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People! The Internet is People!
Alex Steffen, 3 Feb 04

Howard has posted some really sharp responses to the current debate about the value of electronic organizing and Dean's campaign:

"I was struck by a phrase from this Wired article about the Dean campaign's use of the Internet: ""The Internet component did what it was supposed to do," said Moulitsas. "It took a candidate who was an asterisk in the polls and turned him into the front-runner, gave him $40 million, gave him a huge army of volunteers. What else could the Internet do? Get people to the polls?"

"That quote from the Wired article bothered me, and the entire debate of how the smart mob tactics of the Dean campaigners collided with reality in Iowa and New Hampshire has begun to bother me because of a reification that is much more than a matter of semantics. We reify things when we assign a name to a phenomenon or abstraction that really isn't a thing. Like "nature" or "history." Or "The Internet."

"The Internet" didn't take Dean anywhere. People did. Dean's candidacy rose meteorically because Dean supporters used the Internet to self-organize in a way that wasn't possible before. The kingmakers were surprised because the elites have always had the more or less exclusive power to anoint, fund, and promote candidates, and now, millions of people were using a new tool to appropriate that power in an unprecedented way.


Among other capabilities, social use of the Internet makes possible the discovery of connections between people who didn't know each other before but who share an interest. That's the essence of the virtual community. But when you use that capability to organize face-to-face meetings ( Dean supporters organized more than 140,000 Dean houseparties, using Meetup.com), and to raise large amounts of money through small contributions, the words people use in the virtual world begin to initiate actions in the physical world. Note that there is nothing particularly Democratic about this, although it is, by definition, more democratic than traditional ways to campaign.


The Dean blog enabled a new kind of advocacy and journalism -- but a blog is a blank container until motivate people fill it, as the Dean bloggers did.


Meetup.com enabled Dean supporters to find others in their neighborhood who shared their views -- but 140,000+ house parties were put together by 140,000+ human organizers.

Political e-commerce engines made it possible for Dean to raise more money in one weekend through $50 donations than the Republican party raised at the same time through $1000/plate dinners. But the important part is that enough people decided to put their credit card numbers online and choose to make the contribution.


As Clay Shirky pointed out, it's entirely possible that these new capabilities could have invisibly enabled insular Dean campaigners to enter the Iowa caucuses in a self-induced and Internet-amplified narcissistic trance. But people did that, not a set of protocols or a network of computing machines connected through wires and radio signals.


Human agency is important. It's not just a trivial matter of semantics. Attributing agency to non-human devices, a manner of speaking that has a name -- "technological determinism" -- can sap the will to effect change. Why bother? The Internet (or the automobile, telephone, airplane) is what effects change. It's a way of looking at the world, not just a way of speaking.


We need to examine the way we use technologies, and that certainly includes understanding what kinds of actions technologies afford, amplify, disguise, prevent. We should ask "how are the ways people using the Internet changing political campaigns?" It's a far more important question than "how is the Internet changing political campaigns?

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