Labourspace: great idea, awful execution

Relaunched* (presumably?) at the weekend’s Spring Conference, LabourSpace.com is the Labour Party’s campaign-based social network. Ed Miliband’s welcome message calls it ‘the place where those of us who share Labour’s values come to discuss how we want to make Britain a better place to live.’ There’s much to like about it, but they get some things stunningly wrong.

As the name suggests, MySpace is the role model. You’ve got pictorial lists of friends campaign supporters, and a campaign blog (with comments, but without RSS). There’s a simple one-click process to support or oppose the campaign in question, as well as a curious ‘revoke’ option (?). But it’s the addition of the pro-active viral aspects which make it interesting. The campaign’s ‘top recruiter’ gets their picture on the campaign profile, and there’s a competitive element to the site, based on the number of supporters recruited each monthly (?) ’round’. There’s a big button to ’email a newspaper about this campaign’. And there’s an ’email a friend’ option too.

But, er, hang on. The ’email a friend’ option wants me to supply the username and password for my personal email account? Are they serious? I imagine they want to scour my address book for people I might want to spam about my campaign… but come on guys, did you miss the recent news stories about data security?

That’s far from the only downside. There’s very little explanation of how the site actually works, apart from a Flash movie on the homepage (which nobody will sit through)… not even an ‘About’ page. The registration process is very intrusive, with address and postcode mandatory. You need to be a registered member to do almost anything, including comment on the blogs. They’ve given zero thought to SEO, judging by the lack of sensible page titles or URLs – and frankly, it looks a bit ugly.

Plus, I don’t believe ‘bringing your campaign to the attention of senior Labour politicians’ constitutes an adequate ‘prize’. If Labourspace is going to get any kind of traction, senior Labour politicians will have to take notice of it regardless. (See ConservativeHome, for example.) Offering attention as a prize doesn’t bode well.

This site could have been absolutely fantastic: e-petitions taken to the next level. But they’ve gone out of their way to make it difficult to engage with. With David Cameron talking today about making it easier and less onerous for people to connect with his party, this seems completely the wrong approach.

The Spring Conference date was known well in advance. So, what would I do with it?

  • Lose the ‘hand over your email password’ thing immediately. Unforgiveable.
  • Write a few pages telling me what the hell is going on. Dump the Flash intro.
  • Lose the Labour brand. Make me want to engage with the site, its community, its campaigns. Then let me be pleasantly surprised that it’s a Labour-backed initiative.
  • Don’t make everything ‘registered users only’. Encourage outsiders to participate.
  • Improve the design, and give campaign owners some freedom to design their own space.
  • If you’re going to do blogs, do them properly. RSS feeds would be a start.
  • Consider adding a spellcheck. It doesn’t give me great confidence in Labour’s education efforts if site members can’t spell.
  • Where’s the ability to take campaigns outside – to my own blog? my own Facebook profile?
  • Think about SEO. Start with proper page titles.
  • And clean up the source code: what’s with all the commented-out ‘lorem ipsum’ on the homepage?

Someone is eventually going to build the ultimate political campaigning platform. This could have been it. It isn’t.

*Update: sorry, just after I first posted this, I discovered it’s been around for a while. It looks like this is a relaunch rather than an initial launch, rebuilt on a new platform.

Tories need friends

I’m genuinely surprised to see the Tories’ new Facebook-targeted viral video. It’s David Cameron, sitting in a drab – in the Commons, judging by the furniture? he says ‘Whitehall’ – office. Then it’s Jimmy Cliff. Then it’s flashy animations with a string of familiar electoral promises, some more substantial and quantifiable than others. Although having just watched it, I can’t actually remember any of them.

As Sky’s Jonathan Levy notes, Obama it ain’t. Nor is it Webcameron (although I note there’s a ‘DVD extra’-esque background clip on Webcameron). It feels more like an old-style Party Political Broadcast… one of those ones which tries too hard.

Two key words jump out at you. ‘Change’ – I make it 11 uses of the word (or a close derivation thereof) in 90 seconds, plus a couple of ‘different’s. Remind you of anyone? Then, in the final second – ‘donate’. This new entry-level ‘Friend Of’ membership is clearly the new Big Idea:

Donate as much or as little as you like and help us campaign for the change people really want. You’ll receive a weekly newsletter, information about getting involved in the local community, and access to our new Affinity Programme.

The use of the word ‘friend’, with a ‘Facebook exclusive’ (!) launch for the video, is not accidental. But it’s still an invitation to align yourself with a specific political party: a form to fill in on their website, an explicit – and crucially, un-retractable – declaration of Party Political support. Simple Facebook friendship, on the other hand, would leave me in control; would keep my details as confidential as I want them to be; and would still offer the same ‘engagement’ opportunity.

The Tories have done so much right in the new media space lately, making this all the more curious. I’ll be watching with interest. But no matter how much Cameron’s approach appeals to me – and I’ll admit, I like a lot of it – I won’t be signing up as a formal ‘friend’. And I suspect, as a politically-literate father in his mid-30s running his own business, I’m precisely the sort of person this is aimed at.