Why I'm not blogging for Dean

by Simon St. Laurent

Related link: http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/wlg/4345

Tim O'Reilly notes that "Howard Dean's disappointing performance in the first two primaries has come as something of a shock to people who think that blogging is the answer, whatever the question." I agree with Tim that blogging alone isn't necessarily the right answer to mobilizing a national political force, and I also think it's important to take a hard look at places where blogging opens up new possibilities in politics.

The piece in the Pittburgh Post-Gazette that Tim points to provides a lot of explanation about the strengths and weaknesses of the Dean campaign's strategy, especially in contrast with that of the Kerry campaign. To summarize brutally, Dean's Internet-based approach did a fantastic job on the fund-raising end, tapping into deep frustrations held by people around the country, as well as in disseminating a message. Kerry's more traditional approach mobilized networks of people, not their computers. Reaching voters, especially voters in geographically specific areas, is still better done through networks of people.

This excerpt seems perhaps especially damning, but I think it also offers a glimmer of how to do better next time:

Mesmerized by their own Internet wizardry, the Dean organization, on the other hand, appeared to forget that politics is about listening -- in diners and church basements -- to the concerns and ambitions of real people. Excited by the virtual conversations on their Internet blog, the Dean campaign failed to appreciate the critical role of effective, local organizing.

The result was a self-congratulatory echo chamber populated by thousands of untrained, highly dedicated Dean partisans. It was a society committed to reinforcing the beliefs of its creators. This organization's inexperience did not prepare it for the predictable media pounding that Dean encountered as the Democratic front-runner.

By focusing on the excitement that technology made possible rather than on building excitement on the ground, blogs created new problems. Despite their veneer of newness and their demonstrated ability to build both buzz and an impressive war chest, blogs alone are definitely not enough to motivate voters or create experienced groups of volunteers with far-reaching social networks. (No, I don't think Orkut will help in that regard.)

At the same time, though, the timeframe for all of this has been very very short. Social networks take time to develop, whatever the technology. Blogs still have tremendous potential to create these networks, but it will take longer to build these networks than to process credit-card transactions for donations.

I also worry that bloggers risk limiting their effectiveness by talking constantly about the same themes. How many people writing about national politics is anyone but the most hardened political junkie going to want to read? Even the best writing is likely to disappear into the Googlearchy.

In my experience, everyone in the United States has opinions about politics, but not everyone is excited about hearing everyone else's opinion. If blogs are going to create connections between people more rapidly than trackbacks between entries, bloggers need to find ways to develop audiences of people who have something in common.

Developing those kinds of committed audiences may involve geographic location, something I'm trying myself, and something which certainly makes it easier to meet people locally, or it could be through focus on a single issue, uniting people who are especially interested in one aspect of the conversation. Issues and places seem to drive long-term interests better than candidates; even when the elections are over, the issues and places remain.

These kinds of approaches also seem more likely to accomodate listening, a crucial political skill, given the time and focus to adjust messages over time.

It doesn't seem to me like it's time to write the Dean campaign's work off as a failure. It does, however, seem like it's time to consider a course correction, one which focuses on how to collect votes over time rather than blog entries and dollars quickly.

(And why, in the end, don't I blog about Dean? Covering national politics doesn't fit well with my approach of blogging locally at all.)

Can technology bring people together to work effectively on common causes?


2004-02-02 14:56:31
Good point - most blogs are about speaking, not listening
At the risk of getting into a religious dispute, this gets to something I've felt increasingly uncomfortable with as the typical mode of internet interaction has moved from mailing lists to weblogs. I like the idea of mailing list communities where there is a give and take and one can try out ideas, get feedback, and generally learn from one another. The weblog model where one person controls the discussion, and others either chime in on their on weblogs or in the comments section tends to fragment discussions and makes it harder to really listen -- it's like a tradeshow with different presentations going on in every booth with the net effect being cacophany, rather than a roundtable where everyone gets a say, but there is a norm to respond to previous speakers, where opinions tend to congregate, if not necessarily converge.

Weblogs provide a great way for people with strong ideas to get them out to an audience, but authors have to work all the harder to make sure that they're not just creating tightly knit fan clubs rather than growing communities. The apparent meltdown of Dean's campaign is a beautiful illustration of the problems a fan club encounters when it has to persuade a larger audience.
2004-02-03 03:17:48
Good point - most blogs are about speaking, not listening
It's far more than a fanclub trying to persuade a larger audience.
It's a hardline priest trying to win souls by preaching his religious message time and again without ever giving any real reasons why that message is correct.
When asked why the message is correct the priest will usually try to hide behind circular evidence.
"why is the message correct?"
"The Holy Writ says the message is correct and the Holy Writ is always correct so the message is correct."

"why is the Holy Writ correct?"
"As the Holy Writ is from God and God is perfect so the Holy Writ is perfect."

"why is God perfect?"
"God is perfect because the Holy Writ says God is perfect."

the fact that no real discussion is possible with a faceless person or group running the blog means that a blog is more of another channel for propaganda (like brochures and newspaper ads) rather than a forum for discussion.

Presidential elections are serious affairs, where the livelihoods of people may be at stake.
A candidate who presses flesh, meets the people, talks to them and at least veigns interest in their opinions (show me one politician anywhere in the world who has real interest in anything except his own power and often money) is far more likely to succeed in building the trust of the masses (rather than a tech-savvy minority) than the candidate hiding in some ivory tower and posting messages on a blog (is it really him? how do we know it's not someone on his staff instead...).

Pol Pot has not been forgotten, who was invisible to all but his inner circle from before he took power until after the Khmer Rouge were removed by the Vietnamese army.
While I don't think Dean will be that bad :-) there is a warning in history about faceless politicians who never meet the electorate.

2004-02-03 04:26:26
Uh, I don't think Dean was hiding behind a blog
Dean was definitely out in the field meeting people and pressing the flesh, and Dean volunteers, many of them also webloggers, were also out in the field, for better or worse.

I don't know where your visions of "faceless" people or groups come from - or where your comparisons to Pol Pot come in - but I think you'd do well to at least read the paper, if not Dean blogs.