Where Angels Fear to Tread

Programming Magic by Abstruse Goose
Programming Magic by Abstruse Goose

A guide to managing your MP’s new enthusiasm for the internet

Everybody’s heard of the Minister who Tweets the happenings of his Statutory Instrument Committee to the massed ranks of the British electorate (in reality, seven lazy journalists hoping they’ll let slip a “gaffe”), or the famous MP whose blog is as incisive as it is witty. Such heroes soon develop a following of laptop wielding fans who, along with their staffers, all speak the incomprehensible language of Geek. But legends also abound of elected representatives who reckon that “a good kicking” is a solution to most software problems, think that “Twittering” is something most elderly ladies do, and who will cheerfully leave the business of the newfangled technology to their staff.

As terrible as the Luddism of the latter case sounds in comparison to the smooth Web 2.0 stylings of the former, in reality if your boss falls into either of these distinct categories, you’re laughing. The best boss either has no computer skills or could give your average fourteen year old Californian hacker a run for their money, but in any case both are cogniscent of their skills or lack thereof and it is around such self-awareness that happy offices operate.

Unfortunately, most Members of Parliament neither fall neatly into one of these groups nor boast “self-awareness” as a personality trait. More than likely your boss will manifest an unbridled and almost child-like enthusiasm for the internet and all its mysteries, whilst being blissfully unaware of how the damn thing works.

Not that this will stop them, oh no. So if you are one of the poor unfortunates whose MP has recently received instructions from their party HQ to “start blogging because, like, it’s WELL cool mmmkay?” here’s a guide for surviving the inevitable flame wars that will arise in the wake of your boss’ (hopefully) short-lived dalliance with all things online.

Your MP’s website

This is something that all MPs should really have, and most do. It doesn’t need to be too flashy: just a basic site with contact details, information about surgeries, and possibly their latest press release uploaded on a reasonably regular basis will do the job.

And if you’re lucky, it’ll stop there.

Facebook

If you’re not lucky, the chances are that the first port of call for your boss in their quest to lose their Web 2.0 virginity will be Facebook.

The rot really began to set in with the increased popularity of Facebook a couple of years ago as has been detailed by alt.guide advisors in the past (see Claire Romney’s sage counsel here if you don’t believe us).

It only took a couple of enterprising PPCs and a few high-profile additions to the parliament network before the bars were a-buzz with this brilliant innovation which, according to over-excitable web advisors at various party HQs, would definitely re-engage the citizenry with the political process. It’s like the printing press, they breathlessly informed wide-eyed elected representatives, but it’s free! And has pictures!

If your MP cannot be dissuaded from getting a profile by a folder of press cuttings from the Private Eye bearing the legend “WHEN FACEBOOK GOES WRONG: PART THE NINETEENTH” on the front, or bloodcurdling tales of media humiliation at the hands of ill-judged late-night wall posts after a couple of beers in Strangers’, then prepare to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in.

The most important thing to remember is to always have security settings enabled. Have one list for actual genuine friends of the MP, whose members can see your boss’ wall, view his photos and the like. Have another for those who, you suspect, are media graduates hell bent on making their name in the noble industry that comprises the Fourth Estate by writing an article which involves a picture of your boss rather the worse for wear in his hilarious “Hide My Sausage” t-shirt underneath the headline: SHAME!

There will always be one or two that fall between the cracks though, so be vigilant: un-tag dodgy pictures, edit rambling wall posts threatening to disembowel neighbouring MPs, and – unless your boss is under twenty-five – never, ever, under any circumstances allow them to use “LOL”, “ROFLMAO” or similar. If at all possible, try and persuade your MP that as they’re using Facebook as communication tool, it should fall to you to administer it. However if this fails, well. Our prayers are with you.

Incidentally, there is a real story somewhere of a councillor who made the career-knackering decision of adding the “what sex toy are you?” application (nipple tassels, if I remember it correctly). This sort of thing is likely to be remembered by the opposition when it comes to writing leaflets at election time.

Don’t have nightmares.

Blogging

Until about eighteen months ago, most bag-carriers could rest easy in their beds safe in the knowledge that most Parliamentarians knew “blogging” only as something that fast-food companies did in the Amazon to clear the way for livestock grazing. Jolly bad thing too!

Then a couple of MPs (yeah. We all know who you are) starting hitting the headlines with stuff they’d written on their blogs, and suddenly you find all hell is breaking loose on your work station when you return from lunch to find your boss already in possession of www.working-hard-for-YOU.blogspot.com, comparing backdrop themes and champing at the bit to write his first post.

The political blogosphere, for those blissfully unaware of its existence, is a scary place so again, urge caution. Having a free and honest exchange with the electorate sounds awfully nice when those pointy-headed policy wonks are advocating radical new methods of communication in a seminar, tucked away in an ivory tower somewhere in north London. The practical realisation of online engagement, however, has more in common with all-in wrestling than it does with Socratic dialectic.

But your MP will not heed these warnings and will go skipping off out into no-man’s land. They will return, however, wiser, older, and sadder, having learnt the following:

  • The importance of netiquette (online etiquette). Debrett’s got nothing close to the level of minutia that an online novice has to learn – from the terminology, the process, to the fact that certain bloggers are liable to blow up and start a flame war if your boss says as much as “hiya, how goes?” to them;
  • That astroturfing is frowned upon. Astroturfing, or: the creation of artificial grass roots” (geddit?!), is always highly tempting and there is at least one MP at least who has been caught at cracking up a blogpost about how goddamn great they are, and then logging in under several different names to enthusiastically agree in the comments. Not classy;
  • Not to get involved in blog wars: there are usually at least three of these rumbling on at any one time as the biggest cheeses in the online community fight it out for blogospheric dominance. Why not get involved? Well, look at it this way: assuming the Cold War had got very hot all of a sudden, how would you like to be placed in the exact point where the missiles of the Yanks and the USSR collide?
  • That trolling is not okay just because everyone’s at it. Trolling is similar to astroturfing, but usually involves the comments box of a political opponent, anonymity, and a good deal of ripe language. It’s also, apparently, acceptable to howl “TROLL!” at anyone who mildly contends your point of view;
  • Beware journalists. In ye olden tymes, newshounds used to actually go looking for stories. These days they just sit on their arses waiting for an MP to say something along the lines of “there may be a recession on but at least the weather’s nice”, before duly springing into suitably outraged action (thus leaving scope for a why-o-why-don’t-our-politicians-speak-their-minds piece the following week);
  • Always have comment moderation turned on, otherwise your comments box will be chock-full of mindless abuse, weirdoes living out their anal rape fantasies, borderline libel, outright libel, and racists before you can say “the principles of Voltaire.”

And because, at heart, most MPs are sensitive souls, do remind them not to take anything too personally. In fact, the phrase “you sack of turd – I hope you and your stinking party is obliterated come 2010!!!!!111!!” (preferably all in capitals) is how I say, “top of the morning, friends! And what a glorious one it is, eh? Pip pip!” to my closest online acquaintances, in the open-asylum that is online political discourse.

Twitter

Unless you are frighteningly technologically savvy, if you Twitter and are a Member of Parliament over the age of 30 you are just going to look like a middle-aged uncle dancing with your thumbs in the air at your nephew’s wedding.

Perhaps one of the most distressing things about Twitter is that our elected representatives and PPCs appear to lead such dull lives. Here are some not untypical examples of your average Tweet from such individuals:

  • “Just come out of meeting with Chief Exec of OFWAT. V. interesting.”
  • “To the Chamber to represent my constituents’ views: always working hard for YOU!”
  • “What do people think about the Barnett Formula? I’d be interested to hear your views.”

Bag-carriers have first hand knowledge that no MP is this boring; they’re just not at liberty to really let rip, for the reasons explained above.

But this being the case, be under no illusion: the only reason people follow your boss on Twitter is because they are waiting for them to get drunk and post something fruity about a well-known Cabinet Minister or Shadow spokesman. If he or she thinks that the fact they’ve got 2,000 followers (whose IP addresses, if they were checked, would probably all hail from the press gallery) is down to them all being interested in their views on the unadopted drains proposals in the Pitt Review, you should advise them to think again.

Come to think of it, instead of embracing the internet revolution, why not advise your boss to take all their clothes off, get drunk, and sit in the Press Bar regaling them all with stories that would make even Russell Brand blush?

It would be much easier.


Added by Dean Trench on 1st April 2009