The Rise of Open-Source Politics

Whether you're a Democrat in mourning or a Republican in glee, the results from election day should not obscure an important shift in America's civic life. New tools and practices born on the internet have reached critical mass, enabling ordinary people to participate in processes that used to be closed to them. It may seem like cold comfort for Kerry supporters now, but the truth is that voters don't have to rely on elected or self-appointed leaders to chart the way forward anymore. The era of top-down politics – where campaigns, institutions and journalism were cloistered communities powered by hard-to-amass capital – is over. Something wilder, more engaging and infinitely more satisfying to individual participants is arising alongside the old order.

One moment when this new power began to be collectively understood by grassroots activists was on April 23, 2003. It was 4:31 p.m. (EST) in cyberspace when Mathew Gross, then toiling in obscurity on Howard Dean's presidential campaign, posted the following missive on the message board of, a little-known but heavily trafficked forum for anti-Bush sentiment:

So I wander back to my desk and there really IS a note on my chair from Joe Trippi, the Campaign Manager for Howard Dean. The note says:
Start an "Ask the Dean Campaign" thread over at the Smirking Chimp.
– Joe
Surely a seminal moment in Presidential politics, no?
So, here's the deal. Use this space to throw questions and comments our way. I'll be checking this thread, Joe will be checking this thread. We're understandably very busy so don't give up if we disappear for a day or two. Talk amongst yourselves while we're out of the room, as it were. But we will check in and try to answer questions. We want to hear from you. We want to know what you think.
So, go to it. And thanks for supporting Howard Dean.
About an hour later, after 30 responses appeared, Zephyr Teachout, Gross's colleague, chimed in with some answers. A little later, a participant on the site wrote: "This is too cool, an actual direct line to the Dean campaign committee! Pinch me – I must be dreaming!" Ultimately, more than 400 people posted comments on Gross' thread. Richard Hoefer, a frequent visitor, later wrote me: "That was an amazing day to see that rise out of nowhere. People were floored that the thread title was 'Ask the Dean Campaign' – and Trippi and Matt were actually asking questions and interacting. Never before had anyone seen that."

Never before had the top-down world of presidential campaigning been opened to a bottom-up, laterally networked community of ordinary voters. The Smirking Chimp is a web site with 25,000-plus registered members, founded after the 2000 election as a gathering place for liberals, progressives and leftists who felt the newly selected president reminded them most of, well, a smirking chimp. Each day they devour and critique the handful of critical articles selected by its webmaster, Jeff Tiedrich, a New York-based programmer who started the site on a lark and is amazed by its growth. "The community of the Chimp is the angry, angry, engaged left," Tiedrich says. When it was offered a direct connection to Dean, who was then the only candidate attacking Bush and the war in stark terms, lightning struck.

"The reason these community sites have formed," says Gross, rattling off the names DailyKos, MyDD, Eschaton, Democratic Underground and Buzzflash, along with the Smirking Chimp, "is the Democratic Party is too based on insiders." (Some Republicans apparently feel the same way, and have started similar sites, like Indeed, at most political organizations, "membership" and "participation" mean little more than writing a check in response to a direct-mail appeal, as Harvard professor Theda Skocpol argues in her 2003 book Diminished Democracy. This wasn't always the case, Skocpol notes – through the first half of the 1900s tens of millions of Americans were engaged in cross-class fellowship and civic activism through federated mass membership organizations like the Free Masons, the Knights of Pythias and the American Legion. But, undermined by the Vietnam War, the "rights revolutions" and especially the new mass-media system, mass membership groups atrophied. They were replaced by a proliferating array of professionally run, top-down advocacy organizations, like the AARP and Natural Resources Defense Council. "America is now full of civic entrepreneurs who are constantly looking upward for potential angels, shmoozing with the wealthy," Skocpol writes, rather than talking to people of modest means.

But it is also true that insiderism and elitism have recently come under heavy attack, as everyone from Trent Lott to Dan Rather can attest. And it's not just Congress and big media whose hierarchies are being challenged; nonprofits and interest groups are feeling the ground shift too. "Members Unite! You have nothing to lose but your newsletters and crappy coffee-cup premiums," read the title of a recent post on, a blog devoted to fostering this movement. New web-based tools are facilitating a different way of doing politics, one in which we may all actually, not hypothetically, be equals; where transparency and accountability are more than slogans; and where anyone with few resources but a compelling message can be a community organizer, an ad-maker, a reporter, a publisher, a theorist, a money-raiser or a leader.

Consider these harbingers:

  • About two-thirds of American adults use the internet, and more than 55 percent have access to a high-speed internet connection at either home or work.

  • More than 53 million people have contributed material online, according to a spring 2003 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

  • More than 15 million have their own web site.

  • A new blog, or online journal, is created every 5.3 seconds, according to, a site that tracks the known universe of these easily updated web sites. As of Nov. 1, there were almost 4.3 million blogs, a million more than three months before. More than half of them are regularly updated by their creators, producing more than 400,000 fresh postings every day. (Full disclosure: My brother David is the founder of Technorati.)

  • A well-written blog, Joshua Micah Marshall's Talking Points Memo, gets more than 500,000 monthly visitors – as many as the entire web site of The American Prospect, the magazine where Marshall used to work, at a fraction of the cost.

  • Of the approximately 400,000-500,000 people who attended a political meeting through the social-networking site this election season, half had never gone to a political meeting before. 60 percent were under 40.

  • Attendees of Meetups for Democratic Party presidential candidates reported making an average of $312 in political contributions last year.

  • A two-minute political cartoon lampooning both Kerry and Bush, put out by this past summer, had 10 million viewings in the month of July – three times the number of hits on both presidential campaign web sites combined – and has since been viewed another 55 million times.

But it isn't the quantity of interactions taking place that suggests the change under way; it is the quality of those conversations. If, as a New Yorker cartoon put it, "On the internet, no one knows if you're a dog," on the internet, no one likes it if you don't speak in a genuine human voice. Says Christopher Locke, one of the co-authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, a bible of sorts for business people trying to understand how the internet is changing commerce:

"Compared to this kind of personal, intimate, knowledgeable and highly engaged voice ... top-down corporate communications come across as stale and stentorian – the boring, authoritarian voice of command and control. The glaring difference between these styles is the strange attractor that has brought tens of millions flocking to the internet. There's new life passing along the wires. And it hasn't been coming from corporations." Nor has it been coming from politicians, not until recently.

It's the Network, Stupid

The differences between, the big, liberal e-mail activist group, and, the biggest of the new blog-centered sites, are illustrative. MoveOn and its associated PAC give its 2.8 million subscribers lots of easy, timely and mostly well-chosen options to get involved in national affairs. Most people are too busy to get deeply involved in many issues, and thus many respond positively to a request for help if action is one click away. MoveOn's sheer size makes small actions feel larger – maybe you'll do a bake sale for democracy if you know 10,000 other people are doing it too. It has raised millions of dollars for political candidates and advertising, and involved its subscribers in many innovative experiments, like its June 2003 online presidential primary and its "Bush in 30 Seconds" ad contest.

But MoveOn is still very much a top-down organization. Technologist and organizational strategist Tom Mandel says, "MoveOn is to liberal politics as Wal-Mart is to retail." Wes Boyd, Joan Blades, Eli Pariser and the other members of its leadership team may sign all their mass e-mails with their first names, but they set policy for the organization in much the same way as every other nonprofit, by talking among themselves, fielding proposals from various suitors, polling their audience and talking among themselves some more. Periodically they will ask subscribers to offer their ideas about priorities using an "ActionForum" program that enables visitors to suggest an issue, read what others have said and vote on their preferences. But that tool gives MoveOn members little ability to talk to each other directly or to aggregate their ideas independently of the choices its leaders make for them.

By comparison, DailyKos is a multilayered community engineered to reward ideas that bubble up from below. Like many bloggers, Markos Moulitsas, the Gulf War veteran who runs it, requires visitors to register (for free) if they want to post a comment. He also encourages users to set up their own "diaries," or blogs within his blog, where they can post their own entries. Unlike most blogs, the DailyKos is built on a tool called Scoop, which includes peer moderation, where members rank each other's entries and comments. Smart diary postings thus often rise to Moulitsas's attention, and if he reprints them on his main page they gain an even larger audience.

In addition, people with high rankings become "trusted users" who have the ability to recommend that visitors who try to disrupt conversations or simply post right-wing taunts be banned from the site. Only Moulitsas has the power to make that decision, and he weeds his garden carefully. "If somebody posts and I haven't seen them in a while," he told me, "I'll say, 'Where've you been?'" Amazingly, he insists that he has developed personal relationships with hundreds of people. "That's what happens after two years of reading the same names over and over again," he says.

As a result, the Kos community has become a very efficient collaboration engine – not only for pooling money for candidates (at least $600,000 has been given through the site) but also for rapid fact-checking of political statements and news stories, quick dissemination of news of voting irregularities and brainstorming of campaign themes. During the presidential debates, Kos' daily traffic surged to more than a half million visits. The DailyKos, to be sure, is still an egocentric organization dominated by one person who is not without blemishes, like refusing to disclose who his paying political clients are. But his success shows the power of an open network approach to organizing.

Beyond Kos, blog-based political networking has had all kinds of concrete political effects. Best known is the way prominent bloggers like Joshua Micah Marshall, along with some conservatives like Glenn Reynolds, fired up the Trent Lott-Strom Thurmond story, which led to Lott's fall from grace. More recently, bloggers have spurred the resignation of a homophobic congressman (Ed Schrock), undermined the credibility of key evidence in Dan Rather's story on Bush's National Guard service, distributed Jon Stewart's blistering Oct.15 appearance on CNN's Crossfire, beat back Sinclair Broadcasting's plan to force its stations to air an anti-Kerry documentary, and formed a back channel for unhappy soldiers in Iraq and their families back home.

The new political technology works because it gives individuals a way to pool their time, attention and resources around causes they may hold in common – and to do it without needing to become a professional activist or wait for approval from any authority figure. "It's not about the technology or the blog," says Mathew Gross now. "It's about having a conversation and treating people with respect."

The New Gold Rush

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 web sites 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, Ariz., 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 and 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.

Loss of Control Freaks

That message has been very slow in reaching the Democratic establishment. On his blog, Weinberger tells of meeting DNC chair Terry McAuliffe at a cocktail party. "I tried to say that the 'net can do things for campaigns other than raise money ... for example, bring in a portion of the population that is feeling a tad alienated in part because of the relentless money 'n' marketing focus of the campaign. McAuliffe agreed, and then went on to re-express my point in terms of using the 'net to raise money." Nor did this message penetrate the Kerry campaign. "They don't take part in the conversation on the Kerry blog," complained Mathew Gross this past summer. "They're still sort of issuing press releases, albeit in a more human voice."

That's because top-down politics is all about maintaining control. "Think of an established brand with a lot invested in control of its image," says Jonah Seiger, founding partner of Connections Media and a veteran of internet politicking since the late 1980s. "The idea of opening that up is scary."

"Anybody who does politics the old way will fight doing things the new way because it's harder to get paid for it," says Mark Walsh, CEO of Progress Media, the parent of Air America and a veteran of such companies as VerticalNet and America Online. "Look at every other industry and how the internet has altered it. Take E-Trade and the selling of stocks. Or Orbitz and the travel industry. In every case, the internet enables getting rid of the middlemen." For about a year, starting in late 2001, Walsh was McAuliffe's chief technology officer, earning $1 a year to help the Democratic Party upgrade its tech systems. "Terry did want to do the right thing," Walsh says, "but I found the same buzz saw – legacy behavior and consultants who are compensated highly for non-cyber-centric behavior. TV, telemarketing, direct mail – that's where the margins are."

Another veteran of early efforts to convince top Democrats to embrace the new technology, who asked not to be named, said "At the DSCC [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] the executive director, Jim Jordan, flatly didn't care. He said it was in the hands of then-political director Andy Grossman, who said, 'The day someone can show me that the internet will make a difference in raising money or casting votes, that's the day I will care.'" He said this in 2001 – after MoveOn's anti-impeachment campaign, after Jesse Ventura's breakthrough use of the internet in 1998, after John McCain and Bill Bradley raised millions online in the 2000 primaries.

"The disconnect is now gone," says my source, noting that top Democratic Party staff are all embracing new web-based tools, "but the willingness to acknowledge that change must happen to accompany that is not. The internet has to become the center of the organization. But the notion of the party's committees having well-defined departments with a top-down hierarchical structure hasn't changed." Walsh adds, "We have to go through a generational purge. People have been fed crap – the McPolitics diet – for so long, the body politic will respond slowly to new tools that will make them smarter and more powerful." Thus one big question for the coming year will be the extent to which grassroots activists, small donors and bloggers decide to raise hard questions about the functioning of the party organs and interest groups that until now have been able to act on their behalf without having to pay a price for their mistakes. The Kerry debacle is a good place to start.

Open-source politics is still a long way off. The term "open source" specifically refers to allowing any software developer to see the underlying source code of a program, so that anyone can analyze it and improve it; better code trumps bad code, and programmers who have proven their smarts have greater credibility and status. Applied to political organizing, open source would mean opening up participation in planning and implementation to the community, letting competing actors evaluate the value of your plans and actions, being able to shift resources away from bad plans and bad planners and toward better ones, and expecting more of participants in return. It would mean moving away from egocentric organizations and toward network-centric organizing.

The Emerging Internet Majority

To the visionary technologists building the new civic software, we are living in nothing short of a paradigm shift. Scott Heiferman, the scrawny, youthful CEO of, enjoys citing Alexis de Tocqueville along with Robert Putnam, and argues, "In the same way that TV took politics away from the grassroots, the internet will give it back." He predicts a return to the 1800s/early-1900s era of joiners and organizers, when a double-digit level of civic participation in community affairs was common. Steven Johnson, the author of Emergence, recently wrote:
Using open-source coding as a model, it's not a stretch to believe the same process could make politics more representative and fair. Imagine, for example, how a grassroots network could take over some of the duties normally performed by high-priced consultants who try to shape a campaign message that's appealing. If the people receiving the message create it, chances are it's much more likely to stir up passions.
Joi Ito, a Japanese venture capitalist and social entrepreneur, predicts that the web will become more self-organizing and that a new form of "emergent democracy" will evolve that will be more supple and transparent than traditional forms of representative democracy.

There's no question that public discourse is being radically changed. As Dan Gillmor, until recently a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, writes in his terrific new book, We the Media, "If someone knows something in one place, everyone who cares about that something will know it soon enough." But it's also possible that new internet-based tools will merely give already advantaged groups greater voice, reinforcing existing inequalities. "I think there are still a lot of Americans who think that no one is listening to them," says Theda Skocpol. She argues that web-enabled politicking may just be "really well suited to the liberal side of the spectrum, where you have a lot of college-educated people who are not connecting to politics through church networks or their workplaces or professional associations, where open partisanship is frowned upon, and where the Democratic Party has fallen into dealing with people as disaggregated individuals, followers or clients, rather than participants."

Indeed, a Bentley College survey of attendees at Meetups for the Democratic presidential candidates and party found they were mostly white middle- and upper-income professionals. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project's most recent survey, Hispanics have closed the gap with whites, with two-thirds of both groups going online, but internet usage among blacks lags by about 18 percent. Age is the other obvious predictor of online behavior, with just under one-quarter of people over 65 venturing online. Yet another factor also affects internet participation: time. "Who is it that spends time online?" asks Mathew Gross. "It's people at home or at desk jobs where they can surf the web. You don't have that kind of time or freedom if you're a dental hygienist or migrant worker," he notes.

Skocpol argues that the internet is not changing the class structure of mobilization, because it is all driven by "intentional politics." You have to know in advance that you're looking for political information or to join a conversation or make a donation before you search on the web, she says. In the past, when federated, mass-membership organizations enlivened civic life, "People didn't have to know in advance that they wanted to be involved," she notes. She has a point: While the web may make it easier for a compelling message to circulate through existing social networks, it doesn't alter our tendency to cluster by social group. At the same time, people who rely on the net for political information are actually more likely than non-net users to seek out views different from their own, according to a new Pew Internet study.

These are likely to be momentary bumps in a much larger wave. That's because the next generation is growing up online, rather than adapting to it in their mid-adult years. More than 2 million children aged 6-17 have their own website, according to a December 2003 survey by Grunwald Associates. Twenty-nine percent of kids in grades K-3 have their own e-mail address. Social networking sites like Friendster and Flickr (a photo-sharing site) are drawing millions of participants and fostering new kinds of social conversations, some of which are already political.

Josh Koenig, one of the 20-somethings who cut their teeth at the Dean campaign and a co-founder of Music for America, says, "We're only seeing the first drips of what is going to be a downpour." When he told me that in most high schools in America, students are using the web to rank their teachers, I thought that was a bit of hyperbole. But then I discovered, where more than 6 million ratings have been posted by students on more than 900,000 teachers at more than 40,000 American and Canadian middle and high schools. That's triple the number from one year ago, covering about 85 percent of all the schools in both countries.

Just imagine when they take that habit into their adult lives, and start rating other authority figures, like politicians and bosses. The future is in their hands, though the rest of us will be taken along for the ride.

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