The political power of the digerati?

I’ve been planning to write a post on this for ages, but time has gotten away. Seriously. Since March the 26th. That’s the day I felt politics in Australia be changed by the internet.

It was the day Senator Conroy went on Q&A, the ABC”s live question and answer show, where he was inundated with questions – apparently over 2000 of them – from members of the public raising serious concerns about the proposed compulsory, national filtering scheme that Conroy – whether by choice or hospital pass – is the front man on.

My objection to a compulsory filter is on the record, so I really enjoyed hearing from the Senator – someone I’ve met since – try and defend his policy. From my perspective, it seemed like the Senator really didn’t want to defend it on its (lack of) merits; any time a Government in power invokes the names, acts and policies of their predecesssors, it is pretty clear they’re trying to avoid responsibility for the current state of play.

But this post isn’t just some rehashing of some persons opinion on a political matter – God knows there’s enough of that already.

No, the thing that really struck me during this experience back in March was how real time contributions, combined with the unique Twitter backchannel, opened my eyes to the noise, if not influence, of the digerati.

The speed of posts, quality of insight, and general ability to shape and resolve community sentiment online was truly breathtaking. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it will forever remain with me as a memory, something I’ll either look back on as a start of something, or as a glimpse of what might have been.

After the interview on Q&A and the extensive level of real time participation I shared with others involved in the debate, I started to wonder about what it all meant for our society, and the political process that for a century or two has been forming policy, laws, regulations and getting on with governing based on a representative system.

As I see it, there are three potential scenarios.

Option 1: The Digerati and Representational Politics

The first scenario is that we’re going to continue with a representative political process, but influence will move towards messages that are facilitated by the digerati. In this model, a small number of individuals are going to be elected/empowered to represent us citizens. They’ll be responsible for voting on laws and approving regulation, they’ll promise to consult with us and our general levels of apathy will ensure only a minority will engage with the political process beyond the ballot box. The positive thing about this scenario, however, is that more direct interaction, feedback, campaigning and consultation will happen using interactive technologies, today represented by websites, email and Twitter. It will be much easier for members of the public to make some noise and be noticed through the online environment, but at the end of the day you’ll still be trying to convince a person with 46 chromosomes to make decisions you agree with, with the option every 3-4 years of expressing your displeasure and voting them out.

To see this form of political interaction really take effect, more and more of us will need to become political animals. Our social networks, our digital interactions, our posts on Twitter, and more, will become influences on the perspectives, opinions and voting intentions in a more tangible and effective way than the media currently does. If Channel 9 tell me a movie is good, I’m going to take it with a very large grain of salt. If a good friend makes an impassioned plea that a policy is going to hurt their family or the environment, I’m going to give it a lot more credibility because of the shorter social distance. Is this a good thing? I don’t know. Many of the reforms that have our country in a much better place than most of Europe today – surrounding labour markets, trade, and to a (depressingly) lesser extent, welfare, aren’t popular and even though they’re right, perhaps a digerati backed political process wouldn’t have supported/allowed them…

Option 2: The Digital Revolution & Legislative Democracy

This situation is potentially the most revolutionary of all, and involves us, as citizens, voting directly on legislation, regulation, and the policy that frames these decisions. While the consequence of this sort of change wouldn’t mean the abolition of representative politics, it would change the dynamic; instead of voting for chair fillers who make up the numbers, we’d vote for politicians who are then charged with the responsibility of ‘selling’ their policies (or alternative policies) to their electorates. Their approach will need to be interactive and engaging – a bit shock for a number of politicians who are just making up numbers as pay-back from their party machines until they can make it to their generous pension scheme entry ages and retire – but in principle it could work quite nicely.

Of course, there are many potential problems with this model. While you’d be hard pressed to find an impartial citizen who’d vote down a 90% punitive tax on finance executive & worker bonuses for people who just deal in other people’s money without wearing any of the risk if things go pear shaped (as they did last year), there are numerous bills that are pretty dry and boring, and more disurbingly, you’d probably get pretty good support for a nut-job bill that promoted protectionism and increased tariffs, or, even worse, foolish and frankly racist immigration controls. This model certainly isn’t perfect, but then the current system (below) is hardly a pretty picture.

Option 3: Unrepresentative, 1901 Issue Myopia

More than a few of the 3 of you who read this post are probably thinking, “Hey, not everyone is online, not everyone is going to try and get involved. This digerati participation concept is really unrepresentative”. And you’re be right. But I’d argue, with more than 80% of Australian households now having the internet, the options above are a lot less unrepresentative and skewed than the status quo.

The third option I see is a continuation of a myopia where our political representatives remain wrapped in some of the most unrepresentative systems and irrelevant issues than ever, and we continue to be affected and held back by it.

Our current government is the Labor party, an organisation that until recently had it enshrined that at least half of their voting delegates to their national policy setting conference were appointed/sent by Unions. As demonstrated so dramatically in NSW in 2008, when the Labour Government of Day disagrees with these conferences, the results can be dramatic: effectively, the Union movement in NSW took down a Premier and a Treasurer, and put a multi-billion dollar hole in the State’s finances to protect the parochial interests of their members who like the idea of continuing to be employed by a benign employer who wouldn’t make sure things ran efficiently.

To look at what this means for our democracy, it is important to realise that only 60% of our population are in the labour force  (lets say 12.6m out of 21m in Australia). Of that 12.6m, about 650K are currently unemployed, so we’re dealing with closer to 12m workers. Last time I checked, about 15% of these workers were part of Unions (it has been on a downhill slide for a long time now), which means we’re dealing with about 1.8m Australians, a bit over 8% of the overall population, who control more than half of the Government. If you look at the heritage of many of the members of our Government, you’ll see a a long history in labour relations, focused on a 20th Century fixation on industrial relations and a preference in having all people equal, but of course some more equal than others.

The current prevailing model is where around 8% of the community have a dramatic level of control, and only a small fraction of that 8% actually care two hoots; they are just paid up members who have to vote for someone, and they let others run their political campaigns, often without a lot of consideration for the wishes of their broader constituents (I’ve seen this first hand more than once, and it isn’t pretty to see employees left unemployed by their representatives happy because they managed to estabilsh a precendent for others).

The digerati, through either influence and replacing the media function, or through direct participation, certainly isn’t perfect. There are many potential issues to address, and it isn’t like the current gerrymander enjoyed by groups who think industrial relations is actually the business of government – news flash: its the economy, defence, social issues, and not controlling the minute details of employment relationships that matter the most to our nation – are going to give up their narrow ideology easily.

But on the 26th of March, as thousands had their say, and even more participated online, I saw a glimse of the future where we could actually play a bigger part in shaping the country we live in, and the sooner we move beyond being governed by the narrow interests and ideologies of union hacks and lawyers, and instead harness the participatory power and intelligence of our citizens, the better!

Facebook's domination of Christmas Day

Uncharacteristically short post this time: Dan Whitworth has an article at BBC’s Newsbeat site about Facebook being so popular it accounted for almost 5% of all page views on Christmas Day.

I’ve got three theories for why this might be:

  • The Facebook generation have enough of their families early in the day, and want to catch up with what their friends got up to on Christmas Eve more than if they weren’t hanging out with the folks
  • There just isn’t anything else going on on Christmas Day. News papers shut down. People trying to make news don’t say anything cause they think no-one is watching, or if they are, there’s no working journalists or outlets to report and publish it anyway
  • With the cost of SMS messages – the most recent way to wish your friends a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year – coming in at around $1,000,000 per GB, Facebook just plain makes sense.

Either way, Facebook is a phenomenon. When my mum starts asking about it, and my mate’s mum asks to be my friend, its gone as mainstream as you can possibly imagine. And for an advertising based business, mainstream = $$$.

If YouTube's struggling, what hope's anyone else got?

Was just reading a post from Mark Cuban, Blog Maverick, about what he percieves as desperation on the part of Google when it comes to monetising all that User Generated Content on their site.

Frankly, I don’t have the time to be a big YouTube watcher, so I’ll take Mark’s comments about changes and user experience at face value. Regardless though, I’ve long been a skeptic of the “we’ll build a loss making business with lots of eyeballs, and work out how to make a buck from it later” approach used by so many Web 2.0 consumer web plays.

And if Google can’t seem to make this work, you’ve got to ask yourself: “what hope does anyone else have”?

As remarked by Mike Cannon-Brooks in a SiliconBeachAustralia podcast, the sheer volume of eyeballs required to generate a sustainable business, assuming generous CPM’s, is amazing. If you want to have a $10m revenue business, you need to make close to $1m/month. If you manage to get $10 CPM, then you need 100 million page views per month – this is pretty massive scale, all for a business that could afford to employ, at most 50 staff, and that’s assuming you’re generating all of your own content (no licencing costs), and that your server and bandwidth costs aren’t too high.

Of course, this doesn’t mean is isn’t possible (divide all numbers by 10 if you and a few mates want to make it as a small crew), but unless you’re able to drive up your CPM by having content close to a transaction, in the current economy, its going to be an uphill battle.

national filtering scheme – can anyone say 'china'?

many of our international breathern would be moritifed at a plan where a national goverment tried to enforce a nation-wide internet filter to block specific content.

they do it in china – at what cost? – and the world cries foul. then they consider it seriously in a modern western democracy – with a lot of political pressure within the ruling party – and the mainstream media barely raise a whimper of concern about it.

ok, so snuff films, child pornography and many other ills to be found online are unquestionably bad news. with the ‘mandate’ of universal public distain for this content (the weirdos who are into it don’t speak up and acknowledge it for obvious reasons) the debate gets legitimacy it does not deserve.

the key question being asked at the moment is “who will pay for ISP level filtering”. the natural answer to this is government – they’ve got a fat war chest of a budget surplus and there’s nothing commercially compelling ISPs themselves to offer server level filtering. so the government pays for the filtering, and then presumably controls it as well (you’d have to be a mug to buy something designed to censor and control and then leave the control of it to someone else).

and all of a sudden you’re china.

revenge is sweetest when it is inevidable

there’s been a lot of talk in the press over recent weeks about the changes in australian cross-media ownership rules. considering that most places in the world don’t have laws like this to start with, much less reform, a bit of background is probably helpful.
as i’ve travelled, people from europe and the usa are routinely surprised to find that australia only has a population of around 20 million people. considering the economy of new south wales is roughly the same size as the whole of indonesia, the 4th most populous nation in the world, it is easy to see how we tend to punch about our weight as a country.
given the power of the 4th estate in any democratic nation the government decided a while ago to limit the amount of inflence any one media mogul could have in a given market, defined at the time to be a capital city. this level of government interaction was fairly justified, as the small australian market still managed to breed a number of media powerhouses, most notably rupert murdoch’s news corporation.
while ownership in the print media is quite concentrated, the behaviour of the television networks over the last 10 years or so has robbed australians of the services many other western nations take for granted.

around the year 2000, australia was deciding between competing standards for digital television. the government had announced the release of spectrum suitable for digital television, and it was up to the government, industry and consumer groups to decide which standard would be adopted. with only three commercial tv networks – and thus very oligopolistic control over the television advertising market – the incumbents had a significant incentive to stop others from joining the tv broadcasting club. through a mixture of successful lobbying, weak politics and the timing of a pending election (as well as the incumbents convincing the govt that they’d need to spend an absolute fortune on their broadcasting equipment to move to digital, so they needed to be protected to make it worth their while), the government announced australia would get the hdtv standard, or high definition television.

the promise of hdtv was that you’d be able to get crystal clear picture with 5.1 surround sound. unfortunately, however, very very few programmes were recorded in a quality that could suppoort hdtv, so the best a viewer would get from this new standard was a widescreen format of picture. honestly, i don’t think a lot of people would have cared too much anyway – who really wants to see who wants to be a millionare in 5.1 surround sound?

the reality – and certainly the intention – of hdtv is that it is very, very hungry for bandwidth. one channel of hdtv uses around 10 times more spectrum than a regular digital widescreen channel. this meant that the networks ensured that there wouldn’t be room for new digital services – including interactive tv and the delivery of a news channel or other content more closely resembling the internet, also known as datacasting – to compete with the incumbents. just in case there was a bit of room – and there still is – the government passed laws forbidding datacasting from looking at all like a tv service; ie, no full motion video for more than a certain length of time.

so, basically, australian consumers got screwed, particularly when you compare it to what the british got from their digital tv service (40+ channels free to air, interactive for things like polling and voting; essentially the innovation you’re never going to get from 3 fairly comfortable players in a market).
fast forward to 2006. a federal government enquiry in late 2005 found that digital tv takeup had been woeful – blind freddy could have told you this, since there isn’t much improvement at all between analogue and digital, with no new services from commercial networks. even the promise of perfect picture quality is false in most experiences, since the picture isn’t crystal clear without improving the infrastructure (read aerial) in their homes. the planned 2007 shut off of the analogue network will now be pushed back to 2012 – no surprise there; it would be a brave politician that took away tv from the masses in a country with compulsory voting – and the incumbents have had their monopoly extended too. thankfully, though, this is all becoming a little academic – the incumbents are in for a big change that the government can’t legislate out of the equation, because this time the media competition is international, it isn’t using broadcast spectrum the government regulates, and its fully interactive with almost millions of channels to choose from.

the answer is the internet.

at the turn of the centry, almost everyone was still connecting to the internet via a 56k modem, at least at home. now most houses in australia can get online 25 times faster. in some parts of the country where adsl 2+ has been rolled out, the speeds are more than 150 times faster than an old fashioned modem. these speeds are enabling full screen video to be sent straight to the home via the internet. and products like google video, and their deal with cbs to allow cheap paid downloads of programmes further drives this trend. in australia, where we get the top shows from the usa 3-6 months after their first air in the states, this model of paid subscription further errodes the australian media outlets, in this case channel nine, with their strong relationship with cbs for content. determined fans of csi will simply set aside $2/week to watch the show 3-6 months ahead of when channel nine gives it – and commercials – to them.
so after being loosing the battle for the best by the incumbents in collusion with the government, the australian consumer is standing to win the war, thanks to the internet. the convergence of tv, internet and telecommunications is going to change a lot of things, but it is hard to see the traditional commercial media business doing well in any scenario that doesn’t involve a time machine. as a consumer who’s missed out for so long, the desire for revenge is palpable – the sweetest thing about this revenge is that it is coming from the world at large, and it completely inevidable.
of course, this isn’t the only battle facing the commercial television sector – personal video recorders, or pvr units, are creating a similarly herculean challenge to the models the sector has been using for the last 50 years. but more on that another time…