Looking at the Liberal leadership web sites2006 Political campaigns engage with social web, but fall short in building vibrant online communities

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Political campaigns are supposed to be innovators when it comes to the online world; witness the breakout success of the Howard Dean campaign and the increasing significance of blogs in U.S. politics.

So whenever an election is underway, it's worth having a look at how campaigns are using the web and the power of online community – and in Canada, the big electoral news right now is the Liberal Party's leadership campaign.

In the past few months, nearly all of the candidates have revamped their web presences. But how well do they measure up on their use of the tools of the social web?

Let’s find out, checking in with the leadership campaign sites of Scott Brison, Stéphane Dion, Ken Dryden, Martha Hall Findlay, Michael Ignatieff, Gerard Kennedy, Bob Rae and Joe Volpe. (And let's add the usual caveat that I've done a lot of work with the New Democratic Party, so consider that as you weigh the following.)

Newsfeeds: Sometimes called RSS feeds or XML feeds, these are the lifeblood of the new web. Most basically, they allow you to read updates from a whole bunch of web sites using a single service or piece of software (called a news aggregator). But their real power comes through their ability to share content with other sites and applications, helping to promote online discussion.

The frontrunners do well here, with Rae, Dion, Ignatieff and Kennedy all having at least two feeds publishing content such as their campaign’s news, blog posts, events and media hits. Brison also boasts multiple feeds – but Volpe, Dryden and Findlay all come up empty.

Aggregation: Sites can also use newsfeeds to bring in and republish content from elsewhere on the web. While aggregation is rapidly gaining ground elsewhere in the web world, it still gets barely a nod from the Liberal leadership candidates.

Ignatieff’s youth site (iggynation.ca) aggregates posts from other blogs, but none of the other candidates do. Dryden’s site has a page called “blog buzz”, but it’s unclear how posts on that page are chosen. Kennedy’s youth site (generationkennedy.ca) has an extensive blogroll of bloggers who have endorsed him, but doesn’t aggregate their posts; ditto Dion’s site, although not all of the blogs he lists are supporters.

Conversation: This is where the social web gets truly social. The discussions that take place in blogs, forums, wikis and other venues provide much of the richness that has made Web 2.0 an enduring phenomenon. But opening your web presence up to those conversations means giving up a lot of control, and in the harsh world of politics, control is a precious commodity.

That hasn’t stopped some of the candidates from jumping on board the Cluetrain, through. Dion’s site allows comments on its news stories; Kennedy has assembled a blogging community that, while supportive, sometimes has some harsh assessments of their candidate’s performance (”his performance in La Belle Province this weekend was embarrassing”); it allows comments, although I couldn’t see that any have been left. Dion’s youth site is a BlogSpot blog, with comments allowed.

But others aren’t as open to user-contributed content. Ignatieff’s blog doesn’t allow comments; Dryden’s blog has lain moribund since Canada Day and doesn’t allow comments either. Martha Hall Findlay has a link to a “debate forum”, but it yields only a “page not available” error. And Brison’s site has nothing but an email link.

Kennedy, Rae, Dion and Ignatieff have created online discussion forums open to all comers (although Rae’s seemed to be having trouble registering new users today). While login difficulties stopped me cold at Rae’s front door, I was able to check out the other candidates’ forums… which are suffering badly from underuse. Dion’s, for example, has fewer than 50 posts on 20 topics, most of them months old.

Overall: Michael Ignatieff’s campaign makes the most obvious use of the social web, particularly on his youth site. I’d give Gerard Kennedy the edge over Stéphane Dion for second place, with Rae a solid fourth. Scott Brison at least has feeds, but no interactivity.

It’s worth noting that the Ignatieff, Dion and Kennedy have chosen their youth sites for the most innovative, interesting features. Given the way web culture skews young, that makes some sense – but it may also be a way of mitigating any political risk from giving up a degree of control over content.

Another note: social web technologies favour the interesting and provocative over the already-established. The web could have been the launch pad for an insurgent candidacy, one built more on ideas and compelling messages than on celebrity and existing hierarchy. Yet the more established candidates are the ones making the most use of them; the would-be giant-killers, like Findlay, make only a token stab at them.

Finally, a lesson for would-be community-builders, political or otherwise. None of the campaigns has what you could really call a thriving online community, outside of the core staff and volunteers. That probably reflects a lack of resources dedicated to encouraging and animating productive, provocative conversations. Short of committing those resources, campaigns might be well advised to focus their energies instead on networking with already-existing communities; blogrolling and aggregation could be the baby steps that lead to something bigger and better down the road.

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