How can other groups replicate Howard Dean's success in Internet Organizing?
February 25, 2004 6:29 PM   Subscribe

Even though I am not an American, Howard Dean's usage of the Internet has captured my imagination (as I am sure it has for many).

Here is my non-specific question (that I am partially asking for a non-MeFi'er): How could other groups harness this kind of power? Is it possible to have Dean-like success without being a Presidential candidate? Was Dean's usage of the internet a one-time only event? Or is there too much "noise" in cyberspace for a non-political organization to have the same kind of success?
posted by Quartermass to Computers & Internet (9 answers total)
Dean was only a success in finance, not politically. But you have to go back and look at what he did early on, the hype behind his weblog and campaign and how much attention it received. Then you have to look and wonder why this still didn't win him a primary. Look at the good and bad.
posted by mkelley at 7:03 PM on February 25, 2004

What mkelley said. His loss is dazzling considering the hype he had up front. The overall goal of an election is to win, not just raise finances.

The internet isn't what makes somebody a success, though it can be a great enabling technology. The greatest thing about the internet is that it makes communication and collaboration on a massive scale simple. If you have a good message and can state it eloquently then you should be able to make use of the internet as a tool.
posted by substrate at 7:27 PM on February 25, 2004

The fact that Dean was not successful (for many different reasons - the mainstream media might not have been the only reason, but it sure played a large role) is not really as interesting as the stuff that was going around the web (Metafilter included) in the early stages of his cyber-campaign, the community he set up, the social networking that was going on around him etc, and especially the potential it had for putting someone in one of the most powerful positions on Earth. I am interested more on whether or not this type of achievement could be duplicated for non-political ends.

For me, the Dean campaign was the first beacon of hope for the emancipatory potential of cyberspace. But then again, I am not sure if this is even possible for other groups with all the 'noise' on the web, which is why my friend and I were having such difficulty with this.

The thought was, wouldn't it be great to figure out a way to harness this kind of power for "good," as a tool to organize, instead of the way that it is being used (to a large degree) now (i.e. for marketing, corporate gains, privacy violations)?

Any ideas? Or is this just more of my Liberal-education utopian b.s.?
posted by Quartermass at 7:29 PM on February 25, 2004

An interesting look at the Dean campaign is Clay Shirky's Recent Piece. His basic thesis: online momentum, even among participants, may be a very different thing than actually getting in your car, skipping something else, and casting your vote. I am skeptical about this thesis, but I heard him elaborate on it over the weekend on NPR's On the Media last weekend, taking a slightly different angle: even if it did translate into real-world support, there's a mis-match between the latent, less visible support represented by it, and what would be represented for a similar primarily offline campaign. To make that last tangle of a sentence more clear: what MeetUp and other social organization software does is reduce friction for connecting like-minded people. So if 300 Dean supporters show up at an organizing meeting in NY -- a number which used to be astounding, Shirky noted -- that actually doesn't represent the same amount of latent support present for a campaign that was primarily offline.
posted by weston at 7:52 PM on February 25, 2004

Another article, perhaps better, is also the recent Shirky-On-Dean FPP.
posted by weston at 7:58 PM on February 25, 2004

Actually, wouldn't this have been the actual FPP?

Just sayin'. And some of the commentary is interesting.
posted by namespan at 8:06 PM on February 25, 2004

"wouldn't it be great to figure out a way to harness this kind of power for "good," as a tool to organize?" - the problem is that such tools will not bend the politcal sphere to your personal tastes. They will be used by groups all along the political spectrum.

Meanwhile.....Shirky annoys me. ( bares fangs ) : "The most salient fact of the Dean Campaign was Dean himself." - really?

Here's troutfishing on Dean, as a refractory answer :

"....Everything you need to know about Dean

Before touched by the whims of fate, Dean was drab - a competent, fiscally conservative but socially liberal moderate Democrat. Then, suddenly, he was a giant striding through the political landscape with the momentum of fate. In some eyes.

Howard Dean played Warren Beatty playing Bullworth, rapping that "Net hip Cash Blogosphere Iraq Was idiotic everything Bush says is a lie" rap while yapping media heads and DNC undertakers looked on, dumbfounded, thinking Who the hell is this ? and he also did a great cover of that angry, slightly crazed anchorman in Network as he exhorted a million Democrats and progressives to throw open their windows and scream at the top of their lungs :

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more !"

Questioned about his incredible energy during the campaign, Dean admitted that it came as he noticed swelling crowds of young people at his rallies, feeding him energy and enthusiasm. He said that it was a type of feedback phenomenon. The crowds swelled, he puffed. The crowds grew even larger and Howard inflated yet more.

This would happen to most in his shoes.

But Dean's juice didn't really turn on until he touched the live wires of Internet fundraising and organizing, the sudden passions of "young people" previously unengaged in politics, and - with his no holds barred attacks on Bushdom - a tightly held core of Democratic anger on a slow boil since the 2000 election.

He started very, very early. Keep that in mind. Dean did his homework and laid his plans well in advance of any contenders. His was, at first until the campaign caught fire, the slow, methodical and plodding work of Aesop's ant which toils away with a gaze towards the future, accumulating seeds one by one and laying a foundation : not the flashy stuff of which legends are spun.

But one fine day somebody in the Dean campaign, Trippi perhaps, made the startling mental leap of actually putting the Internet to political and fundraising use. This set the stage and, further, the respect his campaign paid to blogdom - and, for that matter, the fact that his campaign even bothered with the net - gave him instant street credibility among many and helped to build up an enthusiastic and loyal supporter base from ranks of those previously alienated from politics.

Dean's campaign paid attention and respect to those who felt ignored, unwanted, or unserved by the mainstream political institutions : many in the small army of Dean campaign workers were drawn from the ranks of young adults who had never previously participated in the political process. Dean was probably the first politician some of his supporters had actually listened or paid any attention to whatsoever and, with him, they felt empowered and turned on. Dean was their man, and they were asserting some measure of control, for once, in politics : no longer in the ranks of the apathetic merely buffeted by political fate.

That early start was crucial, as well, for it gave Dean an uncontested megaphone - until the start of the real campaign. Standing alone, he was noticed. And - for his hard hitting critiques of the Bush Administration but far more for his campaign's unprecedented use of the Internet, he became a media celebrity : A novelty at first, and then a politician surfing at the cutting edge of political history.

Dean reawakened, for many, some of that early magic of the Net and the tech boom by harnessing this technology and expressing it's greater potential as a force for change, and so it was somehow fitting that his campaign should implode - as did the actual internet boom - when it's overhyped and unstable bubble ran smack into reality, spelled out in the considered judgements of caucusing Iowans and New Hampshire primary voters .

As an unexpected political phenomenon, the Dean Campaign helped to bust the enervated DNC out of it's petrified paralysis and - in his vitriolic fire and brimstone attacks, Dean strode the landscape like an Old Testament prophet come to restore the balls of the Democratic Party.

Even more crucially, Dean's hard hitting attacks on the Bush Administration had a powerful therapeutic and cathartic effect on on that hard core of the Democratic Party base which was deeply angered by the Bush Administration and by the 2000 election. The mass media sure as hell was not calling the White House to task - on a wide range of questionable behaviors and extreme policies. Dean gave these appalled voters who had been suffering largely in silence, wringing their hands and bemoaning an America on the fast track to hell, a chance to feel as if they were doing something. To adapt David Bowie (on Bob Dylan) to Howard Dean : "You sat behind a million pairs of eyes, and told them what they saw...." Dean became the voice, the hub, the strange attractor, the lightning rod.....

He unlocked all of that anger and outrage and allowed those feelings to unfreeze, unclench and unconstrict so they released and expressed themselves - as is healthy - in constructive political action. And he tapped the frustrations and reawakened the hopes of a wide spectrum of Democrats and Progressives - for some real, systemic change and for a candidate who could stand up to Bush and Republican Party bullying, corporate sleaze, reckless military adventurism.....the whole damn mess. Dean supporters could finally do something to combat Bush donating money to the Dean Campaign ! : and firing up that computer and sending some e-cash to Dean had cachet. It was sexy, for the fact that those who gave money to Dean knew that they were participating in something historic, a chance for the little people to rise up, send their ten or twenty dollars or maybe more, and - through the massed firepower of tens or hundreds of thousands of these little payments, bring down the corporate Goliath dominating the American political process.

Since Dean was deriving most of his money from small donors on the Net, he was not beholden to the corrupt powers and interests that be. He became the White Knight hope. It was a nice fantasy, and the masses - wielding small donations - can still bring the beast to it's knees. Only not through Dean.

It ended with a whimper.....or a wet blatttt, as from a soggy deflation.

The caucus goers of Iowa sized up the Democratic contenders with a sober, judicious eye and, looking as much at who the candidates were as at what they talked about, they made their assessment of Dean : 1) Northeast liberal - big minus. 2) Governor ? - neutral. 3) Liberal on social issues ? - probably neutral as well. 4) History of fiscal conservatism ? - A plus. 5) Talks all the time about how stupid it was for America to invade Iraq, and how much the Bush Administration lied to get us there ? - A minus. Most Americans don't care so much about Iraq (at least not yet). 6) A firebrand who gets red in the face sometimes while delivering vitriolic attacks ? - A minus. Presidents need to remain calm. 7) Young People seem to like him ? - A plus. 8) He's shorter than most of the other candidates - Big minus. The tallest candidate usually wins.

And there it was - Too many negatives. The Iowans finished up, made their picks, and went home.

Everything else remaining the same, if Dean had been a war hero or had come from the South.......he'd be in the catbird seat now.

But he's not a war hero, and he's not from the South.
posted by troutfishing at 2:57 PM PST on February 5"
posted by troutfishing at 10:25 PM on February 25, 2004

The Internet is a communications medium. It can amplify a movement of like-minded people, but only if they already have a good reason to come together in the first place.

There was a period of time early in the Dean campaign when there were lots of "DeanFilter" posts, and anyone who complained about them was shouted down by people pointing out that the US presidential election is a very important thing. It might be possible to start an Internet-based movement without being a presidential candidate, but there still has to be a good reason why people should bother paying attention. Don't expect the Internet to suddenly get people excited about issues that they currently don't care about.

If you want to use the Internet to start a movement, you need to make sure that you have an issue that can mobilize and unify a group, that your issue is timely and seen as an important topic of discussion by a lot of people, and that you have a story that people can understand, respond to emotionally, and explain to their friends. So actually it's not very different from any other type of organizing.

I don't think Dean's fundraising success was a one-time thing, but the surprise and enthusiasm about it won't be repeated. The Internet will just become a normal part of political organizing, and everyone will use it (including Bush). It will become quite ordinary to suddenly be able to raise a lot of money and get millions of e-mail addresses of movement followers, and it will still be difficult to convert non-believers.

I think the most useful view on what happened is the comparison in this opinion piece (written last September!) between the Dean campaign and McGovern's 1972 use of direct mail. I can still remember the bewilderment when Nixon won in a landslide -- in New York it seemed like everyone was backing McGovern, and we had no clue what the voters really thought. Direct mail went on to become the organizing principle behind the growth of the religious right-wing movement that eventually elected Reagan.
posted by fuzz at 5:01 AM on February 26, 2004

At my last job, one of my research projects was "How To Create An Internet Personality". We reached many of the same conclusions as above, however first and foremost, the person must be dynamic and charismatic in person, both one-on-one and before an audience. Attempting to produce a purely online celebrity, while not impossible, introduces an artificiality at the very beginning that would be very difficult to maintain throughout the many updates.

Note: this was before streaming video reached a tolerable level of quality.
posted by mischief at 8:16 AM on February 26, 2004

« Older Why is the color of Pad-Thai different on the east...   |   Outlook Reminder Emails Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.