If they're really concerned about the lack of youthful Canadians trekking to the polls, you'd think politicians would be strapped to their keyboards refining their blogs. Well, they are... sort of.
The blog - an online journaling tool allowing discussion between a writer and readers - is an attractive format to young people skeptical about and alienated by mass media hype. These communications are seen as heartfelt personal reflections unmediated by handlers or spin doctors.
"Blogging is direct and personal," notes Jason Nolan, a lecturer at the Knowledge Media Design Institute at the University of Toronto. "It doesn't work with sound bites and slogans. It screams content over style."
The problem, however, is that most Canadian politicians and their campaign managers don't seem to grasp the philosophy and culture behind these Web dialogues. They don't realize that blogs aren't blogs when they're full of the usual political rhetoric. The result is that most of the few attempts by federal candidates are in a form websters would laugh at. Indeed, misusing the vehicle is likely even more alienating to young people than not using it at all.
Jesse Hirsh, co-founder of Openflows Networks, an organization that encourages progressive uses of technology, observes that "youth are used to [blogs as a form] of media and can respect and detect their level of authenticity." Using the format as just a new way to issue press releases makes politicians look fake, insincere and out of touch.
The Conservative party's "blog" is a perfect example of this misunderstanding. Essentially, it consists of highly spun and impersonal political rhetoric sprinkled with random restaurant reviews or a thank-you to Air Canada for the free champagne and other special treatment. It's unclear who's behind these anonymously written updates, but it isn't Steven Harper, because he's constantly referred to in the third person.
Jack Layton, on the other hand, is writing not a traditional blog but a regularly updated "diary." Unlike the Conservatives' anonymous log, it's written by the NDP leader himself. His entries usually take the following form: "I talked to delegates about the NDP's real deal for cities, our plan to invest in cities and communities. Martin reminds me of the Red Queen from Alice In Wonderland: jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but no jam today."
Layton's musings are seldom very interior and lack the crucial comment feature that makes blogs so subversive of traditional one-way media. Ian Capstick, spokesperson for the NDP, says they're making technical improvements, but he doesn't know if a discussion feature will be added.
Paul Martin's blog, which is also personalized, hasn't been updated since October 2003. It features such unsurprising offerings as, "The role of any leader is to listen to the best ideas that are shaping a country."
Liberal party spokesperson Peter Graham attributes the blog's staleness to the fact that it was only used in Martin's bid for Liberal party leadership. As far as communicating this way with his constituents during the current election, Graham says it's "probably not the best use of his time." But, he adds, "You can't say that because we aren't using a blog we aren't trying to get in touch with young people."
Jonathan Rose, a Queen's political science prof and member of the Queen's Internet Studies Centre, notes that campaign managers are probably scared to allow such interactivity because they can't control for "political hackers." Similarly, as Tamara Small, a researcher writing her dissertation on "cyber-campaigns," observes: "The last thing a party wants is for some journalist to find a comment on their blog that could become a story."
That's probably the major de-motivator, says Nolan. "Blogging is a tool that bypasses the political smokescreen," he argues. "It leaves too much of a paper trail. It has history, rather than the eternal present/future that politicians prefer to inhabit."
Some theorists believe the Internet will always be the poor cousin of television in the political realm. Andrew Potter, a philosophy professor at Trent who teaches a course on the Internet, puts it this way: "The Internet is the most important communication medium in the world, but is it for politics? No. Television killed Howard Dean and still dominates as a political medium. There's nowhere else where you can get a huge and instant audience."
True, Dean may have been trounced by TV, but his blogs nevertheless captured a massive new youth audience. Hossein Derakhshan, a blogger and journalist with the BBC World Service, notes that Iranian vice-president Mohammad Ali Abtahi has been using a blog to keep in touch with his constituents for almost a year. "He has become a very well-known politician among the young Iranian generation who are not interested in politics at all."
Rose believes this election could be a turning point. From here on, politicos may have to learn the new language of personal, interactive persuasion. "This is a watershed election for how political parties use the Internet," he says.