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O'Reilly's Digital Democracy Teach-In

by Daniel H. Steinberg
02/10/2004

This year's O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference began with an impressive set of tutorials. You could learn to reverse-engineer hardware and software; develop applications for Smartphones or J2ME devices; visualize data with Flash; or use Twisted's event-driven networking framework. You also had the choice of spending the first day of the conference at the Digital Democracy Teach-In learning how to take back control of a different sort of operating system.

The Teach-In featured nine sessions with a variety of movers and shakers who have been thinking about and using technology to alter the way we elect and communicate with our candidates and political leaders. Journalists, academics, businesspeople, and campaign professionals spent the day sharing their thoughts on engaging the public in the democratic process. In this article, we cover some of the highlights, from Meetup.com and MoveOn.org to Joe Trippi's thoughts on the use of the Internet in a political campaign.

The Political Press

Former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi started off the day with the claim that "the political press could never figure out what the Dean campaign was. Now they feel qualified to comment on whether what it did worked." Much of his session, "Down from the Mountain: My Experience with the Dean Campaign," was targeted at broadcast media and the resulting political tactics.

He said, "Let's take the scream tape: it wasn't news, it was entertainment. It was the heat-seeking missile footage hitting its target. That really was damaging -- not what the governor did but the media's portrayal of it out of context. They are now apologizing."

ETech 2004 Conference

Trippi argued, "Broadcast politics has failed the country miserably. You had no debate going into war, no debate about the Patriot Act. That debate isn't happening anywhere except on the Net."

He explained that the roots of broadcast politics go back 40 years. "In the 1960s, with the Nixon-Kennedy debate, people should have realized that television was going to change everything in American politics. It became a race for money and for one-way communications. How do I find a rich guy writing a $200K check and buy time with it?"

He cautioned about the mainstream reporting on the failures of the Dean campaign. Trippi asked, "Why does the media want the Internet to fail? What's so scary about the American people taking control of their political process?" He thinks the comparisons to the dot-com crash are too easy and do not apply. Whereas dot-coms folded when they could not make money, Trippi says that "Howard Dean put together more money than any candidate in history." But, as others have pointed out, the dot-coms' success could be measured in dollars while a candidate's success is measured in votes.

According to Trippi, "We have a communications problem. The political press has no clue what this Internet community is about. The Internet community doesn't really understand the hard, cold realities of American politics."

He added, "It is hard for the Internet community to grasp that it is about the money. When you have big interests fighting over energy bills and pharmaceuticals and Haliburton getting no-bid contracts, there's a reason this happens and that nothing is going to change."

He predicts that the days of broadcast media's influence on politics are numbered. "Broadcast politics is on the wane. The media jumped the shark first on the war, and then on the Dean campaign and the Internet. Our democracy is really threatened in ways that the American people haven't grasped yet. You can't have a system that is all about the big money."

Trippi was asked about reports that his firm had made $7.2 million off the Dean campaign. He answered that he had made $165,000, and that his firm had made some commissions on ads placed where the ads totaled around $7 million. He argued that the reason the media ran this story is that contributors aren't as willing to scrape and save to send in $25 to support a candidate if they think the money is going to make the campaign manager rich.

Connecting Locally Through the Internet

Trippi turned to the strengths of some of the available Internet tools. Meetup.com "was the Internet getting people to do things offline. It's not just the online tool; it's the tools online that help people fulfill this energy offline." This isn't an accident. Right at the top of Meetup's home page is its mission: "Meetup organizes local interest groups."

Trippi recalls that in January 2003 he noticed that all these "Dean people were trying to get together on Meetup.com. We looked at it and there were a couple of hundred people around this country. One person in Seattle, another in San Francisco ... a couple of hundred people trying to meet up in different cities.... We decided to embrace it and now 200,000 people are registered on Meetup.com."

The reason these local connections are so important, Trippi explained, is that "the campaign doesn't happen on the Tim Russert show. How do other people jump into the conversation at the watercooler?”

Moveon.org is a real pioneer of the movement. Trippi said they learned quite a bit by just watching them. They were "best practices." They weren't interested in helping any one candidate, but the only campaign that took them up on the offer was the Dean campaign. “We took what they taught us and moved it forward," he said.

These tools can be tremendously empowering. Trippi predicts that if "2 million people ever decide to change this country, we're going to demand healthcare, campaign finance reform." If the Dean campaign fails, he added, "This isn't a failure of what you built. You have done something absolutely amazing. It must survive regardless of what happens to Howard Dean and the candidacy. The Internet is the most powerful tool in the hands of the American public."

He offered two examples. The Dean campaign had set a goal of raising $1 million dollars during a particular part of the campaign. On their way to a public appearance for Dean, one of the staffers read a blog suggesting that if the goal is met that Dean should carry a red bat on stage as a signal. Forty-five minutes later Dean appeared on stage with the bat. This closes the loop and the people interacting with the Dean campaign on their web site know that the candidate is hearing their voices.

As a second example, the Dean campaign put 50 signs on the Internet that you could download, one for each state ("Ohio Join Dean for America" and so on). Within moments of posting them, the campaign heard from someone in Puerto Rico that a sign should be added for them. A little later someone in London posted that there should be a sign for Americans abroad who would be voting. In traditional campaigns, it would be tough for supporters to know where to get signs; now they could request signs be custom-made and within minutes they were available.

If it wasn't the Internet that failed then what went wrong with the Dean campaign? Trippi points to "the increased number of young people voting in the primaries because there is an energized Democratic Party that is taking on the president." This is a clear sign of success for him.

He says that after Carter's election, this cycle of primaries coming faster and faster was designed so that no insurgent can ever get the presidential nomination. If you are an insurgent, you have to win Iowa and New Hampshire, or both. Trippi said that Al Gore's endorsement of Dean set off alarm bells in newsrooms and at other campaigns. "The alarm said kill him now because if we don't kill him now he'll be the nominee. For the press it was, 'We have to hammer him because he's the nominee.' The media thought that was its responsibility."

Influentials Online

After Joe Trippi's opening keynote, Jonah Seiger presented the findings of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet on "Political Influentials Online in the 2004 Presidential Campaign." The institute set out to study what they called online political citizens. These are people who have visited a candidate or a party web site in the past three months and have participated in the political process in at least two of a list of proscribed activities. They sampled 1,029 such citizens using the telephone and another 1,392 online.

Seiger explained that according to the book, The Influentials, by Ed Keller and Jon Berry, influentials are the "people who tell their neighbors what to buy, which politicians to support, and where to vacation. Influentials are activists and trendsetters, and they're involved in civics and politics. About 10 percent of the general public are influentials."

The survey showed that about 69 percent of online political citizens are influentials. This means that engaging these people is a good strategy for a campaign. Trippi had tried to explain the Dean failure in Iowa as being the result of low Internet usage in Iowa. Seiger showed that 59 percent of caucus-goers in Iowa were Internet users.

"Dean failed to close the deal," Seiger said. "He stepped on his message. Dean's success cascaded through the network and so did his failure. He got people energized to get out to vote. Dean did energize the party and bring people to the polls but they voted for someone else."

Seiger also said polls showed that Kerry won over these Internet people handily and concluded, "Influentials have influence."

Meeting Up

In Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D. Putnam wrote about the decline of community in America. Putnam wrote that the desire for community is still there. The aftermath of 9/11 highlighted the differences between local communities and online communities. Scott Heiferman, co-founder and CEO of Meetup.com, said in his keynote that their goal was to help people connect locally around topics of interest.

Heiferman began his presentation with a look back at some of the meetups from the previous week. There was a wide range that included National Conservative Townhall meetups, Elvis meetups, more than 1,000 Dean for America meetups, PHP programmer meetups, and meetups for Pug owners. He explained that there can be a "Meetup Day about most anything that people care about. Meetup is like Hallmark, but it lets you invent your own holidays."

Meetup.com's big bet was whether you can "just give people a tool and say find the others, and that's what the Net is for." He referred back to Trippi's claim that "Television took politics away from the people and the Internet is giving it back."

Edwards' supporters actually used Meetup.com before Dean's supporters did. When Trippi came to meet with Meetup he said that he had to give them money for the service because of federal regulations. Heiferman said OK, and asked for $10,000 dollars. Trippi came back with $2,500. Soon other candidates wanted to use Meetup and asked for a price. Meetup told them $10,000 as well and told Trippi he would have to pay the same. Trippi leaked to other campaigns how much he was paying for the service so Meetup announced their Trippi special of $2,500.

What is amazing to the Meetup founders is that half of the people going to political meetups have never been to a political meeting before. People also go to meetups without knowing that they were organized over the Internet. Someone may post a sign about a local meetup at a library and so those without Internet connectivity are included in these gatherings. At political meetups, people go to the meetups to learn about candidates and issues. They also understand that being at a meetup doesn't mean you're a supporter. People now have it in their brain that they can organize themselves. The Internet can help provide the necessary pipes for democracy.

Heiferman stressed that "for big parts of this nation's history, a double-digit percentage of Americans were members in some local organization." He issued the challenge, "Double Digit for Decades." For Meetup, he said, the goal is "to get more out of the way."

Stop Blogging and Listen

In a session on effective political blogging, Jay Rosen, author of PressThink, looked at the "Gradual Refinement of the Public as an Audience -- Someone on the Receiving End of the Message." He observed that 1960 was the year when television entered politics and that in contrast, "the Internet has given voters a mouth. The public is no longer inert."

Jeff Jarvis added that now the people own the printing press. He advised, "The first obligation for bloggers is not to blog but to listen. We should expect that the meetings in our town are webcast. Expect that local politicians and federal politicians have weblogs. Federal agencies need to become citizen friendly."

Once candidates enter into a true dialog with the populous and governmental activities are public, we can "expect that the journalists should truly report now and not just repeat."

Rosen responded that "big media isn't going to leave the stage and we'll be dealing with this complex for a long time." He challenged the audience to examine the central topic of the day. "I don't know what a digital democracy looks like. I want to know what a democratic culture looks like and ask what can digital technology do to support it."

Moving On

In his keynote, Wes Boyd, co-founder of MoveOn.org, said, "When we look at the state of democracy -- I've been shocked at what a vacuum there is in the political culture. Why did that happen?"

He said, "The easy observation is that starting in the 1960s, there's been a hollowing out of democracy from the broadcast culture." But equally as important, "in broadcast it's all about the narrative. What's good in narrative is conflict. We have to play attack-and-defend at the same time that we also play democracy. What comes out of attack-and-defend is cynicism." He added that we all "end up saying all politicians are scum, but they aren't. Many politicians got involved because they wanted to make a contribution and they're stuck."

MoveOn.org's roots go back to the Clinton impeachment in 1998. They put a little petition online and by the fourth day 23,000 people had signed it. By the end of the week 100,000 had.

"These were people we could reach for free that were looking to make a difference," Boyd said. "We went on to show this could be powerful. We raised $2.3 million for MoveOnPac in 2000."

And then they waited. They expected to see instant replication of these ideas. It was like direct mail but for free. In 2001 they polled online discussion forums to identify top issues. The two that rose to the top were Campaign Finance Reform and Energy/Environment issues. Although politicians dismiss campaign finance reform as not being important to voters, the MoveOn members understood that it underlies much of the other issues. As a result, MoveOn helped pass the McCain Feingold bill, and fought attacks on Alaskan wildlife.

In December 2002 MoveOn announced a need for money to take out an ad in The New York Times. Within 48 hours the organization received $400,000. This was quite a bit more than they had requested and so they took out the ad they had targeted as well as a television ad and billboards. In the run-up to the war their base tripled to 1.2 million. This raised the question of whether these people who had come together around one issue would care about other issues. The hallmark of MoveOn is that they ask their membership these questions. They asked people if they wanted to support ads around budget issues. About $1 million dollars came in.

MoveOn hosted a virtual march on Washington, D.C., where people spaced out their calls to Congress to have maximum effect. They organized a global vigil for peace. The result was more than 4,000 vigils with photos and comments. This was the integration of a global response.

Boyd explained that much of what makes MoveOn so effective is, "We come from business, we think about service. They come from politics, they think about message. We came because there are smart people not being heard."

He said that they examined what it means to be a leader in this circumstance and concluded, "You need to find a way to listen. That doesn't mean you can't have a vision. Our model is 'Strong Vision, Big Ears.'" He noted that MoveOn's tracking shows that when you engage in things that people care about, it makes you stronger. "Every time we did something that really engaged people the membership soared."

It's a World Wide Web

Joi Ito, author of Emergent Democracy, and Ethan Zuckerman, founder of GeekCorps, broadened the discussion to emergent democracy worldwide. Ito noted that most of the discussion had been about a specific instance of democracy in a specific country. He suggested that fairness and access may be more important issues in other countries. He worries, "When you focus on blogs, there is a loss of community."

Zuckerman said, "We are limited by the people who can get online and by language. Much of the debate happens in the English language." He pointed out that just having hours each day available for blogging is a luxury. He showed examples of blogs from Iran, Africa, and North Korea.

The two cited some examples of where the Internet was not nearly as powerful a medium as talk radio. Zuckerman gave an example of the power of combining talk radio with cell phones. In a recent African election, he explained, "People were at polling places with cell phones reporting vote fraud to radio stations. So there was extremely low vote fraud. In this country [the U.S.], we are largely concerned about apathy. In many other countries you're worried about corruption or government repression."

Daniel H. Steinberg is the editor for the new series of Mac Developer titles for the Pragmatic Programmers. He writes feature articles for Apple's ADC web site and is a regular contributor to Mac Devcenter. He has presented at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, MacWorld, MacHack and other Mac developer conferences.


Return to 2004 Emerging Technology Conference Coverage.