Reach vs. engagement

Something that came out of the Netroots UK proceedings, and also out of the Crooked Timber open data seminar. One of the sessions chalked up in the open space process was titled “How can we restore democratic participation, and should we?” Well, I thought, quite the headline: TUC Gives Up on 1832 Reform Act, Says Probably Best If You Stay Out Of Politics. Or Dirty Blog Hippies Say Yes! to Aristocracy.

Anyway, someone made the point that political participation is something a minority of weirdos do when they could be in the pub.

This crossed with something I was thinking of in the NHS session. Namely, the classic advertising decision between reach and richness. If you go for reach – i.e. broadcasting to as many people as possible – you’ve got to trade off the degree of engagement, the information density, and the complexity of your message. Also, absolutely nothing is more valuable than a bigger megaphone. If you go for richness and engagement, you’ve got to expect that you will have a smaller audience.

Several people involved said they were quite impressed with how well 38 Degrees worked in terms of reach, of getting names on petitions. This is a pretty classic case of reach. On the other hand, I’m still amazed how little the public seems to be reached by this issue.

On the other hand, I’m concerned about the richness. If you want people to join NHS bodies and start local campaigns, you’re by definition addressing the tiny minority of people (weirdos, or alternatively, an elite) who would even think of getting involved. Different considerations apply.

Anyway, I think the hope of broadening the activist base through technology is a crazy notion, at least beyond a minimal reach-campaign, sign-and-donate level. Instead, I think it’s better value to concentrate on augmenting the capability of the weirdos/elite who are likely to use it.

There is nothing specific to computers here; you could say the same thing about a library.

1 Comment on "Reach vs. engagement"

  1. you could say the same thing about a library.

    Thereby signing the death warrant of the library system (elitist!). Mind you, the actual causal chain in the destruction of public libraries is almost exactly the opposite – library policy for the last ten or twenty years seems to have been driven by an obsessive desire to go for reach, and more specifically an overpowering fear of being seen to cater for a minority. Actual elitists haven’t been required; it might have made for a better debate if the capability argument had been made more often, and not only by Philip Pullman. It’s quite reminiscent of New Labour’s obsessive desire to go for “floating voters” and overpowering fear of being seen to cater for Labour voters – and look how well that worked out for the Labour Party.


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