Democracy 2.0 (Director’s Cut, Part One)

I am proud to be featured as one of the experts on new media and American politics featured in the August 2007 issue of Mother Jones, alongside such notaries as Howard Dean and his former campaign director Joe Trippi, A-list blogger Jerome Armstrong, digerati Esther Dyson, legal theorist Lawrence Lessig, conservative icon Grover Norquist, Moveon.org’s Eli Pariser, Wikipedia visionary Jimmy Wales, and author David Weinberger (Everything is Miscelaneous). The magazine is taking inventory of the ways that new media tools and techniques are reshaping the campaign process, looking back at the 2004 campaign and forward to the current political season. Even if you read the printed edition of the magazine, you should check out their web edition which includes more extensive versions of the interviews quoted in their articles. I was bemused that the quotations from me they selected for use in the magazine emphasized some of the concerns I have about the current shape of online democracy, leaving me looking like one of the crankiest people they interviewed. I have to say that playing the part of a pessimist in a publication like Mother Jones is a most familiar position for me, given my reputation as a critical utopianist. But, I tend to spell out the positives and negatives in interviews — most of the time, they go with my most wide-eyed comments and this time, they emphasize some of my worries.

I thought I would share some of what I said here and offer a few more thoughts about the role which new media is playing in the presidential campaign so far. Some of it builds on ideas I first introduced in my Technology Review column, “Photoshop for Democracy,” and developed more fully in the final chapters of Convergence Culture.

One thing to keep in mind: campaigns are often early adopters and adapters of new media technologies as they seek new interfaces with potential voters. The most innovative use of new and emerging technologies comes from insurgent or dark horse candidates who are trying to get their message out with limited funds and have less to lose from taking risks. If what they do seems to work, you will see it taken up in the next campaign cycle by more established and thus more tactically conservative candidates. So, for example, last go around, Howard Dean’s campaign staff went for broke in their use of platforms like Meetup to organize face to face meetings with voters, of blogs to give voters a greater sense of access to the candidates and the campaigns, and the use of the web to raise money from smaller donors. By this election cycle, all of these tactics are taken for granted and they are being used by pretty much every candidate in the race. This go around, the newer tactics have to do with social network sites, such as Myspace, to create a stronger sense of affiliation with the campaign and the use of YouTube and other video sites to distribute content. Further out on the horizon might be the use of virtual worlds, such as Second Life, to allow candidates to “meet personally” with key leaders scattered around the country or the use of Wiki software to allow citizens to play a stronger role in shaping the candidate’s platform and position papers. (So far, we are not seeing major candidates adopt these later approaches, but the campaign is young and anything can happen.)

Politics YouTube Style

All of this, however, frames this from the wrong angle though, since it keeps us focused on what the candidates and their campaign staff is doing, while as my response to this first question suggests a lot of what is most interesting in the campaigns is emerging bottom up — from citizens taking media in their own hands.

MJ: What areas do you think are going to be the most ripe for experimentation and innovation?

HJ: I think a lot of it is not going to be through campaigns but through loosely affiliated organizations. We saw this last time with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Texans for Truth. Those are examples where the candidates lost control of their own campaigns to some degree, or at least maintained a level of plausible deniability. I think the most interesting work I saw during the last election cycle came out of True Majority, an organization that was using appropriation and transformation of popular culture to reach younger voters in a hipper way. I wrote about the role of what I call “Photoshop for Democracy,” which is the use of Photoshop collages as a kind of grassroots equivalent of editorial cartoons. What happens when you tap popular culture, you pull politics much closer to people’s everyday lives. So, I’m very interested in the ways those kinds of new uses of media touch both campaigns and citizen groups and the uneasy relationship between the two. The positive side is that it gets more citizens involved; it develops a more playful language; it produces a more engaged electorate; it transforms the language of politics. The downside is that checks on negative campaigning break down completely, and that’s what we saw the last time with the Swift Boat Veterans: They went lower faster than any campaign would have been able to do on their own.

A key phrase in this passage was “plausible deniability.” I think the rise of citizen media makes it possible for campaigns to keep certain supporters at arms length, allowing them to do some of the dirty business of the campaign while allowing the candidate to deny any and all association. Candidates are required to verbally endorse all paid advertisements sponsored by their campaigns, where-as these are the kinds of spots they can deny. We don’t know for sure what, if any, involvement the Obama campaign had, for example, in the distribution of the anti-Hillary mashup of the Apple 1984 campaign, though Mother Jones includes an interview with Phil de Vellis, its creator, who had this to say about the video:


MJ: I’m sure you are aware of the skepticism surrounding the situation-that people just don’t believe that there was no campaign involvement. You lived with an Obama PR flack.

PD: I’m friends with people on every campaign. Politics is a really small world-it’s really like junior high. The [Obama] campaign was not involved in it at all. As soon as they found out, I left the company. I think Obama’s a great guy, and I think he’s running a great campaign, but that doesn’t make me officially part of the campaign. But am I connected on one of these trees that connects all the great rock bands-like the drummer of Pink Floyd is also in Supertramp. Yeah, there’s some of that. But I have the capability to do that on my own and the ability to get it out there. I’m kind of a utility player. I can do it all. I can also just shut up and watch the fireworks go off and that’s what I did.

MJ: In your response on Huffington Post, you said you wanted to express your feelings about the Democratic primary and also to show that an individual citizen can affect the process. And in light of what’s happened recently with Obama’s MySpace page, how does a campaign harness the power of that citizen without it getting completely out of control?

PD: They can’t-the game really has changed. They can’t exercise the same amount of control over the campaign. During the Dean campaign, nobody ever said, “Oh, look at what your crazy supporter did.” Reporters were interested in the technology and never really read anything people were writing-and they were writing really crazy things. So I would say it’s probably best to encourage supporters to go out there and be advocates and at some point, [candidates] are going to have to distance themselves if it’s not what they intended.

I suspect we are going to be tracing story after story like this throughout the forthcoming campaign — videos produced by supporters who may or may not have direct links to the campaign. Such videos will have the look and feel of those produced on the most grassroots level, even if some of them — like the notorious Al Gore’s Penguin Army — turn out to be produced by top-flight agencies. In the past few months, we’ve seen some fascinating examples of how videos can function in the campaign — from the sexy Obama Girl video to the videos being produced by Firefighters to challenge Rudy Guiliani’s attempts to capitalize on his role in 9/11. (Could firefighters be the new Swift Boat Captains?) Interestingly enough, we are even seeing the idea of “fan parody” move from the fringes of the last campaign to the absolute center — witness Bill and Hillary’s participation in a video spoofing The Sopranos (which was itself a promotion for their do it yourself campaign theme song competition.) These videos are both interesting because of their style (the use of parody as a vehicle for mainstream political discourse) and because of the mode of their circulation (becoming something that supporters can actively spread across cyberspace). As I told Mother Jones, “The video’s becoming the modern equivalent of the campaign button — something you wear, you display on your blog to spread the message to your friends and neighbors.”

Lawrence Lessig also discusses the role of parody, appropriation, and grassroots video production within the political process:

Lawrence Lessig: The campaigns are realizing that if last election was defined by Swift Boat, this election there will be a million Swift Boats. There will be content showing up that will be much more interesting and watched by many more people than what the campaigns are creating. That changes the way that presidential campaigns are defined, where they buy up as much of the speaking space as possible. No one yet knows how this is going to play out.

In the analog world, it wasn’t really that anyone was stopping ordinary people from becoming political actors, it was that the costs of doing so were so much larger. The technology is unleashing a capacity for speaking that before was suppressed by economic constraint. Now people can speak in lots of ways they never before could have, because the economic opportunity was denied to them.

MJ: So what does that mean for the quality of the conversation? Not that it’s a really high bar.

LL: If you look at the top 100 things on YouTube or Google it’s not like it’s compelling art. There’s going to be a lot of questions about whether it’s compelling politics either. We can still play ugly in lots of ways, but the traditional ways of playing ugly are sort of over. This medium is only a medium if people are interested, and we’ll get as good as we deserve.