Participatory Politics and the Democratic Convention

In an email conversation earlier this week with Jeff Jarvis, I mentioned that I was talking to the Democratic National Convention Committee back in early May about building an online community for this week’s Convention. Jeff’s recent post echoed a lot of my thoughts back in May (see emails below) about how the Democratic Party needs to start moving away from the “broadcast politics” of the past 40 years and more towards something called “participatory politics.”

In broadcast politics, the American people are mostly informed through television and print media. The message is defined and then propagated through television and advertising campaigns. The American people have little say about what this message is and very few opportunities to actually contribute their thoughts and opinions. With participatory politics, the channels of communication are opened up between the groups of people attending the Convention (delegates, politicians, journalists, bloggers, etc.) and the American public. Instead of being talked to, they are being talked with. The inherent nature of this is participatory and provides a sense of belonging and ownership, two of the common traits identified within communities of all kinds (including online communities).

In Dan Gillmor’s new book We The Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People For the People he quotes a comment I left on his blog back in April:

If your goal is debate and discussion, a network of blogs is a more powerful medium than a single blog with lots of readers, When your goal is message or top-down communication, then a few blogs with a lot of readers is more powerful.

This is something I learned building and running the Clark Community Network for the Wesley Clark presidential campaign. We found that having 10,000 user blogs was far more influential than having a single campaign blog with a few editors and a lot of readers. We learned that the blog network grew by word-of-mouth because our supporters were telling their friends and family about their Clark blogs. As more people logged on and saw that they too could have a blog and voice their opinions and support about Wesley Clark, the idea grew and we started to use it to propagate our campaign messages. These 11,000+ members of the Clark Community Network were our spokespeople. They were the ones speaking on our behalf in their living rooms and kitchens of America where traditional campaigning could not reach.

Now that the Democratic Convention is over, I want to share portions of the emails I sent to the DNCC, outlining what I thought was the best approach to integrating new media and blogging into the Convention media process.

The general public is pretty clueless about the Convention, yet thousands of activists nationwide want to participate if they are allowed to. By opening up the communication between those attending the Convention and the general public, it enhances the idea of inclusion, participatory democracy and openness — best represented by the Democratic Party.

All politics is ultimately local. Delegates are at the Convention representing their constituencies, their interest groups, their politicians and the American people of the Democratic Party. Providing a categorized online communication architecture that outlines this for the American public so they can participate in the conversations they care about the most with the delegates, their politicians and other concerned Americans is a crucial step. The Bush-Cheney campaign and the RNC is all about command and control, with their army of trained underlings. The Democratic Party (and, ultimately the Kerry campaign) should be about channeling the diversity of their supporters in ways that benefit the Party. The core concept here is bi-directional communication — communication that goes in both directions, from the top down but also from the bottom up.

The above paragraphs are from an email I sent to Mike Liddell, who was the person responsible for opening up the Convention to bloggers – as widely reported in the mainstream media. A smart decision, but one that I feel was not utilized to its fullest potential.

A second email with a rough project plan was sent later in the day, outlining how such a community network could be built. Had they followed my advice, the Convention this week would have many more thousands of people actively participating in politics. Instead, they decided to give three dozen bloggers press credentials and sent them into the convention hall to fend for themselves.

Critiquing the Bloggers

I have some strong opinions about the jobs these bloggers did reporting the Convention, but I really wish they had put more effort into interacting with the people who were not at the Convention. It would have been very simple for these bloggers to have taken a bunch of questions beforehand on their sites and then scoured convention hall for the people who could answer them. Why few did this is beyond me. Maybe it’s because a lot of these bloggers have never been trained as journalists and instead they relied on their intuition, which was to write what they know about — and unfortunately what they know the most about is themselves. Personal perspectives are relevant and important, but only if they’re not boring and free of narcissistic tendencies.

A second criticism of the blog reporting coming from the Convention is that it was not organized in any kind of fashion that made sense for the readers coming to their blogs. The average reader is not going to browse through a lot of blog crap until the true gem appears. Lastly, the Convention Committee failed to set expectations for the kind fo reports coming from bloggers. It would have been very beneficial had there been some kind of “blog director” overseeing the reports coming from bloggers, giving them quotas to fulfill, directing story ideas, and helping them locate the people in the convention hall for them to interview.

But enough about the DNC’s convention. It’s over and no matter how many people criticize it, it will not change history. All we can do is look at how the bloggers were handled (and how they handled being part of the media) and try to learn from it. The RNC would be wise to take notes, as their convention in NYC is only a month away.

The Convention Committee broke new ground by letting bloggers into the convention hall and I applaud them for that. It was a good idea and I hope that others follow their lead. In 2008, I am confident that the kind of blog network I wanted to build earlier this summer will be commonplace and all of my concerns above will be moot. Only time will tell.

Posted by Cameron Barrett at July 30, 2004 08:52 PM

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