Related link: http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/wlg/4345
Tim O’Reilly notes that “Howard Dean’s disappointing performance in the first two primaries has come as something of a shock to people who think that blogging is the answer, whatever the question.” I agree with Tim that blogging alone isn’t necessarily the right answer to mobilizing a national political force, and I also think it’s important to take a hard look at places where blogging opens up new possibilities in politics.
The piece in the Pittburgh Post-Gazette that Tim points to provides a lot of explanation about the strengths and weaknesses of the Dean campaign’s strategy, especially in contrast with that of the Kerry campaign. To summarize brutally, Dean’s Internet-based approach did a fantastic job on the fund-raising end, tapping into deep frustrations held by people around the country, as well as in disseminating a message. Kerry’s more traditional approach mobilized networks of people, not their computers. Reaching voters, especially voters in geographically specific areas, is still better done through networks of people.
This excerpt seems perhaps especially damning, but I think it also offers a glimmer of how to do better next time:
Mesmerized by their own Internet wizardry, the Dean organization, on the other hand, appeared to forget that politics is about listening — in diners and church basements — to the concerns and ambitions of real people. Excited by the virtual conversations on their Internet blog, the Dean campaign failed to appreciate the critical role of effective, local organizing.
The result was a self-congratulatory echo chamber populated by thousands of untrained, highly dedicated Dean partisans. It was a society committed to reinforcing the beliefs of its creators. This organization’s inexperience did not prepare it for the predictable media pounding that Dean encountered as the Democratic front-runner.
By focusing on the excitement that technology made possible rather than on building excitement on the ground, blogs created new problems. Despite their veneer of newness and their demonstrated ability to build both buzz and an impressive war chest, blogs alone are definitely not enough to motivate voters or create experienced groups of volunteers with far-reaching social networks. (No, I don’t think Orkut will help in that regard.)
At the same time, though, the timeframe for all of this has been very very short. Social networks take time to develop, whatever the technology. Blogs still have tremendous potential to create these networks, but it will take longer to build these networks than to process credit-card transactions for donations.
I also worry that bloggers risk limiting their effectiveness by talking constantly about the same themes. How many people writing about national politics is anyone but the most hardened political junkie going to want to read? Even the best writing is likely to disappear into the Googlearchy.
In my experience, everyone in the United States has opinions about politics, but not everyone is excited about hearing everyone else’s opinion. If blogs are going to create connections between people more rapidly than trackbacks between entries, bloggers need to find ways to develop audiences of people who have something in common.
Developing those kinds of committed audiences may involve geographic location, something I’m trying myself, and something which certainly makes it easier to meet people locally, or it could be through focus on a single issue, uniting people who are especially interested in one aspect of the conversation. Issues and places seem to drive long-term interests better than candidates; even when the elections are over, the issues and places remain.
These kinds of approaches also seem more likely to accomodate listening, a crucial political skill, given the time and focus to adjust messages over time.
It doesn’t seem to me like it’s time to write the Dean campaign’s work off as a failure. It does, however, seem like it’s time to consider a course correction, one which focuses on how to collect votes over time rather than blog entries and dollars quickly.
(And why, in the end, don’t I blog about Dean? Covering national politics doesn’t fit well with my approach of blogging locally at all.)
Can technology bring people together to work effectively on common causes?