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The Rise of Open-Source Politics | The Nation

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The Rise of Open-Source Politics

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Micah L. Sifry blogs about the issues in this article at www.personaldemocracy.com.

The New Gold Rush

About the Author

Micah L. Sifry
Micah L. Sifry, a former Nation associate editor, is co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, editor of its...

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Ganz seems to think my book blames technology alone for the Internet’s failure to democratize politics. That’s far from the case.

For a healthy democracy, transparency is the best medicine.

If conventional politicos had doubts about that proposition after Dean's late-January collapse in the Democratic primaries, their questions were muted a few weeks later, when a $2,000 investment in advertising on a few political blogs generated more than $80,000 two weeks later in small contributions to Democratic Congressional candidate Ben Chandler. Chandler went on to win the special election for the 6th District in Kentucky. Suddenly politicians were adding community-building tools to their websites and buying ads on popular blogs. For firms that specialize in selling Internet plumbing and the expertise needed to run it, like GetActive, Issue Dynamics, CTSG, Groundspring, IStandFor, Right Click Strategies, Kintera and Convio, these are flush times.

In late March an audience of several hundred technologists, venture capitalists and journalists gathered at Esther Dyson's annual PC Forum in Scottsdale, Arizona, a top venue for the computer industry. This year the hot topic was social software. The crowd listened intently as Bob Epstein, a member of GetActive's board of directors, told them that the company's clients--groups like Oxfam America, Earthjustice, Riverkeeper, PBS and the AFL-CIO--were seeing huge jumps in online fundraising. Noting that $70 billion is spent every year on direct mail and "some of that will move online," he reassured the crowd that "our goal isn't to change the political system, it's to get a good return on the dollar."

That seemed to be the main focus, too, at the "Politics Online" conference at George Washington University in April. To most of the audience, which was thick with consultants from both parties, the Internet is just a new place for a more sophisticated kind of direct mail, the kind where each solicitation message can be tailored precisely to a voter's concerns and foibles, and where a dribble of quasi participation ("Become an E-Captain!" "Click Here to E-Mail This Pre-Written Message to Your Member of Congress") can produce a torrent of donations.

It fell to David Weinberger, a co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto and an Internet adviser to the Dean campaign, to try to pierce the marketing talk at the conference with a harder truth. "I am not a 'customer' and I am not a 'consumer,'" he fumed during a panel with representatives of MoveOn.org and RightMarch.com over the issue of how best to manage online campaigns. "I am a citizen and a voter. I flee from 'message.' It is advertising. I want to avoid advertising," he roared. Recalling the hullabaloo over Kerry's comment that the Bush campaigners "are the most crooked, lying group I've ever seen," caught when he thought a mike he was wearing was off, Weinberger insisted that this was the best thing that had happened to Kerry. "That was the first time he had been allowed to speak as a human being." Speaking off-mike, he argued, was like blogging--in both cases people's real voices could be heard, which is what we hunger for. "Control kills scale. Control kills passion. Control kills the human voice," Weinberger insisted.

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