Built up around the land grant university chartered there in 1785, Athens, Ga. is a college town, pure and simple. If it's known nationally, it's for being home to neo-hippie pop bands REM and the B-52s. But on an April morning in 2002, the University of Georgia quietly started a telecommunications revolution, introducing the nation to the idea of municipally-sponsored wireless technology -- WiFi, a technology that prognosticators, major media, and ambitious politicians world-wide are hailing as the Next Big Thing in the evolution of the Internet.
Why is WiFi so hot for so many different constituencies? Ask the folks in Athens. "Information used to be a destination," says Dr. Scott Shamp, director of the University of Georgia's New Media Institute (NMI), which led the town's WiFi project. "The weird thing about wireless is that it shifts that relationship: information is not a destination anymore. It's a companion."
Cities across the country, including Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Boston, are currently exploring their wireless connectivity options. The most promising of the initiatives, Philadelphia Wireless, is using the same technology developed in Athens and licensed from the University of Georgia. At the NMI they call it "The Cloud."
The NMI, itself established in April 2000,was the University of Georgia's attempt to help people understand what to do with the powerful new medium called the Internet. Set up as a traditional teaching and research unit, the department changed direction in April of 2001, following a research retreat in which 30 "cool people" from around Athens -- artists, business leaders, government officials, university faculty and staff -- spent two days answering the question, "What technologies are going to have the biggest impact in the next three to four years?" Their answer: Wireless Internet connectivity -- or what the NMI dubs "mobile media."
A creative approach
Initially, Shamp says, the NMI's approach to wireless was going to be "the standard academic way - we were going to do studies and we were going to do questionnaires, we were going to do interviews. It was the way that professors always approach things.
"But we had a group of students come in -- music students, a romance language student, a computer science student -- and they said, 'If you're going to talk the talk of wireless you ought to walk the walk,'" Shamp says. "They said for very little money, we can make a wireless cloud over downtown Athens. I said, 'How much money?' They said 500 bucks. I said, 'Done.'"
In a few short weeks, the first wireless Internet transmitter box was hung on a telephone pole at the corner of Clayton and College Streets, invisibly connecting anyone drinking coffee in a nearby cafÃƒÂ© or lounging on a sidewalk bench -- with a computer and wireless network card -- to the Internet.
"The technology really is fairly easy to understand," says Shamp, who happily admits he didn't know how any of the stuff he was buying actually worked at the time. "The students cobbled together a couple of Linksys [wireless router] access points for 150 bucks, we got a weatherproof box, we bought some antennas, hung it on a pole in downtown Athens."
As often happens when you make history -- particularly if an international news network is in your backyard -- the national media quickly took notice. CNN's technology program, Next@CNN, first reported on the Athens project at the end of July, at a time when The Cloud, initially dubbed the WAGZone (for Wireless Athens Georgia Zone) covered just three blocks. CNN repeated the story for weeks. The little town of Athens had become an international phenomenon.
And the city paid attention to its newfound celebrity.
"We always try to develop close relationships to the University," says Jeff Montgomery, a spokesman for Athens-Clarke County government. "The NMI has worked really well reaching out to the community, and we saw it as an opportunity to tap into innovation. And since it's free for the public, it branches out into some quality-of-life issues. It's a neat thing for Athens to develop and be known for."
Shortly after the media coverage appeared, representatives of Athens-Clarke County's Computer Information Services Department visited the NMI, paving the way for the second access box to be installed, in April 2002, using county resources. A few months later, the ACC Board of Commissioners agreed to endorse and help operate the WAGZone for a year.
BellSouth, which provides phone and dial-up Internet service in Athens, has had a mutually supportive relationship with the NMI since 2000. "We were actually one of the first corporations to give a gift to NMI," says BellSouth spokeswoman LeAnn Boucher. "We gave them about $6,000 back in 2000 to help get them funded."
The WiFi fine line
Similar projects are underway across the country, ranging from projects that follow the Athens model, like those in Cerritos, Ca. and Nevada, Mo., to full-scale municipal projects like those planned in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Austin. But Shamp sees a fine distinction between small projects like Athens' and large-scale, high-profile operations.
Not all approaches to municipal wireless are feasible according to proponents of the Athens model, though. Using government money to build a wireless cloud over a city, Shamp says, can force a competitor service to end up paying for WiFi through the taxes they pay the city. "It's not right to take government money and compete with a business," he contends.
It seems BellSouth agrees. Boucher says BellSouth considers The NMI Cloud "completely different" from other municipal wireless scenarios being considered across the country. "It's not competitive, it's just a great way to study the way people are going to use mobile technology," she says. "It's a great research bed for us."
And that research seems to be paying off -- BellSouth recently introduced a mobile Internet service in Athens using radio spectrum to deliver broadband connectivity. "It requires a modem that is plugged in, so it's not like a WiFi product," says Boucher. "But since you don't need to have a phone line, you can take it with you from apartment to dorm, but not to the local coffee shop. It's very cost-effective when compared to other broadband products."
At $29.95 per month for its cheapest mobile service, BellSouth does offer a strong alternative to cable DSL, which in Athens costs $49.95 (or $89.95 for the least expensive television/Internet service package) through Charter Communications -- and requires that you keep rooted in one spot.
A looming threat to the telecom status quo?
But true high speed connectivity, which makes downloading video a snap and promises to allow free international calls for WiFi-equipped cell phones, constitutes a direct threat both to phone and cable television revenue. And the larger the market, the more that's at stake.
Municipal wireless advocates argue that telecom companies like Time-Warner, Charter Communications, and Verizon have an effective duopoly over Internet connectivity. Blocking municipal wireless programs is a necessary business strategy for companies heavily invested in keeping access both expensive and limited.
At their fastest, most cable and phone-based services run at just one-tenth the speed of the fastest WiFi connections. Even Charter's WiFi service, a pay-as-you-go offering provided through partner MobilePipes Inc., maxes out at 1.5 megabits per second (mbps). This is paltry compared to WiFi's potential 15mbps. And starting at $9.05 per hour, it can hardly be called competitive.
Shamp, however, is not convinced that big telecom has much to worry about. "[The Cloud] is not a replacement for anybody's regular connectivity. Most city-run wireless service is run by volunteers or, at most, folks who see the service as an adjunct, not a substitute for more reliable networks maintained by those who are actually in those businesses to make money." He has a point: among the truly tech-savvy, wireless networks are considered nonsecure, intended for convenience -- checking email, for instance -- rather than for banking or other more sensitive activities.
Pro-municipal wireless legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate and anti-municipal wireless legislation introduced in the House give an indication of how heated this fight might get as the anticipated re-write of the 1996 Telecom Act gets underway. Congress is just the latest battleground, however. Late last year, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law -- supported by Verizon's cell phone division -- requiring municipalities to seek permission from their local telecom provider before building an Athens-like network. (As part of the deal to pass the law, Verizon approved of Philadelphia's decision to create such a network).
Shamp, for one, sees all this as little more than growing pains.
"I believe pretty soon we're going to consider connectivity free. We're going to have such an expectation that if you have a business built on trying to sell connectivity, that's going to be really tough," he says. "I think where people are going to start to build sustainable businesses will be off the information that they're selling to people."
At the end of January, newly-elected South Dakota Sen. John Thune briefed his colleagues at a closed-door GOP retreat in West Virginia about the importance of blogging in contemporary politics. Thune earned his bragging rights by defeating former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle this past November, in a race where conservative bloggers played a small but important role. But the story that Thune has to tell isn't anything like earlier political blog successes such as the Dean for America campaign blog or DailyKos.
The blogging efforts on behalf of Thune's Senate campaign didn't cause greater civic participation or bring in piles of small donations. Instead nine bloggers – two of whom were paid $35,000 by Thune's campaign – formed an alliance that constantly attacked the election coverage of South Dakota's principal newspaper, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. More specifically, their postings were not primarily aimed at dissuading the general public from trusting the Argus' coverage. Rather, the work of these bloggers was focused on getting into the heads of the three journalists at the Argus who were primarily responsible for covering the Daschle/Thune race: chief political reporter David Kranz, state editor Patrick Lalley, and executive editor Randell Beck.
Led by law student Jason van Beek and University of South Dakota history professor Jon Lauck, the Thune bloggers tormented and rattled the Argus staff for the duration of the 2004 election, clearly influencing the Argus' coverage. They also appear to have been a highly efficient vehicle for injecting classic no-fingerprints-attached opposition research on Daschle – most of it tidbits that perhaps might never have made it into the old print media – directly into the political bloodstream of South Dakota. What they did may turn out to be a "dark side of politics" model for campaign-blogger relations in 2005-06 – made all the more telling by the fact that the Thune bloggers relied heavily on now-discredited Jeff Gannon/James Guckert of Talon News for many of their stories.
Arguing with the Argus
Jason van Beek started his pro-Thune blog, South Dakota Politics, in early January of 2003, about 21 months before the next general election. It was already assumed at the time that Thune would run again for the Senate, despite just coming off a loss to Democrat Tim Johnson – albeit by little more than 500 votes. Polls also showed early on that Daschle could be vulnerable. van Beek's blog entries in the first year consisted of a mix of posting on news and national politics, commentary on the Argus Leader's political coverage, negative posts about Daschle, and generally supportive posts about Thune's campaign progress. van Beek soon added a Kranz Watch feature, where he zeroed in on David Kranz's coverage of the Senate election for the Argus, and researched Kranz's past. In four long "bombshell" memos, van Beek reported that Kranz and Daschle had college ties going back to the late '60s, and that in 1976, when Kranz was an editor at a small South Dakota newspaper, he met with one of South Dakota Democratic Sen. Abourezk's staff and gave advice on how to do better PR. The Senate staffer that Van Beek cited wrote that Kranz was "a good Democrat" in his notes.
Some of the work that van Beek referred to in his bombshell memos was by James Guckert (using his nom de plume Jeff Gannon), the now notorious former reporter for the pseudo-journalistic, pro-GOP outlet Talon News. Starting with a few articles in 2003, Guckert would go on to write more than 20 articles about Daschle, David Kranz and the Argus' coverage over the course of the election season. It was Guckert who first correctly reported that Kranz and Daschle had co-organized a Democratic convention in college. van Beek linked to Guckert's articles on his blog (as would many of the other South Dakota bloggers later on). Over the course of the election, van Beek praised Guckert's and his reporting as "indefatigable" and promoted his articles heavily on his web site. Now that Guckert has been shown to be a partisan journalistic disgrace, all of his reports have been scrubbed from Talon News' web site. Links to Guckerts articles on van Beeks blog have since been removed, and a defense of Guckerts reporting on Daschle has been posted.
Two of the bloggers who joined van Beek's crusade against the Argus were Steve Sibson, who started Sibby Online in May, 2003, and professor Jon Lauck, who had worked on Thune's 2002 campaign as a lawyer. Lauck created his Daschle V. Thune blog in January of 2004, directly inspired by van Beek's South Dakota Politics. By the late spring the Thune bloggers had gotten familiar with each others' sites, posting links to their colleagues prominently on their sidebars, and nine of them formed the South Dakota Blog Alliance. Working in concert, the bloggers scrutinized every word and as much history as they could about the backgrounds of the Argus staff.
Jon Lauck explained the bloggers' rationale for going after the Argus in two postings April 2004. In one entry Lauck wrote, "While South Dakota used to be a state rich with newspapers, now there are only 11 dailies left in the entire state, and only two of them are owned by South Dakotans . Many of these dailies depend on the Argus Leader for political news ." A few days later, Lauck would also write that the "Argus Leader is read by tens-of-thousands of people in the Southeast corner of the state, where the largest concentration of the state's people live. The state's small town dailies and weeklies often run Argus stories in their pages – or Argus stories which are picked up by the Associated Press – because they don't have political reporters. The ripple effect of an Argus story, therefore, is large. The newspaper's reporting and selection of stories determines, to a large extent, the information available to the citizens in the state. The Argus, in short, is critical to the proper functioning of the democratic process in South Dakota."
The Argus is the Grey Lady of South Dakota, in other words, went Lauck's thinking.
Pressing the Coverage
In mid-August, Lauck organized a small conference in Sioux Falls at Augustana College sponsored by the Alliance. About forty people were in attendance, along with an AP reporter and other local reporters. Lauck kicked off the event with a lecture that considered whether blogs are a new kind of populism. Jason van Beek's lecture was "The Dakota Blogs and the Sioux Falls Argus Leader: Beyond Conventional Wisdom." John Hinderaker, of the Powerline blog (who was soon to be one of Time Magazine's bloggers of the year), delivered the keynote speech.
The Dakota bloggers at the conference even agreed to a formal platform, which wasn't about South Dakota or its citizens, or even about trying to help John Thune win. The platform was about the coverage of the most important newspaper in South Dakota and its positive treatment of Tom Daschle:
"WHEREAS, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader has become a powerful print media monopoly in Southeastern South Dakota;
WHEREAS, a pattern of chronic political bias has been uncovered at the Argus Leader;
WHEREAS, many stories reported nationally which are critical of U.S. Senator Tom Daschle are not reported by the Argus Leader;" ... and so on.
As the Argus went to press each day, the bloggers would have their scalpels out, though their findings were scarcely the stuff of scandal. Some typical fare:
- John Lauck, Aug. 25: "The Argus does its best to spread the 'Daschle-as-victim' meme today with this story, which is 1A and top of the fold. While the story should be about what Daschle claims in his current ad – which is untrue and features some odd speakers – the Argus report goes on about ads that might happen down the road which might hurt Daschle."
- Jason van Beek, Sept. 17: "Ah, there's nothing like the Argus Leader double standard. Republican college kids get skewered [for calling South Dakota Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth a witch] while what Kranz and Daschle did in their college days 'doesn't mean anything.'"
- Steve Sibson, Oct. 16: "In yesterday's debate, John Thune was head and shoulders above Tom Daschle. With David Kranz as moderator in Sunday's debate, what questions will be asked, or not asked, to turn the tide in favor of David Kranz's college buddy Tom Daschle?
From the Argus Leader's ethics web page:
When unavoidable personal or business interests could compromise the newspaper's credibility, such potential conflicts must be disclosed to one's superior and, if relevant, to readers.
[Argus executive editor] Randell Beck is not fulfilling this obligation to his readers, which only leads one to suspect that the pro-Democrat bias of the Argus Leader is institutional."Additionally, the Alliance bloggers posted dozens of arcane documents, dubious factoids, and PDF images of old newspaper articles about Daschle, which had all appearances of being campaign opposition research. Lauck told me that he did not get research from the Thune campaign, but added that some of the best material he posted came from Charlene Haar – a former high school teacher of Lauck's – who ran against Daschle in 1992. Most of the oppositions research-style blog postings concluded with sentiment along the lines of "Where's the Argus on this story?" Jason van Beek for example in late October tried to show Daschle's manipulation of the federal government for his own interest ... so that he could use his cell phone:
"Apparently, Senator Daschle didn't like it that his cell phone would cut out when he commuted through Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC. So he rammed through an amendment that allowed Bell Atlantic to erect two cell phone towers in the middle of Rock Creek Park, effectively circumventing six separate federal statutes and regulations and precluding judicial review. It seems Daschle uses his 'clout' for Bell Atlantic, not South Dakota. Whose side is Daschle on, anyway?... And, of course, the Argus Leader never reported this story."
Daschle had accepted contributions from Bell Atlantic in the past, so his support for this measure may have had more to do with favors for special interests or perhaps a federal vs. local government battle with D.Cs city council – than his own desire to use his cell phone during his commute.
More temperament and less pedantry on the part of the South Dakota bloggers might have given them broader legitimacy in their campaign to prove the Argus' bias, but its clear that they had an impact regardless. And the absence of a counterforce on the internet made their impact all the stronger. No South Dakotan blogger made it his or her mission to defend the reputation of the Argus, and pro-Daschle blogging efforts in the state were amateur in comparison to the scale, organization, and political savvy of the Thune bloggers.
As the tightness in the polls of the most important Senate race in the country drew national attention, van Beek and Lauck's postings were increasingly read and linked to in the larger conservative blogosphere. Well-known right-leaning blogs, such as Instapundit and Powerline Blog, linked to their entries. Andrew Sullivan eventually linked to van Beek's Kranz Watch. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt brought them on his nationally syndicated radio show to talk about the Argus. Traffic to the South Dakota blogs grew as well. Lauck estimated that he was getting 8,000 unique visitors a day to his Daschle V. Thune blog during the last five weeks of the campaign season, with a little over half of his visitors from in-state.
After watching an article about Daschle he linked to fly through the internet, Lauck exulted that his site "was the first link. Then South Dakota Politics. Then Drudge. Then Powerline. Then Instapundit. Quite the little blogo-storm." Lauck's explanation was later echoed by Michelle Malkin's account of the blogger-led takedown of CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan this February. After a blogger posted his account of Jordan's remarks from a forum at Davos and got some initial coverage, "a few standout bloggers picked up on the story and refused to let it die," Malkin wrote. "The [Mainstream Media] calls it a lynch mob. I call it a truth squad. Ed Morrissey, Hewitt, La Shawn Barber, Jim Geraghty, and LGF kept 'baying' – which got the attention of the blogosphere's most powerful player, Instapundit. Bill Roggio quickly created the group blog, Easongate, to keep on top of the story. Legions of smaller bloggers, too numerous to mention, kept the heat on. N.Z. Bear pitched in with a helpful Easongate tracker. The relentless Hewitt used his blog, radio show, and column [on the Weekly Standard's web site] to press the mainstream media and media critics Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis to cover the story, observing, "You can't cover the press if you don't press the coverage."
There's no evidence that the greater publicity that Lauck, van Beek and the other bloggers received from larger outlets was part of an attempt to prop up their work by outside groups. Rather, the South Dakota election was a natural draw of attention from bigger conservative bloggers and news outlets. Though if bloggers continue to find success with impromptu alliances and loose networks in their campaigns to praise or attack public figures, it's likely that their coordination will formalize and that their cooperation with institutional politics and larger media outlets will become more extensive.
The Dakota bloggers got the attention of the larger conservative blogosphere with their press of the coverage. But did the pressure that the South Dakota bloggers applied affect the way that the Argus covered the Daschle/Thune race?
Argus Leader assistant managing editor Patrick Lalley – who was the paper's state editor for the 2004 Senate campaign – told National Journal reporter John Stanton in November that he didn't "think there's any way to say they didn't [affect the paper's coverage]." Stanton also quoted a source at the Argus who said that the constant comments from the blogs created a "siege mentality" at the paper, and that the bloggers forced the hand of the paper to cover things it wouldn't have otherwise.
Lalley told me that he didn't make any decisions based solely on what the Dakota bloggers were doing, but that their blogging was part of the mix that influenced his editorial coverage. He said that he started paying attention to the blogs when Jon Lauck started blogging in January of 2004, yet he knew that Lauck had worked for Thune in 2002, and that he thought of Laucks work as akin to that of a campaign operative. "They were part of the din of the operations and the campaign. The voters of South Dakota weren't reading these blogs," Lalley said, "and these blogs weren't aimed at the voters either. These blogs were a window into Thune's campaign strategy. They were for the most part aimed at the staff at the Argus responsible for covering the election."
It's clear that the Argus staff was following what the South Dakota bloggers were writing from early on and that the bloggers to some extent had succeeded in provoking the paper. For example:
– In April of 2004, Argus executive editor Randell Beck was on South Dakota radio attacking the South Dakota bloggers for publicizing the Talon News reports and memos that alleged David Kranz's strong ties to Tom Daschle and the Democratic Party establishment in the state. Beck questioned their use of the facts.
"There is somewhere out there in internet-land a small cabal I call them – and they're small – and they're a cabal of folks whose hatred of a certain political affiliation is so strong and so violent that they'll stoop to any level to muddy the waters and confuse the issue. And employing one of the time-worn tactics they shoot the messenger, in this case the largest newspaper in the state and more specifically Dave Kranz, the best political reporter in the region, and to a certain level myself. I care little about myself. That's why I get the big bucks to take the hits and I can certainly do that. What I find mildly tiresome is the attacks using twisted language, using selected, um – I hate to even use the word facts – statements to malign the character of one of the finest, most honest, credible reporters in the region."Kranz later told the National Journal after the election that some of the things that van Beek and others had published about his ties to Daschle were correct, but that they did get a lot of their facts wrong. However, Kranz never responded to the specifics of van Beeks "bombshell" memos. In some part, Kranz was reined in by Randell Beck, who said he didnt want Kranz to get in a "pissing match" with the bloggers.
– In August of 2004 the Argus ran an article questioning the legitimacy of blogs as a journalistic source and quoted Lauck, Sibson, van Beek and others. In the article, the Argus disclosed that Lauck was a paid consultant for the Thune campaign amid discussion of the questions raised by objectivity and transparency in blogging. The article concluded by saying, "The technology is new, but the warning is not: buyer beware."
– Starting in late September, Jeff Gannon/James Guckert wrote a series of articles for Talon News that alleged that Daschle's declaration on a tax form that his D.C. home was his primary residence showed him to be out of touch with South Dakota, and that Daschle was collecting tax breaks on both houses. The South Dakota bloggers promoted the story for days, sharing developments and revelations on "Mansiongate" at every opportunity. Gannon/Guckert's reporting hinted that the sky might fall on Daschle's head at every juncture, with obviously skewed and threatening sentences such as "In signing the affidavit, Daschle declared under penalty of either a $1,000 fine or imprisonment of up to 180 days or both, that the property is eligible for the deductions." Lalley told me that this was the only story that the Argus decided to run because of pressure from the Dakota bloggers: "There was so much bad information flying around those blogs with that Talon story, and it was right before the election, so we ran our story so that the right story would be out there." The Argus story about Daschle's property tax issues ran on Oct. 21, and reported the issue in less hysterical fashion. The Argus report showed that Mansiongate wasn't about whether Daschle had broken laws or was out of touch with South Dakota, but about the significance of which spouse signed a tax document in a case where either was eligible to do so.
Balanced accounts or account balances?
Was the Argus biased in its coverage of Tom Daschle? A bit. And the paper ought have disclosed that Kranz had old ties to Daschle to avoid at least the appearance of collusion between the two. But should the Argus have barred Kranz from covering the election? Not really. It was the blogged-about scrutiny of Kranz that made him look biased, since most of his articles on the race were pretty straight reporting. The Argus did endorse Daschle in the end which Jason van Beek had cynically anticipated with a "countdown" on his blog. But having a good hunch of a newspaper's likely endorsement choice is nothing special. Most newspaper readers can tell you whom their local papers will endorse before it happens. Moreover, while the Argus went for Daschle, it also endorsed the re-election of George Bush. Hardly a Democratic establishment newspaper.
Jon Lauck was quoted in the Washington Times last December bragging that dealing with "media power became a 21st-century updating of 19th-century Dakota populism" during the election season. He's blogged about reading Dan Gillmor's ground-breaking book about the potential of online citizen journalism, We the Media, and he framed many of his posts during the election as alternative journalism and civic action. Lauck stopped blogging on the Daschle V. Thune site at the end of November after a victory dance on Daschle's grave, and has since been co-blogging with Jason van Beek on the South Dakota Politics site.
But what kind of citizen journalist takes thousands of dollars from a political campaign he is writing about without telling his readers? In December, a report by CBS news writer David Paul Kuhn brought attention to reporting done earlier in the Argus, and later in the National Journal, that the Thune campaign paid Lauck $27,000 and Van Beek $8,000 in 2004. Neither Lauck nor van Beek had disclosed on their sites the amount of money that they earned, and they did not specify what they were being paid for. Lauck did say on his site that he was a consultant for the Thune campaign, a month after the Argus reported it in August. He told me that most of his direct work for Thune's campaign consisted of debate preparation. Lauck now believes that these kinds of ties and relationships should be disclosed and made obvious to blog readers.
Back when the CBS story came out Lauck's explanation was that his blog would have been pro-Thune, regardless if he were paid or not. And in defense of the other Dakota bloggers, he wrote that van Beek and Sibson and others "were criticizing the Argus a year-and-a-half before any consulting was going on. And the Argus reported I was a consultant on the front page the month after I agreed to be one. Kos and Atrios and maybe other liberal bloggers are consultants too. They have opinions. Good for them. Other bloggers take partisan advertisements, and good for them too. Blogs never claimed to be objective as CBS did [with its National Guard memos]."
All true, but as with other episodes of bloggers taking money from political campaigns, Lauck and van Beeks lucrative and secretive relationship with the Thune campaign casts a shadow over the substance of their work. The lesson for readers is unchanged that is, to be skeptical of all media covering politics, online as well as traditional. But one hopes that political bloggers will see value in policing their own ethics, since the trust of readers is their most precious resource. However, its likely that political operatives will learn a different lesson from the Thune bloggers, which is that the seeming authenticity of the blogosphere can easily be turned to your advantageand a campaign that fails to take this into account, as Daschles did, is skating on thin ice.
It's not totally clear that Thune himself "gets" what the Dakota bloggers did on his behalf. In a recent GOP-sponsored video, Thune says of blogging something you'd expect of any establishment politico who's only just begun to recognize the power of the internet: "I think it is a medium that we need to be taking advantage of, because there is a big constituency of people out there; many of them who get their media, their information from the blogs." Nonetheless, Virginia Sen. George Allen recently hired Thune's campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, for his future Senate or presidential campaigns no doubt partly because he was involved in a campaign where a cheap investment in blogging seems to have had a major impact. Perhaps Allen would be better off talking to van Beek or Lauck, who actually got the psy-ops truth squad going. (van Beek recently joined Sen. Thunes staff, and has stopped blogging.) A $35,000 investment is a drop in the bucket of the $35 million Senate campaign, but as direct advertising to the very people you want to influence, it had an effect. Did it tip the race? Considering that Daschle lost by just 4,500 votes out of 390,000, it couldnt have hurt.
What is certain is the fact that there's a lot of potential in using blogging to rattle the mind of a person who has large responsibilities – such as a newspaper editor or reporter – if you can make sure that they'll pay attention to your blog. If this is the story Thune told his colleagues, we can look forward to hearing about shaken journalists at papers across the country in the coming elections.
In the 19th century, there was a rule of thumb that a county seat should be within a day's buggy ride for every citizen. We need to live by a similar rule now – a rule of thumb that pushes for physical closeness to political power through social communities.
The 'net is disrupting some old channels for political power and offering new kinds of connections as well, leading to lots of big, exciting thinking about how this may restructure society. Without an aggressive effort, however, I worry that most of this energy will go into fundraising, list-building, and maybe some online community building. These aren't bad things, but in the face of the Great American Loneliness and the Great American Powerlessness, I hope that the disruptive power of the internet might serve to create a new form of voluntary association: offline communities based on online connections but rooted in public places.
There's pretty good evidence that humans actively enjoy belonging to ritualized, secular societies that meet pretty regularly, weekly and monthly. Once upon a time, so many of us were engaged in local organizations with regularized membership and leadership roles that an observer wrote, "Here then we have the great American safety-valve – we are a nation of presidents." (My thanks to Theda Skocpol for unearthing that gem, and much of the research I am now citing.) Even as late as the '50s, there were more than 20 federated organizations which each counted between one and twelve percent of all Americans as their members. Think of the AFL-CIO, the Free Masons, the American Legion, the YMCA, the Elks, and so on.
These federated organizations had strong local structures, visits from traveling organizers but relatively little of what we would call "training" today – more networking and information sharing – and no federally funded local staff.
There are lots of explanations for the decline of participation in civic life (start with Skocpol's Diminished Democracy and then read Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone). Among the reasons Skocpol notes include: the intense professionalization of non-profits (high expectations of staffing and training), the elite flight from cross-class associations (in part due to histories of racism and sexism), the new development of foundations that meant membership wasn't necessary to raise money, the Vietnam war, which put a wedge between elites and others; the rising number of women in the workforce; and the shift in the center of political power to the federal government (leading to more emphasis on federal lobbying efforts).
In searching for salves, people today tend to either focus on a) recreating large, federated political organizations with local chapters, or b) stimulating social capital through non-political platforms for community life. (In crude form, Skocpol is seen as representative of the former view, Putnam of the latter.) In this essay, I want to poke around ways in which the internet could be used for doing both of these things, by suggesting how it could work as an organizing tool for more vibrant, federated national organizations like the Democratic National Committee or the American Civil Liberties Union.
Join In, Turn On, Turnout
Why does this matter? Local involvement in community organizations – be they explicitly political or not – correlates with much greater sense of power over political life. Sidney Verba and Gary Almond have shown, in a multi-decade, five-country study that participation – even passive participation – in local voluntary organizations appears to directly lead to greater satisfaction with government. Interestingly, the satisfaction seemed to result from the participation in the voluntary association – not from the political outcomes matching the individuals' hopes. So, as we manage to revive civic life, maybe we can also turn at least some of the anti-government tide.
Our political voice these days is largely the voice of a vote on referendums – one out of a few hundred thousand votes for a congressperson, one out of a few million votes for a senator, or worse, one out of a thousand people polled or focus-grouped standing in for the whole nation. Joining a local group, 20-50 strong, that provides some support and confidence in political acts, local or federal, vastly amplifies one's sense of power. Our representative government was built on a deeper framework than voting – on the associations that De Toqueville noticed in his travelogue – and while it thrived in that culture, it drifts without those deep and broad ballasts.
Furthermore, community involvement would seem to increase our capacity to empathize as well. The archetypal tale of online community is this – you join an e-mail list to talk about some arcane topic or hobby, but one day reality intrudes – someone dies of cancer or a heart-attack – and suddenly you realize that your online group is also a human community, albeit in virtual form. Well, talking and laughing and scheming with people of different ages and backgrounds in a face-to-face setting on an ongoing basis is even more likely to exercise our empathic abilities. No doubt that's why so many of us still volunteer in local ways, or participate in our church, synagogue or mosque.
Finally, the few groups that have devoted their energies to non-staffed local community building – the National Right to Life Committee, the Christian Coalition, and the National Rifle Association – have been extremely successful in leveraging their communities to impact federal policy.
Why aren't more people involved in secular offline communities? Part of the answer is wrapped in the logistics of helping people connect, the hassle of finding regular physical spaces to meet in, a lack of federated community organizations, and a lack of aggressively marketed/evangelized options. The net can help solve all these problems.
Among one of its most unsung charms, the internet lowers the barrier to finding places to host public events, and telling people about them. If political and media (though that's another essay) organizations with incentive and opportunity exploit this lowered barrier, the Internet could power a resurgence of a new version of the great American voluntary association.
A Proposal for the DNC
Zack Exley recently wrote a great piece addressed to the next DNC chair about how he should use the internet. It is largely focused on ground-game advice about how to win elections using technology. It's a brilliant piece, important and very concrete, and I will urge the next DNC chairman to read it, ask his staff to read it, and quickly develop a plan to implement something along those lines.
But that doesn't limit the DNC from also pursuing an internet-generated aggressive effort to re-establish local party structures as vibrant, multi-purpose, cross-class continuous communities. The DNC is not only an organization for electing candidates – it is also a service organization. It serves people's needs to be politically powerful, connected, and have a voice in agenda-setting – it can serve people's needs for moral secular communities. Constituency service is a sometimes underrated and highly important reason that people choose the candidates they vote for. (See The Personal Vote: Constituency Service and Electoral Independence by Bruce Cain, et. al.) I suspect the same is true for political parties. Inasmuch as local party offices can serve these needs – the Great American Loneliness and the Great American Powerlessness – it will also, in the long term, elect more democrats.
Right now, the DNC web site communicates to a newcomer that what it most wants you to do is contact the media, contribute, or raise money. It also has a great "Get Local" drop down, which pitches you to a page with information about your local party and links, which you can then follow to find local party events – many of which, depending on the state, sound intimidating to newcomers.
The DNC has taken great steps towards enabling local organizations, but I hope it takes it a step further, aggressively pushing the national DNC meetup – or some similarly ritualistic community event that takes place in a public space at a predictable time wherever you are – and making clear that what it most wants from its members is local involvement. The DNC can aggressively use the internet to push vibrant federation far past where it's been pushed to date.
Any visitor to the DNC's website, and any member of the DNC e-mail list should run – not walk – to the next meeting of local Democrats in their area. Ideally, the meeting would take place in a public place, so that the timid and uncertain would feel like they could just check it out, without committing. Ideally, the meeting would happen within a week or two of any given day – with a promise for another meeting near in the future – so that the DNC web site visitor would get the real sense that they were being invited to join an ongoing community, not just sit in on a brown bag lunch.
While it's not the only way, Meetup is the easiest way right now – the only service that keeps a database of public places and supports the ritual of regular meeting. The DNC should revive its stalled 66,000 member Meetup and turn it into million-strong federated organization. To ensure that the public places cultivated diverse membership, Meetup would have to be pushed to expand its database of locations. Furthermore, the DNC would have to work aggressively to grow its own email list from diverse web sites and forums – advertising on mainstream sites and predominantly Latino and African American sites and reducing its reliance on the prominent political blogs and sites that attract a primarily upper class white audience.
Ideally – and this may be one of the toughest sells, but it's a sell the national leadership can be very engaged in making – the newest member of any community will be the most celebrated, and there will be a culture of shifting leadership to new people. When I was 10 and played the Prodigal Son in my church play, the children's chorus sang "There is more joy in heaven for one lost soul that has found his way than for all 99 that have never gone astray." To regenerate local community, the Democratic Party has something to learn from the great religions – that growth depends on celebrating the greenest person in the group.
Without the internet, the DNC played relatively little role in the recruitment of new people to local organizations. Now, it can play the central role.
In market terms, the Democratic party has something that no-one else can sell – political power in local communities around the moral vision of the left. It can't sell that simply through drivng people to support candidates. It can only sate that need – which is millions strong – by building a database of places and a calendar of ritual meetings as a platform for local community.
There are many reasons this won't happen. First, there's an enormous opportunity cost to sending people locally quickly: it will make less money than it could in the short term. If the DNC parcels out its e-mail list to local groups, or send people to local events, that means it isn't raising millions of dollars it could have raised.
Second, local groups may not want the flood of newcomers. One can easily imagine conversations with local party chairs who tell the new chair of the DNC that they'd like help fundraising, and they'd like the DNC help when they have special events, but they don't really need a core of regularly meeting new people. (Who knows – they may raise concerns that the local party chair doesn't want raised, or even vote to replace him!) The DNC chair, wanting to serve the state parties, will sleep better when he chooses to send out fundraising emails instead of Meetup emails, knowing that he's serving the party chairs the way they want to be served.
Third, people will have bad experiences, and the DNC will hear about them. Bad news travels quicker than good, and in the age of the internet, it travels especially fast. Lots of local groups will have festering or open power fights, talkative or annoying leaders emerging, and unpleasant venues. The DNC will hear all about it, and quickly – and will quickly feel swamped and that it isn't serving the needs of its constituents. It will conclude that until they can insure that the experience will go well – with good qualified enablers/mediators at every meeting, with full staff ready to answer all the complaints – it shouldn't be in this business at all. Even if it's just 15 percent of all events that go sour, DNC staff will beg the DNC chair to let them professionalize and improve, and indefinitely defer true federalization.
Finally, the unspoken reason for resisting Meetup – or whatever form this ritualistic event will take – is that it actually changes the structure of power. It is almost impossible for organizations with power to reshuffle it, even if the net gain for the party is served – the net gain for the actors within the DNC is not served. This may be articulated in soft form, as in, "we don't want people to have bad experiences," or "the type of people who go to these meetings will be out of the main stream," but the underlying motivation will be a very human need to maintain control.
In the long term, however, I believe the best thing the DNC can do is be an aggressive hydraulic force outwards, with the net as its power – and all democrats will be rewarded with a vastly stronger networked community, with deep loyalty and deep engagement of the party membership.
A Proposal for the ACLU
Nonprofit organizations have little obvious incentive to invest in federated, voluntary structures. With high competition for few dollars, most organizations are taking this moment to do all kinds of fancy variations on one thing: building their list and web traffic to make more money. Consultants with short-term contracts and an understandable need to show their worth are more likely to encourage investment in the immediate payoffs that come with list-building than the long-term social change that comes with federated associations. Organizations that have internally devalued potentially federating forces as "volunteer coordinators" are also not structured to take advantage of the moment.
It has traditionally been very costly to find and support federated communities. Highly specialized non-profits that have built their entire structure around narrow lobbying efforts will not see, immediately, how they can gain by a membership organization with strong satellite structures, minds, thoughts and energy of its own. Even if they do (greater loyalty, if nothing else, will create greater revenue), these specialized nonprofits will typically reach an upper-class, well-educated membership – and create upper-class, well-educated local civic organizations.
That said, nonprofits alone can make a dent in changing the prevailing structure of our social/political life.
For a brief period, the Promise Keepers, an all-male Christian revivalist group, were one of the most successful voluntary associations in recent history. The Promise Keepers grew at a time when other voluntary associations were shrinking, in part because they didn't shrink away from using a centralized medium – television – to create a federated structure:
Promise Keepers bought 200 hours of prime-time weekend television slots on local network affiliates to broadcast [a major national program] around the country between March 24 and April 12, 1997. The program featured shots of previous conferences, interviews with men who changed their lives by becoming a Promise Keeper, and promoted a toll-free telephone number through which men could sign up for a 1997 conference or Stand in the Gap [a giant rally on the National Mall that was the group's highpoint]. Eight percent of men surveyed at Stand in the Gap reported that they first heard about the organization through PK television advertisements.
– Arkadi Gerney, The Organizational Dynamics of Promise Keepers.The Promise Keepers have more recently followed the path of many other declining organizations, but their experiment showed something interesting – the building of local groups can be driven by national media.
Imagine if the ACLU took the Promise Keepers model, but used the much cheaper vehicle of the internet. Start with where the ACLU is today. I use it because its highly successful and has a federated structure, with chapters all over the country, and because it has a great web site, with lots going on. But you'd have to be fairly clever, aggressive, and lucky to get involved in a local ACLU community.
Say you started at their web site. You'd first have to scroll down to the bottom of the page (something not showing when the site opens in your browser) then stop at a page that explains that local chapters largely do legal work but hold some forums, then link to your state's page – which links to another state page of your local chapter. My local chapter (Massachusetts) has stuff going on, but none suggests an invitation to join a community – I can go to a speech/brown bag lunch, or I can contribute. It's four clicks before I find something local, and it's a local event that promises me information – but not social capital, and certainly no power or political heft. Everything about the ACLU web site structure tells me that what the ACLU really wants me to do is contribute or take MoveOn-like actions (phone campaigns and legislative pressure).
So now imagine that the ACLU decided to actively support the creation of continuous, local, civic communities that affiliate themselves with the ACLU. The ACLU currently has a federated structure, actually, but you don't naturally find yourself in its web if you happen on their web site. It might do so for solely pecuniary reasons – because while there is a fair amount of attention of the ACLU now, it wants to keep loyalty high among its members. It finds that members who have met other members are more likely to give more money, so it sets out actively encouraging members to meet each other, regularly, and develop strong community bonds with each other.
Right now the ACLU claims 400,000 members. What would happen if it tried to implement this strategy?
Tuesday is Rights Night
First, the ACLU would have to find a database of places for its members to meet. Then it would have to create a ritual of meeting. Habit, says the American psychologist, William James, is the great flywheel of society: ritualistic meetings are much more satisfying for the participants and easier for the planners alike. Imagine the ACLU designates Tuesdays as "Rights Night" across the country, and identifies 2,000 public places that will hosts "Rights Nights" without complaint – bars and restaurants.
Then it would create a push – on its website, print ads, and emails – telling people regularly to go to "Rights Nights." All 2 million people would get repeated e-mails about Rights Night, all their New Yorker ads would include references to Rights Nights, all the TV ads would include a webpage with links to find your local "Rights Night" by state, city and neighborhood.
Local chapters would use their e-mail updates and colorful pictures to tell members what they missed out on in the local rights night, and reinforce the general jollity and usefulness of the events to those that went.
At first, the membership (which is presumably just under the average age of the membership of the Democratic party: not young) would be mostly older people, median age 55-60. It would be mostly well-educated, Democratic voting, and upper or upper-middle class. Gradually, however, the constant push of something to do – something fun and morally useful and social – might engage younger people who would never have found their way to the ACLU offices on the 8th floor of the do-gooders building in the lights-out section of town.
However, a changing of the guard wouldn't come naturally. It would take lots of aggressive work on the ACLU's part and major efforts to allow for the creation of new subgroups and new leaderships. If the ACLU decided to aggressively advertise Rights Nights on primarily minority TV channels and papers and websites, and ensure that its database of locations were not all on the WASP-y side of town, it might gradually engage more young African Americans, Latinos, and South Asians and Pacific Islanders. The national leadership would have to choose to market its community in places with comparatively low short-term return – instead of New Yorker ads, where maybe 1 in 1,000 readers would join, it would have to have National Enquirer ads, with maybe a 1 in 100,000 return.
The ACLU would have to find a balance between supporting local groups and delegating its power to the edges. Ideally, the central organization would provide a platform for meeting in exchange for only this rent: all the e-mail names and contact information possible. When local chapters demanded more than meeting times, places, and a rough agenda, the ACLU central would have to resist and push back, limiting its involvement. Not only would too much involvement take too much staff time, but it would vitiate the greatest service the local groups provide to citizens – a real sense of power.
When ACLU staff wanted to attend meetings to make sure everything was going fine, ACLU central would have to train the staff to see itself only as support, not as the leadership.
Yes, But (Take Two)
What would go wrong? First, with a large enough list to sustain itself, the ACLU might decide to cut off the push to local groups – the list was big enough and the money was coming in, so there was no need to staff up support for local groups. Also, local groups might well start to develop agendas that were slightly different from the central ACLU, and this would disturb the central organization. For example, I'm a big fan of the ACLU right now, because its taking real leadership on the Patriot Act, but a few years ago I would never have joined because I disagreed, both morally and technically, with its approach to pornography. If I took a leadership role in my Boston ACLU, I would push for a platform that took a different view of the first amendment. If this happened in enough places, the ACLU leadership might again decide to cut off the local groups.
Why, you might ask, would it matter if the central group stopped pushing local groups, so long as they had "seeded" something local? Wouldn't it be all cherries after that?
No. The minute the central group stopped pushing attendance at local events, the local groups would stop growing and multiplying. They might continue – and be a force in local politics – but they would cease to grow in most instances.
Americans are notorious transients. We've been changing homes at a clip rate since the 19th century. The large federated structures that bloomed in the late 19th century and early 20th century made room for our national habits of transience by making it easy to recreate – and re-find – similar community structures from one community to the next. The Knights of Columbus junkie in Madison could easily pick up his Knights of Columbus habit when he moved to San Francisco, and stop by the chapters on the way. If he ended up settling in a new town, he had the tools to start his own Knights of Columbus.
The internet allows a much faster generation of similarly federated structures to spring up – or, at the very least, it allows for the radical restructuring of existing organizations to accommodate our needs for power and community. I'm not convinced the incentives of added loyalty and engagement are sufficient for the nonprofits to seize the opportunity and take the risks of federating their power, but I hope they are.
Right now, most sites are focused on keeping you on their sites – but in my humble opinion everybody can benefit if sites see as one of their primary jobs as pushing you off, into local face-to-face associations.
The voluntary associations of the last two centuries are largely gone, and I don't know that we should make an effort to recreate them in their old form. Given other pressures and our suburban, transient living habits, it may be impossible to recreate cross-sectional voluntary associations without the internet. But if we start to think of the internet as an organizing tool first – a database of places as well as ideas, a database of calendars as well as pictures, we can also build a completely new social structure. It won't look like the voluntary associations of the 1950s, but it might get us past the isolation of the aughts.
Sometime today, tonight or tomorrow, a piece of software or a blog or perhaps a high-tech device like a camera phone or a text message that goes viral is going to make a difference in this oh-so-close election, and those of us in the political, technology and journalism worlds are going to rush to make a big deal of it. And rightfully so.
When Andrew Shapiro called Greg Simon, Al Gore's deputy chief of staff, late on the night of Election 2000, and fed him the numbers that he was reading off of the Florida Secretary of State's Web site – which differed dramatically from the networks' premature decision to declare the state for Bush – he stopped the Bush victory train in its tracks. Simon was with Gore as the vice president waited under the stage at the Nashville War Memorial where he was to make his concession speech, but as Shapiro stayed on the line with him and kept hitting the "refresh" button on his browser, it became clear to all that no concession was in order. (Other reports credit field captain Michael Whouley, faced with jammed cell phone lines, with paging Gore chief of staff Michael Feldman in the Gore motorcade, who patched in campaign chairman William Daley, to tell him the race was too tight in Florida.)
As Dan Gillmor writes in his valuable new book, "We the Media," "If someone knows something in one place, everyone who cares about that something will know it soon enough." All the new tools at our disposal, and the loosely joined networks of like-minded people that they have empowered, insure that we will know, faster than ever before, a lot more than we ever knew about the election of 2000.
But before we forget the forest amidst all these interesting new trees, I'd like to make a different claim for the impact of technology on this election. The biggest change is not the speed at which we will know the facts, or the rumors, of what is taking place. Nor is it, as the bloggers tapped by the New York Times to opinionate on the most important event of the election, the unraveling of the Fourth Estate. While I agree heartily with John Hinderaker and Scott Johnson of Powerline, who write "never again will the mainstream news media be able to dictate the flow of information to the American people," the big story isn't just the way bloggers are talking back to the powerful and to each other.
In my humble opinion, the big change is in how technology is energizing participation in electoral politics. As a good friend of mine who is a Kerry supporter said to me last night, "Everybody I know is doing something on Election Day. There's literally no one I know who isn't. My mother is making calls. My father-in-law is driving people to the polls. I'm going to Philadelphia."
This isn't a partisan thing, by the way. The Bush campaign said it would deploying 1.6 million volunteers on November. If true, that's more than one percent of the likely number of people who will vote, a truly impressive accomplishment.
Clearly, all this is happening because it's a very close election and whatever your views, the stakes seem high. A lot of people are feeling motivated to act. That's the essential human ingredient, which some technologists forget in their zeal to create fancy new tools for activists and campaigns.
But here's the key: Web-based tools are making it vastly easier to participate in meaningful political action, and they are also enhancing the meaning of small actions in ways that create a virtuous cycle of greater activity. Most of the time, most of us shy away from politics because in its traditional form it's too top-down, too time-consuming, too-money-drenched, too elitist and too manipulative. The average American has sadly come to relate to politics as a necessary evil, something to be done as little as possible, rather than as a necessary and good way of addressing problems that we face as a society and nation.
But the new civic software, coupled with an intense feeling that this election matters, is changing that view for many, many of us.
The best example I can give is the rise of the distributed or virtual phone bank. For the last weeks of the campaign, anyone who wanted to help Kerry or the Democrats get out the vote today has been able to log onto any of several Web sites like Votercall.org, register, and within seconds get a list of likely Kerry voters, or undecided voters, or newly registered voters in key states, along with their phone numbers and a suggested script for the call. A few days ago, the much more top-down Bush campaign created its own virtual phonebank, with the same approach. (Was that a sign of weakness, or strength? Hopefully we'll be able to get the metrics from both sides after the dust settles.)
Andrew Shapiro was one of the untold number of volunteers in this hidden, but crucial, stage of the election. "I sat here last night at my desk in New York making calls into swing states, using the Kerry volunteer site," he told me. "It was incredibly easy and satisfying, even if four out of the five calls were just messages to answering machines." Shapiro laughed at the intricacy of the operation, "I was a volunteer calling other volunteers to ask them to volunteer."
But what impressed Shapiro, the author of the prescient book "The Control Revolution: How the Internet is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know" (Public Affairs, 1999), is how, yet again, people have found a way to use the Internet to amplify a very simple and normal action in powerful ways. "This reminds me of what was smart about Meetup," he says, "in that they just made it easy to find like-minded people in your neighborhood." The virtual phone banks have made it easy for someone sitting at home to reach other would-be voters, or – as some of my more motivated friends and neighbors have done – to turn themselves into a virtual precinct captain and divvy out lists of phone numbers to other, perhaps less tech-savvy but equally motivated acquaintances.
Historians may want to credit the Howard Dean campaign for planting this particular seed. If memory serves, the first emergence of a distributed virtual phone bank occurred this winter, after Dean crashed in Iowa and New Hampshire and his campaign flopped. A devoted group of his supporters organized their own efforts to generate phone calls to undecided voters in Wisconsin, the site of Dean's last stand. Obviously, it was too late – but the idea lived on.
This new kind of citizen engagement is working not only because it's easy, but also because it's about people talking to people (the Meetup model again) and because it solves the dilemma of collective action. By ourselves, making 50 or 100 calls into swing states would seem futile. But if you can see hundreds, or thousands, of others doing the same thing, it's no longer a meaningless drop in the bucket. It's a tidal wave.
We'll soon know how big that wave is, and who it's going to carry to victory.