A day away from the election campaign. No television, no radio, and I haven’t even looked at the newspapers.
The conference room at the Jika International Hotel, an establishment clearly named more in hope than reality, is packed with about 150 professional, amateur and beginning bloggers. They’ve been brought together by Australia’s best known “problogger”, Darren Rowse.
A Yorkshireman, Chris Garrett, is also here and, later, another Australian, Yaro Starak, makes an appearance. In the relatively hidden world of online bloggers and internet marketers – they prefer the more reassuring “entrepreneurs” – this is an A-list gathering.
Business men and women from all manner of industries are here. Some are selling products online, sometimes in conjunction with an off-line business. Others exist exclusively online. They are mainly here to learn about how to use this new “social media” to make money. Some are here simply to learn how to get traffic to their websites.
I’m sitting with Laura, a young woman who works for a digital marketing company. She’s been working on a project that involves her writing about boats. She’s well versed in the new online language of “keywords” and “search engine optimisation”.
There is much talk during the day’s sessions about the importance of authenticity, authority and credibility in building a business online. Close your eyes for a minute, change the names and the context, and you could be listening to a discussion by campaign apparatchiks about how to win an election.
This new online world is about “participation”, “engagement” and “involvement”. It is about building “communities”. The speakers all have stories about the communities they have developed online, groups of people from all over the globe who are interested in a particular “niche”, the online world’s term for defining a business market.
They all agree on one thing. Your potential customers can spot a phoney a mile off. Try to be something you’re not and they will click the button of their mouse and be gone in an instant. They are very big on the importance of being, dare we say it, “real”.
Should an online business built around an individual be too revealing of that individual? Where is the boundary between good business practice and alienating self-indulgence?
In the political world, the questions are much the same. Parties and candidates build websites to promote their philosophies and policies – their “business”. In this election, they create Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to “engage” with their “customers”, the voters.
But it must be said that Australian political parties would be electorally broke if they relied on their online activities to survive. They still exist in an off-line world where engagement consists of pumping out one-way, pre-packaged messages.
In reality, political engagement with the voters is a risk-averse business. There is a fear of the unguarded moment, of the picture opportunity that goes wrong. The party leaders appear instead on television, accompanied by a retinue of advisers and managers all devoted to constructing an acceptable message for the evening news bulletins.
Inside this conference room, the election campaign seems a long way away but there are plenty of people willing to talk to me about it. Mention the campaign and everyone has an opinion about the outcome.
Trevor Young, a marketing and communications specialist, tells me there is a general sense of disillusionment about the election in the circles he moves in. Others tell me there is no sense of vision on offer.
An elegantly dressed young woman, Tresna Lee, blogs about food. She is repulsed by all the talk of Tony Abbott’s budgie smugglers. She tells me she woke that morning in late-June to find that Julia Gillard was on the verge of replacing Kevin Rudd. She was enthusiastic about Gillard but disappointed that there was no build-up to the first female prime ministership.
“I quite liked Kevin,” she tells me. You weren’t sick and tired of him by the end, I ask. “No,” she says.
Tresna will be voting Labor. She probably qualifies as a traditional Labor voter, although her parents, both teachers, are Liberal devotees.
Cheyanne Brae is vehemently pro-Liberal. A 34-year-old property developer from Geelong, she lambasts the state Labor government over its planning policies and condemns the $900 stimulus handouts to “low-lifes”.
She thinks the Rudd-Gillard contretemps is a non-issue but she’s not at all convinced of the power of women in politics. “What man wants to go into a polling booth and be told how to vote by his wife?” she says.
David Thompson blogs about art deco buildings. He lives in Melbourne Ports, is a member of the ALP, and rode his bicycle across town to attend the conference. He expresses some concern about the role of factions inside the Labor Party but he is wary of my suggestions about the parlous state of the government’s re-election campaign.
With George Kanellopoulos, Thompson is alarmed at the inflammatory language being used in the debate about asylum seekers. Kanellopoulos blogs about martial arts. He lives in Brunswick, in the heart of the safe Labor electorate of Wills. Brunswick is a melting pot of different ethnic groups and cultures. Both men are appalled by the standard of the debate.
None of these people have votes that will determine the outcome of the election. Like most of the population – a minimum 70-80%? – their votes are most unlikely to be influenced by the day-to-day machinations of the political process. The election campaign is similarly unlikely to alter their voting intention.
They don’t live in Lindsay or any of the thirty or so marginal seats dotted around the country. At best, their Senate votes will have an impact but their local members will be safely returned to office on August 21.
Back in the conference room, I check my phone at 2.30pm to find that the Reserve Bank has left interest rates unchanged. The government has dodged a potential bullet.
On stage, the presenters are discussing how to market online using affiliates. How do I persuade a potential affiliate to sell my product, an audience member asks. “Nothing persuades like money,” says Yaro Starak.
Later, in a discussion over how to write compelling website content, Garrett says you should “never over-estimate the intelligence of your audience”.
Perhaps in the end there is not that much difference between the pork barrelling and persuasive techniques of an election and the practices of the online business world.
The seminar is drawing to a close and I discuss the election with Laura. She begins to tell me she doesn’t want to be seen as a stereotype of her generation but we are interrupted and then she is gone before I can quiz her further. I sense I may have missed the most interesting observation of the day.
As I drive home, ABC radio is broadcasting one of those free political advertising spots for The Nationals. The party leader, Warren Truss, the man who could be Deputy Prime Minister in a few weeks, intones that “things have really gorn off the track”.
On The 7.30 Report, the new, enhanced, more “real”, Julia Gillard is being interrogated by Kerry O’Brien.
I opt instead for a walk in the cold night air. It’s more engaging.
This article first appeared on The Drum.