Conventional Shorthand

There’s yet another piece of conventional wisdom developing. Today Clay Shirky said it succinctly: Is social software bad for the Dean campaign?

Finally, when Dean (and Trippi and Teachout and Rosen) came along, we thought “This is it – these are the people finally making it happen!” And in a way they are, by providing the model – all top 3 finishers in Iowa use MeetUp, and they all have weblogs. But the Dean campaign used those things organically, while everyone else is playing catchup. And many of us (self very much included) thought that the inorganic adoption of social tools by Kerry, Clark, et al left them at a disadvantage.

Now, though, I’m not so sure. Maybe the adoption of those tools by a traditional campaign is a better way to fuse of 21st century organizing and 19th century “Get out the Vote” efforts. This would be especially true if these tools, used on their own, risk creating a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that doesn’t translate to driving down to the polls in freezing weather.

As Clay says, the Dean campaign started delighting and amazing us less than a year ago, in a crescendo of overdue good sense, impeccable candidate credentials and unprecedented cluefulness. Its people and money rocket started taking fire from 3 quadrants late last year and landed safely but damaged a week ago. Less than a week later, Clay reconsiders and compares the Dean people to some stoners he once saw grooving in a car:

When I was 19, I remember seeing a bunch of guys in a parking lot in New Jersey absolutely rocking out to Twisted Sister at top volume, “Oh we’re not gonna take it, No, we ain’t gonna take it, Oh we’re not gonna take it anymo-o-o-o-ore” and thinking the song was using up the energy that would otherwise go into rebellion.

Just rocking out to Twisted Sister so hard, and feeling so good about it, made those guys feel like they’d already stood up to The Man, making it less likely that they would actually do so in the real world, when the time came. And I’m wondering if the Dean campaign has been singing a version of that song, or, rather, I’m wondering if the bottom-up tools they’ve been using have been helping their supporters sing that song to each other.

I’m not clear how 3,500 people going to Iowa is the opposite of being proactive. Does he think those people are passively going to other states to avoid the hassle of voting in their home precinct? New Yorkers like Clay and me like to ridicule others for not being sharp or driven or hard-working, but I’m missing this one.


What’s really at work here is a sense of treason and loss. Some Netizens seem to feel betrayed by the Dean campaign since it isn’t fulfilling a Jongian dream of a zipless victory. The Dean campaign may have violated some followers’ tender sensibilities by starting strong but finishing 3rd in the only “primary” that isn’t actually a vote but rather a get-together where older people sit around and debate candidates over bean salad. Surely this means that the best-financed and populated campaign is doomed to failure in every other state where people actually vote behind a curtain rather than a coffee cup.

We fantasize that bloggers – especially the Power Law bloggers like Clay Shirky – are leading edge and visionary. But this feels like criticizing Edison for the flaming filaments or Wilbur and Orville for failed airfoils.

Let’s get a grip, people! The Dean campaign is as close as we’re going to get to one that conforms to the values we’ve been fantasizing since 0 BC (Blogging Commenced). After pining for an Internet-based solution to the old political order, are we going to cut and run at the first hint of a setback?

The more insightful position might be to ridicule the Deaniacs for not being sophisticated about the real nature of campaigns as Tom Steinberg comments:

This supports a theme I’ve been banging on about for a while now, the idea that ‘politics as usual’ is not sclerotic and ossified, but is in fact a fine tuned, turbo injected, iteratively refined wonder-machine powered by The Message. The battle may be New Tech vs Old Tech, but the Old Tech is actually incredibly good at doing what counts – getting enough people out to win elections. When Old Tech starts getting challenged by New we shouldn’t be surprised if the New Tech adoptees have problems – they’re up against The Message, a prize fighter which has won every major political bout for thirty years. This isn’t to say that it can’t win, just that the Old Tech approach is still one hell of a fighter, and we’ll need more than a messianic faith in emergence to beat it.

But that still rings hollow. Is the Old Tech “good at getting enough people out to win elections”? The larger consensus is that there’s not enough interest in politics, precisely because the old tech – broadcast – can’t get people excited about the process. The evidence is that only the New Tech is motivating people, as smallbrain points out:

Iowa – it is important to not confuse swings of public opinion with a lack of organization. As organized as Dean was, the campaign put thousands of activists on the ground from all around the country. Without the social software, none of that would have happened. Those people weren’t deterred from action. And we should really not ignore the significant organization and recruiting that was made possible by his social net.

Granted, Jim Moore points out that the campaign “lost” 15,000 caucusers on the actual night. That doesn’t speak well for the organizing success, but take a look at the thousands of letters sent by supporters, the number of calls made and doors knocked upon. And then think of where Dean was at this time in 2003. Clearly FAR more action was generated by the social network than was lost at the end – after all, the polls predicted Dean was losing ground, and caucuses are notoriously difficult to deal with, as voters can be persuaded or picked off due to the 15% viability requirement.

(FWIW, when the dust settles and the skeptics learn the real story behind those 15,000 missing caucus-goers, the skeptics will understand far better what a transient and capricious matter the Iowa stumble was. We can discuss it over champagne at the Inaugural Ball.)

The Old New Activists

I’ve never been active in politics before, but I’m taking the year off because I represent the Internet Wing of the Democratic Party, and frankly, my
dear, I don’t give a fuck about the Democratic Party.

When I spend my 16 hour days up in Burlington, paying dearly for the privilege of doing so, I’m surrounded by people 14-80 who’ve never worked on a campaign before, communicating with about 2/3 million people who’ve never “joined” a campaign who are sending issues-based emails and letters – about 3,000 per day, which the volunteers dutifully answer as fast as they can. I sit with Wayne and Tommy and Joe in the Policy department, discussing policy more than blogging and marvel at something I thought only happens in corny movies.

During the big December snow, Halley was up in Burlington with us. We got a lot done, but we had a lot of fun, too, attending the Christmans party and walking Doc around the halls and introducing him to Joe Trippi and the rest of the gang. At the time, she told me a story about one of the volunteers, Laurie, who had such a deep and personal debt to Governor Dean that it brought tears to Halley’s eyes, but she thought it too private to blog. Making conversation, Halley had asked Laurie why she was stuffing envelopes. It’s simple, Laurie started, “Governor Dean saved my life.”

Tonight, Laurie Hammond bravely told her story on the Dean Blog. Don’t pay any attention to Clay or me or Tom Steinberg or smallbrain, or to Hammersley who pointed me to Clay’s second thoughts. Read Laurie’s story to keep all this in perspective and glimpse what’s really at stake here.

Then check out Halley’s pointer to Laurie’s story, and then Halley’s This Isn’t a Political Campaign, a post she shelved last December. Maybe because it seemed just a little too real.

Yeah. We pundit wannabes wouldn’t want to get too real.

If you blog it and you know it clap your hands!

As bloggers, we’re perfectly equipped to address politics as a web app design challenge, not an obligation to mimic the pundits’ sophisticated sophistry. This is the Internet and we’re supposed to know what to do with it. Let’s spend some cycles on the answers, not on sounding like a an expert.

At a rally today at Phillips Exeter Academy, Howard Dean closed with a lesson he learned at 17 that I prefer to Clay Shirky’s at 19:

It’s like when I was 17. It took us 6 years to get rid of two Presidents to get us out of Viet Nam – a war we didn’t belong in. Now you’ve got the Internet, you oughta be able to do it in 6 months. I’ll see you tomorrow.

The man has spoken. Excuse me, I’ve gotta get back to work on

11:17:52 PM    

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