Archive for February 2007
The Danish blogger and journalist Henrik Føhns talks some sense about the hyped virtual world Second Life as it is in a commentary on the newspaper Information‘s online community Luftskibet. Here is a translation of a key passage that speaks directly to the issue of political participation:
“Why would someone spend time logging into a graphic world that moves slowly and in fits, flying in slowmotion with a badly drawn persona towards a screen, when one can get the same information considerably faster via an ordinary web site? [he is writing about Reuters on Secondlife] Because we are suppossed to meet other avartars and socialize with them … The problem is, however, that the four million users either haven’t logged on or are currently preoccuping themselves at a strip club or a nudist beach having some sort of kinky sex. Those places happen to be the only places where one can find more than two avartars.”
The bleeding obvious but hugely important criticism of idealizations of the technical possibilities for participation in any media, on any platform, is that it not only takes the mediation that constitutes the participant as such relative to something that she participates in, simple interactive technology. It also takes participants if it is to be political, as in ‘collective action in concert’. Otherwise, it is just you and the state, more akin to E-government (‘have you talked to your state today?’) than E-democracy (‘have you done something with other online citizens today?’). This is one of the dangers of the proliferation of hundreds of interactive and purportedly participatory initiatives online and offline, hosted by state, regional, and local government – it can fragment the critical mass that citizens engagement takes to become political. If everything is interactive, designed like the door in Kafka ‘just for you’, and every site and institution tries to pull you (person of the year, not ‘us’ or some other group) into a sticky, participatory techno-culture, you won’t find sustained and consequential engagement anywhere.
In a sense, this is an even more tragic scenario than the mass media one where Neil Postman feared we where ‘amusing ourselves to death’. This is one where even those who get engaged does so to the detriment of their potential for actually making a difference, gets siphoned off into fiddling even though they really set out to put out one of the fires burning in Rome. It is more akin to the ‘tyranny of participation’ some argue is rampant within development policy. You get a lot of para-ticipation (as in para-normal), and no participation.
Some of the other people who where there may disagree with me, but I found it particularly interesting, that when we asking ourselves what we thought would make participatory politics more feasible in the future, the technological requests where modest calls for more dynamic maps to localize participation, more stuff for phones, and better meta-tools for sifting through existing data. The social requests seemed, on the other hand, enormous.
Many of us called for nothing less than a more popular form of politics, a re-invigoration of the idea that collective action in concert is meaningful and matters, for flexible forms of politics that make it possible for those (parents, working people, generally busy people!) who only have 30 minutes at an inopportune time of the day to get involved as well – Chuck DeFeo was one of our workshop coordinators, and the main point he kept hammering home was that technology does very little on its own apart from lowering the barriers to entry into politics. Given that those have already come down from the time when you had to take an evening out of your calendar to attend a meeting to take part, how can those who wants to facilitate more participation now a) lower the social barriers, rid politics of its jargon, its introvert character, its demands of ‘either you’re in or you’re out’, and b) make clear that not only are the costs coming down – the stakes can also be higher: politics matters whether you want to stop the government, improve it, or circumvent it to do your own thing, you matter when it comes to doing these things, and the others matters because you can’t go it alone. Right?
And what would the costs be of doing this? Are the dangers of participation amateurish politics, the kind of mob rule and irrationality that everyone from Aristotle over the founders to the critics of everything from the French to the Cultural Revolution? I certainly do not believe this to be the case, especially if the baseline is the kind of politics an almost exclusively representative (and at many levels decidedly un-participatory) democracy gives us today, but I want to keep the skeptics in mind, especially since the consensus that existed within the workshop’s little bi-partisan bubble of enthusiasm for participation is certainly not shared by all the movers and shakers of institutional politics, where even such a basic form of participation as the vote is often only grudgingly and unevenly extended (cf. Spencer Overton’s book on this)
I came away from the conference with a reinforced skepticism towards technological utopianism, and a sharpened curiosity when it comes to the question of how technologies with participatory potentials can be embedded in a participatory organization of political action that suits the busy and fragmented lives of ordinary people in the world of today.
So the big challenge is not, it seems to me, to reach new levels of technological sophistication, to produce the 3rd generation cell phone version of interactive technology. Instead, it is to overcome the social and institutional barriers to participation and in terms of technology to find the political equivalent of the text message or speaker phone – the simple, useful tool that can simultaneously fit our lives and be used to change them for the better. I have no clue what this would be, but I know I am looking for it…
For all the promises web 2.0 may hold for participatory politics, caution is needed.
Very little suggests that this is necessarily so. The dirty little secret is that plenty of participatory media sites are severely lacking in participation. Like, for instance, the very same campaigns wikia site, even seven months on and with all the ressources and brand value that comes from being part of Wales’ sprawling domain.
145 changes in the last 30 days, numerous stubs and very short entries, little activity, and substantial information about only Dennis Kucinich and Mitt Romney of the current potential presidential contestants. Only for Kucinich is the site linked up with an actual campaign network and not just to the candidate’s own site.
Like numerous other empty halls of participatory politics (across the pond, you can consider danmarksdebatten.dk), campaigns wikia lack both horizontal and vertical communication – you get in touch with neither kindred spirits nor actual candidates by spending your time there. No political community is engendered, no-one has anything at stake. Furthermore, the open-ended form that has served Wikipedia so well means that, like in many bulletin board debates, no issues are highlighted. These absent traits seem to me to be precisely the keywords that characterize successful properly political participatory sites – horizontal community, mutual vertical communication, and, for campaigns, issue focus to avoid conversations about everything and nothing. Dean and Bush-Cheney achieved some of this in ’04. Without a community, a movement or candidate to communicate with, and/or issue(s) to focus on, the question lingers on – what exactly is it one is supposedly participating in by contributing to campaign wikia?
Next week at’Beyond Broadcast 2007‘, Chad Lupkes is giving a presentation of campaigns wikia, and I am really looking forward to hear what kind of prospects he thinks it has – I hope we’ll get more than a sales talk. Campaign wikia could become a useful site for gathering information about politics, but in its present form, it is not anywhere near being the “start of the era of net-driven participatory politics” that the mission statement talks about.
I think so. In Europe, the political parties are still to a large extend emulating the model of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair from the nineties, a highly professionalized and media-driven campaign with a rather limited grass-roots involvement. In the states, the Bush-Cheney victory in ’04, and the succes of Howard Dean in the Democratic primary, alerted the campaign organizations to the fact that mobilization matters. If Tom Edsall is to be believed, the building of a political machine of the kind that this country has not seen for 60 years, and Europe since the 1970s, has been a central fact in the last 20 years of Republican domination. This time around, it looks like everyone will act on that insight.
In Europe, this resurgence of activist mobilization is only starting now. Segolene Royal in France has been experimenting with a collaborative formulation of her presidential platform through interactive media (my French is not good enough to really go explore this stuff, any French-readers out there, give me a brush-up on the Royal-campaign, please). Most other major parties and players on that side of the pond still seem to be caught in a mass-media paradigm of political campaigning.
What does all this mean? Obviously, mass-media campaigning, professionalism and a high degree of centralized control is not going to just evaporate in the face of the resurgence of some mythological ‘grassroots’. But activism matters, because it have an impact on the outcome, because it gives people a way of participating in politics. It is not impossible to imagine that the interests of professionalized politics and citizens politics may, after about half a century apart, actually reconvene.
The dangers for both citizens activists and politicians increasingly relying on them are clear. For activists, you can be suckered by the people you help into office. Gotta keep an eye on ’em! For the campaigns, the questions is when your mobilizing war machine turns into a straight jacket – the kind of organizational basis that gives you a rather impressive run like ‘Reagan – Bush senior – Clinton + Republican majority in Congress – Bush junior’ also gave the GOP Barry Goldwater. The kind of organizational basis that could revitalize the ailing British Labour Party could also give them a new Michael Foot.
But I will risk a prediction: the ’08 presidential election will be characterized by serious, sustained, and creative attempts by both candidates to mobilize activists without encouraging extreme partisanship. And then the Europeans will wake up and try it out too. The ideal activist of the elections of tomorrow is someone who did not know six months ago that they would vote for you or even your party. They can share their conversion to the cause or campaign with others.
For the Danes out there, I wrote a piece on all this with a more precise focus on Denmark that Politiken printed yesterday, Saturday February 10. Can’t link to it, sorry…
When you think about how difficult it is to change anything beyond the immediate circle of your everyday life, I would say that every little helps when it comes to empower people to act as citizens. Whether we then act wisely is another matter altogether.
What interests me about Townhall.com and HillaryClinton.com is how, if at all, they enable people to act politically. Though they share high name recognition and resources, they are functionally quite different, with Townhall being an infrastructure-site oriented towards the long haul, and HillaryClinton being narrowly tied to the ’08 campaign.
Townhall’s action center gives you three thing to do:
* It helps you speak up (offering petitions, talking points if you want to call a talk radio show, stock phrases for letters to the editor or your elected officials). It makes ’vertical’ communication between you and either mass media or officials easier. Essentially, you get a discount version of the aid any elected official depends on.
* It asks you to expand the network by getting your friends to sign up.
* It offers you a voice on Townhall itself, where you can create your own newsletter or blog. The vast majority of the blogs on the site hosts very little debate, even many of the featured ’top blogs of the week’ have no comments at all, but there are at least an attempt to have some ’horizontal’ communication amongst the users.
If anyone knows whether they ever accomplished anything concrete that can be attributed to Townhall’s existence, let me know. I do not know anything about the site’s role in previous campaigns, and the papers obviosuly never cared much – it will be interesting to follow the site as the primary approaches.
Action on HillaryClinton is differently structured,
* It is obsessed with fundraising, so it provides an easy way to rid yourself of a few bucks and the opportunity to become a ’Hillraiser’ to help others do the same.
* It has a much more elaborated set of tools for ’building the base’, also beyond the online world, than Townhall.com – tools that are going to be useful in the upcoming primary. Through the site, you can organize and find events in meetup-style ways. I wonder why this has been integrated into the site itself when meetup is already there, especially since the rather loosly formulated event descriptions in the calendar are somewhat dissonant with the otherwise slick site.
* The site encourages you to ’share your thoughts’, but so far obviously only with the campaign itself, and not other potential Hillary supporters – or anyone else for that matter. The even descriptions mentioned are the only places where you get a feeling anybody but politico-professionals are involved in this campaign. You can offer comments, questions and what have you, but with the campaign blog not yet up an running, the site does not offer you a voice on HillaryClinton, and you get no sense of who are getting involved – there is no horizontal communication, and the only vertical communication is between individual persons and the campaign.
I am sure the money is already streaming in, and there are a few events in the calendar already if you live in a blue or purple state. The much wanted ’conversation with American’ is less impressive to me – it is a name carved in bits and bites around on the fancy site, but the substance of it seems to be ephemeral. You can watch the videos of Hillary answering carefully selected questions, but where did all the questions go, all the other questions, what do the people who are attracted to her candidacy care about? I am sure the campaign management worries about opening up to much, fear that an open site will be taken hostage by trolls and people with views that will be a liability for the campaign. But a good rule of thumb for effective communication is: don’t fake it. If you don’t want a conversation, don’t pretend – they will have to make up their mind about this, or it will backfire.
– – – –
The Townhall model facilitates the generation of a partisan public and attempt to put it to use. I have yet to see any evidence that is has accomplished anything, despite all its attempts at making it possible for people to reach out. It hosts the people, the motivations, and the tools, and is open enough to allow for a constant influx of new people, but maybe it lacks a closer connection to an issue? HillaryClinton tries to mobilize activists for a specific issue, and as it is a rather important one, the outreach does not seem to be the main problem here – rather, one wonders if the site can attract people if it remains so closed, streamlined and top-down run as it is if it is. I am wondering whether their wager is that they can develop a vibrant community offline to give people a sense of belonging to the campaign, and that the activists will then forgive the apparent obsession with staying narrowly ‘on message’ on the site. Something like to such an obesssion seems to have so far kept Clinton’s team from opening up the site to the people they claim to want to converse with and activate. More on all this later.
“Townhall.com breaks down the barriers between news and opinion, journalism and political participation — and enables conservatives to participate in the political process with unprecedented ease.”
If one ignores the difference in political orientation, Townhall at a first glance seems to be simply a more news-oriented version of MoveOn. It integrates the provision of openly partisan news and the hosting of both pundit and user-generated opinion, with action tools directed at both the political representatives and media institutions. On Townhall, a conservative can find other conservatives, and the radio, commentary, debate, magazines, books – you name it – to match it. Plus tools to pursue a shared aganda.
In short, Townhall strives to be the hub of an open-ended community with a shared political world view and the capacity to act on it – not simply the echo-chamber of ‘the Daily Me’, but one of a ‘Daily We’, a ‘we’ that is united partly by the aspiration to do something, to change or defend something.
The key difference between MoveOn and Townhall is that the latter has been turned into a business model. Whereas MoveOn and campaign websites are dependent on a stream of potentially fickle donations, Townhall has been run as an independent business for some years now since it became independent of the Heritage Foundation. In 2006, it was acquired by the avowedly conservative company Salem Communications for $5.0 million.
The potential power of this model is clear – if successful, it creates an economically self-sustaining base for political action. Maybe it can generate the kind of resources that are usually needed if citizen politics is to take on established institutions.
The critical objections are easy to foresee – Townhall represents the commodification of debate and political activism, professionalisation and pre-packing will squeeze out grassroots.
But maybe not, since the grassroots involvement is a key component to what makes it stand out from simply conservative media outlets. And anyone who has ever been involved in citizens politics will maintain a certain skepticism towards journalistic and academic romanticism when it comes to the virtues of amateurism and the absence of funds.
According to a press release from Salem Communications, NielsenNetRatings rates Townhall.com at 1.2 million unique visitors and 12 million page views a month. And if Google trends is anything to go by, Townhall attracts more attention than MoveOn.
If this constituency is willing to double as customers and as audience for ads, Townhall stands a chance of mobilizing the resources it takes to combine participation with state-of-the-art tools and professional input.
Townhall is neither another solitary blog like the ones that many campaign managers fighting the last war seem to think of as the hot new thing of the upcoming election, a brittle ‘citizen media’ endeavor, nor a leaned-back ‘viewspaper’. It looks like a professional political participatory media where political, grassroots, and commercial players combine their forces and pursue both different (getting elected, making a difference, earning a buck) and shared interests (pursuing a conservative agenda). It will be interesting to see what it can accomplish (they have been around since 1995, but it is only since 2006 that their operation has really been stepped up).
A number of questions remain, and I would like to know what you think:
* What did they ever do? News media are short on coverage on this.
* Is this commercially viable?
* Is it a general model that can be transposed and used by liberals and centrists too?
* Will it turn out to be the case the contribution-driven operations like MoveOn and the Christian Coalition will after all remain the more durable and powerful? Obviously, this is not an eithe/or kind of question
(I am currently trying to find out more about their operation, and will return with more on their action center and the kinds of action it facilitates).