Political discussion, change rockets through the blogsphere


This may be the year of the blog.

In case you’ve been on a mission in deep space for the past year or two, the word blog is short for Web log. Web logs morphed into personal journals, or online diaries, sometime around 1997 and acquired the abbreviated name “blogs.” Blogs consist of written journal entries posted to a Web page in chronological order, and these entries tend to be personal, informal and — usually — utterly forgettable.

But software has incorporated some interesting features that have made some blogs the center of thriving “virtual communities.” Bloggers commonly allow their readers to post comments on blog entries, and these commentaries then accumulate in a kind of conversation. Bloggers also frequently endorse other blogs by featuring links to related sites, which begin to create a real “web” of interests, people and ideas — the “blogsphere.”

The big news for this year is the use of blogs in political campaigns. Howard Dean and Wesley Clark have both built their campaigns on the Internet, and the George W. Bush re-election campaign is gearing up one of the most sophisticated and expensive Internet campaigns we’re likely to see.

An early blogger, Cameron Barrett, is now the “blog strategy guy” — his term — for the Wesley Clark campaign. Barrett and his team have just unveiled www.forclark.com, a full-featured Web community site for Clark supporters. It shows not only official news from the campaign’s headquarters, but posts from Clark activists all over the country. This is a very different vision of how political campaigns represent themselves to the public.

Some college students who support Howard Dean have developed an innovative “out of the box Web site” called deanspace (www.deanspace.org). This is a free software package that Dean supporters — or anyone else — can use to set up a Web site to run a local political campaign. It features a blog, a bulletin board forum, online polling, a calendar and a photo gallery.

The president’s re-election campaign is also offering some sophisticated tools, but the software tools available on www.georgewbush.com are tailored to centralize and control the messages coming from campaign headquarters, rather than promote online dialog. The Bush campaign blog, for example, doesn’t solicit comments from visitors.

Bloggers who “feel the heat” of a campaign’s energy through the Internet may wind up disappointed if their enthusiasm for a new style of campaigning gets flattened by conventional politics, especially heavy TV advertising. Virtual communities can feel bigger and more important than they are, which is a risky illusion in politics. And there is already friction between professional campaign managers and the grassroots activists connected via blogs and other online tools.

Dean’s online strategy director and “official blogger,” a young lawyer named Zephyr Teachout, insists that the new computer tools are only useful if they facilitate people getting out of their houses, meeting each other and doing the hard work of political organizing. Dean’s campaign manager, Joe Trippi, also says that “Broadcast politics tells people they don’t count,” whereas the Internet tools available today give citizens ways to be heard and to participate.

The tools are risky for campaigns, because they relinquish a lot of control to grassroots groups. That’s what makes some old hands at politics nervous. But this may be a strength for the Dean campaign, too. Trippi, who used to work for a Linux company, thinks that he’s running an “open source presidential campaign.”

Christopher Lydon, a fellow at the Berkman Center for the Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, has recently mused (on his blog) that someone will have to write the “Blogging of a President 2004,” a contemporary analog to Theodore White’s classic book, “The Making of a President 1960.”

Lydon writes, “what’s happening out there is the start of a fundamental reordering of democratic energy and political influences, a drastic subversion of a discredited game, an inversion of the old pyramids of control, or perhaps a shape shift . . . from pyramid to sphere. The Internet represents a rewiring of the body politic, but it’s not the technology that’s interesting, it’s the individual engagement and social model implied in it.”

This may be nothing more than an idealistic hope, which is a fragile and typically short-lived thing in today’s world. But it’s heartening to hear about such hopes anyway, and to know that some people are doing things to make them come true. Even if they are called bloggers.

Chapman is director of The 21st Century Project at the LBJ School. Contact him at gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu.

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  1. Danny,

    The blog-effect will be an interesting thing to watch in 2004. The rate of innovation driven by the competition should be something to behold.

    It’s interesting to contrast the Democrat and GOP styles. Do they reflect different personalities and views of authority by Democrats and Republicans? It may be true that to use social software effectively, as we’ve discussed in the FI Center work group, you need to know your constituency.

    Personally, I doubt Internet processes are going to overpower old-fashioned political organization and multi-million dollar media campaigns in 2004. However, the medium is evolving rapidly; it may be the political learning ground for a new generation. And, no matter what happens in ’04, it will be a different ballgame again in ’06.

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