MySpace: One small step for politicians

Finally, after months of the Clintons posting Sopranos-style satires and Obama Girl grabbing the headlines during the American presidential race, Australian politicians have switched on to the power of the Internet.

The PR machines behind some of our leading politicians have been busy in cyberspace recently. They've been launching into MySpace, reworking Web sites, bashing away at blogs and trying to keep their collective fingers on the pulse of Web 2.0 technology.

Finally, after months of the Clintons posting Sopranos-style satires and Obama Girl grabbing the headlines during the American presidential race, Australian politicians have switched on to the power of the Internet as a way of communicating with voters.

This year's federal election will be the first where the Internet will play a key role, not only in terms of how politicians use technology, but also in how voter-generated content affects outcomes. Everything from campaign Web sites to online advertising, from e-mail lists to the postings on YouTube, to who's got the fastest growing group of friends on MySpace can make a difference in this make-or-break election.

A few weeks ago, 20 federal MPs and candidates -- including ministers Joe Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull, and Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd and Deputy Julia Gillard, signed up to MySpace's new political site, Impact.

And at last count, Kevin Rudd had 14,735 friends while the Liberal Party (Prime Minister John Howard doesn't have his own legitimate page, as far as I can tell) had just nine.

So, we have a clear winner in the schoolyard popularity contest, but does this really mean anything? Is it a predictor of a landslide victory for the Labor Party? Or does it simply mean that Kevin Rudd has lots of cyber friends that aren't yet of voting age?

Recently, John Howard jostled with jihadists and musicians on YouTube as he launched his government's new climate change initiatives. But the post, far from being designed for the medium, looks like another government television commercial, with the Prime Minister, in suit and tie, sitting stiffly behind a desk. And while the video had been viewed more than 62,000 times, the comments from the YouTube community would hardly make his press secretary happy.

Rogue Web sites, blogs, YouTube videos and social networking pages attract an enormous amount of attention from the Internet community -- particularly in the coveted youth demographic that the government is struggling to attract. These political messages have a tendency to go "viral", and politicians and their spin doctors have not yet fully grasped how to navigate a world where their electorate can never be truly sure of what is real and what's not.

These new technologies enable consumers to synthesise discrete pieces of information into something new and quite removed from the original message. YouTube takes the phrase "quoted out of context" to a whole new level.

And while Australians are joining Second Life, YouTube and MySpace in droves and creating blogs in their thousands, many of our political leaders and policy makers are demonstrating a lack of serious thought leadership about ICT's contribution to national productivity.

The beauty of these new technologies is their power to inject real energy into electioneering. There's plenty of scope for humour, creativity, impassioned debate and originality. And let's face it -- couldn't we all do with a little of that?