Just the design of the government’s “Digital Economy Future Directions blog” indicates that there is a fair bit about blogging that the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digitial Economy don’t get. It’s almost impossible to navigate. One post has 50 pages of comments that you have to individually click on to read – there’s no option to view as single page for the comments, or, indeed, for the blog as a whole. In fact, the blog itself has a splash page – all text of course – which managed to confuse a few potential readers when the blog was first launched.
Ineptness is everywhere. Why, for instance, does the permalink for the splash page appear below the heading “Current blog topics”? And is there anything more amusingly bureaucratic than having your blog buried in a hierarchy that reads: “Communications and technology for business > Industry development > Digital economy > Digital Economy blog”? This blog is not just unfriendly to users, it’s aggressively hostile.
Sure, usability is an easy target. But the idea of the government having a blog is deeply silly too.
There is a certain strand of techno-utopian thinking that believes that the internet could help break down the barriers between citizen and state – the concept of participatory democracy is, after all, supposed to be a two-way process whereby politicians and public servants react to the community’s wishes at a speed as close to real-time as possible. So what better than a blog to debate and discuss the ins and outs of government policy, respond to community concerns, and just be more generally open and accessible? What a lovely thought. Policy-makers and policy-takers working hand in hand to build the Australia they all want.
Naturally, this being the internet and all, everybody just piled abuse upon the government’s internet filter scheme, generally ignoring the extraordinarily dull topics chosen by the blog’s authors. Seriously – does anyone care about some superficial and unsigned copy about how YouTube has been used in political campaigns, and how Facebook represents a business opportunity? These topics have been played out over and over and over. If the government wants to hear Australia’s thoughts about the issue, perhaps they could take a few moments to Google it.
The blog eventually had to tackle the mandatory filter, which it did in a post bizarrely titled: “Minister Conroy on: Promoting a civil and confident society online” But it did little more than repeat the same lines heard out of Ministerial and electorate offices around the country – the filter is not a threat to freedom of speech because child porn is not a freedom of speech issue, there’s going to be a trial, “evidence-based”, etc etc etc.
So why bother having a blog if all it does is reproduce the government’s stock-standard defences?
Advocates of participatory democracy look at the political landscape and conclude that something is deeply wrong, but they misdiagnose what that ‘something’ actually is. It isn’t that politicians are too distant from those they are supposed to serve, and it isn’t that the mainstream press plays its gatekeeping role too enthusiastically.
It’s that these guys are politicians. The government has adopted a suite of policies that it believes will get them maximum electoral gain without – hopefully – destroying the country in the process. Why on earth would a politician drop their strict message management regime in order to entertain a few critics on a blog? Government is not an intellectual pursuit, it is a political pursuit.
The only interesting question is what the government thought it would be getting out of the blog. If it believed its own hype, then the Communications Minister is astoundingly naive – did Stephen Conroy not expect people to ask awkward questions about the government’s policies?
The cautious optimism shown by Robert Merkel (a quote of which Stephen Conroy deployed to obscure the fact that he never quite answered his critics) seemed to be widely held in the left-wing blogosphere, but you would have thought that the experience of the 2020 summit showed just how deliberately manipulative the Rudd government could be towards Australia’s intellectuals.
Anyway, this short-lived blog does little more than reinforce just how much a fantasy is the concept of ‘participatory’ democracy. Politics is full of politicians – if we started accepting that fact, then stupid initiatives like these would be treated with the disdain they deserve.
Crossposted at chrisberg.org