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David Cameron's Experiment in Augmented Reality

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, March 31 2010

Credit: The Conservative Party (UK)

Scroll back only as far as 2005, and by common admission the out-of-power Conservative Party in the UK really didn't have much of a clue of all about how the Internet and the web were changing the state of politics. One advisor to the Tories recalled, that these were the days when the British conservatives' internal Internet set-up was so anemic that, "the person who ran the website was also the same person you rang up if your Outlook broke."

But over the last five years, led by an energetic MP named David Cameron, British conservatives have set out to figure out the Internet and its political potential. The Tories sent emissaries to DC to crib from American conservatives, picked Clay Shirky's brain for ideas on organizational fluidity, diligently studied the ins and outs of, the Obama campaign's in-house social networking success. In the latest issue of Wired, Prospect (UK) editor James Crabtree lays out the story of how Cameron and his allies have learned to harness the web.

The thing is, reading Crabtree, you start to get the sense that despite the fact that Conservatives looked to this side of the Atlantic for inspiration, they've managed to do something that, arguably, neither Democrats nor Republicans in the U.S. have yet done: use the web to begin to demonstrate to citizens what a shadow government looks and feels like when it stands for something different than the status quo.

Crabtree's piece is full 0f juicy details on how the Conservatives are harnessing the web. There's a bit about how the Tories' web team (now numbering several members strong) listen to speeches given up their opponents to buy up, in real-time, phrases that they can link to their "prebuttal" of their adversaries' arguments, like Google ads on the term "boiler scrappage scheme." Labour speeches, once their delivered, are broken down into Google ad friendly bits. When a Labour cabinet member quit, Conservatives bought up his name within minutes, and linked it to their explanation of the incident. As a result, anyone turning to the web to make sense of what they're hearing on the telly are likely to stumble across the Conservative take on the latest development.

British politics are notoriously rough and tumble. But the paradox is that political leaders are generally seen as aloof. Crabtree recounts how Cameron's conservatives have been willing to show a more playful and accessible side of the Conservative Party online. Cameron himself rose to power while uploading intimate "home movies" of him washing dishes in his kitchen or on a trip to India. His WebCameron project recently featured video footage of Tories frockling in a snowfall. A Conservative campaign against personal debt spurred the creation of an online ad campaign under the saucy title, "Don't Be a Tosser." When, Crabtree recounts, Labour secretary Jack Straw supposedly took a swing at education minister Ed Balls, the Tories pounced on the moment and turned it into a video game called, "A Kick in the Balls."

Again, read Crabtree's piece for more details on how the Tories are maneuvering, online, to present an image to the world of what a government under Conservatives would look like.

That said, it's worth noting that the web hasn't always been kind to Cameron, despite his best efforts to master it. Perhaps in a mocking reference to Cameron's obvious emulation of the Obama Campaign, offers users a change to tweak the slogan on the dapper Cameron's campaign posters, under the banner of "Airbrushed for Change." The well-circulated site, run by a British graphic designer, makes fun of what it calls "and politics" -- in other words, the Conservatives supposed tendency to promise to cut the deficit and fund the National Health Service.

And Crabtree himself includes some doubting notes from some folks who know how this stuff works. The Obama campaign's Joe Rospars is quoted at our own Personal Democracy Forum conference in Barcelona as wondering if British conservatives are focused on gaming the web at the expense of using its potential to connect directly with citizens. "For all their databases and search-engine tricks," said Rospars, "you have to ask what is the quality of interaction most people will have with the Tories during your British election. If they're still only getting leaflets, or even emails, and not a knock on the door from a neighbour they know, then they are only halfway to getting what we did."

But politics are different in every country. Online politics, too, are going to differ based on the local context and realities of the political system. And it's fascinating to watch British Conservatives attempt to solve their own political problems using the web. Perhaps, despite Rospars critique, in a parliamentary system like the UK's it's more important for a political party to present a compelling view of an alternative government than it is to connect citizens with one another -- which has been more of the the focus in United States. (Whether or not that might appeal to our hopes and dreams about the web's potential to revolutionize politics.)

Of course, some things are universal. "If he wins," writes Crabtree, "Cameron will certainly be Britain's first BlackBerry prime minister." Sounds familiar.