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Can Weblogs Make a Politician Keep a Promise?
One of a series of Can Weblogs...? experiments from 2002-2004.
© Tim Ireland 2004
Huzzah! You can now email Tony Blair via this web page - and it only took 304 days, 17 hours, 44 minutes and 54 seconds to make it happen.
Objective: To make the British Prime Minister Tony Blair honour a promise he made in the run-up to the most recent election; that he would be more accessible by email.
Background: Oh, you'll like this. Back in April 2000, I came up with a modest publicity stunt for email provider another.com. Basically, they run an email service that lets you be whatever you want before and after the @. You can choose from thousands of domain names and apply multiple user names with 20 addresses on one account, yadda-yadda-yadda and like that. My job was to communicate this message to the general public.
After reading that an email from Tony Blair to Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown was mistakenly ignored and deleted because it had a non-descript email address, I logged into my another.com account and immediately set up the following address:
Then I sent an email to every Labour MP I could find with a published email address (there were about 90 of them) with a message along the lines of: "Oh, hi. Tony here. Just getting the hang of this email thing - and by the way, we're still taking suggestions for baby names, but no more suggestions for 'Maggie or 'Margaret' as this joke is starting to wear thin." (At this stage, young Leo had yet to be born or have his sex publicly determined...)
I got 24 'failed delivery' messages - and 10 replies.
The stunt was meant, commercially, to point out the power/value of a personalised email address. Personally, I also wanted to make a point about how ignorant most MPs were when it came to that worldwide interwebnet thingy we read so much about in the papers. It worked on both fronts. We got solid coverage in newspapers and - in what would soon become a major complication in my life - a nice write-up at The Register.
The problem is, now when people search for 'tony blair email address' or something similar, a result much like this one turns up in Google:
As you can see, because the email address appears in the search results (and not within the context of the Register article that clearly describes it as a hoax) it appears to be a genuine and valid address for our beloved Prime Minister and is often simply copied, pasted, and used as such. The result? I regularly get email for Tony Blair.
At first, I was OK with this as it was a bit of a laugh and the emails were few and far between. Also, let's admit it, I had pretty much brought it on myself.
But then Tony started losing touch with the people. The number of frustrated emails started to increase. Then his election promise to be more accessible by email came and went. Then, September 11th happened.
I'd previously sent several emails to his constituency office pointing out that I was getting email meant for the Prime Minister, but was largely ignored. However, when I started getting emails from Muslim groups in late September, suddenly I had 'approval' to forward 'relevant' emails to his constituency address.
So, by now I was actually in a position where I was reading emails intended for the Prime Minister, actually vetting them according to my own discretion, and forwarding important ones to his office. All without pay, I hasten to add.
You would be surprised at the number of people who write to the Prime Minister with an individual, political or social concern - and I'm sure those that reach this particular address are only a small fraction of them. Some are 14 year old girls urging him to give peace a chance. Some are supporters saying 'well done' or 'boo, hiss' for his stance on Israel, Iraq, or I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. Another chap had an invention that he thought would help during the foot & mouth crisis and one guy in particular is really, really concerned about badger baiting.
So, getting back to that promise...
I'm in a unique position in that I have first-hand experience of the demand there is for this communication channel and the variety of ways in which people wish to use it. Happily, that unique position also allows me to do this:
From this point forward, I will no longer be forwarding your email.
Nothing personal you understand, but you did promise to have something set up by now and I simply don't have the time to wade through your emails on a regular basis. In fact, now that I look at it, there's about 3 months of backlog that I haven't got around to yet.
I won't be forwarding these, either.
I know you have bigger things to worry about right now, but you've becoming increasingly, visibly and worryingly distant lately. You need this as much as the people do.
I'm aware that a well-publicised communications channel such as this would need a beefy back-end and at least one human being to edit the mail that eventually reaches you, but you could put it out to tender tomorrow and have hundreds of companies willing to take up the challenge at a reasonable price. Erm, but you probably shouldn't give the job to Capita, because they suck.
Please do give this matter careful consideration, as this is a relatively easy promise to fulfil and access to you via email is clearly in demand.
Peace, Love and Mung Beans,
Method: As a weblogger, the first and most important thing you can do is link to this page. If you like, you can simply cut and paste the following into your HTML:
Secondly, you can send a link to this page to your local news organisation. Newspapers, radio, television, whatever. The current Labour government has a tendency to react swiftly to negative publicity, so the world needs to know that I'm holding Tony Blair's email hostage and I'm clearly a desperate man.
In fact, if I don't hear back from Tony within two weeks, I'm going to start deleting the hostages one by one - starting with the badger baiting ones and then working my way up.
UPDATE 1 - This article was first published on Wednesday 18th September. Deletions began on Wednesday 2nd October. I'm starting from the front and working my way back. Because it's easier. Deletions can be tracked in daily reports posted to the weblog.
UPDATE 2 (9th October) - A nice write-up in today's Metro. Huzzah! Now, I could be nasty and go straight out and use this as leverage, but two things have resulted from this article:
1) The statement from Downing Street regarding this read as follows:
2) The journalist who wrote the piece asked me a very interesting question at the close of the interview. He asked if I would be willing to set up the service personally and you know, I actually had to think about that for a second or two. The answer? Yes, I would. In fact, yes I could.
I've done some research on the number of search queries made for Tony Blair's email address and I'm estimating from that a minimum of 10,000 emails a month. I talked to a service provider that can not only handle the email, but also scan it for any nasty viruses along the way (being a published address, it will be vulnerable to attacks - automated and otherwise). These guys do some serious work at a local government level and have dealt with beefier back-ends and higher processing requirements than this.
I'm also in a unique position in that I know how to publicise the address in search engines. I could have the service set up in a week. A week. Search engine results would be live in Google within days following launch, and I'm pretty sure I can expedite quite a few other results given my list of contacts combined with the nature and importance of the content.
Haven't set a date? How does a week from tomorrow sound?
I'll get back to you and let you know what the folks in charge have to say about it all.
UPDATE 3 (14th October) - Well, they got back to me, and the news is not good.
Further updates can be found at Tony Blair's Email - Phase 2.
Back to 'Can Weblogs...?' for further results and updates.