Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Politico's Dilemma

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 28, 2002

It's an interesting thought: will internet campaigning change the nature of campaigning?

In the mass media era (still the current era) the act of campaigning meant advertising and getting media placement. Thus our poor befuddled prospective candidate (Greg Hunter, quoted below) sees only two alternatives - getting his message into the press, or blanket advertising of some sort.

On the internet, that and two dollars would buy you a cigar. Insofar as there is such a thing as political success on the internet, it has not been obtained either via the press or via advertising. Were we to have (heaven forbid) an election for president of the internet, likely candidates would be people like Rob Malda or David Talbot.

Online political clout is not obtained by buying (or wrangling) airtime; it is established over time through a series of meaningful contributions to internet culture. Party endorsement is meaningless; getting the party started is everything. Even people with a clear political affiliation - the denizens of Free Republic, say - would be more likely to select someone who has contributed to that forum on a regular basis than, say, someone who bought a slew of advertisements (or sent spam email).

Even today, this could be significant. Were I to opt to run for Prime Minister, I would today attempt to establish a political currency through vibrant participation in Canada's online political forums. Assuming I were successful at the task - that is, assuming I struck the right chord of policy astuteness and rational expression with readers - I would over time develop a network of contacts, of people who would seek my counsel, ask me to sit on boards or panels, and eventually, to run for office.

My advertising would consist in word of mouth - no longer slow and unreliable, but now a lightening quick process of viral marketing accelrated by the willing support of those doing the advertising and those receiving the messages. Today there is still a final barrier to leap, from internet icon to national awareness, but as the net permeates everyday life the chasm will not be so wide nor will landing on the other side be so critical.

This could change the nature of government significantly. Today the primary quality needed to run for elected office is that of being the best used-car salesman on the block. Tomorrow, one's ability to communicate well concieved ideas and opinions will become paramount. Before, one's network of political support was based on multual favours and campaign funding. Tomorrow, one's network of support may have much more to do with consonance of opinion and clarity of vision. Before, one's success could be measured by the cut of one's suit or the closeness of one's cropped locks. Tomorrow, one's success may be measured by the quickness of one's wit and the accuity of one's vision.

Would we, in a non-mass market, accept in so blase a fashion the choice between two very similar (and similarly pedigreed) candidates, or even (as in Canada) among five parties dubbed by the media as acceptable (i.e., "non-fringe")? Could we imagine the day that a leader of striking intellect and vision could arise from among the internet ranks, casting off the party shackles, and sweep the online vote in a political equivalent of the 'All your base are belong to us' or 'Google-whacking' craze? I think that it is not only possible, but likely.

One caution, though: this does not mean the rise of the individual as the primary political force, nor does it mean the end of big-money involvement in politics. For while on the one hand the end of the effectiveness of mass media political advertising may seem to end the need for deep pockets, it is likely that after our initial shock we will see online personas whose every contribution to online culture is created and evaulated by a team of net marketing specialists. And while corporate Maldas would not be successful, corporate icons in a new image could be.

For already we see corporate marketing people lurking on discussion lists and usenet groups, taking notes on product evaluations and even offering contributions of their own. The leap between that and a more assertive corporate presence is a small one, and so long as people do not detect an overt display of advertising (as opposed to constructive contributions) then that person will be tolerated and even respected. No doubt politicos will think of ways they can, in a sense, create and promote an online persona in their own image, hoping to create a degree of trust and respect among the readers sufficient to build a network of political support. Political battles of tomorrow will be as they are today - wars between memes, fronted by people.

None of this is useful to Greg Hunter, of course, who is thinking about what he is going to do next November. But if he is serious about campaigning on the internet, then he needs to learn the first rule of internet culture: you are what you contribute.

From: "Greg Hunter" To:
Subject: RE: Calif. governor candidate, DNC chairman turn to political spam
Date: Thu, 28 Feb 2002 08:59:41 -0500


I am running for US Congress for the 3rd District from Ohio, but I have no money and the newspapers will not publish "my story". I believe that for this brief period in our nations history someone like me will be able to run for office and present the ideas via the internet. I do not want to spam, but does having friends and acquaintances get the word out offensive???

Greg Hunter

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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