This afternoon saw another one of those virtual world meets real world events. Intrigued by a Facebook event notification, I popped into QUB’s Institute of Irish Studies on University Road for a seminar originally titled
“Can the Internet provide a deliberative space for our new politics?”
and perhaps retitled
“Engaging an Articulate Commons”
Mick Fealty, the brains behind the creation of Slugger O’Toole, was over from foggy Dorset to talk alongside Ciarán O’Kelly about how online communication can contribute to political debate, and whether it helps it take a different shape from old(er) fashioned engagement between politicians and the politically interested.
Given that the setting was a university tutorial room, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we had lots of buzz words and academic speak. But in amongst the
deliberative spaces, interventions, articulate commons, potentialities, individual intelligence and recontextualising knowledge
there was some good stuff. Accessible too!
I’d never come across the story of the birth of Slugger O’Toole before. Started very deliberately back on 5 June 2002 as part of a research project to create a space to allow political conversations to develop within safe boundaries, against a backdrop of the Good Friday Agreement and the fairly shaky political aftermath. The paper was produced, but the site lived on and continues to flourish with a daily readership that at peak times tops that of some Irish newspapers. (Spot the intervention.)
Traditional media - whether print, radio or television - can’t (financially) afford the time to encourage long-lived conversations. Television debates change subject every 8-10 minutes. (Think about the last time you watched Question Time or Lets Talk.) Even the radio, the home of the voice, can’t last more than 30 minutes before straining to turn the page and introduce a new topic. (Think Nolan, Talk Back, or even Sunday Sequence.)
But the internet doesn’t charge by the electron. It’s not in a hurry. In a blog or a forum, there’s plenty of space to come back to this morning’s post and add another response, never mind returning to yesterday’s thread or last month’s debate.
Mick made a few observations that I’ll pick up on:
- Northern Ireland’s early online political debate started out in places like Vincent Hanna’s Compuserve forums. But bulletin boards were (and still are) a cacophony of voices, randomly starting topics, interjecting and swerving off-topic mid-thread.
- Blog posts tend to be dominated by a single voice, a consistent set of values and personal background that command what’s written “above the line” in the main post. Blogs differentiate themselves by their voice. And while there is still a melee of commenters “below the line” (in popular blogs anyway), it’s centred around a sophisticated starting point in the original post. And with discipline - and an eye for libel - the commenting can be proactively gardened
ing, pruning the straggly branches, and removing the poisonous weeds.
- There was an important point made about dissent - particularly important for political discussion, though I suspect I could apply it within a work context too. Sometimes there is a desire for conformity and consensus, a desire to pull everyone back to the party line. Yet dissent, and the articulation of dissent, is what debate is all about. Stamping out dissenting comments from threads - whether through berating snipes or removal - weakens the overall discussion and weakens the original post’s assertions. The whole point of Slugger is to allow dissenting positions to be discussed and to test the value of what’s proposed. (Probably an argument for keeping political debate out in neutral territory and off party-specific websites.)
- Sometimes bloggers are criticised as being mere link pasters. But the simple act of blogging about a newspaper article means that the blogger produces something that does not equal the original article; instead the bloggers (should) tend to bring a whole new context to the original author’s article, bringing in additional information and extra flavour from other sources, building justification for a modified argument or at least augmenting the original premise. The blogger’s consistent voice can be all the stronger by drawing together these different stories and themes. (This is recontextualising knowledge!)
- There was also a useful reminder that blog archives will keep us all honest. Particularly the politicians. Once in the public eye, politicians become very aware of what they’re saying. But in their life up until that point of candidacy or election, their blogs will leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind them pointing to previous positions and statements on all kinds of issues. (Guess I’m in hot water if I ever apply for a job with bmi, easyJet, or at either of the local airports!)
A final thought before I retire to the third episode of Spooks ... as politicians, political parties, governments and other big institutions and corporations start to use the web to garner opinion and test out lines and policies, they need to remember not to be overwhelmed by the choir of discordant voices. Those politicians, governments and organisations are the ones with the executive responsibility (and sometimes mandates and /or salaries) to make decisions, to listen and to pick out a course. They don’t have to guarantee every contributor a slice of the end vision (or a sentence in the consultation response).