Where communication is king

Interactive politics online - what are they talking about?

Tiffany Jenkins

Topics Politics

As a child, my mum tuned into the first-ever interactive TV show, Winky Dink and You, featuring the adventures of Winky Dink, the star-headed boy. Through the magic window – a plastic screen stuck to the TV screen and drawn on with special crayons – kids could be part of the action: by drawing bridges on the plastic screen for Winky to cross, or a ladder that he could climb.

It didn’t take long for mum’s older brother to reveal that she was not really Winky’s valuable partner and that the ‘You’ in the title didn’t mean that she was essential to the story. Because despite broken crayons or misdirected bridges, Winky still managed to cross the river or get down the canyon. He claimed to be interactive, but wasn’t.

Today, interactivity does influence or alter outcomes – within certain parameters. In computer games we can buck death depending on skill. In 2000 I helped drive the story on the online thriller Running Time by voting on the action of the lovely leading lady, being one of many who instructed her on what she should do and who she could trust.

And as interactivity has become a real possibility in entertainment, so it has been embraced as essential to politics. The word and idea ‘interactivity’ pops up in many government proposals and policies. This is especially the case with online political sites or discussions around e-democracy, as the internet has become essential for information and for communicating with people.

But online interactivity has been welcomed as more than just a research tool and a feedback form – it is seen as even more valuable than just a way to respond.

Many have argued, as Mike McCurry of Grassroots Enterprise does (1), that interactivity could revive politics: ‘The internet can make the dialogue more efficient and interactive, and it can reconnect citizens to the political process.’ (2) There are a variety of US and British political websites which aim to ‘re-engage the public’ – either with a ‘get active’ section or some attempt at getting a response through the mouse. Take a look at the new site – a UK site dedicated to social change, where we are advised by ordinary people about how to write letters and campaign (though a cursory glance at the site’s trustees reveals that the people are not so ordinary after all) (3).

Yet far from being about ambitious social change, the campaigns are little more than an online version of ‘outraged from Tunbridge Wells’. And while the interactive talk section is probably the most intelligent part of the site, it is bitty and utterly banal. These political sites conceive of interaction in politics as akin to filling in a user survey on British Rail. Tick the box for ‘could do better’ and maybe the punters will be appeased. But don’t think about overhauling the system – that is not one of the multiple choice options.

This tick-box, press-send-to-be-involved approach to politics is small-scale. But this is less to do with the potential of the net and interactivity, and much more to do with the state of politics. It isn’t the technology that makes it boring, nor will the technology totally transform the content. If the active part of interactivity is dull then that needs to be addressed politically, and not just by providing an easier right to reply.

And yet, despite the boring content, online interactivity is still hailed as a political white knight. At a recent Guardian debate in London, Styker McGuire of Newsweek brought to our attention an online survey on the US election and online activity for It found that more than one in three Americans (35 percent) used the internet to get information about politics, campaigns or issues in the news.

McGuire flagged up the findings that the sending of jokes to friends about candidates, parties or the political campaigns were a real sign of how the internet was aiding political participation between people. He explained that the possibilities for this sort of interaction could help revive the political process. ‘We cannot underestimate the impact they have on the electoral process’, he told the audience.

It seems that regardless of what is said, discussed, or the consequence it has, interaction is simply applauded. Interaction is heralded for its own sake.

Participatory politics is deemed as beneficial not for the outcome in policy, but for the process of involving people. Take the example of the pioneering online consultations run by the Hansard Society. As Alex Allen explained in a lecture to the society in 2000 (5), ‘What is encouraging, apart from the evidence gathered, is that some of the women who participated found the experience so valuable that they decided to set up their own online groups so they can continue to share the experience’ (4).

What you interact in, or who with or what about, is seen as less important than the fact that ‘people are connecting’. As participation develops to mean communication and interaction, the form and process becomes important. So we have this developing definition of political participation that reduces the process to communication and allows the possibility of banal everyday interaction to be presented as a positive addition to politics.

It might be good to talk, but we must always ask: what are you saying?

Tiffany Jenkins is arts and society director at the Institute of Ideas

Read on:
No votes for e-democracy, by Mark Birbeck
Connecting to what?, by Sandy Starr
(1) See the Grassroots Enterprise website
(2) Interview with Mike McCurry on the Washington Post website
(3) See the website
(4) ‘The Net Election- are you ready?’ was held on Tuesday 27 March 2001 at the London School of Economics, and organised by the Guardian.
(5) Alex Allen, lecture to the Hansard Society, 22 May 2000.

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Topics Politics


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