Poor old Gordon Brown. Not only is he struggling with the traditional Prime Ministerial work of managing a sticky economy and anticipating major armed conflicts, all while on holiday, but he’s got the new world to deal with – all this web wonkery that’s sprung up since that Spring day in 1997 when he entered government. There was no time in opposition to prepare for Twitter, that’s for sure.
One has to fear his lack of web time is tripping him up. Building a new website for the PM is, undoubtedly, a tricky brief, but a more savvy Downing Street would surely not have allowed the new Number 10 website to go public without a lot more work. Yes, it’s labelled “beta”, but that’s not an excuse. It’s been around for days now, but it’s trying too hard, too obviously attempting to get hip to the social media jive.
Before we even start on the difficult social stuff, there are the basics to consider. For a start someone should, surely, have checked some domains before using the phrase “Number10tv” as the name for the WebCameron-esque video section of the new site. One assumes they didn’t check, because on www.Number10.tv the far-right BNP has its video channel (I’m not providing a link for obvious Googlejuice reasons). Over on www.Number10tv.com another opportunist has stepped in to post a “satirical” version of the official site (“Watch PM Brown as he dithers over the most pressing issues of the day!”).
On the site Number 10′s consultants did build, things are better, but still not good. For a kick-off, the design’s at sea – the search box is crashing into the navigation on at least one browser, lines roam everywhere, a colour palette is unevenly applied and there’s a bit of a typographical disaster going on all over.
Trendy features are present and correct, but meaningless. Sure, the press releases are in reverse chronological order, and have a little calendar on them, just like blogs. The headlines are serifed, just like A List Apart. Share buttons – the usual Delicious, Digg, Facebook – hang around hopefully, in the unlikely event anyone’s going to want to breathlessly tell their friends about a press release from Downing Street. But it all means nothing if the content and the intent aren’t there. Dig deeper, and it’s hard not to see all this as slightly cynical use of web 2.0 lipstick to tart up a banal 1.0 reality.
Which brings us to the content. There’s nothing, inherently, wrong with this stuff, but it remains traditional broadcast, one to many. There are the releases, snaps of Gordon meeting Barack, video of Gordon making a speech, lots of anodyne historical stuff that I suspect (I’m no historian) Wikipedia does better, and certainly in more depth. No, there are no links out to that, as far as I could see. But – oh God – there is the Twitter channel. I daresay it was inevitable.
But conversation – real conversation – between users is off-limits. I’m told they’re using WordPress to power the site. WordPress is the blog platform that powers this, and tens of thousands of other, blogs. So they’re actually turning comments off to achieve all this. Meanwhile they rely on YouTube and Flickr to display some still photographs and video (although “Number 10 TV” – the official version – uses the Brightcove platform), but comments are turned off on those third party sites as well.
I know they’ll worry the Daily Mail will do its dinger the moment a user says something nasty or obscene. There’s probably no budget for moderation. So why bother?
The idea, one assumes, is that enthusiastic subjects will find this stuff because it’s in their social media world, not the Number 10 silo, and that they’ll then want to favourite and share it all, motivated by the sheer delight of finding footage of Gordon Brown addressing the Knesset. I’ll let you decide if that’s likely, although I note the video of that speech has done just under 600 views on YouTube since it was posted a week ago. I’m not sure if that’s bad or, actually, remarkable. Maybe there’s a lot of clicking around Downing Street itself.
Either way, the whole is just a bit off. It’s like hearing a script from Yes, Prime Minister recited by someone who doesn’t speak English. The words, the gags, are there, but there’s no understanding of what this really means, and what it should change. They’ve turned a trick, yes, but one that’s not nearly good enough. Having read the story of Hillary Clinton’s campaign disaster on TheAtlantic.com today, and the extraordinary strategising that went on there (and she still lost) I wonder: would any credible political campaign in the US accept this site?
Authenticity is the key here. Blogs, when they first appeared a decade ago, brought with them an expectation of a conversational tone, of genuine interactivity, of someone being at the other end of the line. It’s clear that Gordon’s not – of course he’s not – he’s running the country. That reality makes it hard to achieve what this site pretends it does. Using these tactics, of pretending this has been touched by the Web 2.0 magic, reduces this site to tokenism, another wobbly piece of scenery on the stage Gordon Brown is trying to claim control of. It really doesn’t help.