Over at the SXSW Speaker’s Forum blog, they posted several paragraphs I wrote in response to some questions about the 2004 elections and how blogs and technology have affected the political process. Since there are no permalinks or comments on that blog, I’m going to republish my words here:
Question: Over the weekend, Howard Dean was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Does his election essentially validate the kind of Internet-savvy, open-source approach to campaigning that this former Vermont Governnor (and former SXSW feature speaker Joe Trippi) utilized so effectively in the preliminary stages of the 2004 presidential race? On the other hand, given the realities of the Bush victory last November, have such blog-centric strategies lost some of their initial appeal? How can / should Howard Dean make use of new technological advancements to help rebuild the DNC? Conversely, how will the Republican party make use of these same technologies in the next four years?
Answer: The media hype over blogs within the political process was completely overblown. While I agree that blogs and online community were an important part of the 2004 elections, I disagree with the pundits who claim that blogs and “citizen journalism” are going to change the world. When I look at online community and the blogs that often comprise it, I see something very familiar. The characteristics of online community and blogging have been around for as long as Man has existed; the only difference is that we’ve overcome the geographical barrier that prevented pre-Internet groups of like-minded people to come together. Joe Trippi’s stroke of genius was that he recognized the power of the Internet and Internet-enabled activist groups when they came knocking on his door. He should get credit for that, but only if you also recognize that he did not invent something new. He simply jumped on the evolutionary bandwagon that is the Internet, as it continues to transform the way we work, play and communicate with each other.
When I was building the online community and blogging initiatives for the Wesley Clark For president campaign, one of the core principles of my thinking was that everything we did had to support the candidate and not draw attention away from the campaign. Some of the other campaigns that were more loosely managed screwed this up and the bloggers for those campaigns started getting almost as much news as the candidate himself. From my perspective at Clark, this was a mistake since the only star of a political campaign should be the candidate. The media’s desire to tell the political blogging story overshadowed the more beneficial news stories that could have come out of a campaign; i.e. stories about each candidate’s policies and stances on issues. While the story about blogging within and for the campaigns was important, too much emphasis was put on something that was not really that new at all. Blogging as it was used for the campaigns was simply the next step in mass communication.
After Clark dropped out of the race, I went to work for the John Kerry campaign where I was unsuccessful in my attempts to get the campaign to understand that blogging and online community were more than just big fat wallets they could extract more campaign donations from. Their focus on fundraising and using the Internet to do so completely missed the fundamental concept of online community: in order to win respect of an online community you have to give something back to them. The Kerry campaign’s initiatives were all take, take, take and very little giveback. This was terribly disappointing because they could have been many times more effective had they provided more initiatives online that actually supported the online communities that formed around the campaign. The Kerry campaign was extremely risk-averse in their efforts to embrace online community and I think it ended up hurting the campaign more than it helped.
In May of 2004 I visited the DNCC, the organization that was in charge of the Democratic Convention in Boston. I outlined a plan where they would set up an official web site for the Convention bloggers, which would give every Delegate, every journalist and every convention attendee the ability to blog on behalf of the Convention. This idea of using online community to actually increase the amount of communication between the general public and the Delegates was an exciting one. However, my proposal got lost in the internal politics of the DNCC and never got off the ground. Can you imagine every Delegate at the Convention having a forum and blog where their actual constituents from around the country would be able to have open communication with their chosen representatives at the Convention? Maybe it was just a pipe dream, but that kind of thing gets me excited.
My advice to Dean is that he keep the communication open, to shun the typical power-play politics that drives Washington D.C. Take politics back to the people and engage in conversations at every level. Do not fall into the trap of trying to please every side. The Bush administration and his policies has deeply divided this country and it is Dean’s job to unite the Democratic party. The Bush administration has no intention of ever opening up communication with the American people. There has never been a more closed, secretive and manipulative administration in the White House than there is now. By embracing the power of online community and giving the American people their voices back, Dean can unite the Democratic party and maybe in 2008 we can finally end this long nightmare from which I keep wishing I’d wake up from.
Note: Contrary to my previous note, I am not attending the Drupal Conference in Belgium but am sscheduled to participate in a panel at SXSW. Unfortunately, I cannot afford both trips, so I have had to cancel my plans to attend the Drupal Conference.
Posted by Cameron Barrett at February 16, 2005 09:31 AM