Five lessons from MyDavidCameron

By Clifford Singer

On 30 January I spoke at a packed session on "new media and the election" at the Progressive London conference, alongside Alex Smith, Helen Gardner, Sunny Hundal and Andy Newman. There were strong contributions from all my fellow speakers and from the audience. This, more or less, is what I said.

MyDavidCameron is the third of a trio of websites I've set up in the last 18 months which try to do politics a bit differently. The first, Bubblewrapped, was a response to the banking crash, and its entire audience comprised of two economists in Canada.

The second, the Other TaxPayers' Alliance, is still doing a pretty good job of annoying the TaxPayers' Alliance and other neoliberals hiding behind the banner of neutrality. It mixes more serious political commentary with an element of mockery, such as an online generator which supplies journalists with realistic TaxPayers Alliance quotes, because they always say the same thing anyway.

But MyDavidCameron has gone much bigger. In the three weeks since it launched, it's received 160,000 unique visits and, more significantly, its reach has extended beyond the usual politicos into countless discussion forums such as Mumnets, all sorts of football supporters networks, music and clubbing websites, and mainstream entertainment sites like Popbitch.

One way in which MyDavidCameron differs from most political sites (besides the fact that it's funny) is that it has a limited shelf-life. Drag it out too long and it will become the Oasis of viral campaigns. With this in mind I've distilled five lessons learned from creating the site, which may help others launching websites and campaigns.

1. Concept is everything

With a viral campaign concept is everything. It's too easy to get caught up in the technology – how do we use this widget to connect to Facebook or Twitter – and to forget about the basics of having something that's funny or useful or fascinating.

Rather embarrassingly – given that I work in new media – MyDavidCameron is the most lo-tech site I've built for years. Essentially it's a single, static page with lots of images. Even our DIY template required the user to have Photoshop – the clever automatic generators came later, as did online voting.

Since the success of there’s been a tendency to do a kind of Obama-by-numbers. First you're asked to support some kind of online action – maybe a petition to your MP. Then you're taken to another screen asking you to enter 10 friends' names so they can be contacted. Sometimes you're left wondering whether the original action had any significance at all, or whether it was just a convenient hook to harvest more contacts.

It's the online equivalent of the Socialist Worker sellers in your high street who have a different petition for you to fill in each week, when it's just a strategy to sell papers and recruit members.

2. Twitter matters

The second lesson we've learned is that while it's true that Twitter users represent only a small part of our audience, that doesn't make Twitter less important. Why? Because those Twitter users are a gateway to a wider audience.

We launched MyDavidCameron by tweeting about it to our Other TaxPayers' Alliance Twitter account - with a modest 400 followers. But very quickly the number of Twitter hits was overtaken by Facebook, and then Facebook was overtaken by direct visits. In other words those Twitter users had spread the message to Facebook and then both sets of users had spread it to the wider online world via good old fashioned email. Some might even have told others verbally.

And that has remained a consistent pattern. We announce new posters in Twitter and Facebook and that triggers a growth in visitors outside of those platforms. It's essentially what enabled us to contest a £500,000 Tory advertising campaign at zero cost.

3. Crowdsourcing is good

Twitter has also been our main tool for crowdsourcing, and if stating that online collaboration and crowdsourcing are good sounds a little obvious, I should add that it almost didn't happen for us.

Our DIY poster template was very much an afterthought. But it was that that made users engage. People started sending posters to each other. They uploaded them to Twitpic and Flickr, and this created a buzz. And every time we publish a poster, the person who created it tweets and emails their friends to tell them it's up.

Even the automatic generators were crowdsourced. LabourList supplied the first one, but when that crashed under too much bandwidth pressure, other volunteers provided their own. Now the tables have turned. The generators get so much traffic that they send us visitors rather than vice versa. 

4. Crowdsourcing is bad

Collaboration and crowdsourcing, however, can also be bad. When we appealed for posters, what we wanted was high-minded satire about deficit reduction. What we got were hundreds of images of Cameron saying, and sometimes doing, unspeakable things. Some were funny, most weren't. And so we abandoned plans to upload them all, in favour of keeping a bit of good old-fashioned editorial control, which is what kept the quality so high.

5. Political satire is difficult

Political satire is a very difficult thing to do well. Even the best-known attempts, from Spitting Image to Mock the Week, tend to be fairly hit-and-miss.

Take the portrayal of Cameron as a toff. It's not so much Cameron's wealth that's the issue as the fact that 17 of his shadow cabinet colleagues are also millionaires (which in turn relates to a wider problem of the lack of working-class representation in Parliament). And it's not so much Cameron's background that's the problem as whose interests he represents: the rich over the poor.

So that's why we must beware of too many top hats and crass caricatures. We saw how Labour's clumsy attempts to harness this issue backfired during the 2008 Crewe byelection. And although there's now a wider gap between Labour and the Tories on issues of class and inequality, at the time it just looked opportunistic as New Labour was also on record as being – in Peter Mandelson’s words – "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich".

And so our line of attack on this issue is to keep it funny but also to try to say a bit more than “Cameron’s a toff”. Some of the posters we’ve featured have done this brilliantly, such as Beau Bo D'Or’s multi-layered "I love the BBC so much I want to cut it up into little pieces and give it to all my friends".

It's also the case that something that works well on a billboard in Hackney - “Fuck off back to Eton” – can end up looking shrill repeated in countless variations on a website. Therefore, far from being the “vicious” attack site painted by some Conservative critics, we’ve pulled our punches when it comes to language and personal abuse.

But we've also had to be careful not to go too far the other way. A few of our posters are funny but not very political at all – such as “Little Boots, actually”. Taken alone, they could strengthen the case made (in very different contexts) by Ian Dale and Paul Richards that the viral campaign helps Cameron by putting him centre-stage. This view is presumably shared by the pro-Tory “Davefacts” website, which puts out ridiculous and sometimes amusing (but always apolitical) statements about Cameron.

Could we fall into the same trap? Perhaps, but only if we got rid of our posters proclaming “Government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich”, “Tough on jobs, tough on the causes of jobs”, “We can’t go on like this. I’ll cut my taxes but not yours”, and many others. As it is, I think there’s a strong argument that Cameron needs more scrutiny not less, and we should not be overly concerned with the “all publicity is good publicity” argument. Ian Dale’s commentators certainly didn’t agree with his view that the Tory poster campaign had been a success.

The gap

One issue that's emerged is the glaring online gap between the populist satire of MyDavidCameron and those sites with a more politically committed audience, such as Liberal Conspiracy and Socialist Unity. We wanted to ensure that MyDavidCameron included links to more overtly political sites for those who wanted to find out more. But those sites had to be clear and accessible to a relatively mainstream audience, rather than aimed at activists or academics. We had trouble finding any.

This is not an either/or debate: we need sites dedicated to serious political analysis, discussion and theory. But we also need to think much more about how we get our message across to that elusive, wider audience.

Posted 2 February 2010, 2.20pm



Easy on the airbrushing, yeah?

Posted by Ian at 04:09pm on 3 February 2010

Thanks for sharing this. Irrespective of the target, these are some great lessons for all sorts of campaigns - including the third sector’s harnessing of supporters and fundraisers. I’ve shared (on twitter of course) with my networks.

Nice work. Rob

Posted by Rob Dyson at 04:25pm on 3 February 2010

Good points (and a great site).

So that’s why we must beware of too many top hats and crass caricatures. We saw how Labour’s clumsy attempts to harness this issue backfired during the 2008 Crewe byelection.

True, although I found the poster with the top hat and Eton reference to be one of the funniest. If it’s done with a sense of lightness and without hate, I think the wealth/class thing works. It’s not just about who the Torys represent, it’s also that someone with a wealthy background is unlikely to appreciate the difficulties faced on a daily basis by most people - in paying the rent, the electricity bill, being on welfare, etc.

Although the wealth/class thing may backfire on the New Labour party, this spoof poster project isn’t representative of Labour - it’s what members of the public come up with, no? It’s an important distinction. If contributions reflect worries about the “toff” background of a potential leader of the country, and do so with humour, then it seems a valid expression, and may communicate something which isn’t coming across in the media. There’s no risk of this website losing an election, so why worry about this?

Posted by Bruce at 05:19pm on 3 February 2010

The failure of the Crewe and Nantwich campaign was manifold:

It was a tory seat, as the late Gwynneth Dunwoody must have told almost every Labour Party audience in the country at some point. Contested in mid term.

Choosing her daughter to be our candidate pitted apparent nepotism against the snobbery of the tories in selection an old Etonian as their candidate. Neither is al that attractive and the tories were wise to leave voters to draw their own conclusions.

Dressing labour folk up in fancy dress to make points never makes the point desired, it invites ridicule for its resemblance to advertising for children. In fact such antics characterise labour as the party of antics.

At that point Chameleon’s front bench was much more nearly full of genuine toffs - like himself, his Geo Osborne,  and his farther in law - than now. Now we have a wannabe plutocracy - 18 millionaires (at least). Then there were Old Etonians and if we were to use that against the tory candidate we needed to point to how disgracefully unrepresentative he and the Tory front bench were, not just have a pop at him in Crewe.  And we needed to stress egalitarian policies alongside that.

I’m looking forward, as a byplay in the campaign, to people campaigning for a fairer deal for potential Tory Shadows, like Alan Duncan, and others of even less elevated backgrounds, who are more deserving of promotion in the Chameleon Tory party.

Dave Davis, anyone?

Posted by Quietzapple at 10:28pm on 3 February 2010

Point of order: davefacts isn’t pro-tory, in fact I understand the site designers are non-partisan lefties from my neck of the woods some of whom may or may not work for a state broadcasting organisation and whose bosses know who they are and what they do.

Posted by Oranjepan at 10:39pm on 3 February 2010

We need a poster picking up the decimal point error the Tories made about teenage mothers.  It’s real giveaway.  They quoted 5.4% (the actual statisatics) as 54%

I suggest:

5.4% of girls from poor families get pregnant before the age of 18.  I think that’s nearly half.  Breeding like rabbbits

But I can’t make the upload work.

Posted by Tony Crofts at 12:33pm on 16 February 2010

Pshaw! Have I got this right? All poor girls are 54% pregnant?

Posted by Quietzapple at 12:39pm on 16 February 2010

Many thanks for all the comments - and sorry for taking so long to reply. Would it make me sound too much like a politician if I said I agreed with everyone? Well I do. Except maybe Oranjepan, who seems to know more about Davefacts than me, but I offer this:

Posted by Clifford Singer at 02:05pm on 21 February 2010

Well Clifford, I suspect you are agreeing with everyone who you would agree with anyway. Ever heard of the Rorschach test or cognitive bias? People most often see what suits them.

I think the important question you have to ask about DaveFacts is whether you think promoting the view that your party leader is a superhero inspires confidence in the membership, or whether it subjects to ridicule the self-affirming mindset of any group which would promote that view as not grounded in reality.

For my own part I think you are naturally inclined to assume DaveFacts is pro-tory because its’ own specific political motivations against opinion and opinionators are hidden by the subtlety with which they are deployed and this obviously clashes with your view of a more overt tribal politics polarised along partisan lines.

If I were you I wouldn’t be quite so quick to judge… it does occasionally help to know some actual facts - such as who designed the site.

Posted by Oranjepan at 03:49am on 22 February 2010

I also thought the top hat/eton joke was the funniest, in fact I printed it off and stuck it on my A level politics folder!

Posted by Will Hazell at 12:14am on 14 March 2010

Personally I find DaveFacts on Twitter anodyne and likely to sanitise the undertow of Chameleon. Recently ‘he’ has suggested peeps lobby for a mention on a local radio station.

The other Chameleon spoofs on twitter are less obtuse in their intentions, and more pointed imho.

Intentions are not the most important part of any story.

Posted by Quietzapple at 12:45am on 14 March 2010

Taking on vested interests
David Cameron, Saturday, March 20th, 2010 .

There’s a very simple choice at this election: five more years of Gordon Brown, or change with the Conservatives.

I think this means we should vote for his vested interests and can you believe this is what he wants us to blog about.  I think what he means is five years of Michael Cashcroft where they will look after our money in the shape of give it all to us.
Is this man deranged or what.  Or does he think we are deranged that we would want to read such alot of nonsense.
Good luck to you David and if we are all deranged it could just be your day.

Posted by Pat at 10:35pm on 21 March 2010

When HMQ’s seventh cousin gives the keys to CCHQ to Britain’s 37th richest billionaire who claims dual British citizenship, who’s evaded £127m Income Tax while donating many millions to the Tory Party and takes his jet round the WIndies with his Shadow Foreign Secretary I think we all know who is really taking the piss.

Posted by Quietzapple at 10:56pm on 21 March 2010

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