Interacting and representing: can Web 2.0 enhance the roles of an MP?
This source preferred by Darren Lilleker
Authors: Lilleker, D. and Jackson, N.
Start date: 14 April 2009
Several UK Members of Parliament (MPs) have a foothold within a Web 2.0 environment. Some write blogs, such as Labour’s Tom Watson or Conservative John Redwood. Equally, some have joined virtual communities such as the social networking sites (SNS) MySpace or Facebook. Cumulatively this indicates they are exploring new means of promoting themselves, their politics as well as news means for interacting with their constituents or those who share their political interests. The key aspect of Web 2.0 technology that offers potential for MPs is that an architecture of participation is in place where those with Internet access can interact with one another. Apart from the Webmasters, there is no automatic hierarchy within communities and so each page within a community site is produced by its members. In sharp contrast to the ‘we will build it and they will come’ philosophy associated with Web 1.0 and the static website; Web 2.0 users work on a ‘we will come and build it philosophy’. MPs, in using this technology, must relinquish some control over their public representation in order to engage with community members; this papers asks to what extent this is occurring, what functions of an MPs role are enhanced through the use of Web 2.0, and concludes by focusing on the advantages and disadvantages for MPs of pursuing a Web 2.0 strategy.
Our research analysed the content of the 42 weblogs and 37 SNS of MPs who advertise these on the personal websites. Our first set of questions related to the extent to which public conversations could take place; so assessing the extent of interactivity between the MPs and the visitors to these weblogs and SNS profiles. Secondly we focused on the extent to which interactivity was potentiated, either through site functions or the language used, such as asking questions; so assessing whether interaction could take place. Thirdly we assessed which of the MPs roles, the policy scrutiny trusteeship role, the party member role, or constituency representative role was being enhanced through Web 2.0 technologies and what relationship this had to interaction gained.
Our data suggests that interactivity is taking place. But this can be in a fairly limited form with many visitors being more likely to comment without returning rather than being part of any reciprocal exchange with the MP. In our assessment, this was due to the fact that many blogs and SNS profiles are laden with too much information and insufficient opportunities to enter into conversations on matters of importance to visitors. When focusing on the functions of the MP, it was clear that many used Web 2.0 as a space to promote the party and communicate their thoughts on issues of the day however these tended to gain little interaction. However, those MPs who use Web 2.0 tools to enhance their constituency representative role did find visitors would interact with them. Within Web 2.0 we can also find a further purpose for MPs, offering insights into their background and personal life to offer a more three-dimensional perspective to visitors. Many MPs use SNS particularly in the same way as any other user, as an individual as opposed to as a professional within any particular career. Here we find MPs also benefiting from interaction with visitors and not only those that are within their offline circle of friends and colleagues.
Thus we conclude that there is potential for MPs to use Web 2.0 to support their representative function and gain interaction with a broader public than they would normally. Weblogs can be used to build a community of interest around policy areas to some extent, though this is currently limited to a minority. However SNS can be used to enhance the link between constituents and the MP, if only a minority of the constituency, and can widen the MPs circle of contacts. However, the control aspect is clearly a worry for MPs. While outside of an election campaign it may not matter what is said on an MPs’ weblog or SNS profile there are dangers that during an election they can be hi-jacked by opponents. Therefore the calculation will remain one of benefit versus risk and an assessment of whether sufficient constituents can be reached, or significant numbers of contacts be made, to indicate whether Web 2.0 offers huge promise or huge dangers.