Social strategists or playground politicians?
Did you think the new age of digital democracy would be an improvement on the old politics, with serious debate about policy issues rather than childish name-calling? Prepare to be depressed.
All day yesterday, the political end of the web was alive with insults, boasts, and chest-thumping from Labour and Conservative supporters - and much of it was about a website called Cash Gordon.
Yesterday morning, I was in Conservative Party headquarters for a radio interview with their very youthful communities organiser Craig Elder about the use of social media in campaigning. The Conservatives have thought long and hard about using Facebook in particular to mobilise their supporters and Craig, who seems very clued-up about web development, was proudly showing off their latest idea - which was Cash Gordon.
It's a site which uses Facebook Connect which encourages supporters to spread a message to their friends about Labour's union links - and gives them points for taking actions such as sending Twitter messages to Unite organiser Charlie Whelan.
I asked Craig how much the site had cost to build; he wouldn't say, but insisted it wasn't excessive - and whether it was worthwhile given the fact that only around 500 people appeared to have joined up. He explained that each of those people could well have 150 Facebook friends to whom they might have talked about the Conservative message, so the party was getting a lot of bang for its buck.
But by the time I got back to my office, Cash Gordon had fallen over. Someone had spotted a hole in the website's security. Any messages containing "#cashgordon" were being published, whatever else they contained. Some mischief-makers made sure that their messages also contained a small line of code which meant that visitors to the site would instantly be redirected somewhere else. And so, very soon, Cash Gordon was sending people off to all sorts of unsuitable and off-message places, from the Labour Party homepage to pornography sites.
For some hours, while the developers worked to fix the problem, visitors to Cash Gordon were redirected to the main Conservative site. Meanwhile, Labour and Conservative micro-bloggers traded insults, with one side arguing this was the greatest foul-up in the short history of "peer-to-peer" campaigning, the other that their strategy had been vindicated because #cashgordon was now a trending topic on Twitter and their opponents had simply given them free publicity.
So, all a bit of fun for the committed politicos, but just how fascinated will voters be by this kind of playground politics? Here's one Twitter message I saw as the clashes reached new levels of ferocity:
"Dear Tories (and Labour for that matter), we're sick of "The Blue Team versus the Red team". Can we have some real debate and ideas please?"
As if to answer that plea, the world's biggest social network has unveiled its contribution to the forthcoming election campaign. Facebook, perhaps concerned by the way the politicians have flocked to Twitter, has launched a page called Democracy UK which will act as a focus for a lot of the disparate political activity on the site. So far, it looks pretty thin, but it will be interesting to see whether it develops into a useful forum for discussion of policies, or is taken over by the party pie-chuckers.
All the parties are putting a lot of effort into their social media strategies, convinced that these new-media tools can be a cheaper way of organising their troops and getting their messages out. But they may need to tread a bit more carefully when they venture into people's social lives - after all, most of us find it a bit wearing when "friends" arrive at our homes ranting about politics or trying to sell us something.