Feb 222013
 
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After meekly exiting Labour’s intranet, Members Net, having blogged for quite a while in its partisan embrace, I stumbled across an outside world of blogging at the hand of Andrew Regan’s now defunct political aggregator, Bloggers4Labour.  I thought this a wonderful device, maintaining as it healthily did the visual and locational idiosyncrasies of individual blogsites, even as it brought together in one sensible place the feeds of each and every one.  It allowed for a wonderful overview of what was bubbling under in the Labour-blogging community; it helped new bloggers get exposure and support from existing practioners; and it served to sustain a worthy sense of common cause in what has often historically been a fractured political grouping.

Andrew really did know how to integrate the needs of readerships by using technology.  He would even supply his own often gently proffered and constructive comments on other people’s posts.  This helped create a point of focus on the wider input which – in a very simple and neat way – helped generate an air of shared purpose.

My memory of Bloggers4Labour was almost entirely positive.  Both Andrew and I, sometimes together, sometimes separately, tried to build on this original achievement with other projects which I was either rather tangentially involved in (for example, Andrew’s Poblish – a super-aggregator designed to outdo Google’s own search in the global field of political blogging) or more directly engaged with (for example, my idea for a Last.fm of political thought).  In all cases, I think what drove him – and certainly myself – was a desire to return, in some way or other, to that golden age of political blogging which Bloggers4Labour – at its most didactic and pedagogical best – seemed at the time to represent.

Instead of cramming everyone together in a single platform – a kind of awful melting-pot as per a United States of Blogging – Bloggers4Labour and the ideas that came afterwards looked to allow individuality to shine through even as the aim was to bring voices together.

A European Union of Sovereign Blogging, if you like.

So if it was such a good idea, why didn’t it quite work out?  Who knows?  Maybe because we didn’t have the resource; maybe because we didn’t quite hone the ideas; maybe, in reality, because it wasn’t such a golden age.  Or maybe because blogging, in a different way, has kind of had its time and has transmuted into other ways of exchanging the information we value.

Blogging always was a bit of a traditional hierarchy of communication: author-led top-down authorities who were often challenged, but never entirely toppled, by those who would hang from their coattails.  Which is not to underestimate the importance of commenters to the good functioning of a blogsite.  Sometimes, the broader reputations acquired belonged more to those who commented than to the original posters themselves.

Symbiotic relationships of thought were ever thus.

Of course, we all know what happened to blogging: Facebook and Twitter.  It was probably going to happen, whatever the company name, whatever the online constitution, whatever the business model.  But Facebook and Twitter both hastened traditional blogging’s demise.

People much better resourced than us English blogging fans were able to re-engineer the instincts behind standard blogging for an instant-fix generation.  And so the beautiful exchanges between considered author-led hierarchies began to lose their dominance on the web.

*

So now we come to February, 2013.  And whilst the domain’s been running for a while, with a fairly traditional blogging platform behind it, SpeakersChair.com – a cross-party political blogging website on which I have had some of my recent posts published – has suddenly had the audacity to suggest, through a massive makeover of functionality, that political blogging might not be as defunct as we thought.

Before this change, SpeakersChair.com was essentially a traditional melting-pot-type blogging platform.  Writers of different political colours submitted their posts for site editors to repost on the site.  We see this model operating successfully in many places: from Liberal Conspiracy to – I guess – even the Guardian‘s Comment is Free.  I think, however, that the new SpeakersChair.com moves away from this model in several significant ways:

  1. From a melting-pot blogging platform like Liberal Conspiracy, where visuals and technologies become common to all authors even as posting rights remain with site editors, it transmutes itself more into a souped-up kind of TweetDeck, where its prime function is to sit as a front-end to both Facebook and Twitter – as well as SpeakersChair.com itself.
  2. The ability – and challenge – of each contributor is to act as an authorial hub around which comment is designed to flow.  I guess this could be the case for contributors who write original posts just as much as it might be for contributors who add their opinions as comments to original posts.  In fact, at very first glance it seems that the deliberate intention is to blur as much as possible the hierarchy between original posters and commenters.
  3. I cannot but help considering this latter innovation healthy: it clearly shows that the designers of this online constitution understand that their version of political blogging needs to “get” social, if it’s to have any decent chance of catching on.  And social is much more than tacking on commenting tools at the tail-end of the professionalising commentariat: social, above all, is a matter of sharing hierarchy and power.

Seen, then, as a communication front-end more than a traditional website, seen in fact primarily as a posting tool to various channels, there is no reason why SpeakersChair.com shouldn’t compete effectively with Facebook, web Twitter and even third-party communication tools out there.

I just wonder if there’s also an app in the pipeline.  That imperious world of mobile Internet doesn’t half make or break communication these days.  It surely would serve to complete a beautifully political blogging circle which, for me, started out with Labour’s Members Net, stumbled for a few years after Bloggers4Labour’s major steps forwards – and which could now quite easily find its natural home in a cross-party communication project that, at least in my humble opinion, has everything it needs to deservedly succeed.


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  6 Responses to “From Bloggers4Labour to Speaker’s Chair: how political blogging gets social”

  1. I must check out Speaker’s Chair. Some of this chimes with an idea of mine, still half formed, of an online parliament as a more effective debating chamber.

    • Do check it out. It could provide the technology for such an idea. They still reserve admin rights for publishing posts – I think they need to reconsider this and move more towards the hands-off distributor model of Twitter and Facebook than the pre-moderation model of melting-pot blogging platforms – but with a tweak here and there in the software constitution, it could be made most ready for an online parliament.

  2. Thanks Mil. To your point re approving posts – we thought about (and agonised over!) this for a long time. Ultimately we sided on the need to approve – not because we look at the content, message or topic being discussed – I’m very clear that anyone can write on anything (political) whenever they want. The decision, however, was because whilst content from people like yourself is great – good spelling, paragraphs used, etc. It’s the balance between people who are happy to read and discard this, and people who would never visit again because they want to see content of a certain quality.

    I fully admit this may change over time, though. I’m convinced there is a technological solution here – so the entire thing is managed by the community – and it’s certainly something we’ll look at again.

    Jos – sounds very interesting! Look forward to hearing more of your thoughts.

    • The layout side of things *is* an issue, I fully appreciate. But it can actually frighten off participation. Some of the most engaged and engaging websites are rather slapdash about their writing. Yet comments flood in in such a positive way.

      But I do appreciate the dilemma you are facing. Hadn’t thought about that.

  3. Hi Mil, thanks for the kind words! I must say, though, that whereas once upon a time, “make your voice heard” was pretty much the only thing that could be done, I’ve realised – learnt – the futility of the approach, in all its forms: blogging, comments and discussion, “evidence-based blogging”, partisan and so-called non-partisan blogs. All suffer from the same irreconcilable problems: egotism, biases in a myriad forms, the sheer fact that talk is cheap and that people are overwhelmingly more interested in looking to justify their own opinions than learn and be challenged.
    I don’t mean that in a cynical way at all – it’s just human nature. So if we’re looking for a political debating platform that resolves all the above, and that doesn’t leave disillusioned as many people as current approaches do, we need some really new thinking. For starters, no more party labels, and if anything, we need a *less* social platform, so that identity, ego, pressure groups, and group-think can be driven out.

    • Hi Andrew – many thanks for your response. Not kind words at all. Just how I remember having felt.

      I wouldn’t be as dispirited – or resigned – as you appear to be. What’s missing from all the strategies you mention above – and have in all good faith tried – is personal relationships: communities of real people who get to know each other and *want* to act constructively. You can, after all, construct any constitution you like – but if people don’t want to observe it, it’s no good at all.

      So I think all your work prior to the new Speaker’s Chair, and what Speaker’s Chair itself seems to be aiming to achieve, is not in the least wasted. All we need to do is find a group of people willing to take advantage of a potentially productive environment. Perhaps semi-closed, as Speaker’s Chair makes out it is, requiring sign-up before you can easily read, is the best approach here?

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