The Rise of Connected Democracy


If the last 50 years can be called the era of broadcast democracy, fans of the Internet should rightly be asking "when will the era of connected democracy begin?" We've seen eBay bring a new way to scale garage sales and flea markets using the connectedness of the Web. How does the eBay experience inform our views about democracy?

The Dean campaign may be the first and best example of how the Web can be used to change the nature of politics. In stark contrast to the standard

  1. Raise money
  2. Broadcast
  3. Vote
  4. Rinse and repeat

formula of the last 50 years, Howard Dean's campaign has been using simple, Internet based tools to connect to the grassroots and mobilize them for everything from letter writing to raising funds. Most campaigns don't want volunteers because they're too hard to manage, but the Dean campaign has figured out how to used principles of decentralization familiar to any open source developer to let volunteers act. This is a huge leap of faith because it requires letting go of the central command and control (C&C) structures that are the hallmark of modern campaigns.

In an article in Baseline, Ed Cone writes in great detail about what makes the Dean campaign different. One of the big differences is the use of the MeetUp service to get volunteers together. Ed writes:

The Dean campaign has used the Meetup service on the Web to get local volunteers together. Campaign staffers set a meeting date and publicize it through email, list serves, and on the campaign's weblog, called Blog for America.

Supporters then go to the Meetup page from a Dean web site and take matters into their own hands. Once they register, the volunteers choose a meeting location. They gather at the appointed time and place, with no Dean staff participation needed. Together they perform tasks suggested by headquarters, watch videos of the candidate sent by the campaign, and plot local tactics and strategy.

At one Nov. 4 Meetup event at the Green Bean coffee shop in Greensboro, NC, volunteer coordinator Abigail Seymour printed out Dean position statements from the Web and put them on tables at the back of the cafe. When volunteers showed up, they could easily review Dean's latest policy stands as they went about the day's work: writing personal letters to undecided voters in Iowa.

The Meetup software provided a rough headcount of expected attendees, so the Dean staff sent Seymour enough letter-writing kits to hand out as each volunteer arrived. The kits include stamps, sample letters and the name and address of an undecided Iowan that the Dean campaign hopes to sway. The campaign even sends along a box of ballpoint pens.

This is precisely the kind of grassroots event that traditional campaigns have eschewed in recent years because it was too hard to manage, but MeetUp makes it manageable. Of course, a good C&C style manager wouldn't like the idea of letting unvetted volunteers write letters on behalf of the campaign, but that's only the start. For a real taste of letting go, you have to explore Blog for America, Dean's decentralized blogging software.

Blog for America is run on a platform called DeanSpace, an open source blogging tool developed in PHP by over 180 volunteers for the Dean campaign. (source code here) DeanSpace uses XML to export Web content from one site so that it can be used on another, interesting content can be promoted from an individual's site to a regional or national page. RSS is widely used for events and content change notification. A user registry keeps track of the volunteers who are writing, makes it easy to send email, and even let's users create buddy lists. In true Internet fashion, this isn't a single application running at headquarters, but is hosted at dozens of sites around the country by volunteers. This has the added advantage of making the blogs "unofficial" web sites. Ed writes:

Making these tools widely available via the Internet, rather than husbanding them at campaign headquarters, means Dean's marketers give up a fair amount of control of messages made on behalf of their candidate.

Volunteers create their own weblogs, and say what they will. None have to submit their words to editors or campaign staffers, before posting. The same goes for staffers like Rospars, who writes for Blog for America. "Nobody reads my stuff before it goes. I just hit publish," says Rospars, 22, who was teaching English in Stockholm, Sweden before joining the campaign last spring. "The blog is about humanizing campaign, not just Dean but the staff and supporters."

The campaign also uses Blog for America as a fund raising tool, taking thousands of small donations from people all over the country, all collected online. In an unusual move, the campaign also posts the total on the homepage. Ed talks about this as well:

The campaign culture was changing, too. As the second quarter drew to an end in June, Dean was startled to see the amount of money that the campaign had raised online posted clearly on Blog for America. Campaigns usually guard such information, the better to spin it when announcing the total. The candidate called Trippi, saying the site had been hacked. But Trippi had OK'd the unconventional tactic, and donors responded by pumping about $1.5 million into the campaign in the last few days of the quarter, pushing the total to $7.5 million.

Still the issue is more than money. Listen to Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager:

"The pundits still don't get it. They see your incredible fundraising numbers - and that's all they understand. But our campaign was not built just by money - it was built by the full participation of you and thousands of others who believe that each of us has the power and the duty to participate in our democracy."

I think this is all just the beginning of a brand-new way for citizens to be involved in the electoral process. The goal of any campaign is to engender action. Modern broadcast methods have distilled that to its purest form: the modern campaign wants just two kinds of action: check writing and voting. What makes Dean's version of democracy is that its using the tools of the Internet to engender other kinds of action, the blogging, meeting, writing letters, and citizen to citizen advocacy. Dean has shown that these actions lead to check writing. The bet is that these actions will lead to the kind that matters most on election day. As Zephyr Teachout, Dean's director of online organizing says: "I'm obsessed with offline."