Friday, November 7, 2008

Web 2.0 Increases Freedom, Not Threatens It

An otherwise excellent article on President-Elect Barack Obama's use of the Web makes a serious mistake.


"Barack Obama built the biggest network of supporters we've seen, using the Internet to do it," Joe Trippi, an Internet political and business consultant who pioneered the use of the Internet in politics managing Howard Dean campaign in 2004, and who managed John Edwards' campaign in this election, told InformationWeek. "I don't think there's any doubt that communication through YouTube and other social networks put him over the top."

Obama used a combination of television, the Internet, and social media to recruit volunteers and supporters, and cement relationships with them. He asked supporters to supply their cell phone numbers, and sent out regular text-message blasts, even announcing his selection for vice president over text message. Using a custom social networking site, created with the help of a Facebook co-founder, Obama supporters were able to log in and find lists of people they could call, or whose doors they could knock on, to try to persuade others to vote for their candidate.


And it's only the beginning, said Trippi. That kind of networking will likely transform the White House. Trippi anticipates Obama will create a similar social networking for his legislative initiatives and recruit supporters to lobby Congress to get his policies enacted into law.

The result will be further increase of presidential power and the erosion of congressional authority. "Congress will be put between a rock and a hard place, if millions of citizens sign up to help the president pass his agenda," Trippi said. "If the president says, 'Here are the members of Congress who stand in the way of us passing health care reform,' I would not want to be one of those people. You'll have 10 or 15 million networked Americans barging in on the members of Congress telling them to get in line with the program and pass the health care reform bill. That will be a power that no American president has had before. Congress' power will be taken over by the American people."

This absurd statement fails to observe one of the fundamental rules of technology: the minute somebody figures out what you're doing, they copy it. What happens when 100 politicians have similar systems in place? It won't destroy congressional authority - if anything, it'll make the Congress more powerful. The hidden danger has nothing to do with that. To spot the hidden danger, you have to ask yourself, what will this change?

The person who said this - Joe Trippi, veteran of two failed Democratic Presidental campaigns - assumed that Obama would forever remain the only guy with a social networking site. Because, you know, social networking sites are so hard to build. Like Howard Dean before him, commentators underestimate how much Americans made Barack Obama who he is, because they needed him. All that money didn't just drop out of the sky - it came because Americans really wanted the Republicans out. In a sense the person who did the most work to raise money for Barack Obama was Karl Rove.

However, if there are going to be more politicians with social networking sites, who will they be? There are more social networking sites with good technology and no users than there are social networking sites with bad technology and tons of users. Myspace is a fluke. It's not enough to supply the system; you also have to motivate people to be there.

Seth Godin's new book Tribes argues that leadership on the Web is a matter of two things: supplying the system and motivating people to be there. Joe Trippi should read it. It also explains that nobody ever really creates a social network - these groups of people are out there already. They just need a place to come together and people to lead them there.

If you understand the Internet better than Joe Trippi - in other words, if you're reading this blog - you already know how this works. Tribes on the Internet organize around incredibly specific interests. So we've already got a powerful political social network for people who want the Republicans out of the White House. That's not a very specific interest. What about people who want to press war crimes charges against George Bush? That's a smaller category, and any politician who takes that group of people up as their constituency has my vote, and more importantly, my campaign contributions. And that is the hidden danger here. If you're a Representative from northern New Mexico who takes up the cause of solar energy, and you make it your cause, your social network will have users from outside northern New Mexico, and a lot of your campaign contributions will come from out of state.

The hidden danger is that geographical location is an old, outmoded, irrelevant way of mapping voters to representatives, and Web 2.0 could force our government to find a way to update this antiquated convention. Updating antiquated conventions is actually quite traumatic for governments. However, Obama's election is overwhelmingly positive, and another example of this trend is positive as well.

It's not impossible - it's inevitable. These comics come from the web site of Sean Tevis, who needed $26,000 to run for Kansas State Representative. He raised that money in 37 hours. Although he lost his election - in an extremely close race, he lost by 425 votes out of 10,103 - he raised more than $109,000 from more than 5,700 donors.

I haven't been able to find any documentation on how many of those donors came from outside Kansas, but I have reason to believe it's a non-zero number.

This will happen again. A lot. And while it will transform our political landscape, the nature of the transformation will not involve putting more power in the hands of the President. That's what the Republicans were after, and they will not get away with it. The nature of social networking software guarantees more democracy in our future, not less.