Living an augmented election

April 16, 2010
Living in an electoral cloud… (image by @respres)
Living in an electoral cloud… (image by @respres)

I watched the electoral debate last night online, over a Subway sandwich and some late editing work in the Prospect office. My video view of the action—as I gradually deduced from others' eerily prescient tweets—was about a minute behind live television. It was also a relatively minor part of the experience. Across the computer window snaked the ITV live opinion "worm," wriggling in response to a panel's every emotional twitch. TweetDeck brought me my friends' views along one side of my screen, while the ITV website regaled me with stranger's tweets and the latest Facebook reactions. Within another few browser tabs were the Guardian's live updates, the BBC site, RSS responses on Bloglines, and my own shifting searches across the rest of the web. Also—last but not least—there was the text I was supposed to be working on for the next issue of Prospect.

The experience reminded me of a new media conference I was at a few weeks ago, when a silent cacophony began to rage through the audience during an especially boring presentation. The speaker, oblivious, made his points, while a few hundred delegates vented and swapped instant spleen via Twitter, and a handful of bold souls leapt to his defence. My phone, set to update itself automatically every five seconds, began to churn out hundreds of words for every phrase onstage. Reality, it seemed, had shifted its priorities—in that what really mattered, what defined this experience, was not the slender speech we were being given, but the quips and re-quips and responses being traded in front of it.

By the end of the television debate yesterday, more than 184,000 tagged tweets had been sent out nationwide, and God alone knows how many millions of words written. Over ten million viewers tuned in, and the polls set the news agenda. Most of Britain shrugged, blinked and got on with the business of not being terribly interested in politics. What I saw, though, was different from anything I'd found in British politics before: an experience defined not by my glancing consumption of an elaborately managed event, like a party conference, but by my glancing participation in one corner of something far larger and more nebulous.

It has always been almost impossible to talk about an electorate in any terms other than numbers and abstractions. But now, in the augmented political arena that this country belatedly finds itself entering, you begin to get a more concrete sense of quite how many of us there are—and how madly varied, self-interested, distracted, shifting, opinionated, committed, divided and difficult we all are, in a way that defies and exceeds any segmentation or statistic.

Data can have great power, but it also offers a spurious sense of ownership when it comes to phenomena you can't directly control: the number of hits on your website, the number of voters who mention your name in a survey. What really matters is what your audience are actually thinking and will actually do. This a truth we're beginning to experience in an entirely new way. As to whether this is empowering, demoralising, or merely distracting—well, I strongly suspect it's all three. And we'll just have to wait to find out which proves the most compelling force.