original joke and how the blogosphere could work on and research stories that wouldn't otherwise have broken because newspaper editors wouldn't give the time and resources to them.
I have to say that I'm quite grateful to Mick for inviting me to do this and putting me on the spot like he did. I'd never have done it otherwise and I would feel better about doing something similar again - although I'd be better prepared.
Can the Blogosphere have the proper debate around independence that the mainstream media avoids?
This was a session run by Joan McAlpine where she talked about how the mainstream media tended to casually dismiss the idea of independence if it discussed it at all. Peter Curran who writes Moridura, who's an SNP member after years of Labour activism, made the point that it would most likely be Labour who would run an independent Scotland - although I would hope that if it did ever happen, we'd choose a proportional electoral system which would encourage consensual politics. I chimed in that I understood Joan's frustration in a way because I really don't like the Liberal Democrats being bracketed in as a unionist party - we're a federalist party, which is quite a different thing.
Women blog too - who knew? Making women visible online
Guess whose idea this one was? I had been a bit worried that nobody would want to come, but we had a super discussion. The main idea that came out of this session, and Joan's before, was that a Scottish blog aggregator might be a good idea. I certainly think that Lib Dem Blogs was a tremendous help for me and I would love to see some sort of Scottish equivalent that works along the same principles - ie that it's open to anyone to join and every post is fed in.
Lily Greenan said it would be good to have online learning tools for bloggers in a safe supportive space. She was covering the session via Twitter and we were able to chat with The Burd who suggested that the lack of childcare at our event meant she had to miss it.
Another suggestion from someone else who wasn't there, but was elsewhere in the building, speech and language technology scientist Maria Wolters was this blogpost, called "Be the Visible Bitch" from a blog called Young Female Scientist. It's not about visibility online but things it suggests, like making yourself known to key figures, arguing, and making sure you aren't ignored could be transferred to the internet. There was some feeling in the room that we didn't want to be bitches - but that can be a term used by others to describe any sort of assertive behaviour. All the things the author mentions are things that men do easily with no fear of reproach or recrimination and that women can sometimes shy away from.
I don't think that the world is going to change as a result of either this event, or the blogosphere's collective or individual action, but it was useful in terms of meeting people, listening to different ideas and discussing different ways of doing things. You can't knock something that tries to encourage us to do things better - although there's an argument that the people to ask about doing politics better aren't just the people who are doing it and writing about it at the moment. I had a really enjoyable day and found it all very positive and illuminating. Others did too - notably Joan McAlpine, Moridura, Shuggy and Scot Goes Pop.