Emerging Technology

Can the World Wide Web give ordinary people a shot at true populism?

By Steven Johnson|Friday, January 02, 2004

Presidential campaigning is being swept into a new era by the Internet, which is emerging as a political power tool. Howard Dean, for example, has risen from obscurity to national recognition on the back of his Web-based grassroots fund-raising approach, and campaign supporters of all types have learned to use a social-networking site, Meetup.com, to arrange political gatherings. Meanwhile, candidates posting messages on campaign Web sites seems to have replaced kissing babies as a ritual.

These are encouraging developments because they share a grassroots, bottom-up approach to electing a president. But something crucial is missing because so far, electronic populism is still largely about getting out the vote. The candidates have excelled at using the Web to organize supporters and raise money in new ways, but the more tantalizing possibility—that ordinary people might collectively help shape the substance of what their candidate stands for—remains a dream.

Voters may have a tendency to think of ordinary campaign supporters as earnest, saintly types who lick envelopes and hand out flyers on street corners—those who contribute labor. But supporters could also contribute ideas to a successful campaign, if they had a platform on which to express them.

As governor of Vermont, Howard Dean did not use a computer or e-mail until late 2001. But Joe Trippi, his presidential campaign manager, was once a consultant for Progeny Linux Systems, developers of the open-source concepts that inspired Dean’s Internet-driven organizational efforts.
Consider, for instance, a fascinating precedent in the computer industry—open-source software. Massive applications and entire operating systems like Linux, along with much of the software that powers the Internet, are built collectively and without charge by thousands of programmers around the globe.

The open-source world is quick to innovate because the discussion of new ideas and features is public, the very opposite of the smoke-filled back room that old-fashioned politics conjures up. And the software created by open-source advocates tends to be remarkably stable because so many eyes scan the code for bugs.

A decade ago, most software developers would have scoffed at the idea that a collective, distributed network outside a corporate hierarchy could develop a competitive operating system—for free. But today’s software developers are scrambling to learn as much as they can about the open-source process. They’ve discovered that a thousand minds all contributing small pieces to a project trumps 20 geniuses on a payroll.

Using open-source coding as a model, it’s not a stretch to believe the same process could make politics more representative and fair. Imagine, for example, how a grassroots network could take over some of the duties normally performed by high-priced consultants who try to shape a campaign message that’s appealing. If the people receiving the message create it, chances are it’s much more likely to stir up passions.

Certainly the technology is no longer an obstacle to collective message shaping. Any relatively sophisticated computer user with a thousand-dollar machine can create convincing political ads using text superimposed over a handful of stock images and public-domain footage.

Making a political ad is now no more technically challenging than editing a home movie or putting together a PowerPoint presentation. When Trent Lott made ostensibly prosegregationist remarks a year ago that eventually led to his downfall as Senate Majority Leader, an attack ad quickly appeared on the Internet that quoted President Bush as saying, “I have confidence in him as the Republican leader, unquestionably,” and ended with the rhetorical “Do YOU have confidence in the Bush-Lott White House?”

The ad could have been dreamed up by Madison Avenue, but it was the low-budget creation of Oliver Willis, a 25-year-old freelance writer.

Just as open-source applications are built out of separately authored modules, the Web makes it possible for one person to dream up a catchy slogan while another tracks down some old television footage. Meanwhile, an armchair John Williams puts together a symphonic score on his home synthesizer, and a host of onlookers tweak the text.

I call these little productions “mobspots”—advertising created by a crowd. Some political groups are already experimenting with them. In late October, the online activist group MoveOn.org announced an open competition for a 30-second ad that tells “the truth about George W. Bush.”

The submissions are rated by visitors to the site, and MoveOn says it will put the winner on television during the week of the State of the Union address. That airing will be a milestone: a political message created from the ground up and amplified by the megaphone of mass media.

But mobspots are just a beginning. The digital world is teeming with collaborative editing tools that enable dozens or even hundreds of users to collectively edit and refine a document. For example, the Wikimedia Foundation has developed an open-source encyclopedia called Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org), in which the entries are freely submitted by ordinary users, then fact-checked, copyedited, and enhanced by subsequent visitors.

That open authorship could be readily applied to a candidate’s position papers, or even to a party platform. The pros seed the document with an initial set of statements, then let the amateurs refine and augment. One might not choose to tack those collective theses on the doors of the Wittenberg church, but they’d no doubt be a rich source of new ideas and inspiration.

Critics will argue that open-source methods may only exacerbate the malaise of poll-driven politics and turn candidates into nothing but empty vessels, ready to be filled with the latest whim—California-style politics for the entire country. But polls are crude tools designed to detect simple yes/no positions, while groupware allows for more intimate and nuanced debate. A collective “statement of principles” would no doubt give a candidate a much richer feel for understanding the public than the random pressing of flesh on street corners.

There are already signs that the doors to more substantive contributions from the grassroots level are beginning to open. The Dean campaign held an informal competition on its Web site to coin a slogan for its New Hampshire and Iowa positions. Traditional campaign slogans tend to be shockingly bland, like “Building a Bridge to the 21st Century.”

But the winner in the Dean competition was refreshingly different: “Because democracy is not a spectator sport.” That slogan has real personality. It’s the kind of catchphrase that most candidates of any party would pay big bucks to get from a professional media consultant. The question for the 2004 election is whether people will be willing to live up to it.

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