Monday, September 18, 2006


‘Reassuringly Extensive’

Last night saw the ‘Bloggers’ Reception and inaugural Lib Dem Blog of the Year Awards’, where Stephen Tall was named Blogger of the Year, to riotous applause. Aside from Millennium, he’s the shortlistee I dash to read most assiduously, and after blogging MP Lynne Featherstone pulled his name from the golden envelope, Stephen wowed the packed, sweaty room with a speech thanking the judges and every other Lib Dem blogger. You can see why he’s a hit, can’t you? His unassuming attire – ‘I’m the Most Popular in My School’ picked out in glitter across his chest – helped, too. He and Lynne made a terribly glamorous pair, and he was swiftly whisked off by all the assembled media. I know Stephen had announced he wanted to lose his Conference virginity this week, but I suspect this may still have been a little startling for him; Conferencegoers were so keen to help ‘A Liberal Go All The Way’ that they didn’t even form an orderly queue.

All this took place at what’s known as a Conference fringe meeting. For those in the happy position of retaining what Councillor Tall has lost, the Fringe meetings are related to the Conference and attended by people who go there, but not part of the debates in the great big hall. Because fringes aren’t ‘official’, they can be on any old theme and organised by anyone (often pressure groups who offer free food and drink to get the Conference representatives to turn up and listen to their pitch). This one, like most, was held in a function room at a nearby hotel. With other parties, the fringe is where all the big rows go on, as they’re not allowed to debate things in the Conference itself. Unusually, Lib Dems get to decide all the weighty issues and are probably ruder about their Leadership in speeches in the main hall than they are on the fringe, so that’s where we just get down to enjoying ourselves, eating free food (if your fringe schedule is well-planned) and having a gossip. With this one a reception for people to meet each other as well as a structured ‘event’, it was great to finally put faces to lots of bloggers I’ve read. An even larger number of them met Millennium for the first time and offered their commiserations; not that he needed them, of course, as he took the disappointment with all the dignity and maturity you'd expect from a five-year-old fluffy elephant.

Alas, there was no free food, but aided by free drink, the people who turned up were lively and there was a good line-up of ‘set’ speakers: Lynne Featherstone MP, Mark Pack (Lib Dem HQ IT guru), Russell Eagling (from sponsporing thinktank Centre Forum), all chaired by Rob Fenwick of Liberal Democrat Voice. And me, of course, with my speech straight after the prizegiving. Fortunately, I was delighted with the winner, mainly because he’s a really nice guy with a superb blog which is varied, intelligent and (hurrah!) lengthy… But also because of the six alternate first lines I was holding in my head, the one about Stephen was the funniest (the others were really very poor indeed). Here’s what I said, including an introductory paragraph that I’d much rather had been scripted – and delivered – by Ronnie Barker…

Lynne and Rob wonder if anything can stop Alex in full flow before everyone dies of heat exhaustion Posted by Picasa

“Good evening, everyone, and congratulations to Stephen, whose blog is a great read, who I always enjoy chatting to online, and who – now that I’ve met him in real life – blushes very prettily. Of course, if I’d had a vote I would have voted for Millennium, on pain of being hit by a sticky bun, but Stephen thoroughly deserved it. While the shortlist have all been nervous to see who wins, I’ve been nervous because without knowing if tonight was going to be all bloggers or a mix or bloggers and ‘interesteds’, I wasn’t sure if I should talk tips like Mark Pack asked, or just go round the room sticking random labels from one to fifty on people to do a blog aggregator right here.

“I’ve been asked to speak, as the second-best blogger in our flat, about my personal experience and how good Liberals can make use of blogging to promote what we believe in. What these speeches are usually expected to deliver is the one top tip that everyone should know. Well, everyone already knows the one most important thing about blogging; it’s all to make sure that anyone searching for your name on Google finds you at the top. So, thanks to Love and Liberty, it’s nice to report that my blog is now at the top of the Google search for Alex Wilcock – at least if you spell it correctly. My surname, of course, ends in a ‘ck’, not an ‘x’. If you Google my name using the spelling advertised by Mr Pax last week, instead of me you’ll see a very much more physically impressive gentleman. I won’t mention his profession with so many salacious scandalmongers in the room, but you’ll certainly find ‘cox’… While all I have to boast of is the size of my articles.

“On that subject, Mark Pack helpfully suggested a strapline for me last week: “The blog with more words in one post than most blogs have in a year”. Rob Fenwick’s opinion was “If you’d told me at the beginning of the year that you were going to start a blog,” he said, “and that your average article would be two or three thousand words, I’d have torn my hair out and told you you were mad.” And these are the gentlemen who asked me here tonight to give a strictly five-minute* speech. I just think of my pieces as reassuringly extensive.

“And the single most important thing I’ve learnt is that while my style might not agree with people who want all their ideas in soundbite form, it’s mine. People suggested at Conference last year that I take up blogging; I finally started in February. One of the reasons I put it off is that I just wasn’t very confident about how to do it. I started off thinking I couldn’t be as witty and eclectic as Liberal England, or as pithy, well-informed and downright brutal as Quaequam Blog! And I was right, of course, but the important thing is that if you try to blog in the style of someone else, you won’t enjoy it and, chances are, no-one else will either.

“It’s a very Liberal message, but simply be you – short, long, funny, detailed, personal, critical, pictures, text; have fun, throw out ideas that interest you, and write a blog that you’d like to read. Blog in your own voice, or why bother? You’re not working for anyone but you.

“The same goes if you’re an active Liberal Democrat and want to promote what we believe in as well as your own personal interests. Don’t just reprint a party press release, because who wants to read that (I mean, you don’t, do you)? Wonderful as tonight’s awards ceremony is, I’d be a bit worried if anyone really went out just to be ‘The blog that does the most to promote Liberalism in the next year,’ because that wouldn’t sound a terribly Liberal sort of blog (though that’s not an objection in principle to being nominated for next year’s, mind). Instead of setting out to be ‘on message’, make an impassioned argument and try to change people’s minds, comment on issues that interest you, or take things in the news and give them your slant, but be a critical friend to the party. Don’t go completely over the top in your slavish devotion, and, you know, if you can occasionally find something other than politics to write about, it helps.

“My own style’s pretty discursive, though I admit I can get brutally partisan on occasion when one of the other parties really winds me up. But as well as writing about ideas, you can supply information, or find useful information in the Lib Dem blogosphere. If you know something really well, tell people about it. When the Leadership election took off earlier this year, I was genuinely undecided, so I did what any pitifully naïve person would do, and looked round the Lib Dem blogs to find well-informed critical profiles of each of the candidates. But, obviously, though there were plenty saying ‘My candidate’s brilliant!’ and rather more with ‘and your candidate stinks!’ there weren’t any that were detailed, balanced and informative on all three. So I had to write them myself when it turned out no other bugger had done it. Lots of people told me I helped make their minds up, but it didn’t help me! And that was my baptism of fire in the blogosphere.

“So, the other absolutely crucial thing for a Lib Dem blogger, on top of finding your own voice, is Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated. Brilliant though Stephen is, if one person deserves a prize for advancing Lib Dem blogging, it’s Ryan. No-one would have known about or talked about my profiles when I wrote them just a week after I started blogging, and I wouldn’t have been able to check whether anyone else had done them yet, without Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated.

“So, as my Mum – who’s read precisely one of my blog pieces, and told me what was wrong with it – as my Mum asked, “If I ever wanted to read a blog (in a tone of voice giving that thought equity with growing an extra head), how do I find one?” If you’re a Liberal Democrat, and you have a blog, sign up to Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated so people can easily find you, tell anyone who starts a blog the same, and tell anyone who has no intention of ever starting one to add the site as one of their favourites. Because it’s just a great read, and I love it, and Liberals above all need to provoke debate; for better or worse it’s the single best digest of Lib Dem daily thought going, even though Lib Dem Voice is trying its damnedest to overtake it in a week.

“Now, the most obvious thing for a Liberal Democrat to do with a blog is turn it into a sort of 21st Century Focus. After all, Focus started as a way of getting our message across on a local level when no-one else would print it, and quite a few people have started the same sort of local Lib Dem information blog. I say that, but it’s one of the miracles of blogging that even the ones written for local campaigns aren’t all unbearably tedious. Andy Mayer’s articles have rapidly gained a reputation to rival that of bruiser blogger James Graham; intelligent, well-argued, very readable, and above all, deadly. And then Councillor Tall was saying to me just the other day that ‘blogging is changing how we communicate, creating a two-way conversation, and this represents an exciting opportunity for citizens and politicians alike’.

“There, you see now, that was actually in the style of David Milliband, and Stephen told me that if I used those words he’d scream. Did you hear anything? No? Well, that’s another sad example of a politician failing to fulfil his promises.

“I think the danger of blogs for elected politicians in particular is that if they go around saying what they actually think all the time, they may make politics too interesting. No wonder Labour haven’t embraced the culture. I know I say things – rather a lot of things – that I probably wouldn’t if I was a candidate, but have decided life’s too short to hold my tongue just in case I ever am again. I’m both more publicly opinionated and more publicly undecided than I have been before, and I’m really enjoying it.

“I hope you enjoy Lib Dem blogging too, whether you write one, read some, or – like all the best people – do both.”

*Naturally, being me, I’d timed it in the hotel as six and a half minutes, when poor Richard was having to listen to it. Last night, Mr Pax said it ended up as nine – whoops. I’d not made any allowance for audience reaction, but the people in the room were very inebriated kindly, which was rather a relief (having given a great many speeches about ideas, but this being the first in which my content was so light I had to be mildly amusing or die on my arse). Anyway, I’d already taken out large chunks for timing, particularly the opinionated rather than expert ‘tips’ variety that I decided most people in the room would already know, even if that’s part of what I’d been asked to speak on. So here, for your amusement and scorn, are a few of the ‘DVD special feature’ bits comprising…

Alex’s Foolhardy Blogging Tips

I suppose what some Lib Dem bloggers really want is to feel important and make the news. Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale try to do it, but really the bloggers we’re most envious of are across the Atlantic. Radio 4 currently has a rather patronising series called ‘Meet the Bloggers’, about these eccentric people and their funny little ways… That said, I’d happily have nicked some insights from their edition about American political blogs, but of course that one isn’t on until Tuesday. Damn. Still, if they’re remotely serious they’ll mention the swing that the Daily Kos has, and I suspect there are one or two Lib Dem bloggers talking up a challenger to Simon Hughes less on the issues than as exactly that sort of test – can we unseat a Party President? Well, possibly, but I think Lib Dem blogs so far are a long way off the sort of brutal partisan punching power that makes a lot of the American ones so readable but not terribly attractive [Mark Pack talked a little on this subject, wondering if Chris Huhne’s Leadership campaign and the ‘Green Switch’ plans that have grown out of it would have taken off without the blogosphere].

[On Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated] And, incidentally, it’ll always pick up a certain number of words from each blog as a sort of teaser; with mine, it’s usually a hundred, so I always try to make my first hundred words a self-contained ‘trailer’ for the rest rather than trailing off in the middle of a sentence, which looks a bit scrappy to me.

And if, like me, you worry that no-one else’ll be interested, here’s my advice: don’t install a hit counter, and assume for the sake of your brittle ego that you have a massive audience anyway [actually, it’s just because I’m too lazy to check out all the different hit counters available].

I’d say that blogs really ought to take comments, if they’re not just to be online preaching. They’re awkward, though, because of course you never know what they’re going to say! First of all, you never start the discussion you want to. Asking a question is invariably fatal; it’s a sure way to be greeted by the sound of tumbleweeds, as I was after setting a challenge in a Lib Dem Voice piece. Then there are all the spammers; I turn on the character entry thingy so robots find it more difficult to spam me but humans can, though I’m never entirely sure whether I’m right to set it so people have to have a profile to post. But, then, if someone’s going to post an anonymous attack, I reckon they can at least go to the trouble of making up a name for it. Then you have to notice and reply to them all or look a lazy git (as I often do). As far as moderation goes, it seems like a lot of effort unless you’ve got a really unpleasant stalker, and it’s hugely irritating to anyone actually doing the comment-posting. It makes it very difficult to have a proper debate if you have to wait for the blog owner to get back from a weekend’s holiday, and then you find you’re the 83rd person to post the same idea and look sillier than usual. Something I try to do when posting a comment on someone else’s blog, incidentally, is to count to thirty before I post. I get so used to being able to change something I’ve said if I think I’ve been completely crass that it can sometimes be embarrassing to shoot off somewhere where I have no editorial control…

I also think one of the great advantages of blogging is that you can put in links. Even though it’s much harder work than just spouting off, it makes it much more interesting to read, as well as much more generous of spirit if you’re talking abut something that someone else has already mentioned (and if you’re afraid people will click on the link, go to the other page and not come back, insert target= "_blank" at the end of the link on your blog, but within those arrowed brackets above the comma and full stop. It’ll make the link pop out in a new window). That said, of course, I don’t research nearly as many links as I should. Millennium’s brilliant at, it but it often rates a bit too high on my Can’tbearsedometer, you know?

And how do you start? Well, just start. It’s not like a magazine column, where if you misjudge your first attempt everyone might have made up their minds to hate you by next month’s issue. If you’re worried your first piece is poor, there’ll be more along shortly. Don’t worry about writing too many, or not enough; just write some as the fancy takes you.

Finally, I was interviewed by a couple of journalists afterwards (though Richard largely had to fend for himself with the scary woman from the Daily Mail who’d taken a fancy to Millennium). The last question one of them (Five Live?) asked was, “What’s the difference between a blogger and just a columnist in a newspaper?” “They get paid for it; they have to bloat or squeeze their arguments to fill a word count rather than as the ideas demand; they have to stick to their newspaper’s editorial line,” I said, and, I added in a flash of self-unawareness, “they’re much more up themselves.”

Update: my speech at the Reception is now on YouTube along with three of the others, courtesy of Jonathan Wallace (thanks Jonathan!).

Meanwhile, Backbench Guardian journalist Ros Taylor thought meeting Millennium was beneath her dignity (hiss!), and has quoted me without a link (tsk) while doing her best to prove me right about journalists with her brilliant insight that specifically partisan Lib Dem bloggers were mostly more excited by Ming’s speech than most journalists were (gosh, who’d’a thunk. All blogs must be the same). Mind you, the quotes in the rest of her piece are a random mixture of article-specific links, mentioning specific posts but linking to a blog in general, and others that don’t link at all, so I shouldn’t be mean to her; evidently she’s not got the hang of the Internet yet. Good job she’s not being paid to do anything web-savvy – oops…

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"Conferencegoers were so keen to help ‘A Liberal Go All The Way’ that they didn’t even form an orderly queue."

Ooh missus!
Did you really only start in February? Weird, it seems like you've been writing for as long as I can recall, ah well, that means I must've first come here for the profiles or something.

Definately agree that blogging and blogs made Huhne. And, by association, got me to rejoin the party. The debate and friendly discussion it prompted were essential to make me think I could fit in and ought to.

If I ever need a speechwriter, expect an emal, right?

One thing; target=_blank is a BAD IDEA. Really bad. Many reasons; it'll piss of a Firefox user that want to leave your site, as if I want a new tab I'll middle click. Second, an IE user fullscreened won't necessarily know that you've given them a new windo and will keep browsing but lose their back button to get to you, then find the clutter later. Third, it's my biggest pet hate in web design, even before I discovered tabs. Fourth, it means you're not in their back history when they do want to leave, so they can't come back. Fifth, it's removing choice from the user, and is thus terribly illiberal, let someone choose a new window/tab or the same screen, don't coerce them...

Did I mention I hate target _blank links? Anyway, some very good stuff in the above.

Oh, for statcounters? I use and, both are good for different reasons. Best use for statcounter is seeing the search engine referrals that get people here. You'll very swiftly find you're top Google for more than just your name. It's scary at times. But regularly amusing.

Still, from a non-conference goer who wishes he could have afforded it, some very good reports there. Next year...
I'm afraid, Paul, that my delivery of that whole speech was definitely of the 'Ooh missus' variety. I feel suitably ashamed.

And no, Mat, I just write pieces longer than any others you can remember ;-)

Happy to give speechwriting help; though, with my usual writing speed, I may come up with something brilliant about three weeks after you give the speech.

You were a little ambiguous there about target=_blank there, Mat, but I think I can just about decipher your Delphic utterances. I hadn't realised some people disliked it, so I'll have to think about that - I thought I was being helpful. Ah, well. I get irritated myself by those comment boxes that pop out and where you can't see the original message, but there are a couple of reasons I prefer it the way I do it when I'm reading, quite apart from my preferences for my own pages. The biggest one, though, is probably that I have very slow dial-up at home. If I click on something that doesn't open a new window, it's a huge pain to click back when a whole (often giant and time-consuming) page has to re-open. So my user experience is that I much prefer pages that do it that way automatically. And surely leaving both pages open isn't a huge limit on choice? Isn't it in fact slightly simpler just to click 'close' on a superfluous window than to fiddle about opening another one?

Thanks for the stats tips. Yes, I admit I'd be fascinated to see where my readers hail from...

It's a shame you couldn't get to Conference, though there were several bloggers who were in Brighton and I still didn't get to meet. I used to hitch-hike to Conference, stay in hostels and plan my fringe meetings by which had free food, so it can be done; I have to admit, though, Richard's preference for a nice hotel has rubbed off on me now it's a practical possibility ;-)
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