PDF Conference Fires Up Panelists and the Peanut Gallery

PDF Conference Fires Up Panelists and the Peanut Gallery

BY Kate Kaye | Thursday, May 19 2005

Truly a multimedia meeting of minds, this year’s Personal Democracy Forum Conference had attendees pondering the ever-evolving effects of technology on politics through discussions on topics from long tails and gubernatorial recalls to wifi-activated cities and the breakdown of top-down campaigns.

Perhaps PDF founder Andrew Rasiej put it best during his opening remarks when he proclaimed boldly, “If you want to know what’s coming next, the answer starts here.”

Indeed, Rasiej planted a stake in the political soil when declaring, “We need to aggregate advanced uses of technology to foster open, more responsive government,” adding that politicians should be less focused on winning elections and pay more attention to lifting up ideas. Quite a strong statement from a candidate for New York City Public Advocate.

Calling for more enthusiasm at conferences like PDF, Scott Heiferman, CEO of online event organizing service, Meetup.com, suggested, “When you don’t interact with others, you trust them less.” Heiferman stressed that people are beginning to see themselves as members of sprawling group networks, contending that our engagement with others through Meetups, blogs and the like is in part little brother’s response to what he called the big brothers of media consolidation and corporate control. “Lookout for the net-emergent organization,” cautioned Heiferman, adding that groups are forming webs, and “webs win.”

Politico’s Best Friend?
Mindy Finn, deputy ecampaign director for the Republican National Committee, offered a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the RNC, admitting that, “Not everyone is sold on the idea that technology is changing politics.” In reference to interviews with RNC officials and volunteers, the former deputy webmaster for the Bush/Cheney ’04 campaign talked of one top RNC official who told her that during the 2000 and 2002 campaigns, online networks and new technologies were merely “the tail of the dog.” Now, said the official, they are the dog. However, as Finn concluded, not everyone’s drinking the tech Kool-Aid. One Republican strategist commented to her that, while technology has changed political strategy and culture, it hasn’t changed the political process, i.e. voting and elections. RNC ecampaign director Mike Turk summed it up for Finn by telling her, “The impact is being felt, but not necessarily embraced.”

Visualizing Networks
Although disagreement may prevail when it comes to technology’s impact on the guts of political organizations, Martin Kearns, co-founder and executive director of software provider to environmental nonprofits, Green Media Toolshed, was enthused by the notion that social networks can now be tracked. When we discuss social networks, he argued, “We’re not talking about some drastic new thing.” The difference that the Internet has enabled, he explained, was that now we can actually visualize these networks. If it weren’t for this ability to trace networks of people virtually, Kearns noted, some network-influenced uprisings could never have occurred. Asserted Kearns, the recall of former California Governor, Gray Davis, “could only happen in a connected age.”

Bloggers Hit the Sweet Niche
Thoughts shifted from networks to blogs in the main hall as Michael Cornfield, senior research consultant at Pew Internet and American Life and Jonathan Carson, president and CEO of word-of-mouth research firm, BuzzMetrics, unveiled their new study of how blogs affected the public discourse leading up to the 2004 presidential election. While bloggers didn’t necessarily directly influence political discussion in the two months prior to the election, explained Cornfield, “Bloggers have found themselves in this sweet niche where [mass] media is relying on them as a guide to the rest of the Net.”

Also on stage was Dan Gillmor, founder of grassroots journalism weblog, Grassroots Media Inc. Carrying on the industry’s prevalent dispute over proprietary vs. open-source technologies, Gillmor expressed dismay at the use of Buzzmetrics’ “proprietary system” in the study, encouraging Carson to “open the kimono.” Gillmor also questioned the study’s lack of attention to the boycott of Sinclair Broadcasting after the company preempted an edition of ABC’s Nightline during which the names of 523 American soldiers killed in Iraq were listed. A case study of that very scandal as it played out online is next, responded Cornfield, who said, “We’ve already started it.”

David Sifry, founder and CEO of Technorati, a blogoshpere-tracking service, carried on the blog conversation, stressing the significance of the blogosphere’s so-called “long tail” of lesser-known but no less significant bloggers. Noted Sifry, the number of blogs is doubling every five months, and has just reached 10 million. In addition, he’s found that the volume of blog posts is doubling every seven months, and bloggers publish approximately 10 posts per second now each day.

Let Freedom Ping
A well-known blogger, himself, Doc Searls then shared his vision of understanding the world through metaphor. Searls noted, for example, how time is often referred to in monetary terms: we save it, spend it, run out of it. In the end, the Linux Journal senior editor made a passionate plea to secure the Net’s position as a place where free speech happens, rather a mere pipeline through which content is delivered.

Leslie Harris, senior advisor at the Center for Democracy and Technology, carried through the online freedom theme to the regulatory realm, addressing the very current threat of the Federal Election Commission’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking which could extend federal campaign finance rules to online political speech. Harris highlighted the importance of defending robust individual political speech on the Web, and suggested a series of common-sense principles to do so.

Web Personality Face-off
Following a caffeine-fueled networking session, attendees reconvened in the main hall as online and offline personalities faced-off onstage during a session on Using the Net to Move Your Issues. Journalist Chris Nolan asked DailyKos blogger, Markos Moulitsas, how people could influence him to write about a particular issue. Moulitsas insisted that while he may be tempted to incorporate a wider variety of issues into his blog, he restricts content to coverage of select topics. He did note, however, that if people use his blog’s diary section to post about a subject and “if enough people coalesce around it,” he could change his mind.

Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, alluded to the biting rhetoric that Web anonymity allows for, lamenting the ability to lambaste someone personally via blogs and other Web forums “with no real consequences.” Columnist and blogger, Hugh Hewitt, disagreed, contending that shrillness isn’t such a bad thing when there are “big stakes” involved.

Some argue that the Net has enabled more mud-slinging through online ads, but Working It: Best Practices in Online Political Advertising panelists admit that some traditional political consultants just don’t realize the benefits of online advertising, so they don’t even do it. “It’s an uphill battle,” commented Michael Bassik, VP for Internet Advertising at democratic political consulting firm, MSHC, who says when he tries to persuade political advertisers to use the Web, he tells them “It’s where the voters are.” When panelist Eric Porres, VP and COO at Pericles Consulting, a political interactive marketing company, is up against skeptics, he lists the benefits of the Internet over other ad media. Among them: targeting and measurement opportunities, a greater ability to control costs, and the two-way conversation capabilities enabled on the Web. Blogads founder, Henry Copeland, insisted that advertising on blogs is an efficient means of reaching “influentials” online.

Connecting Communities
The impact of the Internet is being felt by advocacy and lobbying groups as well as the politicians they hope to influence. PDF executive editor Micah Sifry spoke about the evolution of labor organizing in the digital era with Service Employees International Union president, Andy Stern, a man credited with steering a shift in union organizing. Decked out in brilliant royal purple, the leader of the SEIU, which has spun off a new online union called “Purple Ocean,” recalled how the relationships his wife established through AOL chats helped him to see the relevance of online connections. Wondered Sifry, is there an example of an online union community that works? Though Stern admitted, “It’s too soon to say,” he sees potential in the networking power of the Web in moving labor issues forward.

Before the Internet can have a broad effect on local or national issues, PDF’s Rasiej stresses the need for Web accessibility for all. Taking a cue from fellow Promise of Municipal Broadband panelist Dianah Neff, chief information officer for the City of Philadelphia, Rasiej insisted, “Having us all connected should be the first priority of our government.” He said that New York City relied on the Internet, not the Emergency Broadcast System, to get emergency messages out to citizens after terrorists struck the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.

Media Movements and Chat Mayhem
Despite its potential, online organizer Zephyr Teachout contended that the Internet was not employed in a way that served people’s needs well during the 2004 election season. She spoke with Craig Newmark, founder of online classifieds phenomenon, Craigslist, about the possibility of a Craigslist-style political community. Newmark used the forum as an opportunity to express his hope for the growth of citizen and community journalism, noting that he’d like to help instigate such a journalistic movement.

More big names were on board for the final -- and perhaps most lively and contentious -- discussion of the day, centered around The Future of Political Media. BuzzMachine.com blogger and media pundit, Jeff Jarvis predicted that the choices afforded people through the fragmentation of media will give them power, adding that we’ll experience the same choice-driven power in a political manner, though he “can’t even imagine” how. President of Eskew Strategy Group, and Bush/Cheney ‘04 campaign consultant, Tucker Eskew, looked back twenty years, at which time he believes fragmentation got its start through the increasing adoption of the remote control.

And then the gloves came off. As Chuck Defeo, director of online strategy for Salem Communications and Bush/Cheney ‘04 online campaign manager, praised the use of email as a means of message dissemination and rallying volunteers to take action, he was cut off abruptly by press critic Jay Rosen who yelped, “Why do I care about how you use email to get your message out?” With that, the crowd erupted, as did conference chat participants, whose rants were projected on a giant screen behind the panel. The chat seemed to steal the show at this point, attracting as much if not more attention than the pundits onstage.

Columnist Arianna Huffington responded suavely when the chat robbed her thunder. While speaking, Huffington realized that a burst of chuckles from the audience was not a reaction to something she said, rather to a larger-than-life comment hovering on the big screen behind her. She craned her neck for a glance at the chat screen and conceded, “That’s part of simultaneous reality.”

As the session wrapped-up, the energy in the room was potent, no doubt in part due to the immediate, almost visceral interaction enabled through the conference chat, which served as a virtual extension of the day’s networking and democratizing motif. From there, the chat adrenalin propelled conference cohorts around the corner to the Coda nightclub, where cocktail-fueled networking carried on into the night.

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