Thursday, June 19, 2008

It's the Networks Stupid: The 2008 Election and the Internet

By Joe Sims

I had a conversation not so long ago with an intelligent fellow about the merits of on-line activism to working-class constituencies. The working poor in his state and city, he claimed were not online. Hunh? More recently, I heard a few editors and writers refer to the movement to on-line publishing as a “defeat.” The absence of print for them meant a publication had “disappeared.”

Tell that to the organizers of the Obama campaign who singed up 1. 5 million contributors who have brought in a few hundred million dollars in small contributors. Tell that to the Hillary Clinton campaign one of whose chief strategists, Peter Daou said in a Google forum on the Internet and Presidential politics, that a chief task of their campaign for the last year, was to move Mrs. Clinton's core supporters, workers and the elderly to on-line activism. The issue wasn't whether or not they were on-line, but how to get them to use technology to contribute to the campaign financially or organizationally.

What's the most important issue in the 2008 elections? Why winning of course. How to do it? Why, “It's the networks stupid," according to Joe Trippi, who managed Howard Dean's on-line presidential effort in 2004. Trippi in a written address to the Google panel discussion on 2008 election suggested a completely new era is afoot in presidential politics. The reason? The turbo-charged multi-platform power of the Internet. Trippi pointed to three unprecedented developments to make his point.

First, the explosion in the number of bloggers in 4 years from 1.4 million to 77 million today.

Second, the role of independent initiative of citizen bloggers, one of whom, independent of the Obama campaign created a Million-for-Obama social website that gathered in a few weeks hundreds of thousands of members.

Third, the geometric growth in the number of broadband connections. Trippi suggested we are on the verge of the first Interactive Presidency, where the new president will use the vehicle of on-line organizing, not only to get elected, but to mobilize the grass-roots on-line community of millions to get his legislative program implemented. In other words, to get people active in the process of governing. Think about that. Everything has changed.

In a recent blog, I made the point that most people see the Internet as a means of communication. The Google panelists, who included the on-line directors for many of the democratic and republican candidates rubbed that notion into the dirt. Peter Daou spoke of the Internet use as having three basic aspects: fund raising, organizing, and communications Mindy Finn, who worked for Mitt Romney summarized it nicely as Message, Money and Mobilization.

Daou spoke directly to issue of message claiming that the interaction between traditional and new media forms have created a new dynamic 24-hour “chattering stream” or interactive loop of information. The agenda setting role of traditional media, he said is gone. Now, controlling the flow of the “chattering stream” he suggested is key to winning elections. The candidate who controls the stream is the victor, he said.

Joe Rospers, who heads the Obama campaigns online work pointed to the huge importance of organizing interactive networks around the three principal pillars of the campaign. With 1 million participants in Obama campaign website and another 1. 5 million donors, the campaign has managed through social networks to

a) build campaign constituencies in tens of thousands of communities;

b) bring those people into activity during the primaries; and

c) involve them in several dimensions of the campaign's organizing, fund raising, and communication activities. They have managed to leverage networks of supporters to build relationships between different groups, allowing them to reach out and get friends involved. One example of this was by getting first-time contributors to agree to give a second or third time on the promise that they would get matching pledges from another first-time contributor. They could then communicate with that person, send them messages through the site or directly through e-mail, thereby building relationships and building the movement.

The concept of “networks” is an interesting one that should be given greater attention. Significantly, it is involving millions in new political activity for the first time. I have heard criticism of concept of networks on the left as being a “lower” form of organization, that is, loose, amorphous, too autonomous, faceless, etc. Similar attitudes have been expressed regarding people who join organizations on-line and on-line activism generally. However, the explosive growth of a mass movement around the Democratic party primaries might suggest a rethinking of these attitudes is in order.

No one responded to my earlier blog on Behold the Power of the Internet which raised some of these problems. Didn't surprise me. Wonder if anyone will care to comment on this one. Hey, guys, It's the Networks! Intelligent people.


Anonymous said...

I will always comment on your points Joe. The capitalists and reactionaries for that matter learn from the left historically in terms of mass organizing techniques(there are many capitalist parties in the world also which adopted democratic centralist organizational structures to get things done, without any socialist content of course)
We can learn from them in regard to the Internet as a tool to mobilize masses.
There are some problems though which sociologists as early as the 1960s mentioned about some of these technologies when they were used for what we now call "distance learning," that is, the go only so far, you need continuity in terms of having people who learn from or are mobilized by television screens absorb the learning or develop political forms that don't merely go from one action to another. For that you have got to build in meetings, real human contact, and not just rallies, but meetings among smaller groups in which social relationships develop that strengthen and help to guide action. The conventional media for our purposes isn't the point, since it is in the U.S. private, commercial and extremely narrow(including PBS) mixing the internet with face to face human contact grass roots action is, and I think that that was the real success of the Obama campaign.
Norman Markowitz

Gregory said...

1. I think that the dissemination of press/analysis online is a good development, but there is still need for the print press. As your "intelligent fellow" mentioned, many working class people still do not have the internet, and it is important not to exclude them from the flow of information. Also, being able to pass out material at demonstrations, union meetings etc. is important.

2. Just read an article on Yahoo! news, "Obama e-mail list makes Dems salivate" ( This is all about the potential that his list represents after the election. If he makes it into the White House, he will be able to use this to mobilize millions for grassroots support to help push forward the progressive agenda.

3. Just imagine the kinds of participatory democracy the internet would make possible after a socialist revolution...It would make Yugoslav self management and the early workers' councils in the early days of the Russian Revolution look like baby steps...

Vidrohi said...

Here in Pakistan, most of the activities and discussions were coordinated through the Internet discussion forums after the Emergency/Marshall Law was imposed in Pakistan and media outlets were clamped down. Internet has a very huge potiential.

We in the Communist Workers and Peasants Party (CMKP) have been running one of the largest communist email list on the Internet since 2004 (with over 3,000 members at present) in recognition of the affect of the internet in our social lives. We were probably the first ones in Pakistan to use the potiential of internet and I was amongst the first few political bloggers. If internet can be used for business and corporate purposes, it must be employed by the Left for efficient work and more coordination.

Our email list is at: