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Citizen Bloggers

Online social media and networks provide new ways for Albertans to get political. Welcome to Citizenship 2.0.

By Dave Cournoyer

On April 4, 2007, four months after Ed Stelmach became Premier of Alberta, I legally purchased the domain name www.edstelmach.ca for approximately $14.78.  For most of the time I owned it, hits on this web address were simply forwarded to my blog at www.daveberta.ca. But, in a moment inspired by comedian/satirist Stephen Colbert, I started to redirect www.edstelmach.ca visitors to the Wikipedia biography of former Alberta premier Harry Strom. Strom, of course, was Alberta’s last Social Credit premier, and many political pundits in 2007—anticipating a poor performance for the Tories in the upcoming election—were likening Stelmach to Strom.

One evening before Christmas 2007, as I was walking to meet some friends at the Empress Ale House on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton, I opened a piece of mail I’d received earlier that day. The letter was from a lawyer at a Calgary firm who represented Stelmach. 

The letter requested that I:

(a) make arrangements with my service provider by December 21, 2007, to ensure that the website no longer forwards to the blog; and

(b) make arrangements with my service provider and/or registrar to have the website registered in their client’s name.

If I chose not to do these things, they had “been instructed by [their] client to commence litigation.” The letter closed with the curt suggestion that I “govern [myself] accordingly.” I took the lawyer’s advice and governed myself accordingly—by choosing not to comply with the imposed deadline. 

The deadline passed and Stelmach had yet to commence litigation. I decided that my best course of action was to make the letter public. On the morning of January 8, I published the letter on my blog and e-mailed it to 400 of my closest friends, family and media contacts. Within hours, I’d received media calls from across the country. It began with local media: CBC TV, the Edmonton Journal, the Edmonton Sun. After being splashed across the evening newscasts in Edmonton and Calgary, the story made it to the front page of the Calgary Herald and the Journal. The next morning, I was live on CBC Edmonton AM and The Calgary Eyeopener, CityTV Edmonton’s Breakfast Television and 630 CHED’s Rutherford Show. These interviews and hundreds of supportive e-mails from across the country were clear indications that this story was taking on a life of its own. What I’d planned to be a low-key first week of 2008 had turned into a media circus.

The ownership of web domains is just one issue when it comes to the brave new world of politics on the Internet. My situation exposed not just Stelmach’s capacity for bullying, but a lack of understanding about the Internet by our political leaders and their advisers. Millions of Canadians participate daily in online communities, but it’s taken some politicians and governments a little longer to become familiar with the online world. 

june-09_citizen-bloggers_albertaviews-1This story really begins in January 2005, when I began my journey into the “blogosphere.” After the November 2004 provincial election, I was reeling from a lack of real debate and diverse opinions in Alberta’s mainstream media during the campaign. I felt that with the consolidation of ownership of the daily newspapers and local television stations, the political discourse in Alberta was becoming narrower by the week. Following the lead of a number of university friends who had started blogging months earlier, I jumped in feet first. With a quick visit to the Blogger website (www.blogger.com), within minutes I had registered and launched my very own blog, www.daveberta.ca.

The first sentence of my inaugural blog post on January 20, 2005: “Well I’ve finally decided to get on the great wave of blogging sweeping the land. So, here I am. Whoa, what a rush.” I decided to devote my blog primarily to political commentary.

Albertans publish blogs on many topics, but political blogs have carved out a special niche in the local landscape. The authors range from conservative pundit Ezra Levant (www.ezralevant.com) and moderate conservative Ken Chapman (www.ken-chapman.blogspot.com) to progressives such as Mike Soron (www.mikesoron.com) and Dan Arnold (www.calgarygrit.blogspot.com). Some bloggers are anonymous, such as the authors of Alberta: Get Rich or Die Trying (http://albertagetrich.typepad.com/blog). A number of politicians are blogging, notably Grande Prairie alderman Bill Given, who has maintained a blog (http://bill-given.blogspot.com) for a number of years, provincial Liberal leader David Swann (www.davidswann.ca/blog), PC MLA for Battle River-Wainwright Doug Griffiths (www.douggriffiths.ca/my_blog) and former PC candidate Arthur Kent (http://blog.arthurkent.ca).

Albertans publish blogs on many topics, but political blogs have carved out a special niche.

Though the mainstream media still set much of the public agenda, they don’t always do the timeliest analysis, and this is where political blogs come in. We can publish instantly, so bloggers are much more nimble and versatile. Over the past couple of years, the traditional media have even started to turn to some of the better-written and more trustworthy blogs for information and perspectives. 

Finding political blogs is easy. A number of aggregator websites act as hubs, listing blogs of similar political ideology, partisan persuasion or geographical location. In Canada, two of the largest political blog aggregators are the Blogging Tories (www.bloggingtories.ca) and Progressive Bloggers (www.progressivebloggers.ca). These websites provide links to a variety of bloggers with wide-ranging opinions. Closer to home, one of the more prominent aggregators is Alberta Blogs (www.albertablogs.com), which links to over 100 Alberta-based blogs. 

Today, children across Alberta flock to their computers or PlayStations after school instead of playing games of tag in the summer sun or street hockey in the winter cold. Canada has one of the highest rates of Internet use in the world (likely due to our six months of winter and limited daylight hours); 73 per cent, or 19.4 million Canadians over the age of 16 were Internet users at home according to Statistics Canada (2008). Albertans, at 77 per cent, are second only to British Columbians in online activity. Fully 85 per cent of Calgarians and 78 per cent of Edmontonians over the age of 16 go online. The percentage of citizens who use the Internet to search for information about government or to communicate with politicians is also rising. But this is only the tip of the iceberg of the Internet’s vast potential for citizenship.

The Internet has changed the way we build communities. New ways of communicating through blogs, Facebook and Twitter create online communities. These networks shift the ways people participate and act on their roles as citizens and have the potential to dramatically change the ways citizens and politicians practise politics.

Facebook (www.facebook.com) has become a pop culture phenomenon since it blasted onto the online scene in 2004. The social networking site allows users to sign up for a free account and create a profile page where they can display photographs and list everything from their favourite television programs and films to political preferences and religious views. Facebook also allows users to search for friends who may also have accounts on the social network, leading many people to connect with family and co-workers, or long-lost high-school sweethearts. Facebook is the standard platform for social networking.

Significantly, Facebook allows citizens to find like-minded people by cross-referencing information such as “political orientation” with “location.” The implications for citizenship and politics are vast. Users can easily search for the Facebook pages of Alberta politicians, including Premier Ed Stelmach, Liberal leader David Swann and NDP leader Brian Mason. Not only does joining a politician’s Facebook group allow citizens to identify like-minded thinkers or to speak directly with that politician, it allows politicians to identify supporters and instantly communicate with citizens, using everything from written statements to videos. 

US President Barack Obama’s Facebook page offers some specific examples: everything from the president’s personal information (Moby Dick is one of his favourite books) to his most recent public address can be found. Visitors can post petitions, learn about upcoming speaking engagements, and search Obama’s nearly six million supporters for people in their city or town—or tell all six million of them in no uncertain terms why one of Obama’s ideas or plans won’t work, by posting a comment on the President’s wall.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Facebook page isn’t nearly as well used; at press time, he counted some 27,000 supporters and the most recent wall posting was over a year old. But many other Canadians have started to discover Facebook’s potential. During the 2008 federal election, for example, thousands of Canadians concerned that the Liberal and New Democratic parties would split the centre/left vote and allow Harper’s Conservatives to form a majority government used Facebook to organize a countrywide vote-swapping initiative: Liberals in NDP ridings would “trade” votes with NDP supporters in safe Liberal ridings, all based on an honour system. Though it’s difficult to say how much of an effect this grassroots movement had on the election results, the campaign generated national attention.

Edmonton Twestival organizers Mack Male 25, and Shanon Yeo, 25, display the technologies that enable their Twittering.

Edmonton Twestival organizers Mack Male 25, and Shanon Yeo, 25, display the technologies that enable their Twittering. (Ryan Jackson/Edmonton Journal)

Twitter is a social networking service that allows users to share 140-character messages, or “tweets,” with other users who choose to “follow” them. Micro/hyper-blogging communities created by Twitter illustrate the fast-changing nature of the Internet. Users can post any kind of message, ranging from updates about their day to links to breaking news stories to the brand of bacon they ate for breakfast. By “tagging” their tweets (using the # symbol attached to the front of a keyword), Twitter users can make discussions and posts on specific topics easier for readers to follow though search engines like www.twitter.search.com. Again, citizens and politicians can find local people interested in the same issues more easily than ever.

During the 2008 federal election, all major party leaders except Stéphane Dion had Twitter accounts. Michael Ignatieff now has a Twitter account. And though campaign staffers (not the actual party leaders) are typically the authors of updated tweets, most of the leaders have been able to attract thousands of new followers. For those not interested in updates from the campaign trail or those suffering from election overload, parody accounts of the various party leaders provided an entertaining reprieve.

The practical uses of social networks to facilitate citizenship were highlighted during the 2008 coalition “crisis” in Ottawa, during which Twitter played a central role in the spread of information across Canada. As supporters and detractors of the proposed Liberal/NDP coalition mobilized to rally behind their politicians, both sides began to use Twitter. Using the tag “#coalition” to declare support for the coalition, and “#canadarally” to support the Conservative government, it became easy to follow the unfolding political drama by the minute. Many Canadians used the tags to report live updates of rallies in cities and post links to popular online photo hosting websites where images of the demonstrations were uploaded. It was grassroots democracy in action. Online communities expect that people should be able to quickly and efficiently  connect, share information, assemble and protest.

Though federal politicians were quicker to jump onto the Twitter bandwagon, a number of Alberta politicians have set up their own personal Twitter accounts, including MLAs Lindsay Blackett, Jonathan Denis, Doug Elniski, Kyle Fawcett, Doug Griffiths, Dave Hancock, Kent Hehr and Dave Taylor.

Twitter has even made its presence felt in the Alberta Legislature. Using the tag #ableg, Twitter users across Alberta comment on and debate issues under discussion in the Legislature and Question Period (QP). Citizens can follow live discussions in the Legislature and post “tweets” instantly so that citizens in other cities know what’s going on under the dome before the mainstream media are able to tell them. 

The use of social media in the Alberta Legislature is far from benign, though. In February, PC MLA for Calgary-North Hill Kyle Fawcett was caught using Twitter during QP, when he tweeted: “The NDP has a new leader Brian ‘Obama’ Mason.” Just a week earlier, during the February 4 meeting of the Legislature’s members services committee, Speaker Ken Kowalski warned MLAs from all parties about taking the advice of “hotshot” staffers in their caucuses who were pushing elected representatives to become more Internet savvy. Finally, in March, Kowalski banned MLAs from using electronic tools such as Blackberrys and laptops during Question Period (these could be used for posting “tweets” on Twitter).

This ban shows that Kowalski does not fully understand the power of these technologies to reconnect citizens with their democratic institutions. I wrote a letter to Kowalski urging him to revisit his initial reaction to the use of online communications from the floor of the Assembly, and offered to meet with him to explain the limitless potential that online social media have in reconnecting citizens, our elected representatives and our democratic institutions. I agree that MLAs should respect the Legislature, but it is important to understand the role these technologies already play in connecting politicians to citizens outside the dome. I have yet to receive a response from Kowalski.

As a tool for collecting information, Twitter has become a valuable resource for political junkies such as myself to gather instant updates and information more quickly than I could find on any mainstream media website. As news and political events unfold—with new information available by the hour—I find Twitter to be a reliable source of up-to-date information and links to breaking stories.

Facebook allows citizens to easily find like-minded people. The implications for politics are vast.

In February, Twitter users gathered in pubs and restaurants in cities around the world for the first annual Twestival event. At the Edmonton Twestival, over 50 Twitter users showed up to enjoy a night of conversation and drinks at a local restaurant. It may sound bizarre that this was the first time that many people in Edmonton’s online community had spoken to each other in person. Still, people at the event might never have met each other had it not been for online social networking.

The time when anyone with an Internet connection could start a blog and quickly rise to the top of Google’s search engine hit list has passed, but blogging  still has limitless potential. In fact, changes in the media industry may create room for a second blogging revival. As large media companies collapse under an unworkable advertising-based revenue model, readers flock online. As community and local political news coverage falls victim to cutbacks and layoffs in daily mainstream newspapers, online citizen journalists could fill the information gap. This is an exciting opportunity: the decentralization and democratization of news coverage is a positive evolution in media. The Internet rewards innovation, and well-written and credible blogs could carry the same weight as a city newspaper. Of course, citizen bloggers without professional journalistic credentials can be challenged by readers, but that’s the point of online discussion. It’s empowering to question and come to different conclusions.

Journalist and technology writer Paul Boutin, in an article on the website Wired.com, argues that “writing a blog today isn’t the bright idea it was four years ago. The blogosphere, once a freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought, has been flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge.” Boutin is right in many respects. CanWest’s newspapers and Maclean’s both support several blogs on their main websites. Nearly all of the mainstream television news and papers now have Twitter accounts. But the blogosphere is still relevant. Blogging by citizens will certainly grow. Now that citizens are realizing the power they hold to publish their own content and commentary, they will continue to contribute to and affect the dialogue. 

So what was the upshot of the media frenzy about www.edstelmach.ca? On the evening of January 9, 2008, I picked up my cell phone, which had been ringing all day. I heard a deep but gentle voice say, “Dave Cournoyer? Is this Dave Cournoyer?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Mr. Cournoyer, this is Ron Glen, Premier Stelmach’s chief of staff. Um, I’m going to be frank with you: this didn’t exactly go the way we’d planned… I was wondering if we could find some way to resolve this situation?” 

This didn’t go the way they had planned? A bit of an understatement. 

The situation did resolve itself in the end. I had little interest in renewing the domain name, which the Progressive Conservative party quickly purchased after I let my ownership expire. But the whole fiasco certainly did highlight our political leaders’ lack of understanding of the nature of Internet communications. 

There is no doubt that social networking websites and blogs facilitate the creation of new communities and new ways for citizens and politicians to communicate. These new online resources could re-engage Albertans in democracy. These are more than just tools for informing people—they actually encourage, enhance and expand participation. The onus is on citizens and politicians to seize the opportunities that technology allows. 

Dave Cournoyer is the author of daveberta.ca, which won three Canadian Blog Awards in 2007, including Best Blogosphere Citizen.

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