Political Traction: How we measure, capture, and archive the Internet

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Political Traction is a weekly podcast that takes a close look at the top political issues in Ottawa and how well these issues resonate among everyday Canadians. Every week we assess how much traction political leaders, pundits, and media get with the people they’re trying to reach: you.

Political Traction is presented by Navigator, Canada’s leading high-stakes public strategy and communications firm.

Since we have reached the end of our first season, we decided to review the top issues that got traction – either with Ottawa or every day Canadians - for our last (season 1) episode. Now, months after some issues were relevant, we’re forced to think about whether something that seemed like a big deal at the time, was in fact, a big deal overall.

Our methodology for the show is to compare two conversations – one constructed and executed with formality and the public record in mind; the other, to be ephemeral and informal. With the podcast we track the discussions on Twitter, and accounting for what was said week after week in a space like that has challenges distinct from measuring something that is designed to stand the test of time.

On the one hand, there is something refreshing in looking at political issues and juxtaposing the excessive formality of our indirect, Canadian Question Period (“Mr. Speaker, the member opposite…”) with an all-caps rant on Twitter that suffers from none of the official QP constraints, only character limits that force brevity, above all else. Even better, online conversations have (for better or worse) evolved language, and reading someone condense political jargon into Internet vernacular or summing up a point with a well-deployed emoji makes it all more fun. On the other, a meme lives in a moment. While everything is important within context, a lot of Twitter is entirely about context. And not just immediate, and issue-based – but broad, societal and pop culture context as well. The best Internet commentary incorporates it all. We’ve debated the “celebrification” of politics on the podcast and what does and does not get traction. What we haven’t talked about is the discourse gap between content produced around certain structures like a Q&A, official regulations, or even broadcast minutes, and content produced time structures, down to the mere moments and seconds of what is and is not trending at a given time of day.

In her new book Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, journalist Virginia Heffernan argues against the narrative that we’re so used to hearing (the Internet is ruining our brains, our attention spans, and our personal relationships) and instead refers to it as “the great masterpiece of civilization” and a “massive and collaborative work of realist art.” To Heffernan, it’s art as much as it’s a tool. So what do you remember about politics? The legislative language, or the panda bear photo? Sure, it ties into “celebrification” but that discussion always seems to minimize the level of sophistication that goes into some of the online content that surrounds things like the Justin Trudeau and his panda bear photo. The content that speaks to how much a “thing” is a thing within a given time frame is powerful; while more official language will capture certain elements of the political landscape, that panda bear photo and its associated ephemera capture a feeling and a particular attitude.

Facebook is doubling down on nostalgia and playing on the temporality of the internet by reminding you of moments in your life and friendship milestones that you never considered permanent. Since the new millennium, it almost feels like there has been a weird optical illusion-like effect on how we perceive decades: visually and numerically, it’s like we have trouble distinguishing decades when they’re lumped into a “20—“ number. The transition from the 80s to the 90s seems so much more abrupt and delineated than the transition from the early aughts into the 2010s. We are actively trying to preserve digital content as it relates to our personal lives, but to a certain degree, we’re letting some of the most insightful and intelligent commentary on our political systems fall by the wayside because we don’t account for many of the temporary platforms on which they are made.

Over the last couple of years, there was some anxiety over the opposite – over the permanent nature of the Internet. The US continues to consider on and off the “right to be forgotten.” The stress over living forever online has played out in other, more personal ways. Take the Facebook example: since 2009, it has been converting profiles of the deceased into some sort of memorial page. The policy around this and how it happens has shifted over time. In its most recent iteration, you can declare (while you and your page are both active) whether or not you would like your profile converted into a memorial page upon death. Certain things go along with this – your profile is no longer public and search engines no longer index your page. We have actively thought about digital culture as a time capsule as it applies to us personally, but not so much as it applies to social media activity at large.

As a recent New York Times article on digital archives points out, while the Internet is generally considered indelible,

things disappear constantly. Search engines like Google continually trawl for pages to organize and index for retrieval, but they can’t catch everything. And as the web evolves, it becomes harder to preserve. It is estimated that 75 percent of all websites are inactive, and domains are abandoned every day.”

And you can’t deny the link and the impact social media, and Twitter in particular, has with and on political issues. Grassroots movements, minority groups, marginalized segments of societies and those who have traditionally found themselves voiceless have come together on social media platforms and influence the way we conceive of our own history in the making and political discourse. So within the framework of our show and comparing the two very different discussions, part of the challenge is capturing the informal discussion in an accurate way.

There is only so much you can do, but the biggest worry is that certain discussions will slip between whatever filters, search terms, or parameters you enact to examine the informal discussion on an issue because it morphs so quickly. As events mature in online discussions the need to include specific references to what you’re talking about disappear, the content lives and breathes on its own, and suddenly things that are every bit germane to whatever political discussion is happening in a structured and controlled environment looks vastly different. Whether that is because the language has shifted, or it’s matured into its own microcosm of in-jokes and references doesn’t mean it isn’t worth assessing as part of the impact of a political decision. Yet how we measure and preserve these kinds of situations is far behind our official record keeping of say, the political Hansard.

The obvious argument as to why it’s so hard to measure and control is because this content is as changeable as we are, it shifts as much as our thought-process does. It’s a collective stream-of-consciousness that can run off on a tangent. But, if that’s true, it makes it all the more important for keeping and determining what sticks. When we’re looking at what does and does not get traction, we’re curious as to the why and the how more than anything else. Is it because the idea is one that resonates, or is the language that lends itself to the bending and morphing and meme-ing that happens online? While thinking about our own archival process of actively recording these events week after week, and attempt to fit the smart, incisive, and flighty comments into something measurable – something numeric – it’s easy to Heffernan’s point. Perhaps it’s so difficult to do because our most artistic creations have always refused to be so easily measured.

Things we’re reading this week: