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The Importance of Communities in Online Communication

We offer a critique of the Labour Party’s official digital campaigning strategy, and offer an alternative based around the use of social media to develop communities of interest and practice around people’s most pressing needs and concerns

This paper was written in response to a draft note: “Campaigns” produced shortly after the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Leadership of the Labour Party

The current era of digital media has a defining characteristic in the upending of the producer-audience model of mass communication; citizens are not simply able to connect with politicians as well as other citizens interested in political issues. But they can also produce content which contests the domination of communication by limited numbers of political and media players. Right now anyone with a connection to the Internet can “do” politics in some form which makes for a more vibrant, chaotic, and non-hierarchical political communication environment.

The first thing we noted about the Labour “Campaigns” agenda was its conventional tone and the remarkable degree to which it does not address a desire to create new sustainable and successful social action(s). It would seem as though the party assumes that the creation of social movement(s) can readily be derived from the practice of conventional politics. I would suggest from my knowledge of the research literature and extensive practical experience that such is not the case.

Right now the conventional focus of the Party will be to tell everyone, new members and potential voters alike, about the Labour Party; what it thinks and believes and worse of all, how it operates. Its conventional goal would be to recruit more people to share that experience and by increasing the number of people so inclined build a political position of strength in a (poorly functioning) representative democracy.  In following this path the Party will limit itself as an agent of social change just as effectively as, to give a topical example, Grammar Schools do. This is because the formalism of language, structure and processes will undermine the party’s efforts from the outset and throughout. First and foremost as I am sure you know, the top-down structure of the Party is dysfunctional in the context of recruiting people to an active member role. It both produces and reproduces exactly those structures that so many of us, particularly the poor, experience in ways too painful to enumerate throughout our lives; at home, at work, in school and whenever we make contact with the state. As does the language of the Party, it is a requirement of any significant and sustainable social institution that it create and owns a private language and rules, the Party has just such language and rules explicit and otherwise. By definition this creates insiders and outsiders; only right now it doesn’t want to create outsiders.

It is in discussing the suggested processes arising within a campaigning Labour Party that I foresee the greatest difficulty for their plans. In essence the party seems to consider that the task of increasing participation and campaigning in the Labour Party is to be undertaken by operating in a conventional and managerialist manner. That is to say a situation in which the party can share its knowledge, skills and understandings more widely so larger numbers of people can think and act as the party does and is. This is, I believe it is fair to say a trickle down theory of political action – just like trickle down economic theories – long since debunked. Similarly the kind of thinking behind the idea that we, the Party, need to improve engagement let us have engagement officers should be challenged for what it is and discarded. It is fundamental that systemic engagement cannot be brokered or ‘managed’ by individuals, alone or in numbers. In thinking about change we must address the what, when and how of the process. If the party limits itself to the current rule book applied to the current offices within the party and the existing methods and practices for affecting change little difference can be achieved, particularly with regards to engagement.

I know the party has many new members but they did not join to learn how to do things in the way the party has always done them.  In fact the exact opposite is the case with a lot of them. The strong emphasis upon training and education throughout the notes the party published sounds a loud alarm. It is clear that the party thinks that it knows how to organise and campaign and will now throw some new ideas and even technology at the problem. But on the whole e-mail and databases, training and educational programmes reflect inertia and conventional thinking where innovation and dynamism is required. For example they do not show how the party is going to train and educate and then change itself – at all levels.

These plans do not reflect the required degree of change in the way the Party looks to its members and the country at large for help and guidance, information and, vitally, support. Making practical and transformative social action a matter of continuous dialogue between the Party, its members and the wider public. Also but perhaps only in my opinion, their plans do not answer the big question raised by recent events either within the party or the country as to what an ordinary person should do about the situation we find ourselves in. The reason, of course, is because the Party, its leaders and membership don’t have an answer yet. Why should they? No one else does we can be sure. However the Party does have an exceptionally powerful idea that can help forge a path to some answers – ask the people. Ask for example, what’s wrong, what’s right, what would you do, what do you want to do?  What are you doing? What matters to you? As Barack Obama said of the huge investment made by the White House in new comms technologies – ‘we want to speak to the people where they are’. Their plans suggest very strongly that they want to speak to people about where they are and would wish to be with the help of those who will listen. This is a profound mistake. The Party is in great danger of continuing to do its politics in an echo chamber and that is to lose an opportunity that should not be lost.

The distinction made in the notes between Party, Trade Unions and community foci for action is perhaps useful for planning but should not be followed in practice.  It would be better if that connection arose organically, driven by common interest and actions. The case of the NHS project is a good example where cross-fertilisation and mutual support are more effectively achieved and made visible by an integrated approach. The NHS project can be a solution which serves to both increase engagement and provide opportunities for participation at one and the same time. By bearing witness collectively and holding the NHS to account members can be engaged with the party and participating in an action. Labour can demonstrate the benefit of organised purposeful political activity by showing people what they know, want others to know and need to see changed. Better yet, these activities can serve as a vehicle for recruiting more members either to the campaign or the party and most important of all serve to demonstrate how the party is capable of listening and talking but also acting alongside the public at large. We give a description of a technically achievable example of this below.

Before moving on we would like to draw your attention to some data from the Labour leadership election campaign this summer. If you look above you will see our data showing the volume of Tweets associated with he two candidates between July 25th and August 1st 2016. There are two noticeable differences in terms of the volume of Twitter activity associated with the two candidates. First there is of course the simple question of volume – Corbyn clearly excited more interest that Smith, be it good or bad. The second point which bears directly on our case is that the Smith camp exhibits linear growth in the volume of tweets whilst Corbyn exhibits a non-linear even exponential growth pattern. In any event the two candidates represent two entirely different patterns of growth in terms of social media activity. The pattern exhibited by Corbyn – despite the no doubt hard work of a social media campaign team, is due to explosive organic growth. It derives from the action and reaction of the public, a spread of effect that serves to break Corbyn out of the much slower, incremental growth on behalf of Smith.  Our point is this, that growth in interest and activity was a massive input to the campaign, representing more than just the 100,000 or so people taking direct part on one day at the start of August. This wasn’t planned by the party, no one managed this, no one was trained. It was part of the mass activity that framed the election and it grew itself quickly and effectively from the same base as the public voice of Smith’s campaign. We can use this type of effect to learn a good deal, things that need to be learned by the party and the country.

What are we trying to do?

In essence we are proposing a model for social action based upon the use of a social and technical system to help identify individuals and groups and bring them together to build communities of interest. More important still we are trying to develop a process to support the transition from communities of interest to the widest possible base for a community of Practice.

A community of interest can only be loosely defined, because of their very nature.  In essence we can say this is our starting point; a group or groups of people who can be identified – even if they themselves do not, as sharing a common interest or concern and primarily driven by the exchange of information. So for example housing problems and public health issues are communities interest in which individuals public, private and third sector entities may all have information and agendas to share.  Some may act directly but as for action in common that is often limited to information sharing of one stripe or another.

A community of Practice is a group or groups of people who share a common concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who interact over time to deepen their knowledge and create solutions.  In connecting to solve problems members a of a community of Practice, share ideas and information, set values, build practices, and develop relationships with peers and stakeholders to focus on a common purpose. They are a collective driven by the shared need to express their common interests in the form of actions, information sharing and promoting change – furthering a common cause. Experience suggests that a community of Practice that has a positive impact by helping to solve important problems not only retains a substantial percentage of its members, but attracts new ones.

Key characteristics of Community of Practice

  • Some sponsorship
  • A vision and/or mission statement
  • Goals and/or objectives
  • A core team and/or general membership
  • Expected outcomes and/or impacts
  • Measures of success
  • Description of operating processes
  • Assumptions and/or dependencies
  • Review and/or reflection

So much is well understood and indeed already forms the basis of structured systems for the management of complex organisational goals in very large concerns. What we are further proposing is the application of concepts drawn from political science and psychology to the task of creating and enlarging social movements best described as Communities of Practice – goal focussed and active ‘activists’. Our problem is two-fold. First we need to find the people (and organisations) who care about a topic and second to engage them. This last problem is itself immensely complicated by the requirement that in the social arena our success and the primary driver for action itself, requires that we should be able to engage with the greatest variety of actors agencies and individuals drawn from as diverse a set of knowledge, backgrounds and values as the society in which they live.

Here is our first problem of substance, people do not readily aggregate across cultural, class, ethnic, gender, geographical and material divides. Rather it is well understood that the exact opposite applies – particularly with regard to electronic means of social communication – which is a central aspect of our approach. Firstly, we human beings do not seek out the stories, interpretations or evidence which contradict our positions, rather we naturally seek confirmatory evidence of our preconceptions, biases and values. Second and deeply connected to the first point, human beings exhibit what Political scientists term Homophily, the tendency to associate with and to like people similar to ourselves.In fact in social discourse this is a very powerful effect indeed. People do not look for and do not readily respond to behaviour, evidence or argument that operates against prior convictions so most of us and most of the time, look to associate with those with whom we would naturally tend to agree. Once upon a time that might have been expressed solely in terms of ones’ choice of broadcast news and newspaper but today things are very different indeed. Almost all people below a certain age have actively created an information environment for themselves, one which is always adding evidence and argument to bolster their existing ‘take’ on the world in general and the ‘politics’ in particular. So for example, we browse social media feeds, favourite blogs, messages, TV channels, news websites, discussion forums and address the call-outs from all of our chats, subscriptions and notifications. The entire range of which is usually designed to appeal to us for the simple reason that we chose its content so efficiently thanks to modern algorithms. We do not have space here to go into the social and political implications of this ‘echo chamber’ effect, sufficient to say it is well documented and is very evident in modern political events all across the globe – including the UK.

The point of all of this may seem blindingly obvious; a community of practice must in fact and principle, if it is undertaken in and for a participatory democracy span a diverse body of people. But that same public will not as a matter of course for example, choose to use the same forms of expression e.g. written language, deploy the same concepts and values to act on the world, or be open to the same modes of communication, forms of evidence and argumentation. This is at the very heart of the practical politics of engaging with and reacting to the concerns of people at large.

We understand that the ideas set out below may seem a step or steps too far. It is certainly the case that the Labour Party is struggling with the task of creating real change within itself. In all likelihood the reasons not to proceed will be manifold: cost, privacy, problems of control, implications for existing lines of management and responsibility etc.. However the methods and technology described here directly address the agenda set out by the party leadership. They are designed to create change and not least in their effect would be a change in politics itself. We are seeking to democratise public discourse and build a coherent modern method for creating public accountability. Accountability framed so as to include acknowledging and creating public discourse over what happens within the NHS in astonishing detail.

To discuss the ideas presented in this article please click here.