Picture a hotel conference room filled with a couple of hundred people, most of them men, most of them white and nearly all of them either in their 20s or boomers in their middle-age years, attending the Digital Democracy Teach-In in San Diego, hosted by Tim O’Reilly, a publisher and industry futurist, as part of his annual Emerging Technology conference…. Wait a second! You’re reading this on the web. If you want to see what it looked like, click here or here (that’s me in the second photo standing behind Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News, though you can’t really see me).
While the speaker talks, at least half the people in the room are tapping away on laptop computers. At least a quarter are noting down the speaker’s remarks in real time and posting them, with their own pungent observations, on their weblogs (or blogs, i.e., continuously updated web pages that are part stream-of-consciousness diaries and part forums for news commentary and analysis) Go here for a taste of that.
Simultaneously, many of them are engaging in a back-channel conversation on an Internet relay chat that allows hundreds of people–both those in the room and others watching the event on a live webcast–to share wisecracks, ponder dinner options and zap the speaker for everything from his clothing to his conceptualizing. (The most popular one at this conference, set up by a polymath named Joi Ito, is here.)
Some of the more intrepid are also jointly taking notes on a document that exists only in cyberspace but appears on their computers and shows each other their comments, in real time (can’t show you that–I use a Windows-based system and this only works for Macintosh users). A handful are snapping photos with digital cameras and cell-phone cameras and posting them to the web. Go here for Ito’s gallery of attendees, if you like. All of them are also busy checking their e-mail, reading their friends’ blogs and surfing news sites–while still managing to listen to the speaker up front.
For those of you who have just spent a half-hour or so dipping into all the links I gave above, and followed some of their links, I’m done. By now, you’ve probably formed your own impressions of the participatory nature and dazzling potential of “digital democracy” (go here http://www.u-blog.net/loic/note/57224#repondre to blow your mind as to one vision of where this can go), and the beauty of the thing is that your ideas are bound to be as valid as mine. But since the editors of The Nation did send me out here, and I am planning to write a long piece for the print magazine about how “social software” is changing and enhancing the participation of ordinary people in politics, herewith a quick report.
The teach-in was highlighted by keynotes from Joe Trippi, until recently Howard Dean’s campaign manager; Scott Heiferman, the CEO of Meetup.com; Wes Boyd, one of the founders of MoveOn.org, and featured an array of well-known bloggers (people like Doc Searls, David Weinberger, Cameron Barrett, Halley Suitt, Mitch Ratcliffe, Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen, Dan Gillmor, Cory Doctorow, Ed Cone and danah boyd some of whom have thousands of daily readers). If all or most of those names mean nothing to you, dear reader, it’s time to get clued in to the new voices out there. The only way for me to do them justice is to tell you to follow the links attached to each of their names, read their blogs and then browse the blogs that they link to.