a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Digital revolution II

Sometime in the late 1950s, a representative of Xerox was eagerly demonstrating the company's miraculous new product, the photo copier, to Marshall McLuhan. The late, great communications guru took a quick look at the machine and informed the rep that his employer had just changed democracy.

Back then, most people were at best bemused by McLuhan's pronouncements. It is a good bet the Xerox rep looked at McLuhan like he was from another planet.

But to most people today, McLuhan's reasoning for that pronouncement would be very logical. With the introduction of the photo copier, anyone could be a publisher of anything from a small leaflet to a set of leaked government documents.

The introduction of the photo copier lead to a whole line of technological descendents from the fax machine to the scanner and ultimately the Web. Indeed, ordinary people have gained the ability to keep an eye on Big Brother, just as Big Brother keeps an eye on us.

The basis of McLuhan's analysis -- communications technology changes human convention -- is as sound today as it was in the 1950s.

It is a shame McLuhan is not around to see the Facebook page of Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament and its membership, now over 210,000. I am willing to bet the old master would have some things to say to all those members of the country's political class who have been pooh-poohing CAPP's campaigns, including last weekend's protests across the country.

Really, it is understandable why so many members of the political class would be quick to dismiss any Facebook group. What if a well-run Facebook group can get faster results than say an industry association, an expensive lobbying firm, a professionally-run coalition, or a political party?

CAPP's mission may still be a work in progress. But it has managed to keep its issue front and centre in the public mind when the punditry has assumed voters didn't know a prorogue from a perogy, or even cared.

This, of course, is not the first mass-scale demonstration of the power of digital advocacy. A year and a half ago, the Ontario government took one look at the Facebook group, Young Drivers Against New Ontario Laws, with its 100,000+ membership, and caved.

Digital advocacy doesn't have to have a Facebook page either. Two years ago a rash of web sites and e-mail blasts suddenly emerged against the federal Tories' Bill C-51, which would have given Health Canada wider investigative and enforcement powers over natural health products.

As things turned out, all this viral activity was what is known among lobbyists as an Astroturf campaign. A company that made natural health products turned out to be behind the campaign. However, the campaign managed to sprout some actual grass roots participation in rural ridings, which are predominately Tory.

Bill C-51 died on the order paper when the 2008 election was called. It was never reintroduced.

Similar Health Canada legislation, Bill C-6, sparked continued digital protests from the natural health products community last year. The Tories were unnerved enough to amend the bill at the last minute to exempt natural health products.

Bill C-6, of course, died in the Senate when Parliament was prorogued Dec. 30.

Memo to Tory strategists: Digital democracy is here to stay.


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