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Personal Democracy Forum 2005: Power to the Edge
Jon Lebkowsky, 20 May 05

Personal Democracy ForumThe Second Annual Personal Democracy Forum (May 16, 2005) was absolutely packed, and it was interesting to see the mix of people who showed up: a few old Internet dawgs like myself, bloggers, traditional activists, activist technology hackers, academics, students, and the press. It was mostly a progressive crowd, though a handful of conservatives showed up. I was there to launch a book, Extreme Democracy,which I edited with Mitch Ratcliffe. It's a collection of writings about democracy, advocacy, and technology, and this was the perfect venue; the Personal Democracy Forum's manifesto is well aligned with the content of the book and our intention in putting it together:

A new force, rooted in new tools and practices built on and around the Internet, is rising alongside the old system of capital-intensive broadcast politics.

Today, for almost no money, anyone can be a reporter, a community organizer, an ad-maker, a publisher, a money-raiser, or a leader.

If what they have to say is compelling, it will spread.

The cost of finding like-minded souls, banding together, and speaking to the powerful has dropped to almost zero.

Networked voices are reviving the civic conversation.

The program had an uneven start with presentations by Scott Heiferman from Meetup and Mindy Finn from the GOP, neither particularly compelling. Scott did make an interesting observation about the Sierra Club's realization that they're a club. They'd lost sight of the fact that their members are the organization. Based on his experience as CEO of, Scott says that professional managers and associations that think local meetings and chapters are messy and uncontrollable (which is why the Electronic Frontier Foundation chose not to become a chapters organization, as I noted here.)

Marty Kearns discussed Network-Centric Advocacy, which, according to his earlier concept paper (linked as pdf)

focuses resources on enabling a network of individuals and resources to connect on a temporary, as-needed basis to execute advocacy campaigns. The network-centric advocacy approach fosters the creation of self-organizing teams to compete for aid from other network elements (manpower, talent, funding, tools, connections to the public, and experts). Leadership of campaigns is decentralized. Basic services are supported by a variety of generic issue-neutral and flexible service providers.
Network-centric systems are associated with the phrase power to the edge, a peer-to-peer concept. Traditional activist organizations were centralized, which means that power and authority for decision was held by some central entity, and whatever staff/members/chapters were at the edges of the organization acted only according to direction from the center. With a network-centric approach to advocacy (what I used to call nodal politics), members of the activist network connect as peers, and they all have authority to act and make decisions relevant to their context. This is resonant with the thinking behind Extreme Democracy: participation is through smaller, active organizations and teams that are part of larger activist networks.

Doc Searls talked about "The Net: What it Is, What it Isn't." (The answer: what it is is a place or environment, what it's not is a medium.) That's an important point for the Federal Election Commission, discussed later by Leslie Harris, who is working with the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the Institute for Politics Democracy and the Internet (IPDI) at the George Washington University to develop a consensus set of principles to guide the Federal Election Commission in its current rulemaking regarding application of campaign finance rules to online political activity. The FEC, thinking of the Internet as a medium and not a place, thought to impose the same rules that apply to broadcast political advertising to political speech on the Internet. The principles Harris mentioned are posted at a site set up by the Center for Democracy and Technology, where you can sign on to show your support for the principles.

How relevant is the Internet to politics in the USA? Michael Cornfield of the Pew Internet and American Life Project discussed one of that organization's recent papers, "The Internet and Campaign 2004," which says

Last year was a breakout year for the role of the internet in politics. Fully 75 million Americans – 37% of the adult population and 61% of online Americans – used the internet to get political news and information, discuss candidates and debate issues in emails, or participate directly in the political process by volunteering or giving contributions to candidates. The online political news consumer population grew dramatically from previous election years (up from 18% of the U.S. population in 2000 to 29% in 2004), and there was an increase of more than 50% between 2000 and 2004 in the number of registered voters who cited the internet as one of their primary sources of news about the presidential campaign.
Internet penetration continues to grow, and that's not all: according to David Sifry of Technorati, another speaker, the Blogosphere doubles every five months. That's 40 - 50 thousand new weblogs every day, one every two seconds – not just in the USA, but globally.

That's an overview of the morning events at the forum; the rest of the day was in the same vein... Andy Stern on "Rethinking Organizing," a conversation about "The Promise of Municipal Broadband" that focused on Philadelphia's wireless project and the possibilities for WiMax/WiFi in New York, an international panel, "A Craigslist for Politics," and finally "The Future of Political Media" featuring mainstream bloggers Jeff Jarvis and Arianna Huffington along with Chuck Defeo, Tucker Eskew, and Jay Rosen. This final program became a collaboration of the panel with the audience via projected chat. Giddy late-day jokes were, as they say, creative disruptions.

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I don't believe it. Show me.

Posted by: Bruce Sterling on 20 May 05


You're welcome to come over to the Technorati offices and bathe in the stream, so to speak. If you watch the Blogs Tracked numbers that we are constantly updateing on our homepage at you can see that on average 35-45,000 new blogs are created every day. Divide that into 86,400 (which is the number of seconds in a day) and you'll see that on average, a new blog is created every 1.9 - 2.4 seconds. I know, it amazes us, too.


Posted by: David Sifry on 20 May 05

Thanks for the excellent writeup on the morning conference bit I missed due to driving down from Worcester, Mass. ( birthplace of the smiley face, the typewriter, and the first US insane asylum ).

It was only several days later, after I had slept on my impressions of the conference for a few days, that a salient fact began to slowly poke its way into my consciousness :

What is "personal democracy" ?

The more I thought on that, the weirder the notion seemed. I wondered about the perils of reification - was this "personal democracy" really a nonsensical or mythical beast conjured into some ghostly existence - a modern day expression, maybe, of Julian Jayne's "Bicameral Brain" hypothesis ?

Was personal democracy perhaps related to personal hygiene ? That seemed likely to me as I pondered the concept : democracy pertaining to, or of, one's person. Fair enough - but what would that mean ? What would Personal Democracy mean in the real world ?

Well, individuals who go to register a domain name and find that - surprise, surprise - most of the good names are taken are confronted by a range of automated alternate domain name choices. In this case, I would no doubt be tempted - by or whatever domain name registration service - by such savory alternates dangled before my nose as :

"" or "" or whatever other endlessly fascinating permutations the name-generating algorithms spat out.

The addition of a "my" seems to be, in the naming trade, some sort of generic attempt at personalizing what is at base a mostly impersonal, automated process - as if the relegation of eventually every single human on the planet (not absolutely essential to food production, industry, war, or the sex trade) to a place before cathode ray or LCD suns, tapping away before computer screens, could be made much more touchy feely by tacking on those magical two letters - "my"....

It's all about me, and me, and me some more - we are told - and so in this context I wonder about the ways in which language can escape from the menagerie of good intentions - to run amok in the civic space.

Personal Democracy - to me, and me, and me some more - would have to amount to the conversation and endless negotiation between the various organs and systems of my body, with the "I" I call myself emerging from a rough and fractious parliamentary debate as my endocrine system or testes battle it out with my cerebral cortex, or as an adrenal surge prompts me to reach for a soothing glass of beer.

All that and more - to me - amounts to a sort of "personal democracy", but in terms of what the Personal Democracy Forum founders intended I can only speculate.

The basic problem is this - the term "personal" suggests "me" and "mine". But democracy is not of "me" or "mine" - it is of "us". Democracy arises from the public tussle of many "me's".

So hence my question - does the very name "personal democracy" suggest that democracy is actually some sort of consumer preference ?

Because if democracy is - in symantic terms - reshaped as consumer preference then power will inevitably shift away from the public sphere and towards the smoke-filled back rooms of K-street.

Posted by: troutfishing on 21 May 05



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