Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Open Source Politics

Ever since Barack Obama’s strategic use of social media in the last election, people have begun to realize the Internet is reshaping politics—but it’s not just about bringing more young people out to the polls. A panel of thought leaders on social networking in the political world that I convened and moderated at the recent Milken Institute Global Conference 2009 in Los Angeles agreed that social media and the self-organized groups they are spawning have already begun to destabilize the political system, itself.

“Every medium has a signature and for television, it is image. For the Internet, it’s the ability to converse,” said Jason Calacanis, a Net entrepreneur and cofounder and CEO of “…Clearly, Obama is better suited for this medium; Democrats and more libertarian people are more suited for it, too. The Net represents a very bad trend for conservatives because they tend to have more extreme, intolerant, non-conversational positions on things. They tend not to do so well online because they can’t converse. The whole point of the Internet is to discuss it, fight it, to have a whole threaded message. The winners of elections now will be the ones able to keep the conversation going and to engage the largest number of people. You have this massive paradigm shift occurring right now, between people who can converse and those not willing to do so. It sort of transcends politics and gets into something even more Socratic in nature.”

Mindy Finn, whose Washington, D.C.-based political strategy firm, Engage, advises Republican candidates, says her firm won’t work with candidates who aren’t philosophically or naturally skewed toward online collaboration and the wisdom of the crowd. “There are certain candidates, frankly, who have come to us and we don’t tell them straight out why we are not going to work with them—but we won’t because we know they’re not going to be successful online,” she said. “They ask me, did we lose because of the Internet? I respond with a big fat no. People didn’t lose because of the Internet. They lost because they were seen as being out of touch…and not understanding the way that people are communicating now via the Internet and via mobile and in groups.”

But the GOP didn’t have a monopoly on social media illiteracy this past election. Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and PopTech Advisory board member, said Hillary Clinton stumbled with a video called Hillary and the Band, an unsuccessful response to the famous video made by Obama’s supporters and this one, Dear Mr. President, made by the supporters of John McCain. “In the beginning of the Hillary video, there was this one throw-away line, a young man who says, ‘The blogs went crazy.’ No 25-year-old would ever say the blogs went crazy. Only a 55-year-old writing a script —writing what he or she thinks a 25-year-old would say—would write a line like that.” The result: the video became a “punching bag example” of inauthenticity and online illiteracy, “an effort by a political candidate to try to mold the message to an erroneous perception of what the audience is and how it communicates.” Added Scott Goodstein, a mobile Internet expert who worked on the Obama campaign’s new media team: “When Hillary’s campaign consultants said it looked like the Obama campaign resembled the face of Facebook, the thing they didn’t understand is that the fastest growing segment of Facebook right now is over-50 women. And the Barack Obama Facebook group has doubled since the campaign. People want information.”

But the social media lessons about blogs and mobile engagement that surfaced out of the past election, panelists agreed, will seem small compared to the changes that lie ahead. Far more significantly, panelists agreed, the Web is accelerating civic discourse to speeds that traditional politicians will find hard to match. The Web, they said, is already threatening to render some of the ways in which we currently govern obsolete.

Example: The citizen group called One Million Voices Against FARC, a Facebook group which organized a grassroots campaign in February 2008 to repudiate FARC guerrillas, empowering more than 12 million people to take to the streets in some 190 cities around the world. “We are living in a post-partisan era in which social media tools are allowing people to find the interests they care about the most,” Rasiej said. “People will be able to find each other faster than they will be led by political parties and political movements, and this has already begun to change the political dynamics of the entire planet. Applying technology to politics and expecting it to stay the same is like applying technology to the record industry and expecting it to stay the same. It doesn’t happen that way.

“…I predict that in 40 or 50 years, we won’t have Congress as we know it today,” Rasiej added, saying the ecosystem of how we identify people to lead us is changing dramatically. “Wikipedia is a great example of our new kinds of representatives, people who have built reputations because they know a great deal about one subject or another and have been identified by the crowd as knowing more than others about a subject. If you think about how our Constitution works and how our Congress works, it’s oriented around the fact that we elected these people because they are supposed to get into details and understand the issues that matter to us more than we do. But the reality is that they spend 95% of their time raising money just to keep themselves in office and actually don’t know more about the issues than we do. These new social media tools are going to create a new set of dynamics where we’re going to be able to identify the people who know the most about the issues that matter to us faster than our elections are going to be able to elect them.”

For more on politics and technology, check out the schedule for this year's Personal Democracy Forum, called, to be held June 29 and 30 in Manhattan.

—Marcia Stepanek

(This post first appeared on PopTech and is being reposted here with permission):

(Photomosaic image by tsevis via Flickr)

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