I have been looking at government websites to see how they use blogs and video. It’s been interesting – not least because it is clear that their real use has little to do with interacting with the masses. “Web 2.0”, it ain’t – at least not yet.
Why blogs and video? Because these are two techniques that could make politics interesting online. The web is hopeless at soundbites, beloved of politicians, and while it is great at laying out detail, is struggles to make it enthralling.
The potential for blogs is to help create a network, with views flying in every direction. For governments wanting to show their willingness to listen, to interact, their appeal is obvious. Video is useful simply because it is, or can be, more engaging than text – and when subjects are dull, anything that adds a little fun is a godsend.
Blogs and online video are now widespread in the political world. Many individual politicians use them, sometimes combining them into video blogs. As far as I can see though, only one government – the UK‘s – is trying to knit them into its official communication mix (rather more governments are doing the opposite, particularly by blocking YouTube). I was particularly surprised to find that only one member of the US administration, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, seems to have his own blog.
I have seen enough, though, to come up with three main thoughts.
First, while the usual selling point for this new generation of sites is that they allow greater interaction and horizontal communication, their real use is quite different - to provide a “dress down” channel to complement the besuited official website. The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s home page flags blogs by the foreign secretary, the minister for Europe and the ambassador to Afghanistan, while a banner labelled “British Satellite News” leads to a video news section. And if you dig around in YouTube, you will find the FCO has its own “channel”, with 32 videos, most linked to blogs. Do the same in Flickr, the photo sharing site, and you will find a big library of FCO pictures.
Now, contrast the British Satellite News videos with those on the YouTube channel. It’s like watching old-fashioned newsreels followed by modern fireside chats (or in the case of Afghanistan, tankside). Contrast too the carefully-written text on the main site with the relaxed tone of the blogs. It is difficult to imagine the site quoting a senior diplomat saying ‘Why is army food SO much better than ours?’. But that is what Sir Sherard Cowper-Cowles, ambassador to Afghanistan, says on his lively blog. He embeds videos from YouTube, too, including one he has bravely made in French.
US health minister Mr Leavitt’s blog is a little less chatty, but is also informal. It is noticeable – on both his and the UK blogs - how few comments the posts have attracted. The blogs are quite new, so this may change, but I suspect that their real value is – and may continue to be that of unofficial official channel.
Second, blogs works best when they are personal – and are written by the person whose name they carry. Corporate blogs written by a real - preferably senior - person are invariably more engaging and generate more reaction than others. No problem with the FCO blogs here, I think – you can use them to read the different characters of the ministers and the story-book Sir Sherard. Mr Leavitt clearly writes his own blog too – it’s no bodice ripper, but it feels genuine.
But look at the blog belonging to the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi (I know she’s not government, but as I’ve said there’s a paucity of official blogs). It’s called The Gavel, and you can find it from her site (www.speaker.gov). Trouble is, most of the posts come from “The Office of the Speaker” or from Jesse Lee. I found only one by Ms Pelosi herself.
I checked Mr Lee on Google and discovered that he “is the New Media Advisor to Speaker Pelosi. He is tasked with blog outreach and is the primary author of the Speaker’s blog.” I can see why it makes sense to use a professional to make sure a blog is as well linked as possible (I assume this is what “blog outreach” is), but the blog itself loses a huge amount of credibility (and interest) by being, um, second hand. Let’s hope ministers are not tempted to go the same way.
Third, integration of the website with the other channels is a challenge. The FCO’s site links clearly to its blogs but not to the content on YouTube or Flickr. Some of the blogs have YouTube videos embedded, and with a bit of clicking you can get to the FCO channel, but otherwise the films are isolated. Moreover the way YouTube is set up makes it tricky to locate them: it relies on searchable tags and eschews all but the broadest categorisations. If you search for “fco”, you will find many videos of planes at Rome Fiumicino Airport (its code is fco), but have to work hard to find British diplomats. “Foreign office” is a bit better, but still the official posts are crowded by videos provided and tagged by others – you can’t stop people sticking on the tags they want. Meanwhile on Flickr, “foreign office” generates lots of photos of the architectural splendours of the headquarters, all provided by keen amateurs. Again the officials get crowded out.
Taking these points together, it seems to me that the arrival of blogs and video on government sites is unambiguously positive. But it marks an evolution, not a revolution, and I suspect there will be much tweaking and twirling before the evolution is declared an unambiguous success.