G8 summits are fascinating for webwatchers. Two years ago it was fun seeing radical dissenters running online rings round the establishment as it gathered at Gleneagles. This week at Heiligendamm they are at it again – more sophisticated than ever. Yet the balance of power seems to be changing, with the NGOs elbowing the radicals off the screen. What does it all mean?
For many years protest movements have held sway on the web. Big Business discovered that to its cost in 1996, when Greenpeace used its site to outmanoeuvre Shell as the oil group attempted to dump the Brent Spar platform. Since then radical organisations have treated the web as their own playground, and have also used it very effectively as an organisational tool. The anti-globalisation protests this week and in the last few years could never have reached their scale without the internet.
The continuing importance of the web to the antis remains clear. Dissent! is headed “International mobilization against G8 2007”, and is explicit about the role the web has played in getting the riots rolling: “Our internet-work is over … it’s time for action to smash G8!”. Judging from the action in Germany this week, the internet-work seems to have been quite effective.
Dissent is the hub of a set of whizzy sites. G8-TV is using Flash video to broadcast live for 20 minutes every evening, and also to carry clips contributed by video activist groups or anyone else. User-generated content – very Web 2.0, very logical. An extra sophistication is the “beamer-friendly” version using BitTorrent technology. BitTorrent is a way of spreading a video from user to user, so that large people of users can watch it at the same time without problems. Why this makes the video easier to beam (project) is a mystery to me, but these people seem to know what they’re doing, so I’ll believe them.
The Dissent site also links to podcasts (old hat now, but I’m not sure they were around at the time of Gleneagles), a radio station, and a desperately web 2.0 wiki. This site looks like Wikipedia, but consists solely of pieces on the summit, contributed and edited by its users. It’s in a mix of English and German and tells us about the International Medics Group, which aims to maintain ‘a basic level of health care for participants at the protests’, information on campsites, routes of protest bike rides, and much more.
It is all very organised, which must be upsetting for anarchists, and contrasts greatly with the plethora of loosely-linked sites that sprang up around Gleneagles. But that is not the main problem. If the protestors want to get their message to a broad audience – rather than just to the committed – they need to have visibility on Google. And this they do not have.
I typed “G8” into Google and looked for the Dissent site; and looked and looked. I could not see it on the first five pages of results. What I did see was a lot of official sites, some protest sites from past summits – mainly Gleneagles – and lots of sponsored links from charities and other NGOs. Oxfam, Save the Children and UNICEF came at the top of my sponsored links list, with campaign sites either directly targeting the G8 meeting or covering a topic such as child AIDS. The official sites are pretty dull. The German government one covering Heiligendamm is practical but boring; no attempt here to talk to people who might be sceptical about the whole thing.
The NGO sites are by contrast impressive, and are particularly good at broad propaganda work. Oxfam’s international site features the G8 on its home page, while the UK site goes to town with its “Don’t let the G8 stop what you started” slogan. Its G8 Blog has a useful set of links to newspaper and television sites, a petition addressed to Mrs Merkel and Mr Blair, and promotion for the ‘G8 wait’ – a video campaign to get Mr Blair to post a response to criticisms on YouTube and other such sites. Strange to think that YouTube was only four months old at the time of the Gleneagles summit.
Why have the radical protest sites been pushed out of view? Because they don’t pay for sponsored links – perhaps they cannot, if they do not have legal entities behind them. But also because they have failed to promote themselves on Google using “search engine optimisation”. Odd, given the enormous sophistication of the Dissent site itself.
What all this shows is that the web is changing fast – no surprise there – but also that it is vital to keep on top of the basics (search optimisation) as well as the latest fancy techniques. A lesson not just for anti-globalisation protestors, but for the merchants of globalisation who are, I suspect, much more likely to be reading this column.