Henry Kissinger, an American diplomat and former Secretary of State under Richard Nixon said that “ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation.” A fitting quote in today’s world regardless of where you happen to live.
I’ve always been a bit weary of politics myself and tend to vote only in American elections when I desire to see real change. I voted in 2004 but alas, George Bush remained in the White House. Even though Bush will relinquish his power from next year, I wish I could still vote him out again, if only for good measure. I’ve realised that pretty much every time I have voted, I seem to be voting AGAINST someone rather than FOR someone. I’m not certain that’s what the founders of American democracy had intended.
Since the late 1990s, American candidates have used the Internet to communicate their platform, their qualifications and their promises. As recently as 2004’s US elections, their websites tended to be little more than digital brochures and with a few exceptions, seemed to be focused on trying to control how the candidates appear to the public.
2008 has been different. As an American living abroad, I’ve been able to source and explore more about these candidate choices than ever before and it’s all being done online. If I was living in the US, I’d be sick and tired of hearing about the elections all day, every day, across the multitudes of television and cable news networks. While in Fiji, however, I can explore in my own time without experiencing the political-fatigue commonly associated with listening to candidates speak.
The respective websites of the top political contenders vying for power in the United States vary greatly. I’ll focus on the Democrats here simply because I fear discussing Republicans could turn this column into a rant and nobody needs that. “Change”, which is very much the keyword in this American election, is clearly upon us. For the first time, we have both a black man and woman vying for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The websites of Hillary Clinton (www.hillaryclinton.com) and Barack Obama (www.barackobama.com) are far apart in their approach to supporting each candidate. Although I wouldn’t try to make the claim that Obama’s campaign owes its success to its website designers, I do feel comfortable writing that the site is probably making a big difference for many people and does have a clear advantage over the site of Hillary Clinton.
There are definitely plenty of similarities between the two websites, especially in the way content is organised. For example, both sites have an area called “Issues” which highlight exactly what the candidate’s position is on any number of topics. In some ways, Clinton’s use of action-phrases such as “Reforming our immigration system” is more telling than Obama’s site which titles the same topic as simply “Immigration”. To me, however, this ended up reinforcing how I feel about Clinton’s approach. That maybe she’s too demanding. Obama’s entire campaign, both online and off, seems to be geared towards helping people make their own decisions. That approach is inherently more attractive and desirable for me when choosing to support a candidate.
The biggest advantage Obama appears to have over Clinton online is an apparent understanding of what the online space is all about. Obama’s website uses a lot of video all streamed via YouTube, the Internet’s most popular video sharing website. That immediately made Obama seem more down-to-earth than the other candidates. After all, I’ve got video of my own family, friends and life experiences on YouTube. Although Clinton’s site incorporates video as well, it feels more professional and because of that, a bit staged. Obama’s site seems to spend a great amount of energy trying to connect like-minded voters with each other, especially ones that support Obama. That is also very much in line with the community aspects of how people are using the Internet nowadays (i.e.; Facebook, MySpace, etc...).
My experiences this year exploring the choices of candidates online brought me back to the 2006 elections in Fiji. Months prior to the election, my office came up with the idea of helping support all of the candidates vying for political seats. This would help them to communicate their messages online to both their constituents as well as the general public. There were numerous benefits to us including giving Fijian-citizens abroad access to the people running for office in this country. This was something never before available. Additionally, asking these politicians to put down in writing and publish online their positions on very specific issues was just one way of keeping them honest, so to speak. For the first time, there would be a real record, accessible by anyone and anywhere, on the promises these candidates were basing their campaigns on.
There was a once-off cost of $450 associated for each participating politician. That money was to go to the design and development of the website and the hosting. More importantly, the funds would be used for an large scale advertising campaign in newspapers, radio and even television to ensure that people were aware of the website, domestically and abroad. At the time, I felt it was a reasonable amount of money to charge for a guaranteed set time of Fiji political promises online.
So...we sent out letters to a list of every politician in the country and then we sat and waited to see how many would respond. Anyone want to guess how many did?
Sega tu. Zero.
Was it the cost we were asking from them? Perhaps that could have been it. Was it the fact that their answers to the questions posted to their profile pages would be up online for anyone to measure and check? Perhaps that could be part of it too. For whatever reason, it didn’t happen. It just wasn’t enough of a draw and no one felt it important enough to blaze that trail.
When we compare Obama’s (and even Clinton’s) success in engaging voters online, sharing their hopes, stating their positions and communicating their ideas, we can see that in an online space, the politicians who do reach out and use whatever tools they have available to them are far from the only ones who win. The people win as well.
If communication is what it’s all about, why does the “digital” scare so many people away? Perhaps Fiji’s next election will embrace all flavours of the talanoa.
From FijiTimes 1 March 2008
Jonathan Segal is the Managing Director and CEO of Oceanic Communications (www.oceanic.com.fj), an advertising, marketing and technology agency in Suva. Feel free to send comments and topic suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org