I’m doing a 5-minute chat with ABC Hobart’s morning show on Monday to compare the web sites of the Tasmanian premier, David Bartlett and the opposition leader Will Hodgman. After some careful consideration and consultation with some colleagues, I’ve come to the conclusion that if politicians make web sites, they need to be banned from YouTube.
At first glance the web sites look similar, although Hodgman’s is superior in terms of layout and design – mainly because he’s using running a Drupal site using the zen classic template. Can’t go very far wrong there. I’m not sure what Bartlett is using, although his site is within a .gov.au domain, so I assume it’s some variation of whatever the department is using for other pages.
Given this, the accessibility and W3C standards compliance results aren’t surprising. Both were reasonably OK with accessibility (although Bartlett had an image missing a text description – which is a real pain for vision impaired readers who rely on screen reader software). The W3C standards test revealed 11 errors on Hodgman’s page, 73 errors on Bartlett’s. So, thanks to Drupal, Hodgman managed to beat Bartlett hands down on standards and accessibility.
Technically, then, Hodgman wins, thanks to his use of Drupal.
In terms of content, things become tricky. One of the first things I tell people to work out is the purpose of their site – especially if they already think they know the purpose. A site with a mixed purpose is confusing and will fail to achieve its goals. Here we have two sites that seem to do the same thing, but actually don’t.
Hodgman’s site is about Hodgman. All the links and feedback and information is about Hodgman and his campaigns. There’s a little bit of the man here, and a lot of the public façade. So, if the goal of Hodgman’s site is to promote the individual, then it works. Bartlett’s site suffers from a mixed personality. At first is seems to be presenting the Premier in the same way as Hodgman’s (ie: this is a site about a person, a personal home page), but then as you dig in, you find that most of it is about his government – policies, cabinet, portfolios, etc. The two things don’t work together very well. He’d be better off with a Premier’s page with a .gov.au URL and a separate Bartlett page that promotes Bartlett. Instead, it looks like Bartlett is hiding a lack of substance by diverting attention to his government.
So, in terms of content, Hodgman wins again.
This of course all intersects violently with the curious use of social networking by political parties. Here’s the thing: political parties are starting to hear all about teh Interwebz and get this idea that there’s a group of networked people out there (mainly imagined as the elusive youth vote). They know the technologies that in part define social networking: things like YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, “podcasting”, but they don’t yet understand how these things work at a social level.
Social networking is based on a kind of interpersonal trust. A user gives as much or as little of his or herself into the social network as he or she feels comfortable with. The trust runs both ways. It’s hard to trust someone who seems phoney or insincere. In the online world, communication is interpersonal, but in the political world, the politician is removed from the public by status and a well designed communication strategy that’s designed to filter information for the politician. There’s good reasons for this. Even the most committed politician can only do so much, and there’s plenty of people out there who expect to gain a lot more than the politician can deliver. So, the politician has become a machine – when you send a letter to your local member, you’re sending a message to his or her machine, to be read, filtered and answered by the machine.
Online, this machine doesn’t (yet) work. It looks clunky and old-fashioned. On my blog, if you leave a comment you expect it to be answered by me, not by someone pretending to be me, and not by someone who has the authority to answer on my behalf. When I set up a facebook page, the expectation is that I’m putting myself out there – or at least part of myself. If someone writes on my wall, they should get a response from me. If I want my machine on facebook, then I should identify it as my machine, not as me.
Similarly, you need to understand how people use the technologies. YouTube is a place for interesting videos. They may be videos of people or animals doing stupid things, or they may be informative or even documentary. In any event, they need to be interesting. Videos of politicians talking to audiences is dull. The only people likely to watch them are the politicians and the people who feature in the videos. If you want to use YouTube effectively, don’t post videos of yourself in a suit talking to a camcorder held by one of your staffers. Have someone follow you around with a camcorder and when you trip going up the stairs to the podium, or when you say something embarrassing but politically harmless, post that. It will make you appear more human and be interesting. Who didn’t like watching John Howard trip in Perth? Just make sure you get up and make light of it afterwards. So, for both pollies, their use of YouTube is a fail.
Both Bartlett and Hodgman have facebook pages. Bartlett has just over 1,700 friends. Hodgman has 700 (including the Federal Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey). Here’s the surprising thing, though – Bartlett seems to engage with his page much more in the spirit of social networking. Hodgman less so. Hodgman’s posts are less numerous and more overtly political. Bartlett’s are more numerous, often trivial and personal – and while triviality may not be the sort of thing you want in a Premier, it’s certainly the correct way to address Facebook.
So, in the final analysis, I’d award points like this:
Web site technical: David: C- Will: B+
Web site content: David: D+ Will: B
Use of social networking: David: B+ Will: C
Use of video: David: F Will: F
David gets the social networking thing but needs to drop the video or do something more interesting with it. His web site sucks and is probably not worth the bandwidth. Grade: C
Will: presents a much slicker and more savvy face through his web site, and the content’s much better and on-message, but his use of social networking isn’t as convincing. Grade: B
It’s good to see pollies starting to use the Internet to reach out to their constituents. They still need to invest more time and energy in the Internet and work on actively developing their online communities, working with the technology rather than trying to impose their way of doing things on social and technological systems they have little control over.