I lectured in my friend Jonathan Zittrain’s class at Harvard Law about ten days ago. I shared the stage with Nicco Mele, internet strategist for Howard Dean and co-founder of tech consultancy EchoDitto. I gave a typically long-winded talk on citizen media in Kenya and Madagascar… and then I was blown off the stage by Mele’s short, sweet and direct speech.
Mele explained that you need to hire five people as a politician to succeed: a fundraiser, a PR director, a field director, a pollster and someone who produces your television commercials. The internet, he argues, really only affects one of these functions – fundraising. The goal of a political campaign in an internet age, Mele tells us, is to collect email addresses as quickly as possible and use them to raise small donations – which are more time-efficient than large donations, which require in-person shmoozing – so you can buy televisions ads.
Jerk that I am, I turned to Mele after his talk and said, “So if online politics is all about collecting email addresses, raising money and buying television ads… how do you teach a semester-long class at Harvard on the topic?” He laughed and explained that, while I had the model down, implementing it took some subtlety and skill.
Fair enough. I’m certainly no expert on electoral politics, and I have no basis on which to challenge Mele on the subject of winning US elections. But it seems like we’re learning to do more politically with the internet than just raise money.
In a board meeting with a foundation I advise, I made the case that we’ve now got good evidence that the internet’s useful to activist and political organizations in at least three ways:
- It’s good for raising money, especially in small donations
- It’s good for mobilizing people to participate in specific, discrete events – see the march on Jena, LA for a US example, or marches in Colombia against the FARC, planned on Facebook
- It can be a useful “back door” into the media – a story that gains attention online can gain attention offline, even if it wouldn’t have been news without the online following
I’d expected a discussion that raised questions on other areas where the net had proven its value to political activists – countering misinformation, strengthening internal communications – and hoped we’d have a debate about whether the internet could help organizations solicit and synthesize ideas online, enable distributed deliberation and participation. Instead, the conversation turned to fears that the tools we were talking about would make majorities too powerful, that these tools might simply be a way of assembling mobs and aiming them at targets.
I was baffled by this direction in the conversation. It’s my strong sense that internet technology isn’t neutral. It isn’t equally useful for participatory and repressive movements – it’s inherently participatory and open, and inevitably easier to deploy for conversations than for a theoretical fascist movement leader.
I still think I’m right, but I’m bumping into examples that make me more sympathetic to my colleague’s concerns. The best of these examples involve movements I support, organized by people I admire, using tactics that seem like a really bad idea to me.
My friends at the Sunlight Foundation are some of the smartest thinkers about the use of technology in US politics, and have been doing amazing work on transparency issues in the amazingly opaque US congress. They’re big supporters of S.482, “A bill to require Senate candidates to file designations, statements, and reports in electronic form.” And so they’re organizing a campaign to lobby Congress to pass the bill via Twitter.
I went over to the Sunlight page, assuming that I’d participate in the campaign, as I support the bill and the organization behind the project. And then I realized that the “ask” of the campaign was to send 17 identical tweets to the congresscritters who’ve adopted Twitter. This means that all my twitter followers get to see me nagging Congress – including the roughly half of them that don’t live in the US – with seventeen messages. And it means that Congressfolk start seeing what amounts to Twitter spam, and start dismissing it much as they learned to dismiss email.
Several folks raised similar objections on the blog post announcing the campaign, including “Queen of Snark” Suzanne Turner, who declared that “Twitter has jumped the snark. As with all other technologies, when it starts to become mainstream new rules (and uses) begin to apply.” That may be so, but it seems a shame to render less useful such a new medium so quickly.
My guess is that the campaign isn’t going to take off, as other Twitter users make the same mental calculation I did – “Piss off all my followers to marginally influence a senator?” – and either send direct messages or choose not to participate. I’ve been following the string “482″ on Twitter’s search and while messages are coming in, they’re a trickle, not a flood. And some folks are doing a good job of personalizing and de-spamming messages.
If Sunlight can use Twitter to flood Congress – and if there’s any upside to doing so – it’s easy to see the NRA adopting the same technique. Maybe the lesson here is that the easiest, most straightforward ways to use these tools will inevitably descend into spam. Or that we should look for less obvious, more participatory ways to use the tools. The good news, I think, is that we’re working in a medium that immediately lets people push back on the idea, posting comments on Sunlight’s blog, writing our own blog entries, or twittering back at @sunlightnetwork.