In One Large Beaker, Mix Enthusiasm and Data to Produce Votes

It’s hard to imagine, given where we are with sophisticated marketing in nearly every aspect of our lives, that only two decades ago political campaigns ran on hunches and gut feelings.  Today it seems every word uttered by a candidate and every story that emanates from a campaign headquarters is vetted, focus-grouped, A/B tested, rehearsed, dissected, and media-proofed before it launches into the wild.  Political organizations have their fingers grafted to the pulse of American political discourse and they know precisely how to make the American heart beat race.  Yet at the same time candidates are rehearsing canned lines that “tested well” in trials they are managing to strengthen their ties with individual people – individual voters and contributors who, more than ever, feel like they have vested interests in the candidates they support.  This head-spinning transition was not an accident.  Over the last two decades polling specialists, traditional political campaign experts, social scientists, data analysts, and tech-savvy marketing gurus have been increasingly drawn toward the problem of voter engagement.  Candidates continue to expand their understanding of the science behind voter choices and technology brings normal voters closer to the political machine.  The story of this upending movement is captured brilliantly by Sasha Issenberg in his book The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.

Issenberg takes readers through stories of the campaigns of yesteryear when political hopefuls sought new ways to broadcast messages to the masses, reaching as many people as they could in hopes of swaying voters.  He describes how radio and television transformed the political landscape by changing how potential voters received information.  Though these technical advances increased a candidate’s reach, they brought little in the way of substantive improvements to how campaigns understood citizens’ preferences.  Television and radio became essential components of modern politics because they make candidates louder.  In The Victory Lab Issenberg shows us how innovative uses of new media provide message feedback, and in so doing they make candidates smarter.

It wasn’t television that sparked the metamorphosis of political campaigns into two-way discussions.  It wasn’t radio that captured citizens’ opinions. The transition to a system where feedback – real scientific feedback – interplayed with candidates’ messaging choices started with people like Hal Malchow.  Malchow experimented with the wording and recipient lists of direct-mail political solicitations to produce measurable marginal improvements in election success.  Through diligent pedagogic effort Malchow uniquely positioned himself as someone versed in both political campaigns and scholarly research of social pressure.  Issenberg recounts Malchow’s work at the collision-point of science and politics through the story of the 2010 Colorado U.S. Senate race.  After spending more than two decades learning about voter behavior and micro-targeting on campaigns and in academia, Malchow sent a million letters to carefully selected Coloradan Democrats reminding them to vote.  He didn’t endorse a candidate per se, he didn’t press issues, and he didn’t launch an attack on the Republican challenger.  Instead, he chose his words, as Issenberg says, “to exploit eternal human vulnerabilities – such as the desire to fit in or not to be seen as a liar – in order to turn layabouts into voters.”  The strategy worked.  Recipients of Malchow’s letter were 2.5% more likely to make their way to the polls where they nearly unanimously cast votes for the Democratic candidate, Michael Bennet.  Simple math shows that Malchow’s work produced 25,000 votes that might not have been cast.  Bennet won the election by a mere 15,000.

While Malchow was a pioneer in his field he was not alone.  Issenberg also highlights the work of two Yale political theorists, Donald Green, Alan Gerber. An interesting side note in the study of political campaigns is that few candidates dare stray from proven techniques to experiment during elections.  Political campaigns are not iterative – these all or nothing endeavors leave little room for risk so candidates rely on practices that have produced success in the past. The science behind voter choices was largely left unexplored because it involved risk-taking and experimentation.  Few candidates are willing to risk their own election success for the betterment of the political institution and few opportunities exist for empirical testing outside real-world campaigns.  Gerber and Green, sensing that the field of political science was becoming intellectually bankrupt, pushed headlong into this tough environment.

Gerber and Green were not political junkies; they were social scientists.  They capitalized on a time when those closely tied to the political establishment were trying to understand why Americans were retreating from civic engagement.  In a brilliant move, they allied themselves with non-profit agencies tied to voter engagement rather than engaging risk-averse campaigns themselves.  They created field experiments built around genuine scientific rigor to test common methods of voter engagement.  Gerber and Green hypothesized that new methods of political engagement, while far-reaching, lacked the connecting-power of more traditional contact.  In Issenberg’s words, “Maybe the issue wasn’t just that Americans were being mobilized by campaigns any less, but that even the new forms of individual contact lacked a personal touch.  A message that may have once been spoken at the doorstep would now come facelessly by phone or mail.”  They proved themselves right – data from Gerber and Green’s experiments found that phone calls urging citizens to vote had negligible impact on turn-out, direct mail increased voter turn-out by 0.6 percent for each postcard sent, but in-person visits produced a staggering 8.7 percentage point increase.  As Issenberg keenly notes, this impact is “larger than the margin in most competitive elections.”  Candidates certainly cannot discount technologies like radio and television that allow them to mobilize the masses but they must also recognize that elections can be won or lost on the margins where more intimate contact produces the best results.

The problem, as Issenberg notes, is that direct contact with every potential voter is cost prohibitive.  With the entrance of the Internet and its related social technologies, however, Issenberg argues that political hopefuls can now identify exactly which voters to contact for the greatest effect.  Alexander Gage, a long-time pollster and opinion analyst who observed marketing strategies in commercial firms and politics for decades, noted how commercial entities used data they had collected and homogenized on their customers to influence decisions and he helped bring these techniques to the political arena.  Through sophisticated and creative data fusion, Gage and others in his business found they could identify pockets of potential supporters at a granularity far below the precinct level.  In so doing, Issenberg says “Gage imagined his job as developing ‘search and rescue’ tools, using data to spot sympathetic bodies in a disaster zone and plucking them out to the polls.”  This level of two-way engagement and micro-targeting has changed the face of politics in ways television and radio never imagined.

As we blast forward in time to the middle of 2013 we look in retrospect to the wildly successful data-driven practices of President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns.  The President and his team carved out a seat at the decision-making table for those responsible for their data strategy in the elections and the results are simply unprecedented.  The combination of micro-targeting technologies driven by tremendous amounts of data with an inclusive grassroots organizing campaign was a recipe that flocked supporters to the polls like never before.  This formula – something like Marshall Ganz meets Experian – was able to pinpoint voters in such a detailed and tailored way that individuals felt as if they were valued by the campaigns. This important cultural shift cannot be understated: individuals felt that the support they provided to their candidate and the votes they cast were important.  In turn the candidates truly understood what mattered to people and they directed resources toward those pressing issues. This two-way communication between candidates and constituents opened doors to understanding and participation that never even existed.  As the technical apparatuses and organizing methodologies continue to improve we can expect the scientific edge in political persuasion to grow ever sharper.

When we analyze the astute historical context presented by Issenberg we are given a framework from which to launch into future discussions on the effects big-data will bring to politics.  The enormous data sets produced through habits and social media interactions online coupled with the immense processing power now available to interpolate this data could potentially redefine micro-targeting once again.  For example, James Fowler, a Professor of Medical Genetics and Political Science at the University of California, San Diego, has recently conducted large-scale political experiments on the edge of this field.  Fowler’s unique combination of academic skillsets drives him toward the scientifically rigorous testing and experimentation that Issenberg focuses on in The Victory Lab.  Using enormous data sets from Facebook (to the tune of 61 million user profiles) Fowler showed how voter habits can be influenced by their Facebook friends’ actions.  The entire meaning of the term “statistics” with data sets of this size must be re-examined.  The insight data like this can produce in terms of engagement strategies and measurable offline behavior are beyond what the early political and social scientists every dreamed when they carved out their experimental path in this field.

But was the 2012 election an anomaly?  Certainly, we saw incredible increases in the use of new media and information technology to facilitate innovative methods of shaping voter behavior.  Was the election something indicative of a new trend in politics or was it a case of the right candidate, the right circumstances, and fortuitous timing?  Critics argue that President Obama was a candidate who, regardless of the methods used, was going to draw unlikely voters to the polls given his background as a community organizer and his ethnicity.  President Obama’s campaign staff certainly used innovative techniques ranging from the way they organized their army of volunteers to how they targeted voters, but can we assign causality between these methods and the margin of victory?  Using the momentum created by Malchow, Gerber, Green, and Gage in their explicit application of scientific principles, Obama’s team wasn’t guessing on what was going to work; they knew what moved people.  They collected empirical evidence through their mountain of A/B tested messages and their correlated increases in both fundraising and turn-out.  The team built an unmatched technical infrastructure and, more importantly, they reshaped processes to take full advantage of their technical lead.  Between the technical advantage, the reshaped processes, and proof that the money the campaign spent on technology was justified I see the 2012 election as a benchmark as opposed to an anomaly.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the transition to digital campaign strategies is found in the concept of message control.  In my opening paragraph of this entry I noted how it seems every message candidates release is run through the wringer before it is allowed into the wild.  Issenberg’s methodologies actually seem to suggest that control is an imperative component of experimentation.  Michael Slaby, the Chief Integration and Innovation Officer for “Obama for America: 2012” tells us the concept of strict, top-down message control is all but dead.  As I described in my recent analysis of Daniel Kreiss’ book, Taking our Country Back, technology is allowing more people, namely volunteers, to be given responsibilities traditionally reserved for formal campaign staff members.  Digital reach allows more people to participate but this additional depth also allows more people to speak for the campaign.  Slaby stresses the need for all volunteers and staff members alike to share a common framework of values as opposed to hopelessly sticking to pre-approved scripts in their interactions with potential voters.  In an interview with Ethan Zuckerman, Slaby said ““If people share your mission and passion, it’s fine to let them speak – they won’t say exactly what you want them to, but they’ll pass the ‘genuity’ test.”  So while modern campaigns may ruthlessly test messages to maximize intended outcomes campaign staffers are entrusted with the campaign’s voice more than ever.

Another important observation I took away from Issenberg’s work is the importance of cross-pollination between political campaigns and commercial industry.  Many of the key experts and actors Issenberg analyzes flowed back and forth between the two spheres and I feel this will be an even more important exercise over the next 8-12 years.  The commercial sector is developing social media and digital marketing expertise that absolutely must make its way to the political arena if the scientific edge of politics is expected to keep pace with commercial contemporaries.  At the same time, organizational practices and targeting strategies are emerging through online political campaigns that will bolster how industry views potential customers and supporters in the future.  The onus is on campaigns to incentivize talented, innovative thinkers in the field of digital sociology to break from their lucrative positions in the commercial sector to participate in civil affairs.

One question that must be answered as we move forward with data-driven politics is this: who owns the data?  Barrack Obama collected 180 million contacts through his two presidential campaigns and we have discussed how this information was vital to his success.  While in office, the Obama team parked these voter files in their offshoot structure, Organizing for Action, but it remains to be seen whether this trove of personal information – interests, issues, demographics, connections, and contribution histories – will be made available to any of the candidates who emerge in 2016.  It is not a stretch to foresee a time where the ultimate statement of endorsement from one candidate to another is not conveyed in speeches but instead in the ceremonial passing of data.

Issenberg’s work may focus on the science of political engagement at the surface-level but the implications of this field reach much further into the digital realm.  After spending more than a decade in the communications and cyber warfare arenas, I have found one of the largest challenges in the business is deciphering usable data from unimportant background bits and bytes.  For example, when a network infiltration or anomaly occurs, the cause of the event is almost certainly captured in a log file somewhere.  Granted, local log files may only contain disguised addresses and aliases that must be traced back through other logs on different networks to uncover layer upon layer of masked identities before ever finding and identifying a culpable actor, but the information exists.  Computing power and storage challenges severely limit the amount of time network administrators can keep logs of every transaction that occurs on a network.  Even if logs are complete, finding the proverbial needle in the haystack may expend far more resources than the task is worth.  The scenario is analogous to a miner who has a mountain of worthless dirt that contains a handful of valuable gold nuggets.  The gold might be worth a million dollars but it will cost the miners two million to get to the profits so the nuggets remain nestled in the earth.  Through the lens of voter activation, Issenberg keenly describes new ways of getting to the nuggets and other industries, including my own, should take note of this way of thinking.  While the data trail to a malicious actor may quickly grow old, online identities and histories of activity may very well lead to profiling strategies to identify those wishing to do harm in cyberspace.  Issenberg describes how to locate potential voters but his framework and strategies could be used to profile just about any type of behavior as people live more of their lives in cyberspace.

Issenberg provides a poignant view of election strategy that has been in development for decades but has only recently been accepted by mainstream political campaigns.  The rigorous scientific approach he describes through the work of people inside and out of the information technology arena is one that should be noted by any candidate wishing to run for office in today’s era of online engagement.  The practice is anything but finalized, however.  Several questions remain about how best to organize campaigns within this new reality, how to efficiently handle unimaginably large data sets, and how best to pass voter data from one candidate to another but the trajectory toward greater online engagement in future campaigns is unmistakable.  The Victory Lab holds answers for political strategists but anyone who works at the intersection of information technology and traditional society will find the book and its many lessons extremely valuable.

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Digital Judo: An Analysis of Daniel Kreiss’ Book: Taking Our Country Back

When President Barack Obama set out to bring “change” to the nation during his 2008 presidential election campaign he was referring to changes in policy – he was referring to society.  Yet at the same time his campaign itself was solidifying another type of change that had been underway since the previous national election cycle four years earlier.  The first decade of the twenty-first century saw the only man-made commons in the world mature in the form of the Internet.  The presidential campaigns of 2004 and 2008 were the first to move into this realm and the effects this adaptation produced in terms of American politics is profound, unmistakable, and permanent. The Internet allows candidates to amplify their messages, raise astronomical sums of money, predict voter behavior, and organize armies of citizen volunteers in ways that were previously unheard of.  Howard Dean, a relatively unknown governor and long-shot presidential candidate, became an early pioneer in the field of networked politics when he and his team began their insurgency on the democratic nomination from the hills of Vermont in 2004.  Barack Obama and his campaign team understood the power of the digital world and used a similar path to the one Dean laid out all the way to the White House.

Daniel Kreiss takes a deep-dive into the machinations that turned the Internet into a political platform in his book Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama.  Kriess’ detailed examination of the tools, methods, and organizational practices employed first by the Dean campaign, then by the Democratic Party itself, and later by the Obama team provides a chronological view of how the landscape of presidential politics was dramatically altered in less than five years.  Kreiss’ account is based on first-hand interviews with the staffers, technicians, developers, and big-thinkers who audaciously bucked the traditional system and transformed the way we elect our leaders.  It’s no small detail to note that almost all of the profound changes discussed in Taking our Country Back occurred on stage in the midst of active campaigns where failed experimentation could spell certain disaster.  While Kreiss’ work is a solid historical reference detailing how technology influenced politics during a critical convergence of the two fields, the real value in this detailed recounting is that it builds a sturdy platform for conjecture about the future.  The specific innovations Kreiss discusses are important, but the theory of evolving practices he sets up has powerful implications for the future of media, technology, and politics.

Kreiss formulates his examination of this field into three closely intertwined areas: innovation, infrastructure, and organization.  Wisely, Kreiss is quick to acknowledge that technology itself is not the driving factor, but instead shortfalls in processes, infrastructure, and organizational capabilities shape the direction of innovation using technology as a vehicle to get there.  The goal, therefore, is not to stuff new, high-tech toys into the mix so that processes are forced to adapt to the latest tools.  Effective strategies over the last eight to ten years have astutely identified emerging opportunities to grow the political field in the Internet environment and then sought tools to help bridge ideas with capabilities.  Kreiss’ central theme in Taking our Country Back is that thoughtful adoption of improvements across innovation, infrastructure, and organizational capabilities can yield tremendous advantages in what he calls “networked politics.”

Kreiss gives a tremendous amount of credit for innovative design and adaptation in political operations to the Dean Campaign of 2004.  Dean for America was the first campaign to successfully employ key facets of its fundraising, grassroots organizing, and information dissemination operations online.  Joe Trippi, the campaign manager for most of the Dean campaign, analogizes the campaign’s efforts on the Internet to “plowing snow” in his book The Revolution Will Not Be TelevisedI prepared a detailed review of Trippi’s book in a separate entry here.  Trippi says “As I daydreamed about how this thing might work, I thought the bottom-up, interactive Internet campaign that I was visualizing might still be eight or ten years away from working in politics.  And it wasn’t just a matter of plowing snow, or of getting all the technology in order, the way you would if you were developing a new chip or a lighter laptop.”  Kreiss echoes this sentiment in his recounting of the events surrounding the Dean campaign, saying “One of the campaign’s innovations lay in [the] decision to make the Internet a central organization tool and an explicit part of the candidate’s electoral strategy.”  Dean’s tech staff, mostly brought together from fields other than politics, conceptualized and employed novel ways of using the Internet as an echo chamber that could feed off of the efforts of a vast, well-connected following across the web.  In doing so they propelled their candidate from being a national unknown to front-runner status for the Democratic Party’s nomination.

In the seam between the topics of “innovation” and “organization” Kreiss introduces a concept he calls computational is credited with developing many of the founding principles behind this approach.  First employed in the political sphere with Dean and later refined under President Obama’s 2008 run for the presidency, computational management involves using data metrics (e-mail open rates, hyperlink click-through rates, Meet-up attendance numbers, and the list goes on) to make tactical and strategic decisions for the campaign.  Computational management allows campaigns to measure the effectiveness of their strategies in a nearly clinical manner. The insight gained by using established computational management principles, particularly in fundraising, has all but replaced every other metric of performance in political campaigns.  However, balancing the most effective approaches with those that also remain authentic is a prominent struggle in the new-media environment.  Kreiss quotes Teddy Goff, a campaign staffer for the Obama general election campaign in 2008 as saying “the desire to be authentic and the desire to be super duper effective” were in constant tension.  Moreover, Goff says “Had we been confronted by data that showed that an automated e-mail program would have raised twice the money that we were raising, that would have been a crisis.”

Kreiss further describes the changes to organizational practices brought about through networked politics in three key ways.  First, the Internet allows campaign staffs to push many responsibilities traditionally held by paid staff to volunteers.  Organizing rallies, creating and distributing campaign materials, and answering questions on behalf of the campaign have been relegated to volunteer tiers of campaign staffs’ organizational charts in an unprecedented way during successful presidential runs since 2004.  Second, the changes to the organizational structure noted above require campaign staffs to cede a tremendous amount of trust and control to volunteers.  Certainly, the Internet provides a means to greater collaboration and verification but dispersing responsibilities to volunteers inherently means giving them more control over the direction of the entire team in the new-media environment.  Lastly, this tremendously altered organizational environment required significant infrastructure improvements to accommodate an entire subculture of training, documentation, and guidance delivery between the campaign staff and volunteers online.

The third essential portion of the networked politics triad according to Kreiss is the explosion of information technology infrastructure that is needed to accommodate the innovative practices and organizational changes discussed above.  Both Dean and Obama built the largest and most robust databases they could afford and they partnered with reputable service providers to ensure availability and throughput rates that could accommodate the radical surges in web traffic they expected.  Both, however, battled capacity and reliability issues throughout their campaigns.  This is a big deal – when a significant percentage of the campaign’s funding is gleaned from small-dollar donors online (as was the case for both Dean and Obama) the web presence must be reliable, especially during peak traffic periods.  Spikes in web and e-mail traffic directly translate to corresponding boosts in fundraising and offline involvement.  Both campaigns exceeded their own expectations of online involvement to such a degree that they were forced to grow on the fly during peak periods of online engagement.

Both the Dean and Obama campaigns built solid foundations for the concept of networked politics and set the field on a steep trajectory toward even greater capabilities in the future.  The snow, in many respects, has been plowed, allowing future campaigns to move briskly through the known capabilities of online fundraising, blogging, e-mail, and supporter organizing to other less explored areas.  Using Kreiss’ three-pronged construct as a model for prediction, I expect to see future organizational trends continue toward decentralization.  Further dissemination of powerful and portable technology will push the reach of networked politics into neighborhoods on an increasingly more granular level.  In a Twitter conversation with Daniel Kriess, he told me he sees the greatest tech focus area for the 2016 presidential race directed toward further integration of data streams emanating from multiple platforms.   Infrastructure improvements will focus on weaving and corroborating data streams from multiple platforms into usable, actionable intelligence.  Innovation efforts will move toward capabilities that use the online world as a medium to elicit greater involvement in a more traditional offline sense.

An important challenge I foresee to continued decentralization of the campaign structure and further reliance on a widened base of small contribution supporters is the ability for campaigns to remain authentic.  Campaign staffs today are nervous about releasing control of their campaigns to volunteers because representatives outside the campaign structure can stray from the campaign’s official message.  In the same vein, however, as the average citizen’s online competency improves through exposure to information technology capabilities, campaigns must ensure their methods have depth beyond facades of authenticity.  Much of the discussion in this area today among experts in the field revolves around developing a narrative that feels genuine.  For example, Kreiss discussed how Blue State Digital, a commercial firm hired to build online capabilities for political campaigns, approached Senator Ted Kennedy’s reelection bid in 2006.  Blue State Digital was caught in a conundrum where they had to develop an e-mail campaign using the Kennedy voice, yet they were unfamiliar with the intricacies of that voice.  I would argue that campaigns should gear their strategies toward methods that are authentic rather than trying to convince today’s more advertising-wary audiences with methods that feel like the real-deal.  The Dean campaign’s strategy of allowing key personnel like Joe Trippi and Kate O’Conner to communicate with their constituency using their own voices in a coordinated manner is an example of authenticity that future campaigns should emulate.  As information systems continue to penetrate new realms and engaged citizens contribute more to campaign narratives in unexpected ways (see Will I Am’s “Yes We Can” music video that has garnered nearly 25 million views in conjunction with President Obama’s two white house bids as a tremendous example) authenticity and consistency will become even greater challenges.  Feedback to the narrative itself should reinforce authenticity and provide the computational management engine with powerful fuel.

The vast sea of data produced through fundraising metrics, get-out-the-vote initiatives, and localized support efforts has pushed the limits of existing computational management capabilities.  I completely agree with Kriess’ assessment that this explosion, coupled with the introduction of new avenues of reaching potential voters and supporters through mobile technologies makes data integration the greatest challenge for future campaigns at the highest levels.  Some might argue that the challenge is too great – that the notion that data from multiple platforms in wildly different formats gathered from an array of sources is just too convoluted to integrate into actionable information for decision-makers given available resources.  The benefits involved with doing so, however, have the potential to form the next leap forward in networked politics.  Obama’s use of mobile platforms during the 2012 general election for micro-targeting holds significant promise to change how information is extracted from centralized voter information databases and how new information is returned from field sources farthest from the campaign’s central headquarters.  The challenge is certainly real, but the potential for granular, integrated intelligence is tremendous.

Far beyond simply organizing supporters and potential voters, this trove of data also holds huge potential to transform the entire enterprise of polling and election prediction as we know it.  In November 2012 Slate magazine carried an article by Sasha Issenberg, the author of Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, that detailed Obama’s successful use of analytics in his final push toward the presidential election.  Issenberg said “For decades, political targeters had to use geographic or demographic heuristics (classifying precincts based their past vote performance or Census tracts based on their complexion) to sort voters into [priority] categories en masse. With the individual-level voter data and statistical analysis available to today’s campaigns, they can now sort voters one by one.”  The approach sounds logical and straight forward but the threshold for entry into this level of insight requires one to rigorously interweave and interpret data on a scale rarely seen in any field.

A follow-up question I asked David Kreiss after our initial Twitter conversation about data integration was whether the framework for the 2016 campaign was already taking shape.  His answer was that he believes many people “are taking stock of the lessons of 2012 right now” but I would expect those lessons will soon translate into the new media enterprise that will help elect our country’s next president.  The tech platform assembled by Howard Dean and his team was immediately dwarfed by the capabilities that emerged in 2008.  In 2012 President Obama and his all-star team of technical wizards (along with a well-connected, well-versed army of supporters) revolutionized the field of networked politics once again.  Even with the mass of available lessons-learned and best-practices it still feels as if we are at the beginning stages of truly understanding how information technology will impact politics in the decades to come.

I see striking parallels to this field in my own life as a leader in the United States Air Force.  Granted, military leaders are by no means elected.  The end-state of our leadership efforts won’t materialize in the form of fundraising or constituency building.  Yet the idea of using the Internet to build support, common understanding, and relevance is certainly valid.  Given the fact that more than sixty percent of United States military personnel are under thirty years of age, leaders who fail to utilize the core concepts of networked politics will miss a key opportunity to connect with digital natives on their turf.

The military requires centralized command and control for key decision-making cycles because of the gravity of the decisions required in employing military force.  This is particularly true in today’s media environment where the actions of individual service members can be broadcast worldwide, thereby affecting international political discourse.  In retaining a strangle-hold on centralized decision-making, however, the military’s hierarchical structure tends to ignore brilliant ideas and substantial contributions that struggle to gain traction at the bottom of the organizational chain.  Decentralized political campaigns balance these same concerns when they relinquish control to volunteers.  Pulling decisions to high levels of the hierarchy inadvertently quells dialog across peer organizations and negates potentially unforeseen contributions from unexpected sources.  Leveraging the lessons learned in network politics (where decisions don’t necessarily cost lives but they can mean ultimate failure) the military could find value in relinquishing some control to lower echelons while maintaining an infrastructure capable of providing guidance and direction in a more distributed manner.

Before I would advocate for these concepts to be implemented in my military, however, we need to revisit the concept of authenticity in leadership.  Successful military leaders must be able to communicate messages that listeners need to hear, not just what they want to hear.  Analytics are useful as management tools but the art of leadership cannot be boiled down to data and statistics.  A/B testing messages may improve fundraising returns but when I’m in a position where I need to ask a Soldier to complete a dangerous mission that risks his life, I’ll stick with the message that comes from my heart.  I would argue that many politicians could benefit from a dose of this same medicine.

This is not to say the “science” component of leadership facilitated by the concepts presented above has no place in the military.  It in fact does.  But I believe the correct balance in implementation for any leader relies on a consistent authentic approach to both online and offline communication.  A successful leader will be the same person in the digital realm as he or she is in a face-to-face conversation.  As General Stanley McChrystal says in the epilogue of his book, My Share of the Task, “The best leaders are genuine. I found Soldiers would tolerate my being less of a leader than I hoped to be, but they would not forgive me being less than I claimed to be. Simple honestly matters.”  Certainly, messages will always be nuanced and tailored for specific audiences.  With the proliferation of social media and a world abuzz with information from countless sources, leaders will be challenged to maintain consistency. All things considered, however, honesty and authenticity should serve as the starting points regardless of the mode of communication.  By keeping a close eye on this approach the tools Kreiss presents in Taking our Country Back can be used in ways he probably never intended.

Kreiss’ concepts should be thought of as the pilings on which the foundation of networked politics rests.  The detailed history he presents gives the reader a thorough understanding of how we got where we are and his generalized conceptual approach thereafter serves as a launch point for the future.  With careful consideration for the basic tenets of personal leadership his concepts are also widely applicable outside the American political institution in other areas where leadership and communication are critical to success.  Expanding our comfortable understanding of organizational structures, using a robust information technology infrastructure to facilitate the aforementioned organizational changes, and innovating new technologies to strengthen connections between people across the tech spectrum is a recipe for positive change.  Coupling these principles with genuine authenticity in leadership can change the face of the entire political institution.

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Advocacy, Electrons, and the Human Will

I was seventeen years old when the 1996 presidential campaign pitted the incumbent, President Bill Clinton, against Republican Senator Bob Dole.  I distinctly remember the television commercials attacking President Clinton for famously “not inhaling” marijuana when he tried smoking some in college.  I recall the President’s message filling Senator Dole’s tax plan full of holes.  What I don’t remember, however, was a single mainstream mention of the presidential race in a discussion that occurred on the Internet.  My 33.6Kbit/s modem and I were screaming across the front edge of the Internet’s swelling tide and Internet activism had certainly begun to incubate in its earliest forms, but in 1996 the Internet and American politics were about as tightly coupled as Lisa Marie Pressley and Michael Jackson.

In 1998, however, a major muscle movement by software entrepreneurs Joan Blades and Wes Boyd gave us a glimpse into the mobilization power of the Internet when they created and distributed an e-mail petition to censure President Bill Clinton in the wake of his sexual indiscretion scandal and “move on.”  The petition, which spread by word of mouth and gathered more than half a million signatures did not dissuade Congress from impeaching President Clinton but it did demonstrate the incredibly rallying power of the Internet.  Today, has become a mecca for liberal politics, raising millions of dollars for Democratic candidates and supporting progressive issues through funding, publicity, and activism.

David Karpf, in his book titled The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy, provides an in-depth analysis of how MoveOn transformed America’s political landscape.  Karpf uses his extensive experience in analog organizations like the Sierra Club in comparison with MoveOn’s digital model to provide a clear and insightful look into the future of a political system intrinsically fused with the digital world.  At the heart of his argument is the concept that the Internet has fundamentally and disruptively changed all aspects of political advocacy in America in terms of member involvement, fundraising, organizational structure, and effectiveness. In Karpf’s own words, “Changes in information technology have transformed the organizational layer of American politics.”

The concept of disruptive change is important to Karpf’s analysis.  He contends that the changes he has observed in the political advocacy arena as a result of having an Internet connected society do not simply enhance prior organizational practices.  These changes fundamentally alter nearly every aspect of the business, rendering many successful strategies of legacy organizations obsolete in the digital age.  At the heart of this disruption, Karpf suggests digital organizations differ from their analog predecessors in three important areas: the definition of organizational membership, the organizational structure of advocacy groups themselves, and the very types of organizations that have been established in the digital era.

Membership, once an indicator of stature and devotion in political advocacy groups reserved for those who made significant monetary or policy contributions, has been completely redefined in the digital age.  MoveOn claims to have a membership base of more than seven million people.  Membership, however, is extended to every single person who signs up to receive information updates and fundraising solicitations from MoveOn via e-mail.  The marginal cost of including another e-mail address on the information updates distributed by MoveOn is practically zero.  Therefore, it no longer makes sense to narrow the membership list to only those who are likely to participate as was the case with the expensive printed mailings and other outreach methods of legacy organizations.  Conversely, it is beneficial to cast the net as wide as possible through e-mail because even small contributions and other participatory acts are beneficial when the solicitations themselves have virtually no cost.  The “power of the list,” as Karpf says, is a game-changer for political advocacy in America.

The staff structure of MoveOn is a fascinating case study in organizational theory.  MoveOn’s permanent staff of approximately 30 people, augmented by a phantom staff of hundreds of short-term employees brought in to work specific issues, has allocated more than $100 million to political campaigns and issue platforms since its inception.  This small staff has no physical workspace.  In fact, MoveOn specifically prohibits establishing offices.  This policy allows MoveOn to keep its organizational structure flat, it negates significant funding overhead costs associated with physical offices, and it creates a culture where the MoveOn staff is always at work.  Additionally, MoveOn’s lean nature means it is not encumbered by slow, bureaucratic processes.  This fact allows MoveOn to react quickly to developing issues and engage members with more personal connections.  This structure leaves legacy hierarchical organizations looking cumbersome, slow, and stifled in comparison.

Karpf uses the comparison between analog and digital organizational structures as the basis for his discussion of the emerging types of organizations fostered by and through the online environment.  He divides these organizations into three general categories: issue generalists, online communities of interests, and neo-federated organizations.  MoveOn and its dynamic, responsive structure falls into the category of issue generalists.  MoveOn is not dedicated to a particular societal or political issue, but rather it focuses broadly on timely, salient issues affecting progressive politics. Issue generalists allow their constituencies and current events to drive their specific agendas.  This allows the organizations to move nimbly across several important issues, affecting change and raising money as opportunities present themselves rather than rigidly sticking to particular missions and goals.

The second form of online organization Karpf discusses is the online community of interest, where members play an active role in the organization by communicating and interacting with other members online.  Sites like DailyKos allow users to develop their own initiatives and form grassroots efforts within the larger framework of the site itself.   Rather than engaging users through headline-chasing as described above in the MoveOn model, online communities of interest engage users through discussion and relationships online.  This allows users to form deep connections that often extend offline into other forms of political and social action.

Finally, Karpf discusses a model he calls the neo-federated organization: one that uses “online tools for offline action.”  Karpf offers the Dean for America presidential campaign as a prime example where people were motivated to participate in political rallies, discussions, and elections.  Participants in the neo-federated model move beyond the levels of commitment required of armchair activists and online communities.  Neo-federated organizations use tools like to find and organize members but bases of local volunteers form the backbones of their successes.  In many ways, neo-federated organizations bridge the gap between legacy community groups like the Rotary and Elks Clubs, and more modern online organizations like DailyKos and MoveOn.

Overall Karpf does a brilliant job of capturing and analyzing an important transition in the social enterprise of political activism.  His theories are shown to be supportable and accurate through the real examples he presents.  His assessments of the direction of the field of advocacy are grounded in sound logic.  The task of examining a field as fast-moving as this one requires astute observations akin to those of someone trying to spot the details of a fast-moving freight train as it barrels down the tracks.  Karpf is ahead of his time and his analysis presents a framework for online advocacy organizations to build from in the future.

That said, two critical components of Karpf’s analysis remain disconnected in my mind and I believe they require further analysis.  First, the notion that information technology has “disruptively” changed the world of political advocacy remains questionable.  Second, MoveOn’s concept of membership requires a closer examination to determine if a list of e-mail addresses truly constitutes a constituency. On the first question, I would argue that the changes brought about by information technology are real, they are dramatic, and they have changed the business of political advocacy to a great degree, but they have not made former organizational models of political advocacy obsolete.  Instead, organizations like MoveOn find themselves reliant upon organizations and capabilities that exist in the analog world in order to affect real change.  For example, when MoveOn raised substantial funding and awareness for the Wisconsin Labor Union dispute in February 2011 they could not execute the funds or organize protests within MoveOn itself.  They had to rely on labor umbrella groups and firefighter unions that had already established themselves in the dispute in order to create real effects. This argument may be a matter of semantics but I believe it is an important distinction that could alter how the field progresses in the future.

Karpf’s examination of the concept of membership serves as an apt starting point for an explanation of this critique.  He discusses the vast membership base of MoveOn and the “power of the list” as being the core of MoveOn’s success (as stated above, at the time of this writing MoveOn claims to have over seven million members).  Certainly, this membership is an extremely important component of the MoveOn fundraising model.  Small donations of less than $100 each from an enormous constituency allow MoveOn to extract extraordinary amounts of funding for its initiatives from the long tail of potential political fundraising.  By bouncing from one headline-grabbing topic to the next, MoveOn is able to keep itself in the forefront of progressive political discussion, all the while reaping the benefits of its members’ passion to affect change through their pocketbooks.  There can be no denying MoveOn’s effectiveness at amassing funds for the issues it cares about.  The very nature of the organization as a small, nimble, issue-generalist, however, leaves it completely dependent upon external entities to enact changes outside the realm of fundraising.

MoveOn’s members, by and large, are not involved in campaigning, lobbying, demonstrating, or policy-writing.  Certainly, a portion of those who are affiliated with MoveOn take to the streets in protest, call their Congressmen, sign petitions, and provide general support but the success of MoveOn is hardly built on these facets of involvement.  Even MoveOn seems to have trouble substantiating its claim that it has been able to move actions offline to  living rooms, public libraries, and public venues across the nation since all three of these examples (pulled from MoveOn’s explanation of its civic involvement efforts) are nearly two years old.  MoveOn members are most often charged to passively set the agenda of the organization by donating to the causes they care about.  In order to put the funds to use in affecting real change, MoveOn must engage other more traditional organizations that employ political experts, lawyers, campaign managers, community organizers, and experts in the specific fields being addressed.  In this way I see MoveOn as an extension of the traditional organizing model and not an altogether separate entity that renders traditional political activism methods obsolete.  In its current form, MoveOn is an amplifier and money-maker for those capable of affecting real societal change.

I would also argue that MoveOn’s definition of membership is subject to criticism.  Arguably, the two most important aspects of American political backing are (1) a motivated constituency and (2) money.  While MoveOn’s ability to raise money is beyond dispute, they claim on their own web page’s headline to have “Over 7 Million Progressives Taking Action.”  However, I would argue there is a significant difference between an e-mail address in a database (as Karpf describes the criteria required to be counted among the 7 Million Progressives) and a person motivated enough to be individually counted among MoveOn’s true constituency.  My own research thus far has fallen short of pulling back the curtain on the demographics and level of actual involvement of the 7 million people affiliated with MoveOn but I would venture to say a significant portion of the so-called members are one-time donors, semi-interested observers, or people who have flagged MoveOn’s high volume of e-mail communications for automatic deletion. This distinction may not be important in terms of fundraising reach and effectiveness but when MoveOn claims to have the backing of 7 million actual Americans to enhance its political clout the fidelity of their claim falls into question.

Additional doubts remain over the active members’ ability to affect change beyond their fundraising efforts.  Many of the critiques of the MoveOn model assert that mere “clicktivism” among its members is no substitute for real organizing power.  Malcolm Gladwell’s article “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” offers an argument that suggests organizations like MoveOn do not have the motivating power to inspire real action.  He uses the example of the American civil rights movement to illustrate what it takes to motivate people to take personal risks.  Micah White (albeit with the fervor of an organizing zealot) suggests the MoveOn model actually damages organizations’ abilities to rally activists in the physical world by giving them a low transaction-cost alternative that makes them feel involved.  Without completely dismissing the critiques above we have to acknowledge that the Internet is capable of fueling offline activity.  The Arab Spring showed brilliantly how offline actions can blend with the online medium to multiply the impact of traditional organizing techniques, even when life and limb are in grave danger.  The model of MoveOn’s ability to meld online techniques with offline involvement presented in The MoveOn Effect, however, leaves important steps untaken.

Nicco Mele presents a balanced bridge-building perspective that has promise in connecting the digital and analog worlds in his blog post titled “Hey.”  In the post Mele argues that political strategies for online engagement should include carefully constructed narratives that engage users. The narratives should be coupled with a sense of exclusivity among the members included on an organization’s e-mail list thereby furthering the connection between the cause and the people supporting it.  Finally, Mele encourages political advocacy groups to build toward engagement over time in order to obtain commitment and translate online readers into offline activists.  This approach harmonizes with Karpf’s neo-federated organizational model and it proved its potential for merging the online and offline worlds during Mele’s involvement in the Dean for America campaign.  As one example, the Dean Campaign used to pull together more than 140,000 motivated supporters who could then influence an exponential number of offline connections and translate their support directly into the existing American democratic system.

The pendulum of offline versus online activism may have swung too far with MoveOn but the organization provides a solid place from which to start.  If the ultimate goal is to measure success in the number of dollars raised or the number of e-mails opened, the MoveOn construct is unmatched.  If the definition of success, however, is measured in the actions that make a substantial, stand-alone difference within the existing American political structure a continuum of outreach capabilities like that of Karpf’s neo-federated model appears to be the answer.  President Obama’s second bid for the White House serves as a brilliant example where the best of Internet capabilities were blended with real people in real neighborhoods talking with other real people for real results.  A recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article by Matthew Forti and Colin Murphy quotes the Obama Campaign’s chief analytics officer as saying his scope was “the study and practice of resource optimization for the purpose of…earning votes more efficiently.”   The Obama campaign did not focus solely on open-rates and click-through rates to define success; they bridged the gap between online capabilities and offline organizing techniques.  By combining the best of online reach and fundraising with the strong ties and personal connections of advocacy in the traditional sense the potential exists for powerful 21st century activism.  This requires us to think less of “disruption” and more of expansion and continuation of existing successful models.

I see the implications of this field of study in a parallel micro-example I have been running with (quite literally) since November of last year.  I started a campaign called Run for ReadBoston to raise money and awareness for ReadBoston, a non-profit youth literacy program that focuses on underprivileged areas of Boston.  I am running the 2013 Boston Marathon on behalf of ReadBoston and I’ve conducted the entire campaign (except for the part where I have to go outside and run lots of miles) online.  I have a list of supporters with e-mail addresses totaling more than 250 people.  I have a blog that I use to communicate my training and fundraising progress publically.  In order to generate additional “members” I have established ties with related efforts like First Book and Read Across America.  My list of e-mail addresses has approximately doubled in size since the beginning of the effort.

Over the course of the campaign I have witnessed first-hand the incredible benefits and frustrating shortcomings of online activism.  Through e-mail, social networking, and a web presence I have rallied support for the organization while simultaneously experimenting with different methods taught in DPI-659 to maximize success.  The results of my experimentation seem to support the analysis presented above.  The “power of the list” has played itself out in a successful fundraising campaign that has raised more than $4,500 dollars as of the time of this post.  But, being the proprietor of the effort I also see behind the scenes that only a small fraction of my “members,” as MoveOn might call them, make donations, send feedback, or engage in any other way except reading messages and posts I publish.  I am extremely grateful for the support I have received – don’t get me wrong.  However, I would not reference the size of my e-mail list to substantiate the claim that I have strong support from more than 250 people motivated to support youth literacy as MoveOn might claim with their 7 million members.

One of my favorite commentaries regarding online activism comes from Jaron Lanier when he says “I actually take seriously the idea that the Internet can make non-traditional techie actors powerful” in his oft-cited Atlantic article titled The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy.  Karpf follows in this same vein by establishing academically rigorous conclusions from the events and circumstances that spawned the field of online organizing.  For this fact alone, Karpf deserves a great deal of respect.  While I do not necessarily agree with all of the conclusions he presents in The MoveOn Effect I do very much appreciate the fact that the debate is brought on-stage in a way that can be taken seriously by academics and practitioners alike.  Karpf’s work in the field has advanced the practice and his work in preparing this book will undoubtedly serve to broaden the horizons of online activism thereby bridging the digital and analog worlds.

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Final Project: Shaping the Social Media Environment

Our world is now shaped by The Groundswell, Here Comes Everybody, World War 3.0, Consent of the Networked, Web as Platform, Facebook, Twitter, and Google.  Digital Philosophers: Lanier, Anderson, Gladwell (and his band of critics), Shirky, Zuckerberg, Rheingold, and MacKinnon are soothsayers exploring the possibilities, probabilities, and opportunities of the digital universe.  Everywhere we turn the realm of nerd-think is colliding headlong with traditional societal structures.  American political campaigns are shaped by mouse-clicks.  The video recorder on your smart phone can influence global media if it captures the right images.  Powerful government institutions are waning in a wave of activism fueled by tweets, blogs, and status updates.

There is no question the cyber dynamic has changed human relations.  Stories abound of political prisoners tweeting their way out of cells by leveraging influence from global powers.  Communities of support continue to emerge online for activists, subversives, and freedom fighters that would have never been allowed to form in physical spaces.  Movements gain traction and momentum online before bursting into society at large and by the time they materialize they are far too strong to be quelled.  The “hactivist” group, Anonymous, has illustrated this influence through cyber-attacks aimed at shaping policy and commercial practices.  Julian Assange and WikiLeaks caught the entire by surprise by pulling the curtain back on the tough business of international diplomacy.  In possibly the most potent example of networked action, entire countries in the Middle East and northern Africa overthrew entrenched dictatorships in part by actions orchestrated online.

As the smoke clears on the burst of activity shaped by new tools and systems the tactical successes pave the way to bigger questions about how we harness the human effects of information technology.  I offer the overthrow of the Egyptian government as an example.  Certainly, social media played a role in organizing demonstrators and exposing grievances to the international community.  More importantly, however, the evidence suggests online communities can build psychological assurances of support and understanding that embolden people to action.  The revolution in Egypt did not start with a Facebook event that announced a demonstration.  Fissures formed in Mubarak’s stone grasp on the country for years as the World Wide Web introduced the population to dissenting ideas regarding freedom, equality, and justice.  These ideas marinated in the harsh realities of the physical world under a dictator.  The cycle continued to reinforce itself as intolerable actions by authorities were communicated back into the underworld of online social activism.  When the movement became too large for the binary world to hold, it spilled into the country in the form of motivated freedom fighters willing to risk their lives for the ideas they had grown to believe.

We have significant evidence of what can happen when the tools of the digital trade are wielded in harmony.  The crux of the subject now is how to replicate their successful use toward other causes.  My final project will explore how these capabilities can be employed to support the “soft power” of American diplomatic efforts on our most intractable problems.  Using the current impasse in our relations with North Korea as a frame for thought I will explore how the long-bet on social connectivity can reshape a conflict.  The health of dictatorships around the globe depends on their ability to maintain feelings of fear and hopelessness amongst their populations.  As we have seen, the realm of social media offers both hope and collective strength if the networks themselves are allowed to take root.  In the same way America is weaning itself from dependency on foreign oil to reshape the strategic environment in the Middle East, I will argue that we can impact repressive power structures by shaping the strategic communications environment.

Certainly, challenges to global connectivity are steep, especially in the inhospitable environments created by overbearing governmental regimes.  North Korea has only a microscopic presence on the web and the people of the country have been oppressed for decades.  Introducing new technology to a beleaguered population under an unbending dictator will be extremely difficult.  However, in cases where all other diplomatic tools have reached a state of gridlock in trying to solve pressing problems, the digital frontier and its ability to shape collective action may offer the very avenue necessary to allow us to transform the problems themselves.

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Responsible Power

“Oh the nerves, the nerves; the mysteries of this machine called man! Oh the little that unhinges it, poor creatures that we are!” – Charles Dickens

The bedrock of the Internet was built around basic concepts of information flow, survivability, and convenience.  It grew into an environment where people could communicate with one another.  It transformed into a nerve center for collective thought and, as a result, altogether unique ways of viewing the world emerged.  Only after decades of expansion, literally countless lines of programming code, and fortunes invested in infrastructure did the Internet solidify its position as the global medium for knowledge.  Ironically, the Internet was cultivated within a human society that, for thousands of years has understood the value of governance and civil order yet groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks claim they can easily upend established governments using the web as their battleground.  In an abstract way, it seems Julian Assange and the cloaked figures of Anonymous have declared hostile the very institutions that allowed them to emerge in the first place.

Jaron Lanier’s fascinating examination of this subject in his Dec 2010 Atlantic Article titled The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of Wikileaks contends that actions in the cyber realm should not be divorced from real human responsibility.  He says “I actually take seriously the idea that the Internet can make non-traditional actors powerful.  Therefore, I am less sympathetic to hackers when they use their newfound power arrogantly and non-constructively.”  The article examines the premise and methods of Wikileaks and establishes a strong contrast between complete data transparency and the ability to use data to make decisions.  Certainly, a healthy level of pellucidity is required between governments and the governed however Lanier argues that floods of unprocessed data only serve to complicate humans’ ability to discern meaning from the minutia.

In Consent of the Networked, Rebecca MacKinnon examines WikiLeaks from the point of view that commercial companies and governments attacked Assange’s ability to publish his secrets by removing the medium – the platforms capable of hosting the information on the web.  She makes a case that government institutions, including the Obama administration, used their influence over commercial entities like Amazon, PayPal, and the now-retired EveryDNS to block CableGate, regardless of whether WikiLeaks’ actions were legal or illegal.  She writes “whether unpopular, controversial, and contested speech has the right to exist on these platforms is left up to unelected corporate executives” and in doing so MacKinnon raises a poignant argument about the accountability of power in the information age.

If Lanier is correct in his assessment, however, we must move beyond the legality of the circumstances surrounding WikiLeaks and entertain the idea that just because we can open the lid on the private interworking of individuals and governments doesn’t necessarily mean we should. At best, WikiLeaks opens the flood gates on information that must be parsed and interpreted by someone.  In an open democratic society I would argue the most logical decipherers are the media and the freely-elected government representatives who created the information in the first place – both of which have sufficient access to much of the same information in the non-WikiLeaks status quo.  At worst, Wikileaks releases its trove of information, unnecessarily undermines human trust, and puts national security at risk.

In 2004 I was deployed to Baghdad in support of the Multi-National Corps focused on removing the foreign insurgency that had entrenched itself in Iraq.  The asymmetric threat posed by the insurgents hinged on two important facets: their ability to conduct stand-off attacks with improvised weapons and a method with which to gather information about their targets.  Combating improvised weapons proved to be an extraordinarily difficult task so we kept tight control over information regarding force movements, key facility locations, key leader schedules, and vulnerabilities.  We were attacked with mortars and rockets almost hourly but most fell inaccurately in uninhabited areas. In late November an insurgent stood several kilometers from our camp and lobbed a shoulder-launched rocket our way that found its mark in the living quarters of our camp, killing a Soldier.  A prominent American media outlet aired the story the same day with details about where the rocket came from, where it hit in the camp, and the damage it caused.

That night and into the next morning we absorbed an unprecedented seventeen rocket attacks from the exact same point of origin and with similar trajectories as the original “lucky” shot.  The picture below is of my good friend’s trailer after it was peppered with shrapnel from one of the rockets.

I don’t tell this story to condemn the insurgents (although, as an aside, I do).  The point is to emphasize the power of information.  The media didn’t have to release all of the details they chose to disclose.  There is no guarantee their story directly contributed to the subsequent attacks but the coincidence is striking.  The realm of information technology has made it possible to affect human affairs in ways that were previously impossible. I hope that cyber activists like Assange and Anonymous can mature and temper their lust for power with the very real understanding that their vigilantism has powerful offline effects.                   

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The Social Electorate

Harvard Business School’s Mikolaj Jan Piskorski and Harvard Kennedy School’s Laura Winig teamed up to write a compelling case study on President Barrack Obama’s transition from his candidacy to his presidency in 2009.  President Obama and his army of dedicated volunteers, coordinators, and contributors assembled the largest grassroots campaign in the history of American politics during Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.  Obama for America leveraged social technology in concert with the candidate’s steadfast belief in change from the “bottom up” to organize thousands of community leaders and swarms of volunteers across the country.  Volunteers focused on swaying undecided voters, fundraising, and encouraging citizens to cast their votes.  Meanwhile, the social media realm in and of itself proved to be a decisive organizing platform for campaign involvement and online fundraising due to its ability to scale and deliver tailored messages to voters and campaign organizers alike.

President Obama and his key campaign staff members bucked the traditional political framework.  They avoided treating their campaign like a hierarchical corporation in which guidance and direction flowed solely from the leadership.  Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff’s book, Groundswell, describes a connected world in which people “use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations.”  This scenario occurred throughout the Obama campaign.  Organizers gleaned semi-official responses from paid campaign staff then used electronic mailing lists and blogs to communicate loose guidance to volunteers in the field.  This guidance was then interpreted and extrapolated for local use.  On many occasions campaign tools (procedures, scripts, and volunteer orientation materials to name a few) were developed at the local level and shared across the campaign.  This unprecedented level of engagement produced devoted activists far from the center of Obama’s camp, with many noting that working on the presidential campaign “changed their lives.”

In his book, Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky describes three key elements necessary for successful group formation through social media:  “a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain with the users.”  The Barrack Obama presidential campaign encompassed all three elements in spades.  This campaign is used as a case study in online organizing for good reason.  Once the candidate was elected, however, both the plausible promise of electing a candidate for change and the acceptable bargain levied on campaign supporters were overcome by events.  Ironically, the campaign that steamrolled the traditional American democratic establishment worked itself out of a job by successfully elevating Barrack Obama to the presidency.

President Obama quickly moved to repurpose his dedicated grassroots following by retooling the election campaign into a civic engagement movement aptly named “Organizing for America.”  The President’s concept was to keep open lines of communication between active citizens and the Oval Office.  Unfortunately for the engaged citizens and the fledgling President alike, this movement faced serious challenges in bringing about promised “change” when it met established resistance within the American government framework where citizens are represented by Congressmen.  Citizens have ideas that are fueled by the Executive Branch’s election platform but Congress holds the votes that ultimately decide which changes are incorporated into government.  Elected representatives, in turn, interpret the President’s direct engagement with their constituents as a threat.  The scenario has created a gridlock where Congress blames the President, the President blames Congress, and ordinary citizens see the plausibility of their promise for change stuck in limbo.

The overwhelming success of President Obama’s grassroots election movement and its lackluster transition into established government raise the tantalizing question: can the Groundswell and traditional hierarchical organizations peacefully coexist?  Few would argue that the Internet and its ability to organize people around a common purpose is inconsequential to modern governments.  As technology matures, will we find a way to utilize the web to improve existing government structures or will we see a 21st century version of Perestroika that threatens the viability of our current local, state, and federal government structures?  Experts in the field of social media and politics splay the entire gamut of potential responses with the resounding message coming across something like “we’re not sure.”  Malcolm Gladwell and Jaron Lanier might argue that online collectivism only translates so far in the physical realm, and that strong emotional and physical ties will continue to provide the backbone of society.  Michael Silberman and Sam Graham-Felsen contend that modern politics are almost entirely facilitated by web-connected organizing techniques.  In the near-term, it would be an incredible stretch to predict an upheaval of democracy in favor of the groundswell but it’s a safe assumption that technology will continue to play an increasingly critical role in decision-making at all levels.

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Will the Internet Kill the Newspaper Star?

An important revolution is underway that threatens to undermine steely-eyed journalists around the globe whose ballpoint pens and notepads fuel the newspaper industry.  Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, and a “prominent thinker on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies” as described by Wired Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Chris Anderson, exposed the perpetrator of the revolution in his provocative blog post titled Newspapers and Thinking the UnthinkableShirky contends that the Internet has made the newspaper industry and its entire business model obsolete.  Information that was once only siphoned out of society by reporters with the ability to publish their works is now readily available via the web.  The ease of publishing to the web creates a world where anyone, and in fact, everyone can report the news from where they stand.  This dispersal of publishing power has given news consumers instantaneous access to news directly from the source as it unfolds.  The unprecedented access and availability brought about by the speed of the web call into question the traditional news cycle where reporters scramble for topics, compose lengthy articles written in prose, and polish their stories before they are released.

Newspapers can adapt to changing news sources.  They can even adapt their news cycle to fit their readers’ preferences.  However, Shirky attacks one key component of the industry that doesn’t seem to have a suitable parachute: the economics of the printed newspaper.  He says “if you want to know why newspapers are in such trouble, the most salient fact is this: Printing presses are terrifically expensive to set up and to run.”  Newspapers provide content to their readers in exchange for indirect funding from advertisement revenue, classified ad purchases, and subscription fees.  Unfortunately for the hometown presses of the world, the same content that is printed in newspapers is available in saturation on the Internet for free.  People still read the news; they just don’t read it in a form that leaves black ink on their fingers.  The effect of this shift toward the web on newspapers is a drastic decrease in both advertiser premiums and subscription purchases.  Additionally, Craigslist’s almost single-handed assault on the aftermarket negates the relevance of newspaper classified ads, leaving an empty coffer where the newspaper’s livelihood once flourished.

I frankly, don’t think anyone should be surprised that the printed newspaper is in dire straits.  In fact, I think it’s safe to extrapolate a similar argument to many printed periodicals.  We’ve already seen the Yellow Pages disappear from circulation.  Wikipedia and online references have removed an entire industry of printed encyclopedias from American homes.  The Internet is indeed changing how information is delivered from producer to consumer.

The death of the printed newspaper does not, however, signal an end to the media establishment.  People still have a thirst for reputable, timely and vetted information.  The field of professional journalism brings this very type of information to the general public.  The medium may change but the credentials that separate back-room bloggers from reputable news organizations are still appreciated in society.  We may not immediately see the revenue source that will support journalism but if economic principles have any grounding in reality demand will drive supply.  Shirky, in exploring what the new outlets might look like, says “nothing will work, but everything might…now is the time for experiments.”

The fundamental question, then, is how news organizations (whatever they look like) turn information into cash-flow.  I believe the strengths of the web itself – the speed with which information flows, its sweeping range of availability and its instantaneous access – will actually benefit professional journalists who can grasp the transition from print to digital.   This week people around the world watched as Fearless Felix climbed aboard the world’s largest helium balloon for a trip to the edge of space.  He saluted and jumped toward earth as people in different states and countries watched live, simultaneously.  The event had been postponed and delayed several times yet YouTube reports that 8 million people still tuned in to watch.  Traditional newspapers probably didn’t make money on this story and Red Bull, Felix’s sponsor, had enormous capital investments to pay back before they could realize a profit.  Google and their video sharing utility, YouTube, made money that day.  Shirky might say this is exactly the type of experiment the industry needs.  We may very well have just been given a peak into a new era of journalism.  The newspaper might die but the inquisitive nature of humans will not.  The Internet provides a challenge to the industry but it also provides opportunities we have only begun to understand.

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