I blogged skeptically a few days ago about the attempts by Segolène Royal, the French likely presidential candidate, and José Luis Zapatero, the Spanish Prime Minister, to establish direct online communication channels with citizens and involve them in the democratic process. Today another leading European politician, the British opposition leader (head of the Conservative Party) David Cameron launched a similar effort - a better one, actually.
"Webcameron" (sic) is basically a videoblog where Cameron will try to engage citizens and "give you behind-the-scenes access so that you can actually see what policies we are developing, the things that we are doing". These are words from his first videopost, filmed in his kitchen with Cameron clearing dirty plates and trying to talk into the camera above the screams of his children. "Watch out BBC, ITV, Channel4, we're the new competition", he adds.
Cameron is shown in other videoposts during his recent trip to India (those were used to "test" the format), and the site also features a guest blog, with US Senator (and possible Republican presidential candidate) John McCain as the first guest. Cameron may post twice weekly, says the Guardian in the article that revealed the blog (the BBC also has a story in which Cameron is quoted saying that he's gonna give the blog "a lot of time"). The whole thing is clever and wrapped in informality - on top of the screaming kids: domestic interiors; no tie; shaking camera, as if it was an amateur video. Of course it is not: it has been planned and staged and carefully produced (watch these two videos: he says the same thing, the same sentences, in different settings - the first one must be a leftover from a rehearsal, the second is the official "launch" videopost). But it is better than other similar attempts particularly because it seems to be genuinely open to people's comments, even those that are not supportive. The very first comment posted today reads: "Blair for the internet generation, eh? How embarrassing". Others call him DodgyDavid, crack jokes about the videoposts ("was the dishwasher broken?"), criticize the Tories' lack of policies, the party's past, etc. (the majority of comments are positive though, from kudos to suggesting new fiscal or social policies etc). People have to register in order to submit a comment (really, a working e-mail address is enough) but then what they write doesn't seem to be censored.
So Cameron seems to be willing to take some risks and Webcameron may get some traction. There are many things to be fixed (for example by giving more prominence on the homepage to the citizens' comments, or by allowing people to embed the videos in their own blogs, YouTube-style, as reader Craig McGinty suggested in a comment to this post) and of course there will be an expectation that he replies to the comments (not necessarily individually, but at least by addressing criticism and proposals in future videoposts). Will be interesting to watch.
Just one additional and tangent comment - on the Guardian article, which reveals that if politicians have difficulties in understanding the Internet and figuring out how to use it to reach out to people (Prime minister Tony Blair last week at the Labour Conference spoke of the "Google Generation" - but as my friend Andy Hobsbawm says "Google isn't actually something I associate with young people anymore") political journalist find it more difficult still. Consider the opening sentence of that article:
David Cameron will today unveil radical plans to harness the power of the Internet by reaching out to a blogging generation that is disaffected and disconnected from mainstream politics.
How many empty buzzwords in a single sentence? The initiative - the article continues - is
designed to make the Tories one of the most technologically progressive parties in Europe.
It's just a videoblog, guys...