Who says Labour people can't do web?

A couple of (broadly) Labour-related online developments of note late last week.
One was the relaunch of LabourList, just in time for conference. Alex Smith has done great things editorially since taking control of the website in the wake of Drapergate, and entirely deserved the recognition of a high ranking in Iain Dale’s annual poll of the top political blogs. But the website has always been a bit, well, ugly (or indeed, well ugly) – like it was trying too hard.
The new look is a big improvement, primarily because it accepts the reality that it’s really just another multi-author blog. You get a straightforward two-column layout: content plus comments on one side, a site-wide sidebar on the other, with header navigation based (I guess) on tags. It isn’t spectacular in design terms, but it doesn’t need to be. (Mind you, I’m not sure about including everyone’s ‘gravatar’ on every page: that’s going to slow things way down, for everyone.) It’s still powered by the same mysterious Tangent Labs platform as other Labour output; I’m wondering why.
The other was the news that Sarah Brown, the PM’s wife had passed uber-geek Stephen Fry in terms of Twitter followers. As I write this, Mr Fry has 773,000 followers, Mrs Brown has 791,000.
With no great fanfare in the conventional media, Mrs B has built quite a profile around her Million Mums campaign against ‘the needless deaths of women in pregnancy and childbirth around the world’, and other similarly lefty causes. It’s pretty clear she’s writing her own tweets personally, and gets actively involved in terms of replying, re-tweeting and hashtagging. It’s working, and she is often (rightly) used as a best practice example for public figures.
She also did a bit of blogging from last week’s G20 summit in Pittsburgh, again at wordpress.com – although I’m told there has been talk about bringing it properly ‘in house’; and has been contributing to the influential Huffington Post for some time.
Her activity is rarely Labour-branded per se… but of course it’s exactly a year since she sensationally appeared on-stage at the Labour conference to introduce her husband. (It’s quite amusing to look back at the BBC’s live text commentary from the day: ‘It’s almost time for the pre-speech video. Sarah Brown is in the hall. At the lectern. What’s going on? It looks like she is about to address the Labour conference.‘) Now articles are being written, describing her as ‘arguably the most admired and powerful woman in Britain… She might even be the last hope for Labour.’
Don’t underestimate the role her new media activity has played in this.

Congratulations @downingstreet

It doesn’t matter how they got there, and it doesn’t matter if a significant proportion are spammy. The @downingstreet Twitter account hit one million followers on Sunday afternoon – making it surely the biggest e-government hit in a couple of years at least. At zero setup cost. And zero marketing spend.
The question is – still – what do we do with them all?
For anyone needing background, here’s an easy link to all the posts I’ve written on the subject. To anyone I met WordCamp who’s reading this: check out the URL construction. Did you know you could do that??

No10's Twitter status worth $250,000?

By getting involved early and enthusiastically in the whole Twitter thing, has DowningStreet earned itself $250,000 of free digital engagement? Well-known internet entrepreneur Jason Calacanis (number of followers: 63,000) has offered Twitter a cool quarter of a million bucks – as I believe our American friends would describe it – to secure himself a two-year stay on their list of people you might like to follow when you open a new account. This is, of course, the same list which has done so much to boost DowningStreet’s follower count, now standing at 276,000.
There’s breathless excitement in a piece on TechCrunch:

[Calacanis] wants to lock in the price now because he thinks it is a great marketing opportunity. It is not unusual for people on the suggested list to gain 10,000 new followers every day. That comes to 3.6 million a year, and even if half unsubscribe, that is still a direct channel to more than a million potential customers. Those are customers who feel a connection with you because of the personal nature of Twitter messages.

There’s additional detail in John Naughton’s piece from yesterday’s Observer:

“I was only half-bluffing with this move,” he wrote in his weekly newsletter. “I was 90% sure Twitter wouldn’t take the money and I wouldn’t have to pony up …. However, if they did call my bluff … I would have gotten what I wanted: two to 10 million Twitter followers and the ability to drive one to two million visits to Mahalo a month from Twitter.”

This is a serious entrepreneur, a guy who has made serious money from the internet, reckoning that $120,000 for one year, or $250,000 to cover himself for the likely price rise in year two, was good value to buy something which 10 Downing Street already owns. One wonders, then, whether Francis Maude might want to reconsider his comments about No10’s experimentation with ‘the latest digital gimmicks’?

@downingst hits 100k Twitter fans

Entirely predictably, the Downing Street Twitter channel broke new ground at some time on Friday night, registering its 100,000th follower. To put this extraordinary growth in some perspective: one month ago, they had just 12,000. And just one week ago, they had 50,000. In relative terms, for now at least, they’re now comfortably settled into Twitterholic’s top 30 – ahead of MC Hammer, ahead of Philip Schofield, far ahead of Chris Moyles, and far, far ahead of Russell Brand (sorry Guido).
There seem to be two streams of criticism of Twitter, in terms of ‘serious’ usage: one, there’s no evidence of any tangible benefit (see Thomas Gensemer in the Guardian this week); and two, there’s no evidence of a Twitter business model. (Yet and yet, of course.)
Personally, I take a more positive view. Very few MPs have serious numbers of followers – there are only two political offices in the world with any kind of substantial Twitter following: Barack Obama and 10 Downing Street. The former didn’t do too badly out of it, did he? – although if you look back at the Obama tweeting, it’s frankly a bit rubbish. My guess is, it helped further his image as being hip to this sort of thing, and that was enough. Number10, meanwhile, do a surprising amount at a micro level – you might be surprised how many replies they send to ordinary punters, to their surprise and (often) delight.
And you know what? Even if there’s no future business model, we’re looking at a phenomenal opportunity here, today. The fact it may not be here tomorrow shouldn’t stop us exploiting it while it’s there. 100,000 people have signed up – actively, voluntarily – to hear from the heart of UK government. Now they’re actually listening, what should we be saying to them?

David Lammy, Twitter expert

Lammy meets Brandreth
It came as a bit of a shock this evening, when BBC1’s The One Show started talking about Twitter, that reporter Gyles Brandreth’s first port of call was Kingsgate House on Victoria Street, home of DIUS and minister David Lammy. With traffic up by a factor of three this year already, Twitter’s certainly a hot topic at the moment – with the BBC in particular facing accusations of going overboard; but where does David Lammy come into all this?
To be entirely fair, Lammy did talk (some of) the talk:

For me, it’s almost a broadcast means of people knowing what I’m up to during the course of the day. It is about finding ways in which people can be clearer about what government ministers are up to.

OK, so it would have been nice if he’d described it as a two-way thing – and of course, he may well have done, but that wasn’t the soundbite we heard. But nice to get the potential for political transparency on the record.
The only niggle is that Lammy has been a member of the Twitter family since mid-December. He hasn’t even reached three figures for the number of tweets. Indeed, he’s only been using it with any head of steam for a month. One can’t help feeling it was a nice ‘soft’ primetime TV appearance for a politician with ambition: the caption read ‘Minister, Dept for Innovation’, and it can’t have done any harm to put a government minister in a story about something ‘cutting edge’ and ‘cool’.
Speaking of Twitter: I see @downingstreet has now reached the Twitterholic Top 50, and looks like going even higher – they’ve already passed the MarsPhoenix Lander, one of Twitter’s iconic accounts. Between you and me, I’m told they have MC Hammer in their sights.

No10 leaps into Twitter's top 100

Twitterholic data shows No10's explosive growth in the last fortnight
Twitterholic data shows No10's explosive growth in the last fortnight

One of the biggest successes in e-government this past year, and arguably one of the most surprising, is Downing Street’s use of Twitter. And thanks to a remarkable couple of weeks, the Prime Minister’s Office now finds itself in the Top 100 of the most followed Twitter accounts worldwide, as ranked (fairly reliably) by Twitterholic.com.
It’s been a model of social media usage. The account was first publicised (here, by me) almost exactly ten months ago: the initial tweets were, as with a lot of corporates, automated via the Twitterfeed service. But within a week, they were beginning to talk like ‘proper’ users; nowadays, of course, it’s perfectly normal for them to reply to comments and queries from other users – who seem genuinely stunned that someone at No1o is listening. It’s often been quoted as an example of best practice – and this week, I’ve seen several people (eg the influential Mashable blog) suggesting the Obama White House should use it as its model.
Growth in the number of followers has been steady rather than spectacular – until earlier this month, when things went into overdrive. Just ten days ago, they had just over 8,000 followers; the Twitterholic number quoted for today is more than double that… putting them at #96 in the world. But as I write this, the @downingstreet Twitter page reports a follower count in excess of 19,000 – enough to put them even higher in the rankings tomorrow, leaping ahead of internet ‘big names’ like Loic Le Meur, Dave Winer and Zefrank. (And even, dare i even say it, @wordpress!) Any higher, and you’re into serious celebrity territory.
When you see a chart looking like that, you’re inevitably trying to think what could possibly be causing it. I’m not aware of any rational explanation myself… and a quick scan of recent followers doesn’t suggest an influx of spam accounts. (Well, no more than usual.)
I can only offer a couple of suggestions:

  • The Obama effect. There’s been a lot of speculation about what Team O might do with whitehouse.gov – and maybe that’s stimulated interest in what’s happening elsewhere. (I have to say though, the Canadian and Australian PMs haven’t seen anything like the same growth.)
  • In the wake of Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross and John Cleese – Brits are waking up to Twitter. Hitwise published data last week claiming Twitter’s UK-based website traffic (never mind other usage methods) was up 10-fold in a year, with – by the look of it – a further acceleration in the last few weeks. I guess the PM’s Office has made it into that category of Famous UK People You Should Follow When You Join: certainly if you look at the most recent followers, a lot of them are new Twitter users, and @downingstreet is among their first handful of follows. 

It’s truly an amazing success story: and the secret is simple – it’s playing by the (evolving) rules of the medium. The No10 web team post a range of stuff: what they described earlier this week as ‘information mixed with colour‘ – same as every good Twitterer does. Sometimes it’s important government stuff; sometimes it’s the ‘what I had for breakfast’ of Twitter stereotyping. They ask for feedback; they respond to questions, where they can. There’s no lengthy clearance process; they trust the guys to be sensible, and it’s a policy that has worked. The fact that it’s all kept anonymous, and the fact that it isn’t actually the PM himself (and they make no secret of that), have not hindered things.
Now, with all those people listening, what would you do with them?

Hazel Blears, Twitter-holic

At 11:30 this morning, Hazel Blears burst onto the Twitter scene. Six hours later, and we’re already up to her tenth tweet on the microblogging service. I feel as if my entire afternoon has been punctuated by the latest update on what Hazel is doing. Or indeed, not doing.
I’m all for departments experimenting with Twitter… especially the department whose specific remit includes ‘communities’. But there are a few fundamental problems with their assault on Twitter, which we need to rectify sharp-ish.
For starters, who ‘is’ CommunitiesUK? It reads like it’s Blears’s PA: all ‘Hazel is this’, ‘Hazel is that’. First person stuff, all personal and a bit touchy-feely, but written in the third person. As others have also noted, it feels really weird. And it doesn’t sit too well with the account’s ‘Bio’: ‘The official 7 day empowerment twitter channel for Communities and Local Government.’ Does the capitalisation imply that it’s the Department’s channel? (What exactly is ‘7-day empowerment’ anyway?)
And frankly, there’s just too much of it. Ten tweets in an afternoon, all one-way, even on a big day for the Department, is a lot. I don’t need a before, during and after tweet about every public engagement. I don’t want to know if ‘Hazel is excited about writing her first blog post‘. Just tell me when she’s published it.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not against experimental use of new channels like this. I’m just keen to see it get off on the right footing.
I get the feeling they’re consciously following the example of @DowningStreet. But their third-person approach – ‘The PM is…’ – works because 10 Downing Street is the Prime Minister. The relationship between DCLG (with its 5000+ staff) and Hazel Blears is completely different. This has to be either Hazel’s personal channel; or the department’s corporate channel. Unlike @DowningStreet, it can’t be both.
PS: In case you missed it… some very positive words from the Washington Post this week about No10’s G8 efforts. ‘Gordon Brown is stealing the G-8 show online,’ they wrote. ‘[@Downingstreet] has more than 3,000 followers, and is part of the prime minister’s ongoing Web-savvy operation.’ 🙂

No10 Twittering is front-page news

A bit of a surprise this morning to discover that the venerable Today Programme is on Twitter… with its first tentative tweets as far back as September last year, and a (more or less) daily service since December. The username ‘todaytrial’ doesn’t imply that it’s being taken too seriously… although it’s built into their BBC website pages. I suspect someone may now be regretting that choice of username. And it’s a rather incestuous ‘Following’ list, consisting solely of other BBC services.
Downing Street‘s Twitter efforts are front page news in the Guardian this morning – see the actual text here – which should help them pass the 1500 friends mark imminently. Meanwhile, it looks like the Tories are taking Twitter more seriously, with updates being written in Twhirl – and, intriguingly, nothing from Twitterfeed in a few days. Still only a modest 60-odd friends, though. That Labour account is still nothing more than Twitterfeeding, with no indication if it’s official or not, and an even more modest 21 followers.
PS: I see a few other recent political additions to the Twittersphere include Boris Johnson – who appears to be texting them in; and Comment Is Free, for whom Twitter might be the key to making the whole CiF experience more practical. @brianpaddick has been at it since January; if it’s official, @kenlivingstone is leaving it a bit late.

No10 beats Obama

It doesn’t actually mean anything, but well done to Downing Street for topping 1,000 followers on Twitter. The Twitterholic website collates a popularity contest, which suggests there’s still a l-o-n-g way to go to top Barack Obama in terms of followers – but they’ve already issued more updates in a fortnight than he’s put out in almost a year.
As for the last week’s other Twitter newbies: the Conservatives official-but-don’t-tell-anyone account has attracted just 48 followers, but that’s still many more than Labour‘s (official? unofficial?) account, which claims just 10. The ConservativeHome blog features a mere 28, with no postings in a few days… perhaps the novelty has worn off.

No10's new microsite by Puffbox

Fresh from its success with Twitter, 10 Downing Street is preparing for a weekend of social media experimentation, in association with Puffbox.
This Saturday, Gordon Brown is hosting a gathering of around 20 left-leaning world leaders under the banner of Progressive Governance, to discuss globalisation, climate change, development and international institutional reform. (It got a brief mention in yesterday’s monthly press conference, but you’d be forgiven for missing it.) With the renewed appetite for online experimentation at Number 10, I was asked to put together a microsite for the event – running on WordPress, and incorporating a few ‘web 2.0’ tools and tricks.
The site went live late this afternoon – sort of. There’s very little to see so far: the supporting materials, and our ideas of what to do with them, are still coming together. In fact, I fully expect to be coding up new templates and functions live on the day. I know rapid development has become a bit of a Puffbox trademark, but we’ve never cut it quite this fine before. 🙂
The centrepiece will be a live video stream of the proceedings, with a text commentary / discussion thread alongside. You could call it ‘live tweeting’, but we’re probably not going to use Twitter (tbc though). We’ll be posting the conference’s discussion papers for online viewing, with the opportunity for you to post your comments alongside. We’re hoping to get photos beamed into the site from the conference venue, via Downing Street’s new Flickr account; their well-established YouTube channel may also come into play. As may anything else which crosses my mind in the meantime.
It’s an ideal opportunity for innovation: a one-off, relatively low-profile event, not exactly on the scale of a G8, but still significant enough to be taken seriously. The ludicrously tight timeframe is forcing us to make rapid, almost instinctive decisions: in my book, that’s a good thing.
If you’re interested to see what we make of it, believe me – so am I. It all happens on Saturday morning, with the live proceedings due to wind up in the early afternoon. With Arsenal-Liverpool Round Two kicking off at 12.45pm, I’m relying on my fellow Gooner, David Miliband to ensure things stay on schedule.