Democracy’s To Do List

Jerry Michalski and Andrew Rasiej (pr. ru-shay) have organized a terrific conference on May 24 at The New School here in New York: Personal Democracy Forum (or “PDF”. Heh).

The Personal Democracy Forum will bring together political figures, grassroots leaders, journalists and technology professionals to discuss the questions that lie at the intersection of technology and politics — to take a realistic look at where we are now and where we are headed.

The notables include a few people I met through the Dean campaign: Joe Trippi, Sanford Dickert, Nicco Mele, Mat Gross, David Weinberger. I’ve added more info below.

What is Still Missing?

The final question in the Forum’s Aspirations is “What is still missing?” (Aha! The most noble question in human endeavor). Also, Jerry Michalski asked me what I thought the perfect session would be, so I’m answering him here. Naturally, I think that what’s missing are all the pet projects I’ve dreamed up. They are:

Strawberry Roots Activism
Friend to Friend model
Strawberry Roots and the Voterfile
Social Networks
P2P Policy Engagement
RSS-based Assertion Processor
RSS-based Freedom of Information
Open Resource Governance
Bureaucrat Retirement Initiative
Open Republic

The characteristic of the first three ideas is that they are mostly technical, decentralized and that they provide information among people that is actionable. Most importantly, they are permission-free. The importance of permission-free grows when we think of the crucial role of viral marketing to the success of any product, whether it’s an iPod or an iPresident. The last four require continuing, centralized effort, which is a more iffy proposition.

Worthy? Buzz Worthy? Buzzed?

It’s time for politics to leverage the self-forming capacity of the web. I believe this is the core disconnect between traditional political activists and the new toolmakers.

Micah Sifry and I represent those two ends of the spectrum. He’s a professional who’s fascinated with the promise of these tools and I’m taken with what he needs from the tools. Political pros are still wired for centralized intelligence, and most of the political tools reflect that bias. Until we move past that mind set, campaigns will exhaust themselves trying to create buzz rather than riding a wave of buzz inspired by the campaign but not built by it.

No matter how hard you flog your product, if you don’t generate buzz, your sales will be ordinary. But if your product generates spontaneous buzz, you’ll prosper no matter how little you promote it. Wendy’s current ad campaign shows amateur “Wendy’s champions” encouraging others to eat at Wendy’s, a fiction about the champions they’d like but don’t have. Managers and experts take all the credit for success and leave little for the viral processes that they don’t really understand: the specific mechanisms by which some ideas fire customers’ imaginations and others don’t.

But it is possible to get our heads around the new rules of viral markets. Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin and, of course, the Clue Trainers, have done seminal work in this area. In Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Gladwell deconstructed why epidemics take off and how a few East Village kids in NYC caused Hush Puppy shoes to become the IN thing. When your target market is a swarm, even if the swarm doesn’t know it is one, you have the potential for your product to take off despite your planning. Joe Trippi has been candid that something like that happened with the Dean campaign.

Here’s what I think needs doing, starting with the most viral idea I can come up with:

Grass Roots Strawberry Roots Activism

Your front lawn is dependent on you for seed, feed, water and weeding, each seed pushing out just a few blades for us to admire. Rhyzomes, like strawberries and crabgrass, are more creative. Once started, they shoot out opportunistic runners which put down roots in hospitable circumstances. If the new plant prospers, it puts out multiple runners, and so on. Strawberry roots activism may be the future of politics.

The Dean campaign hit a wall at about 150,000 active supporters, though four times as many were registered in its database. (Surprisingly, there were thousands of active supporters who chose not to register with the campaign’s web site.) How might the campaign have scaled its conversational throughput to a high enough level that it would get the votes it needed?

When I was embedded at Dean Headquarters, I learned that supporters were energized primarily by their ability to “touch” the campaign and by the sense that their personal views were actually interesting to the campaign. Any campaign that wants to attract rabid support must give each potential supporter the power to connect substantively with the campaign and to accept all supporters’ opinions on substantive issues.

But what is “the campaign”? There’s no clear dividing line between “the campaign” and “the supporters.” Every campaign has volunteers working at headquarters and in the field. Are those people inside or outside the campaign? Does it matter? When anyone associated with the campaign is responsive to a less-connected supporter, it can be as powerful an involvement as if the supporter had engaged directly with an “official” campaign staffer. Here’s the structure needed to build winning associations that cascade through a population, sweeping up support:


This is the “polymer” structure that I proposed to the Dean campaign last October and continue to believe was the key missing element of the Dean campaign. (Indeed, it’s missing from all campaigns: the only reason it was conspicuous by its absence from the Dean campaign was the campaign’s intent to leverage every Internet possibility.)

The Friend to Friend Model
Leveraging Supporters’ Existing Social Networks

The defining breakthrough of the 2003 primary season may have been the accidental innovation of registering “members” of a campaign. People accustomed to registering at other web sites were happy to register at as they do elsewhere. From registration, it’s a series of baby steps to Meeting Up, contributing, house partying, and all the rest of the Dean magic. Unfortunately, registering on any web site is a broadly acknowledged impediment to becoming involved. Who knows? For each supporter who signed up, perhaps there were 10 others who never took the trouble.

But why not leverage the personal information that the self-declared supporters have already entered into their personal email address books? Clearly the only impediment is technical, so I established last winter to give supporters a way to cooperate with potential new members of the campaign. This required the combined efforts of Alden Hynes, Zack Rosen, Shannon Clark and Neil Drumm and Ian Bogost.

  1. Using a few mouse clicks, any user of Outlook or another address book can save any number of their contacts as a text file.
  2. At, a campaign supporter can upload such a contact list and then review the contacts as a list, or individually, to edit each contact’s information.
  3. With a single click, the supporter can send a personal email to one of their contacts, containing a link that invites the contact to review their personal information at Preferably this is done with their friend, their campaign mentor, present or on the phone.
  4. With a single click, the prospective new supporter can “push” their contact data to the campaign, taking advantage of a process the campaign had built for internal use.

In moments, automagically, the new supporter has easily registered, voluntarily, with the campaign web site without the inconvenience of having to visit the campaign’s web site. In this way, it’s possible for each supporter to engage any number of their acquaintances in the reasons to support the campaign and to easily join up. The next steps can seek a contribution, their personal policy preferences and, most interestingly, register their own contacts with the campaign.

Thus 1 begets 10 begets 100, etc. Equally importantly, the hierarchical relationships among these thousands or millions of supporters is known and forms a kind of telephone tree for mobilizing support quickly and effectively. If the campaign flows information through the tree structure, it can be as effective as parents announcing a snow day. And the communication is from people in your existing social network, a far more compelling contact than yet another mass mailing from a campaign you may support but can feel like spam.

This Address Book-based approach is an extension of the Friend to Friend System developed by Pat Dunleavy in Williamstown, Massachussetts to override a property tax limitation:

Instead of laying siege to a population and wearing it down with uncomfortable and unwanted approaches from strangers ringing doorbells or calling during the dinner hour, you grow the campaign fromthe inside, through the web of relationships inside the community.

(From the PDF description)

The Williamstown activists had friends contact friends by selecting them from a centralized list that the campaign had compiled. It’s probable that the mydeanpeople system is faster, easier and more complete. It’s simply the logical next step in having friends approach friends.

The question that we designers and builders of tools must ask is whether the mere presence of such tools catalyze the inherent urge of like-minded individuals and interest groups to organize themselves. However, as Alan Kay taught us, “It’s easier to invent the future than to predict it.” Can I have an Amen?

Brad deGraf, Micah Sifry and Jim Moore commented recently in response to the NY Times Magazine article describing the Republicans’ centralized, pyramidal “Amway” campaign. I suggest that self-forming “telephone tree” structures may exhibit the same compounding growth of network marketing structures, without the centralized command & control.

Person-to-Person Multi-Level Networks

It’s useful to remember that “Organization” is important,and hierarchists excel at the art. But “Organization” describes any activity that has become organized, whether from above or spontaneously, by its members.

Strawberry Roots and the Voterfile

The “voterfile” is the heart of any campaign’s work. This is the data base, maintained by each Secretary of State, of registered voters and their stated affilitation, and it’s notoriously flawed but it’s the only staring point activists have had. When activists canvass neighborhoods, this is the data they carry with them. Anyone can pay a nominal fee to get voterfile data. I learned that there’s quite a little service industry that takes voterfile data and cleans it up and organizes it for campaigns. The political parties do this also, and earn serious money by charging their candidates for the service. The hacktivists that Dean left behind are taking this on as a worthwhile challenge, including the Advokit project that Pat Dunleavy and Dan Robinson have formed, based on Dunleavy’s experience with the Williamstown project.

But, as Chandler Bing might say, “Could it be any more centralized?” In an open source world, there must be a better way to accumulate this data, since there’s far more contact data, and more detailed, sitting on individuals’ hard drives, if there were only a way to get at it. Perhaps the mentor-newbie address book-based approach is a way to build a superset of the voterfile from scratch, while adding in even more interesting kinds of voters – those who haven’t voted before but will this time.

P2P Policy Engagement

Peer-to-Peer (P2P) is an organizing force powerful enough to connect people on several continents to develop so
ftware – one of the most complex of all projects. Other factors equal, any campaign that harnesses P2P power will defeat a campaign that does not. When supporters become members – campaign insiders – you need to give them what they want, and what they want is a voice in policy.

This was probably the Dean campaign’s greatest failing. Although there were discussion forums and cross-comments on the blog, there was no systematic seeking of policy input from the campaign’s members and no way to organize policy preferences to summarize the sense of the campaign’s supporters. It was a goal but not a priority, even though there was a lot of discussion about how to so engage the campaign’s members. Nicco Mele, the campaign webmaster, had reserved the domain with the expectation that it might be the right vehicle. Nicco and Mat Gross and Alison Stanton and I discussed the structure at some length after I drafted a prototype. Unfortunately, there were other priorities.

There were several policy professionals working for the Dean campaign. They taught me that policy professionals hate the idea of the voters expressing their explicit policy preferences in a way that politicians must acknowledge and, perhaps, respond to. Here’s a condensation of one idea for a policy preferences panel. Members of any web site could use the preferences panel to build their aggregated sense of what they want politicians to do:





family farms• 1 10 • corporate farming

Comment on Agriculture

Campaign Financing


 more reform • 1 10 • less reform

Comment on Campaign Financing

This expression leaves great opportunities for improvement, but it includes the vital elements:

  • A quantitative and qualitative expression of policy preferences
  • Raw material for a blog for each respondent, using the policy comments
  • A chance to join a Special Interest Group (SIG) for each policy area.

Imagine with me that such a detailed polling tool encouraged each of us to express our values so explicitly. We could then understand the values profile for each person, family, census tract, zip code, city, county, state and nation.

Of course, each piece of legislation also expresses a set of values, as does every speech, amendment, rider, piece of pork, military adventure and, over time, each politician. Though experts may not welcome explicit policy expressions from the voters, policy professionals would be useful in describing the values profile of legislation and politicians, using the same matrix as the supporters, so that apples are compared to apples. I’d like to have such experts working for me, so I could print out my personal voting guide on election day, telling me how I would have voted if I’d had the time to compare all these actions personally.

RSS-based Assertion Processor

Google links are implicit, but a timeline is explicit. Here’s an example of a timeline asserting that the Reagan administration traded arms for hostages whenever it was politically expedient:

October Surpriseallegation
Reagan-Bush campaign makes secret pact with Iran to delay release of the Embassy hostages until after the November election, in return for future covert arms sales.
Reagan takes oath of office.
Hostages held in the American Embassy in Iran released.
An Israeli official suggests a deal with
Iran to then-national security adviser Robert McFarlane. . .
…saying the transfer of arms could lead to release of Americans being held hostage in Lebanon. McFarlane brings the message to President Reagan.
The first planeload of U.S.-made weapons is sent from Israel to Tehran.
The first American Hostage is released.
Reagan secretly signs a presidential ‘finding,’ or authorization…
…describing the operation with Iran as an arms-for-hostages deal.
etc., etc., etc.

John Robb believes that, given a semantic aggregator, any set of blogs could form the basis of a knowledge log (K-Logs). Work groups and companies are trying to do this already, but why not create knowledge logs that let We the People look at blocks of text that describe the activities of political figures?

The “News” (as print media quaintly call their output) already is built around the classic Perry White imperatives to expose the who, what, where, when, how, why of every article, column or exposé. The writers and their editors and reviewers don’t flag those data elements, but they sure as hell could. Why not make those general classifications explicit and then extend them with additional, explicit tags to let the expositors sell us more efficiently on the point of their assertions, whether they are selling outrage or smug complicity. What is there about an otherwise lifeless lump of ASCII text that causes it to be worth the author’s effort? Without some animating force, it’s not worth our time either. Those elements of outrage, assurance or innuendo should include the kinds of data that excites people at a cocktail party or sells books: sex and money and intrigue. We are drawn to the media based on its power to push our buttons. There is a characteristic to outrage as there is to beauty and grace. Just because the elements of outrage are hard to describe is no excuse to abandon the quest.

The elements of outrage are what journalists strive to express even as they attempt to push their master narrative of omniscience and objectivity–the dominant myths of the press, as Jay Rosen is so masterfully teaching us. Today, Dave Winer suggests the need for exposing non-journalism in journalistic drag:

A possibly interesting twist on the…
A possibly interesting twist on the Is It Journalism? perma-debate. Okay, let’s not worry for a minute if blogging is journalism or not. How about keeping a list of pubs that claim to be journalism that run stories that are clearly not journalism, and clearly not marked as such. Factual errors that are never corrected. Conflicts of interest that are not disclosed. We’ve learned that the pros simply won’t investigate themselves, which itself is a breach of journalistic ethics, as far as I’m concerned. So what’s to stop us from doing it for them?

Heh. Nothing. Anyone can assign RSS tags to anything they quote, which is just another form of assertion. Perhaps, if we all think of our own and others’ writing as assertions subject to debugging, we’ll lose the arrogance that “experts” put on like a suit of clothes– a form of wishful thinking, IMHO.

As Alan Kay suggested when he told us that it’s easier to invent the future than to predict it, it takes longer to argue over why to design an RSS-based Assertion Processor than it takes to develop the means to expose what there is about any body of text that is asserted to be outrageous or reassuring.

Dave, do you have the time or interest to take a stab at this form of RSS? Does the 2.0 spec allow such an extension?

RSS-based Freedom of Information

I’m with Steve Gillmor: “Nothing sways me from the notion that RSS is a transcendent technology.

(Heh. It doesn’t mean Steve’s with me:

Whether I agree with Britt’s last comment about Big Media (I don’t), I understand his perspective. It adds to the dialogue, the conversation. The advent of the blogosphere and RSS has provided both a filter for information and a low-barrier mechanism for empowering the direct participants in a conversation.)

RSS could be an acronym for the Rosetta Stone for Sharing. We the People are winding up a four-year crash course in why we should mistrust a secretive government. Our chance now is to establish Freedom of Information on steroids. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was a reaction and antidote to the last time a Republican administration knew more about what was good for us than we did. Clearly, the reaction will be to re-invigorate FOIA, and I hope we embrace and extend openness by legislation that federal documents must be online, in HTML, and offer RSS feeds like the rest of the world’s documents will, by the time FOIA II is passed.

Open Resource Governance

One of these days, a candidate will win by offering an alternative so obvious, compelling and profound that s/he will be hailed as a savior of the country. That alternative is Government BY the People. Literally. We will be the source of surveillance video, thanks to our ubiquitous PFR videophones (like soldiers taping prison truths). We will triangulate the useful insights into what’s really going on through our blogging of the facts as we interpret them. We will learn that we hold all the capital and that we can express ou
r preferences for action with our wallets in the same way that online political contributions have revolutionized politics.

Why shouldn’t we also do for government many other services, not necessarily for pay but for reduced taxes and better security? Think SETI on steroids. MoveOn can raise a million bucks overnight for a cause. Why can’t the EPA raise awareness and even money using the same tools? The outlandish seer in my head says that if enough people want a Star Wars missile defense, then they can ante up the cost, requiring the government to make a stronger case than it has so far.

I don’t know if government-by-bakesale should be our budgetary model, but our current model is broken. What if voluntary support turned out to be the system that improves on the representational democracy we like to think is perfect when it so clearly is not?

Government-by-bakesale has an important virtue going for it: The politicians and lobbyists will hate it.

Bureaucrat Retirement Initiative

Government bureaucrats aren’t cheap, especially with the great benefits, infrastructure and expensive processes that surround them. But their actions are what really cost us. Like any private sector bureaucrats, they must use every budget dollar before the end of the year, or risk losing that dollar in next year’s budget. But the most expensive part of our Bureaucracy Support System is the proliferation of projects, procurements and studies that the bureaucracy orders up to justify its existence.

In the face of this incredible churning, most of us feel that many bureaucrats could be replaced by a properly designed web application. Every major company is learning to reduce head count by having its customers do their own order entry and move their requests over the web. The federal government can’t work that way since the point of the bureaucrats is to keep their jobs and increase their budget. Without the civil servant’s enthusiastic help, how could you reduce the head count?

Simple. Get their help. Some day a reform-minded leader will establish a swat team of IT experts who implement a standing offer in the federal government: If you believe your job is expendable, let us know, and we’ll work with you to eliminate it. Then you can go home and continue to get paid, receive your agreed-upon GS raises, and retire on schedule. What’s the benefit to the taxpayer? It’s worth paying you to stay home so you can’t dream up more novel ways to spend our money.

Open Republic

Naturally, I believe that the Open Republic initiative deserves to be developed. The purpose of Open Republic is to act as the indispensable guide to the use of technology in politics; providing an entry point for the tech-averse political novice and an operations guide for the tech-savvy political pro. Working with Ethan Zuckerman and Allen Gunn and Katrin Verclas, the idea has developed and we’ve started to spec out the web site:


You may recall that Open Republic is intended as a monthly online publication reviewing the currently available political technologies with a thorough guide to their use. Open Republic will also commission improvements in activist tools and perhaps the creation of new resources.

This list is just one man’s opinion, so it’s only the start of a consensus. Open Republic would provide a formal review and documentation process for discovering and describing everything that Andy Rasiej and Jerry Michalski want to explore on May 24, as well as doing something about it.

Imagine That!

Personal Democracy Forum

Speakers and panelists include:

  • Senator Bob Kerrey, President of the New School University;
  • Ralph Reed, President, Century Strategies
  • Joe Trippi, Former Campaign Manager of Dean for America;
  • Sanford Dickert, CTO, John Kerry for President;
  • Danny Goldberg, Author of Dispatches from the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit;
  • Mark Halperin, Political Director, ABC News
  • Scott Heiferman, CEO,;
  • Nicco Mele, Former Webmaster, Dean for America;
  • Jerry Michalski, Former Managing Editor of Release 1.0;
  • Eli Pariser, National Campaigns Director of;
  • David Pollak, Executive Director, Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century;
  • Simon Rosenberg, President and Founder, New Democrat Network;
  • Andrew Shapiro, Host of What’s Next on Thirteen/WNET;
  • David Weinberger, Author of The Cluetrain Manifesto;
  • Congressman Anthony Weiner, 9th District of New York;

I like the sensible framing of the Forum’s aspirations:

Avoiding both breathless hyperbole and uninformed rushes to judgment, we will tackle questions like:

  • What is the role of online activism in today’s political landscape? Are watchdogs more powerful than ever?
  • How do weblogs and other alternative media sources change how information moves? What is their perceived objectivity? What is the role of citizen journalists?
  • How does the online medium help and hinder public discourse? What are we learning from deliberative democracy, deep democracy and other projects?
  • How can we guarantee security and control for online voting?
  • What are the deeper opportunities for community building and consciousness-raising online? How can politics get more personal?
  • What unconventional methods of campaigning and fundraising are emerging?
  • What has really worked? What is still missing?

10:49:31 AM    

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