At a conference on the power of the web to deliver change in democracy this weekend in New York (the PDF, Personal Democracy Forum), the two main threads were platforms and tools (some promising, some not) and a desire to discover whether the Internet could “fix” politics the assumption from many speakers was that trust and mechanism were broken and needed reformation in new ways. However despite a sneering disregard for politicians, the biggest hit was one: Cory Booker.
Booker – a mayor of a city in the shadow of a big neighbour, a city of around a million people with a high non-white population, a city often unfairly characterised in the media as dangerous or dull. He’s taken on the might of the media in Conan O’Brien who joked: “The mayor of Newark New Jersey wants to set up a citywide program to improve residents’ health… The health care program would consist of a bus ticket out of Newark”. This strong advocate for a downtrodden area is something that elected mayors have the power to give to a city, and if that description of Newark sounded like I was writing about my own home town of Birmingham, then good — it was meant to, I’ve fully come round to the idea of directly elected mayors.
The 2007 documentary Street Fight portrays him as a powerful force, ready for such a stage, but it’s been his groundbreakingly human use of the social web as a force for his city that had 800 of the most cynical people in the World (politically active people who spend a lot of time on the Internet) enrapt.
His main weapon is openness and accessibility — every so often he’ll DM a Twitter follower directly about their issue, he’ll also tweet about his caffeine consumption and in almost Ice Cubian honestly he’ll proclaim that ‘today was a good day, no-one had to use their AK’ (or at least that Newark had a murder free month for the first time in 50 years).
What it provides is true leadership; yes Booker users his connections to nudge and campaign but what is more important it establishes him as a visible hub in a network, a person whom is both human and responsive. This fosters more political engagement than a hundred expensively advertised, staffed and graphed consultations (again, his messages reach one million plus people on one very easy to manage, free, channel).
This isn’t a million miles away from what another conference speaker has done en-route to becoming a multimillionaire and destroying the business models of the local press all around the united states. Craig Newmark is the Craig out of Craigslist, the free online local classified website that has grown from a tiny email list in 1995 to a $150million dollar operation in 2009 to. As soon as there was money and company structure Newmark appointed an experienced businessman to the role of CEO and became the Customer Service Representative, the point of contact for and voice on the side of the customers of the site was its founder and majority shareholder.
While that might sound crazy, Newmark answers emails and talks to people across his constituency all day and the company is better for it. This method isn’t without issues of scale, whether you could expect Cameron to address people directly in this way I don’t know — but at city level it can certainly be sustained by a man as charismatic as Booker.
Inevitably openness in this way, and to everyone online if they like asks questions of whether it’s acting in the best interests of, the city. On the internet, it’s said that no-one knows you’re a dog and surely a politician entrusted with the wellbeing of a geographical area will be pressured by ‘outside agitators’,organised campaigns and pranksters. Perhaps, not withstanding that it is perfectly possible to mine the data trail we leave for much more powerful signals of real intent these days, voices from outside the city present a gentle pressure to wider interests and a change of cross civic altruism. It also does no harm at all to the image of the city.
This is more important for being the one goal that any figurehead can achieve, there is no budgetary or legislative support needed, it costs nothing but the will. With local authority spending no doubt under continuing pressure, it may be the most powerful goal too. If the slack of the state must be taken up by volunteers then they will need engaging, the will need to feel supported, appreciated and listened to. You can’t pay people to engage emotionally, but you can do it and do it at scale online.
If an elected major is what our cities need, then the ones I want are to be connected too.
Originally published on Labour Uncut.