A Social Election? General Election 2010 and the Network Pt. 1

by Chris Lowthorpe in ,


Is it me or were the televised Leaders' Debates just a bit crap? The first one initially felt somewhat like a WWF spectacular. Alastair Stewart appeared to be pumped full of amphetamines, over-emphasizing the event's combative aspects and virtually every spoken word whilst constantly babbling about making history and the revolutionary nature of the things. In a romantic, and no doubt delusional, hindsight, I like to imagine he was a bit Thompson-esque. But even if this were true, his Gonzo efforts would have been in vain. The 'debate' was a damp squib. As with each iteration too many rules and regulations stilted insightful discourse, and The Leaders appeared distinctly average. David Cameron was a rabbit in the headlights, Gordon Brown more subterranean and Jabba the Hutt-like than ever, and Nick Clegg seemed OK.

Whatever it was, it was not Clash of the Titans.

The second debate was a niche affair, as it was hosted by Sky. I watched the highlights online. The performances by The Leaders seemed better, but it lacked the twisted and hyper 'Speedy' Stewart. The post-debate consensus agreed everyone was much of a muchness. Cameron had managed to man-up, Brown looked more like he inhabited the planet's surface, and Clegg seemed OK.

Last night's effort was more of the same. Initial polls suggest it was Cameron what won it, but it seemed even flatter than its predecessors - a substantial achievement with the election less than a week away. Dave certainly appeared more confident and business like, with even the Guardian now suggesting he's a shoe-in for No. 10. Gordo was competent, and cleverly managed to avoid insulting a member of the audience. And Nick? Well Nick was same as he ever was: OK. Average. Sort of pointless. Afterwards I felt any momentum for a seismic shift in the political landscape had ebbed away. As Dave and Gordo swapped barbs, Nick looked on, attempting to draw analogies to squabbling children but saying little. As he did so, he drifted further and further back into minority party irrelevance.

And irrelevance is one of my gripes with these events. Friends, loved ones, and followers on Twitter might already be familiar with aspects of my dissatisfaction, but in case those categories exclude you, dear reader, I'll go over them.

Firstly, the infamous 76 rules negated the possibility of spontaneity in the debates. Consequently the chances of true insight were removed. Nobody got a nasty surprise, got particularly ruffled or angry, or even seemed that passionate. Secondly, the idea of a televised debate in the run up for an election is about as revolutionary as the monarchy. The first live election debate was held a full fifty years ago, during the 1960 presidential race between JFK and Nixon. (Tricky Dicky faired badly against the younger and smarter Kennedy as he looked pallid and refused to shave - neither of which look great in Black and White). And finally, broadcasting a TV debate featuring The Leaders will inevitably shift the focus from policy to personality. And particularly to the 'image' of each man rather than the substance of their beliefs. It's interesting to note that during the Kennedy/Nixon debates there was a disparity between television and radio audiences. Those watching thought Kennedy had won, whilst those listening thought it was Nixon. As we know, the image triumphed.

For the reasons outlined a broadcast debate seems less than ideal in the early 21st century. It's not pointless but it's somewhat anachronistic, and definitely too controlled. Television should be only one way of engaging politicians in discourse. In our networked society plenty of other channels exist for meeting or questioning prospective leaders and their underlings, or for getting information about policies out to voters. And it is these that should be increasingly employed.

Barack Obama was identified by media scholars as conducting the first fully transmedia campaign, employing a variety of networked and social media to get his message out, communicating directly with the electorate. And this is the aspect of the election I want to explore in the final run-up to Voting Day. I'm going to look at the online presence of those contesting my ward of Norwich South. I want to see how (or if) they use social media, whether they use it for conversation or broadcast, and any signs of innovation or transmedia assets they might employ.

Who knows what I might find, or whether those findings might ultimately influence my vote. I suppose there's only one way to find out...

If you live in Norwich South and have had online contact with any of the candidates, please let me know your impressions in the comments. Cheers.