Going to the

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2003-11-17 Print this article Print

Information technology has revolutionized the way political campaigns are carried out and corporations can learn from it. Can better use of the Web carry you to the White House?

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The openness of the Dean campaign mirrors, in some ways, the "open source" community that has built much of the software on which the Dean campaign runs.

In this communal means of creating industrial-strength software, a single or core group of developers produce a fundamental piece of programming and then donates the source code to all comers. The other developers then test, tweak, improve and add their contributions to the original program.

This "open" method of developing software produced the Linux operating system that is at the heart of many of the Web's most powerful applications, including the Google search site and the Yahoo! Information portal.

"I wanted to use the collaborative nature of open source, where more people filling holes makes it more stable and effective," says Trippi, 47, a political veteran and former advisor to such firms as Progeny, a company that customizes the Linux operating system. "I wondered how it would work in a political campaign."

Standing one October morning in the lobby of campaign headquarters, a warren of offices and cubicles on the third floor of a nondescript brick office building behind a grocery store in South Burlington, Trippi looks slightly rumpled after a late night of reading weblog comments about a new letter-writing tool developed by the campaign.

Many of the campaign's principles have been developed in books like David Weinberger's "Small Pieces Loosely Joined," which explores the role of individuals connected by the Internet, and "The Cluetrain Manifesto," by Weinberger, Doc Searls, and Christopher Locke, which describes how to think of the way markets work in the online world, as well as "Smart Mobs" by Howard Rheingold. ("Moral Politics" by George Lakoff is cited as another key text for the campaign.)

"We've read all that stuff," says Trippi. "A lot was happening at the grass roots, and we had insight on how to nurture it."

"Cluetrain" describes markets as conversations, in which companies engage customers with an authentic human voice and respond to their needs, rather than pushing one-size-fits-all information out to them in mass broadcasts. "They are as close as I've seen to structuring a political campaign around the Cluetrain themes," says Weinberger, who is working as a consultant to the Dean campaign. "They are quite focused on routing around the broadcast paradigm by enabling supporters to connect with one another."

Dean himself discourages the language of marketing, yet this is marketing of a new sort. "It's not marketing and branding in the sense of demanding complete fidelity to a very succinct message, saying you can't waver on font, color, or verb – 'Coke Is it,'" says Teachout. "We've allowed for local-interest, geographic, ownership of the campaign. That necessarily runs counter to it. We have a flowering of different brands. If this was a branding contest, we'd be losing."

Using tools like weblogs, Meetup, and the "Get Local" application, which lets supporters create their own Dean events – such as house parties or service projects – without any central control, Dean has subverted the traditional branding ethic with great success.

Sometimes, though, the candidate's own message trumps this diffuse branding effort. Rather than sending targeted e-mail to specific interest groups, for example, the campaign sends the same message to everyone, whether it concerns healthcare or foreign policy. If the Internet is being used to recreate New England town meetings all across the country – and to involve all those meetings in the same discussion – the candidate can't say different things to different people.

And even Trippi has to be reminded occasionally that it's a new game afoot. Early in the relationship with Meetup, he wanted to control more information from users than the service wanted to give up.

A key way of carrying on a campaign-wide conversation is the comment area on Blog for America. More than 100,000 comments have appeared on the weblog since June 10, with as many as 2,200 coming in a single day. Gross assumes that about 5 percent of visitors actually read the comments, and maybe 1 percent make comments of their own. Many visitors have never heard the word "blog" before they come, says Gross, yet many commenters end up thinking of themselves as bloggers, too. That's part of the conversation that informs the campaign.

"The tea is in the harbor," wrote one visitor on November 7, the day before Dean made his "revolutionary" declaration against Federal campaign funds; the next day that phrase had become a headline on the blog and a slogan for the campaign.

One October morning, Gross was blogging until 5:00 a.m., reading and writing and linking to interesting items on the Web. But shortly after 10 a.m., Dean's blogger-in-chief was back in the dimly-lit nook he shares with Teachout, Rospars, and a press aide, Garrett Graff. The weblog must be updated several times a day for maximum impact, and there are hundreds of fresh comments to read. It means running flat out. "You can get to this later today, after you sleep," Gross tells one of the programmers seated in the next cubicle. "Forget sleeping," grunts the programmer.

The success of Blog for America has brought technical and cultural challenges that will only grow if Dean makes it past the primaries into the general election, when traffic and comments will explode.

So far, Trippi reads some comments; Gross and Rospars read all of them. But what happens when hundreds of comments on a single post turn into thousands? It's possible to add servers and bandwidth to handle the traffic flow, but how do you make sense of a stream of comments that may take hours to read? If the campaign can't handle the volume of comments as it grows, how will it get meaningful impact from the conversation?

"The short answer is, we don't know yet," says Gross. "We're working on it. We could put our comments into threads, or forums, but comments are delicate -- you don't want to reduce ease of joining conversation, or create hindrances. The more you see of the technology, the more stifled the conversation becomes." Anyone who has followed a discussion thread to a dead-end and then had to back out to the main thread a few times knows what he's talking about. Gross says an interim solution might be a numbering system for comments used at some high-traffic weblogs.

Dean's grassroots supporters have come to take care of some problems for the campaign. Blog for America readers, for instance, police themselves in terms of the tone and content of comments. When "trolls" – blog jargon for hostile commenters looking to make trouble -- come in with negative or provocative remarks, pro-Dean commenters react by pledging donations for each negative comment, which creates a disincentive for the trolls. After this idea was posted on the blog, the number of trolls diminished to almost zero.

Another hazard – overzealous supporters who take objectionable stances or attack other candidates – has not yet emerged as a problem. Nobody knows how supporters will handle that, when it happens. "It will be very interesting to see what happens when something gets said on the weblog that the campaign can't support," says Weinberger. In the meantime, a cadre of watchdogs calling themselves the Dean Defense Forces organize email campaigns to bring what they believe are inaccuracies to the attention of journalists who write them.

But the blogs are about more than giving citizens and supports an opportunity to comment on public policy and Dean's approach to government.

They can actually feed ideas back into the campaign. "If a lot of sites are featuring prescription drugs, or electronic voting, the Governor hears it," says Teachout. She cites the concept of ideas "bubbling up," discussed in the book "Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software" by Steven Johnson.

The whole is smarter than the sum of its parts, says Johnson. Teachout wants to know what the parts are thinking. "When we design tools, we are interested in what structures allow bubbling up – what gives voice to supporters. The way ideas are shared is deliberative, not like polling."

Often the feedback is on practical matters. "Unlike traditional customer service that lets you only hear what's wrong, this lets people give you the detailed but important feedback to make things better," says Gross. When the campaign encouraged supporters to download posters tailored for their own geographic regions (e.g. South Carolinians for Dean), there was an almost instant reaction on the weblog: What about Americans Abroad for Dean? Puerto Ricans for Dean? They were added quickly.

In the end, the weblog gives the candidate, his staff, and all the people in the field a chance to conduct something like a clueful conversation.

Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.

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