A Brave New World

Micah Sifry
|
Posted: Jun 04, 2008 2:39 PM
A Brave New World

The "Stop Hillary Clinton" group on Facebook is a million people strong. Democratic Senate candidate Al Franken was stung by a blogger – Michael Brodkorb – who unearthed damaging details about Franken's business tax filings. Conservatives are discussing John McCain's conservative bona fides. Videos, emails, talking points, petitions – everything but the kitchen sink – is flying at politicians these days.

It's a whole new ball game out there.

We've lost count of all the national figures who have been impacted by online activism. Millions of small donors, people giving less than $200 per donation, have flooded into the presidential campaign process. Far more people are making, watching and sharing online content—from blogs to videos—than are visiting the candidates' own websites. And well more than half the electorate, especially the young, are relying on the internet for political information, rather than traditional news sources like newspapers or TV.

Try to imagine Barack Obama beating Hillary Clinton without the Internet. It's like imagining Ronald Reagan without television. Just on YouTube alone, his videos have been viewed nearly 50 million times, four times as many as Clinton and twelve times as many as McCain. He's approaching 900,000 friends on Facebook, again vastly outpacing the other candidates. Without the internet, there's no way that Obama's campaign would have already surpassed 1.5 individual donors at this stage in the cycle.

Four years ago, we wrote these words:

Democracy in America is changing. A new force, rooted in new tools and practices built on and around the Internet, is rising alongside the old system of capital-intensive broadcast politics. Today, for almost no money, anyone can be a reporter, a community organizer, an ad-maker, a publisher, a money-raiser, or a leader. If what they have to say is compelling, it will spread.

The cost of finding like-minded souls, banding together, and speaking to the powerful has dropped to almost zero. Networked voices are reviving the civic conversation. More people, everyday, are discovering this new power. After years of being treated like passive subjects of marketing and manipulation, they want to be heard. Members expect a say in the decision-making process of the organizations they join. Readers want to talk back to the news-makers. Citizens are insisting on more openness and transparency from government.

All the old institutions and players--big money, top-down parties, big-foot journalism, cloistered organizations--must adapt or face losing status and power. Personal Democracy, where everyone is a full participant, is coming.

Back in 2004, these were seen as fringe ideas. Candidates for office and, just as importantly, the consultants who advised them, didn't think the Internet mattered in politics. "Didn't Howard Dean lose?" they would sneer. If you mentioned the word "blog" around Capitol Hill, people looked at you funny.

We decided to ignore the conventional wisdom, and in the spring of 2004 started an annual conference and daily blog called Personal Democracy Forum, to gather the people and players who did see how the Internet was changing politics, and wanted to be a part of that change. And a lot has happened since we got started.

If there's anything we've learned about the Internet and politics in these last four years, it is this:

1) We're in a gigantic transition from capital-intensive, broadcast media-driven politics to something that has almost no barriers to entry, involves millions of people in helping to create messages, groups and campaigns, and is out of centralized control;

2) Change is a constant, and as Yogi Berra once said, predictions are hard, especially about the future. Two years ago, no one had even heard of YouTube; now candidates announce their campaigns on that site.

3) This isn't a fad. People who dismiss online politicking as "the bar scene from Star Wars," or say things like "Our people are caucus-goers; their's look like Facebook," have no idea what they're talking about.

If you want to know what you're talking about, come join the conversation at Personal Democracy Forum. This year our top speakers include Chuck Defeo and Mary Katherine Ham of Townhall.com; Cyrus Krohn, the RNC's e-campaign director; Patrick Ruffini of The Next Right; David All of Slatecard; Mark Soohoo, Mindy Finn and Justine Lam (respectively the internet directors of the John McCain, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul campaigns), Amy Holmes of CNN, Robert Bluey of the Heritage Foundation, and Matthew Sheffield of Newsbusters.org, along with leading techies like Michael Arrington of TechCrunch, Lawrence Lessig of Stanford University, Craig Newmark of Craigslist, Vint Cerf of Google and Brian Behlendorf of the Mozilla Foundation. As PdF is a cross-partisan event, we'll also have lots of experts and activists from the left as well.

We'll have sessions on everything from online fundraising ("How to Create an Internet 'Money-Bomb'") to how to convert online friends to on-the-ground supporters to how to master political video online to using the internet to fight political corruption. We've also expanded the event to two days so we can also devote a lot of time to the ways the internet is starting to change not only politics, but also governance. We'll cover everything from national tech policy to how think tanks are adapting to the internet age, and how government officials are experimenting with new ways of connecting with citizens and constituents.

The conference is taking place June 23-24 in New York City, at the Frederick Rose Hall, the new home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, across the street from Central Park. To learn more or to register, go to www.personaldemocracy.com/conference. We hope to see you there.