Posts by Joshua Levy

PdF Conference 2007 is Tomorrow!

May 14, 2007

Joshua Levy

The Personal Democracy Forum conference is tomorrow and the array of people and topics we're tackling has never been more compelling. Go here for a quick look:

The theme is "The Flattening of Politics" by which we mean all the ways the gap between the top and the bottom--of campaigns, media, advocacy efforts, you name it--is narrowing as more and more people take the tools of communicating and organizing into their own hands.

Eric Schmidt and Tom Friedman are keynoting, along with folks like Larry Lessig, Lee Rainie, Yochai Benkler, Arianna Huffington, danah boyd, Farouk Olu Aregbe, Matt Stoller, and Seth Godin. We don't think anyone has ever put together this kind of a cross-section of the people who are making the new technology and the people who are using it to dynamic new effect in the political arena.

The last day to register is Wednesday, May 16th (after registration is closed online, you can still register at the door). We offer discount rates for students and non-profits; email dorit AT personaldemocracy DOT com for more information.

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Barack Obama's Mystifying Web Presence

January 18, 2007

Joshua Levy

Barack Obama announced his exploratory committee this week, posting a Flash video of the announcement on his web site. Given his rhetoric about listening to the American people I was curious to see how he was using social technology to help him with that task.

However, the site has no content but the announcement video, another "About Barack" video, and a place to "Join the Team" by forking over your email address.

In the announcement video, Obama discusses hearing Americans express their frustration with politics as usual: "As I've spoken to many of you in my travels across the states these past months, as I've read your emails and read your letters, I've been struck by how hungry we all are for a different kind of politics." He puts a particular stress on having had conversations with real Americans and says that running for President isn't an exercise in vanity but a necessary act on behalf of the country and its citizens. But if we were to judge him solely by his web presence thus far, he wouldn't seem too eager have an honest conversation with the American people.

Contrast his exploratory web site with John Edwards' campaign site (admittedly, Edwards has officially announced his candidacy so his site is far more robust): Edwards features blogs written by himself, his wife, and his daughter; blogs written by his supporters; podcasts and videos; RSS feeds; mobile phone updates; and even a chance to be a citizen journalist by signing up for advance press releases. His is a particularly net-centric campaign, and although he's still working out the details, he's far ahead of the pack when it comes to embracing the read/write web.

By contrast, the Obama site features only two videos, and though they're displayed using a sharp-looking Flash player, there's no way to have a true conversation with him on the site; it's an old model of "send me letters and I'll release rehearsed statements." Where's the conversational model that John Edwards has more or less embraced? If Obama really wants to listen to the American people, he should be engaged in every arena. In addition to hitting the lunch counters, making speeches across the country, and reading and responding to letters and emails, he should be more active on Facebook (on the day he announced his exploratory committee, rather than post a Facebook-style note to his supporters on the popular site, he posted the text of the videotaped speech), write blog posts on his web site, and invite his supporters to contribute their ideas on his site via their own blogs or, even better, a wiki.

Curiously, his exploratory site does include a link to Obama 2010, which is basically an archive of press releases and speeches and a fundraising outlet. Again, no citizen interaction, no conversation.

However, there are several unofficial sites that are trying to generate enthusiasm for an Obama run, and to convince the senator himself to jump in the ring. Perhaps the most popular of these is Draft Obama, which has a grassroots feel and, accordingly, features a discussion forum, blogs, and petitions, all developed and contributed by pro-Obama volunteers. Other sites (some with humorously creative takes on his last name), including, Obamarama, Independents for Obama, Students for Barack Obama, Barack Oblagga, and Vermonters for Obama are helping to fill in the gap left by Obama's official online presence and give him the kind of grassroots credibility he hasn't cultivated on his own.

Is Obama's early campaign missing out on this kind of citizen-generated enthusiasm, or is it all part of a greater plan? While John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Tom Vilsack, and possibly John Kerry will all make gestures toward blogging and the netroots, it's not simply about using the technology. These tools are decentralizing organizational and political power and giving it to citizen supporters. Although it may be too early for Obama to fully embrace the web, he just may be interested in the kind of decentralized power that asks people to organize on their own and rely less on top-down campaign structures. I've been told that the Obama campaign hasn't gotten in the way of Draft Obama at all, suggesting that he may be serious about opening up traditional power structures.

Ultimately we'll have to wait until Obama officially runs to see how he intends to approach the web. Will he conduct an Edwards-style web campaign and use all of the cool user-participation tools himself, or will he take a cue from decentralized campaign models like and give the power of online campaigning and participation to the people?

In any case, Senator, we applaud your gestures towards conversation with the country. We need it. But you've yet to convince us that you're committed to the kinds of open power structures hinted at by the new trend of online voter-generated content.

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Rules for Using MySpace in Politics

December 4, 2006

Joshua Levy

This year, a handful of web sites and technologies that had been reshaping the cultural, economic, and political landscape finally made a tangible dent on American politics. Among other things, videos posted on YouTube arguably tilted the Virginia Senate race away from George Allen toward Jim Webb; Netroots bloggers like Matt Stoller at helped funnel Democratic funds to struggling candidates; and it was de rigueur for politicians, local or national, to set up user profiles on MySpace and Facebook.

This last phenomenon -- the political use of social networking sites -- is perhaps the hardest to quantify. While social scientists like Christian Williams and Jeff Gulati, whose work we profiled here, here, and here, have tried to find a correlation between support for a candidate's Facebook profile and real-world votes, I've been more and more curious about how political action actually happens on social networking sites.

To find out, I talked to Scott Goodstein and Ivan Boothe, two early pioneers of political action on MySpace. Goodstein's firm Catalyst Campaigns has become well known for helping groups develop campaigns on MySpace (groups include Save the Internet, Save1800Suicide, and The Best War Ever). Boothe is Director of Communications for the Genocide Intervention Network, a non-profit with the mission to "to empower individuals and communities with the tools to prevent and stop genocide." He was the primary architect of the group's MySpace profile, which has been successful at bringing attention to both the current conflict in Darfur and the Genocide Intervention Network's main web site.

After talking with Boothe and Goodstein, I realized there are four main rules about organizing on MySpace (and perhaps on Facebook and other sites as well). What follows is a breakdown of those rules with details from our discussion.

Four Rules of Organizing on MySpace

1. Reach Out to People Where They Congregate

Scott Goodstein likes to think of MySpace as a mall where thousands or millions of people are hanging around their favorites stores; some stick to punk-rock shops frequented by their favorite bands; others go to environmental stores preaching information about saving the whales. Outside of the mall, none of these denizens will necessarily vote for your candidate or volunteer for your cause, but if a campaign is a genuine outgrowth of the environment they hang out in, if it retains the language and style that environment, and if a few social leaders are devoted to the campaign and raise awareness within their social networks, you might get a response.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out ways to involve students in politics using online spaces they already frequent. "'Anything that gets young people involved in politics is great,' says University of Massachusetts political--science professor Ray La Raja. In teaching undergraduates, Mr. La Raja has struggled to find an approach that inspires students to become politically active. MySpace, he says, could be that venue."

Bringing political action to online spaces could help convert the image of politics from staid, inert, and out-of-touch to something that is distinctly connected to the attitudes and behaviors of young networked people. According to William Upski Wimsatt, Executive Director of the League of Young Voters, young people are more politically active than they've been in a generation. This is the group most seen on MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, and elsewhere, and they've brought their politics with them. Using MySpace for politics doesn't only involve developing profiles and campaigns, but discovering those political uses where they already exist.

2. MySpace Isn't Local (Except When It Is)

Networking in MySpace often works because it isn't dependent on local relationships; people become friends with MySpace users who could be down the street or across the country. "Friendships on MySpace aren't based across geographical lines. You are friends with people all over the country," Goodstein admits. Likewise, some organizations are too small to handle the intensive work of reaching out to local citizens. Sometimes it's easier to approach an issue with broad strokes, appealing to as many people as possible. Ivan Boothe calls it the "blunt, wide approach."

However, there is a local use for MySpace. "If you are friends with local bands, bars, etc., they might be local," Goodstein says. He likes to use the example of the local bartender with a MySpace profile. That bartender -- who is in contact with hundreds or thousands of people linked to a physical space -- could be an influential mover in MySpace, with thousands of friends who live in the same area and go to the same bar. Work with that bartender to promote a political platform, an activist campaign, or even a product, and you have access to a treasure trove of names.

Nevertheless, it's important not to forget the relative placelessness of MySpace. "Facebook is better at being local because it's based on college campuses," says Goodstein, though that might change now that Facebook is available to the general public.

Similarly for Boothe, raising awareness of a genocide in Darfur is, for most Internet users, an intensely global project. That may be why, in the case of the Genocide Intervention Project, it's also a successful one.

3. Let People Take Ownership

People are more likely to respond to a message if they feel invested in it. If done right, "people take ownership of your message and will spit it back out, read it, internalize it, and put it in their own words," says Goodstein. This is one way that social networking culture reflects open source software development and even the revised copyright solutions suggested by Lawrence Lessig and Creative Commons.

By creating a MySpace profile for an issue -- for example, the Save the Internet campaign in favor of Net Neutrality -- and letting users create the message by posting messages, uploading videos and pictures, and incorporating and developing their own social networks, you allow them to frame the issue in their own words. As Zack Exley has argued about union organizing, messages are more effective if you let people develop the stories themselves, in their own words, using their own experiences:

…a group of nursing home workers presented me with a fully laid--out, worker--written newsletter on a floppy disk — and demanded 800 copies by the next day to distribute to their coworkers. Writing "campaign lit" was the job of the organizer. So I felt immediately threatened. My next reaction was to want to edit the newsletter to make it more "on message" for the union. It was filled with short and long articles on everything from simple explanations of why they wanted a union (I wanted to bring those more in line with the official talking points) to emotional essays on why life as a care giver was so satisfying (I worried those would make people forget about the grievances that had sparked the union campaign).

The workers said, "No edits! Just print this out and we'll distribute it." The newsletter was an incredible hit. Workers were hiding in closets to read them. People came to the office for extra copies to give to family members. The newsletter turned out to be an incredibly powerful organizing tool because it showed people being a union, not just talking about one. It allowed the workers who were leading the union campaign to express a fully--formed tone and attitude of what the union was all about.

Offering concrete ideas for how to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem can give people a sense that they, as individuals, have a stake in an issue. The Genocide Intervention Network links to a list of "ten things you can do to stop genocide." Ivan Boothe argues that these steps, broken down into easily digestible chunks, give people an easy way to participate. Although they also link to the Genocide Intervention Network's main web site, that isn't always the point. "A number of these steps aren't even within our organization," Boothe says. This sort of advocacy is similar to bottom-up, open-source collaborative projects like Wikipedia, in which no one group has proprietary ownership over an idea or a product; instead, the goal is a constant generation of awareness and ideas. A MySpace page, says Boothe, isn't simply an advertisement for an organization, "it's a tool for mobilizing people for different kinds of action."

4. Fundraise Elsewhere

Getting people involved means getting them to donate money. What role does social networking play in fundraising?

Not much, say Goodstein and Boothe. The primary goals of a MySpace page are to make friends, generate awareness, and take action -- not necessarily to make money. However, MySpace is good for pushing users over to an organization's main page, and politicians and advocacy groups have noticed a substantial rise in online donations after launching social networking pages, as a recent article in the Wall Street Journal noted.

The main message I took away from both Boothe and Goodstein was that a MySpace profile is not a replacement for a campaign's homepage. Instead, it is meant to be part of a participatory ecosystem that campaigns must set up. Homepages are important because they contain details about who runs the campaign, how to contribute money, white papers, and other necessary but less than thrilling information. MySpace profiles are the equivalent to canvassing on the street or in a mall; they are part of a larger outreach effort. Just as it's a mistake to think that the web will itself replace other media, it's also a mistake to think that MySpace or Facebook profiles are simply lazy or trendy ways of gaining an online footprint. That said, it's becoming increasingly clear that a campaign without a social networking profile will be taken less seriously in the coming years.

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Why Congress Should Drop DOPA

August 22, 2006

Joshua Levy

While much of the mainstream media was preoccupied with wars in the Middle East, child molesters, and whatever else flits across our screens, the U.S. House of Representatives recently decided to play to peoples' fears and passed by a vote of 410 to 15 a bill banning social networking sites from our schools. The Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006, or DOPA, requires that all public schools outlaw the use of social networking web sites and chat rooms in order to receive federal funds for technology.

Though the bill is ostensibly aimed at sites like MySpace, which are full of risque images of partying youths, it would actually force schools and libraries to filter out any site that asks users to create identities.

The bill defines these sites as "commercial networking sites" and "chat rooms," terms that, as ArsTechnica recently noted, are extremely broad. According to DOPA, a "commercial networking site" is one that:

(i) is offered by a commercial entity;
(ii) permits registered users to create an on-line profile that includes detailed personal information;
(iii) permits registered users to create an on-line journal and share such a journal with other users;
(iv) elicits highly-personalized information from users; and
(v) enables communication among users.

That means not just sites like MySpace, but also and Blogger, and even the use of wikis could be banned.

All of these technologies are being used in classrooms around the country as teachers develop new curricula and pedagogy that incorporate the read/write web; this bill could put an immediate end to their work. Also, many poorer students depend upon public and school libraries to use the web. This legislation would effectively throw them offline. Many of us are excited about how these kinds of sites can be forums of civic participation, but DOPA would make it impossible for us to reach out to students and teach them about how to interact with online communities.

It appears that Representative Michael Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Pennsylvania and main sponsor of the bill, is using suburban voters' fear of online predation to rally conservatives for the 2006 mid-term elections.

There is hope. While 96% of the House -- Democrats and Republicans -- voted for DOPA in an effort to prove they are tough on child molesters, it still needs to pass through the Senate, so there is still time to talk to your senators and ask them not to vote for it. Many people in Congress simply have no idea what a social networking site is, or how it might be used for education, civic participation, or political organizing. Before they vote we need to tell our Senators why these things are so important.

For many, blogging is not only about writing but also about the ways that people can communicate and learn from each other, regardless of the subject. After noting that Lebanese and Israeli bloggers had initiated online conversations in the wake of the war between Israel and Hezbollah, Will Richardson, who blogs about education and technology at Weblogg-ed, was saddened that, if DOPA is passed in the Senate, students will not have access to these kinds of conversations:

Sure, we can discuss the story. But fuggedabout actually showing the conversation to our kids or having them reflect on it on their own blogs where other people might be able to inform their thinking and learning. God forbid we forget to actually teach them how to stay safe from those Mid Eastern predators out there.

Richardson sees the passing of the bill as an easy way for Congress to convince the public they are tough on crime:

It's nothing more than an attempt to damn the technology instead of engaging the tensions of a globalized world. We don't want to do the tough work of understanding what the changes mean, good or bad. We just want to resist.

This legislation would effectively block teens and educators from accessing some the most important parts of the web -- widening the digital divide and limiting students' exposure to tools they need to learn. Vicki A. Davis, a blogger on Cool Cat Teacher Blog, writes:

These "trendy" chatrooms, wikis, and blogs are also amazing tools that are helping multinational businesses cooperate... The most valuable collaboration tools in the history of mankind must be taught to our children but through this act, the vast majority of Americans will be ignorant by design.

Not only is social networking an important tool for business, learning to collaborate and discuss has implications for the future of civic and political participation. Henry Jenkins, co-director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, told danah boyd that rather than these sites being threats to civic order, they strengthen it.

We can easily turn this around and see [social networking sites] as the training ground for future citizens and political leaders. Young people are assuming public roles at earlier and earlier ages. They are interacting with larger communities of their peers and beginning to develop their own styles of leadership. Across a range of issues, young people are using social network software to identify and rally like-minded individualism, forming the basis for new forms of digital activism.

Despite the bill's overwhelming support, there are some dissidents in Congress. On the floor of the House on the day DOPA passed, Representative Jay Inslee, a Democrat from Washington, said the bill is "a good press release, but it is not effective legislation addressing a huge problem threatening our children." Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, also stood up to the fearmongering: "This bill will not delete online predators. Rather, it will delete legitimate Web content from schools and libraries. Schools and libraries that serve students are the target of this legislation."

Back in May, before the bill was passed in the House, danah boyd summed up its problems:

There are so many amazing things that teens do with social technologies. To lose all of this because of the culture of fear is terrifying to me. I found out about my alma mater talking to strangers online in the 90s. I learned about what it means to be queer, how to have confidence in myself and had so many engaging conversations. Sure, i found some sketchy people too, but i learned to ignore them just as i learned to ignore the guys who whistled and honked from their cars when i walked to the movie theater with my best friend. We need to give youth the knowledge to know the risks of their actions, the structures to be able to come to us when something goes wrong and the opportunity to grow up and connect to their peers. Eliminating cultural artifacts because we don't understand them does not make our lives any safer, but it does obliterate so many positive interactions.

Oddly, there's been no outcry from the companies themselves, including MySpace, which now receives nearly 80 percent of all visits to social networking sites. It's up to Richardson, Davis, Jenkins, and others to convince the Senate of the usefulness of social software before it's too late. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy has acted to slow things down in order to look more closely at the bill; hopefully he will inspire his colleagues to learn more about it. In the meantime, check out Save Your Space, a site operated by non-affiliated supporters of MySpace that was launched in response to DOPA. It offers information about the bill and a petition calling for its defeat.

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