Bastard children of the Internet age

This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 23 November 2006.

In the political sphere, blogs are little different to the fake democracy of 1990s New Labour focus groups.

In his paean to the blogosphere, David Cameron refers to 57 million bloggers as 57 million new newspaper editors. Of these, perhaps 56.9 million can be likened to online onanists talking into the void – cyber dossers and bag ladies answering back to their demons.

Admit it, folks, 99.99% of blogs are read by no more than three men and a dog, and those blogs that have a sizeable readership tend to be closed peer groups catering to ideological constituencies that are not particularly interested in wider debate. They provide little more than an echo chamber for their contributors, a sink for working and/or leisure time, and an outlet for readers’ angst. At best they are psychotherapeutic communities for the distressed middle classes.

The only real online mass, participatory media are sites such as Comment is Free, which is not a proper blog, but rather an extension of a newspaper’s op-ed pages. If blogging has any influence on the polity, it is as a parasite feeding off the mainstream media, and thus indirectly controlled by it. As for blogs linked to political parties, the less said, the better. David Cameron should consider his own, in which real debate is cut off by moderators charged with ensuring that no challenge is mounted to the policy positions of the party leadership. And Labour blogs such as David Miliband’s are no different.

Of course, consummate PR professionals that they are, David Cameron and his colleagues can cherry pick idea fragments from blogs, and use them to back up already decided upon policy positions, but no way will they actively involve these popular voices in the policy making process. Manipulate and control; that’s they way it’s always been done, and will continue to be. Is it any different to the fake democracy of 1990s New Labour focus groups?

Online networks are just that – networks – but David Cameron should not kid himself that they are in any way social. They are a substitute for social engagement, not a facilitator of it. Apart from a few isolated cases, online networks are not genuine forums for the exploration of ideas, but serve only to validate already held feelings and prejudices. They provide an energy sink for those with high life expectations but few opportunities to realise them, and an outlet for frustration.

While I have no time for David Cameron’s conservative ideology, I cannot blame him for the way in which he exploits the blogging medium for party political ends. If I were in his position, I’d probably do exactly the same. I would milk online networks for all they are worth, and seek to control the genuinely participatory elements of them, with the aim of strangling this bastard child of the Internet age in its infancy.