I’ll be making a presentation at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society next Tuesday, February 7. The Berkman Fellows’ Luncheon (a series) will be webcast and on IRC at 12:30 Tuesday. The description:
Dean Done Right
For two years, Britt Blaser has sought a way to duplicate what Zephyr Teachout and Jim Moore and David Weinberger and so many friends of Berkman demonstrated was possible at the Dean Campaign. The Open Resource Group is releasing ORGware, but informally it’s called “Dean Done Right.” Britt will preview what the Dean campaign would have used if it had started three years later, in the age of Web 2.0. Background material here.
Some of the last few posts have been intended as background material for the presentation. They were:
In addition to the lofty goals and tech talk, I appreciate the archaeological aspects, remembering what it was like to be on the third floor of 60 Farrell Street, South Burlington, VT in late 2003. They were heady times and I felt privileged just to carry a few bags for those magnificent people. The Dean Campaign was the latest in a series of unsuccessful attempts to forge grassroots activism into a tsunami deep and strong enough to overwhelm the cynicism of politics-as-usual.
One lesson is that those 3-4 dozen tech-savvy people were the Dean web service, in ways that no other enterprise would or could have attempted. Understanding that is key to understanding why Dean Done Right has not been built before.
Dean’s almost-unpaid net slaves were able to maintain the illusion of an automated web service at deanforamerica.com and blogforamerica.com with a lot of hands-on tech kludges, customized TCP/duct tape and IP/baling wire. Fortunately for the campaign, we net slaves rowed our own boats to Burlington and chained ourselves to the desks for the duration(many of us were even cheaper than slaves, feeding and housing ourselves). None of us was paid anything like what we’d earn in private enterprise.
Dean’s suite of impressive and smooth-running web services were so dependent on this human network’s packets of inspiration that few other organizations could have pulled it off. The Dean campaign spent almost nothing on the Internet, yet it employed resources that would have cost about $280,000 per month in Burlington alone (c. 40 people x $7,000 incl. benefits). It would have been worth it, but they never would have made that investment.
And the tech? Fuhgeddaboutit! A hodge-podge of Movable Type, Meetup, Convio, many disparate databases, etc., etc. Those amazing people made it all look to the world the way a web service should, but the rules were that there had to be at least 2 people on site at all times, and a SWAT team on call. One Saturday evening in December 2003, Halley Suitt and I had dinner in Burlington and discussed this (among many other things, as you can well imagine). We decided to return to the office at 11pm – on a Saturday – to do a head count, which I guessed would be at least 45. The actual was 67!
When we see a successful web platform, we assume there will be a couple of even-better copycats on line within a month. Maybe that’s why Dean’s people-power web illusion set up the dismay that so many organizers feel when they reach for a tool like Dean had and they discover that there simply aren’t any available. Here’s Susan Crawford‘s recent amazement, and Harish Rao‘s revelation from a year ago, and even Nicco‘s not sure where this is going.
Andrew Rasiej‘s campaign also foundered on the shoals of promoting a social network for New York City that couldn’t be found on the campaign’s web site, and which never formed around his candidacy. You may recall that I promised Andrew and Micah Sifry that Open Resource Group would produce a web platform to support his political platform, but we screwed up and couldn’t deliver. We were all amazed that there is no campaign-in-a-box.
That is the problem that ORGware aims to fix.
Back to the Syllabus
What are the lessons for Tuesday’s Case Study of Burlington? I had not studied this problem space before 2003, so I took the thrilling possibilities at face value. I’m glad I did, or otherwise my midsummer enthusiasms might have been prematurely chilled by Micah Sifry’s harsh mid-winter explanation: these enthusiastic efforts crop up periodically and have always failed. Micah shared this insight with Doc and me over coffee a couple of days after Dean’s New Hampshire defeat, citing the Goldwater, McCarthy and Perot campaigns.
I’ve been working on the mechanics of the solution since then. Without something no worse than ORGware, we’ll never send Mr. Smith back to Washington.
Here are the overarching ideas that can help the next idealist overcome this pattern of excitement and rejection:
These are the background issues open for discussion Tuesday. I hope you’ll tune in to the webcast at 12:30 Tuesday and check in to Berkman’s IRC channel. We’ll save the chat log and will be setting up an ORGware site for all participants to extend the conversation.