Come Together, Right Now: The Internet's Unlit Fuse

Come Together, Right Now: The Internet's Unlit Fuse

BY Zephyr Teachout | Wednesday, November 17 2004

If there had been no Internet, what would have been different in this election?

First and most important, I cannot imagine Al Qaeda without the Internet. Which is to say, I can’t imagine the huge shock of 9/11, the bombings around the world, videotapes of begging hostages, etc. While terror and violent ideology is possible without the Internet, Al Qaeda’s particular brand of distributed terror--a centralized, coordinated message with relatively autonomous cells and projects--is impossible to imagine effectively without the web. The entire election would have been different -- the world, global politics, everything. We might be focused on North Korea, instead.

More locally, the money raised was phenomenal, historic, potentially paradigm-shattering, yes, but the small dollars raised (by campaigns and groups like MoveOn) went largely into television ads, which arguably had a trivial impact on this election. The nature of the money raised created the possibility of candidates untethered to AIPAC, trial lawyers, and copyright zealots in Hollywood—at least on the Democratic side--but the pre-existing pressure channels largely remained intact throughout this cycle. Finance directors still yelped and had serious, padded talks with candidates when tort reform or similarly sensitive issues came up. The habit of behind beholden is still calcified in the very structures of the campaign organizations, across the spectrum.

For all the money-raising, perhaps the most powerful use of the Internet was by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which framed much of the debate for a third of the last critical months. Of all the speedy, turn-on-a-dime fundraising efforts, this one was the most potent, if also the most pungent.

But basically, in the political evolution of the Internet, we have barely touched the surface of its potential to shift the locus of real political power. Never before in history have we had a tool that enables--with so little work--local groups to act in coordination with other local groups elsewhere. Never before in history have we had a tool that at its core holds the solution to the most difficult collective action problems in democracy. And almost no one used it.

The Dilemma of Collective Action

Basically, the collective action problem arises when a great number of people are willing to do something, but only if they think it will be worthwhile because enough other people will also do it. Imagine you look out your window to see two large men beating up a poor child on your street. If you go out alone, you’re afraid you too will be beat up. But if you knew that all your neighbors were also watching, and would also be willing to take on the men, you'd get out in the street in an instant, knowing that collectively you can overpower them.

That’s the dilemma of collective action. Taking the analogy perhaps a bit too far, if you tried to use the phone to respond to the situation on the street, it might take 15 minutes to find and coordinate with four other people to get outside in unison. But if everyone in your neighborhood regularly used a Yahoo! listserv, you could get online and tell them to get outside, and the instant four other people responded you'd be out there.

Even if you don't believe that most people are political animals, you've got to admit there's a strong streak of political love and life in many of us, but we're not willing to act upon it because we don't have any interest in purely expressive gestures that look like they will have no effect. And most of us aren’t willing to make politics our life's work.

In any community in the country, there were at least a handful of political-minded folks who fit this profile: People not willing to donate much or set up a house party to raise money for a presidential candidate, but people willing to go to a meeting with other like-minded folks and do something social, political, and powerful for an hour or so once a month.

The Road Not Taken

Had the Internet been used to help solve these people's collective action problems, what could have been different in this election?

I believe the offline collective-action problem-solving potential of the Internet is still an unlit fuse. I'm talking about the ability to quickly create very strong, complete, offline/online decision-making, action-oriented communities. Not that there weren’t some stabs in this direction. The Bush campaign used the Internet brilliantly to connect supporters to voters in their precincts and to give them a clear message to deliver (unlike Kerry), but not for creating new communities. The Dean campaign used the Internet to create new offline communities, but not in Iowa where it mattered most. And the Kerry campaign and MoveOn chose not to create new communities at all.

All their offline activities were one-off and targeted to doing something specific, not to building new channels for citizens to pool their own power.

One-off events (events that don’t repeat) do not shift the locus of political thought and power. It’s like the difference between having a local Democratic party club, with functioning committees and purposes, and holding a "Democratic party office for a day" party.

The Kerry campaign and MoveOn both asked their members to hold single events for the particular purposes achieved in those events—primarily fundraising, letter-writing and phone-banking. They did not ask supporters or members to hold events in order to create powerful, politically intelligent, local communities.

All of the major groups--the 527s, the PACS, Air America, the big blogs, and both campaigns chose, finally, to solve collective action problems for themselves and only in limited circumstances. Inasmuch as they asked people to come together offline, they did so in a deeply mediated way--not just in message but in action. If they were interested in creating new dynamic political power centers locally, they would have delegated leadership to local activists who lived in and were going to stay in the area. They would have outlined broad goals and then asked local activists to create leadership committees and achieve those goals within their own contexts.

Meetup Wipe-Out

One telling--and I think tragic--clue to this basic approach was that no major group used Meetup . Meetup is an imperfect tool, but it's by far the best tool I've ever seen for creating continuous local political communities.

The Kerry campaign stopped telling people to use Meetup in late spring and stopped listing it on their website. By late summer, it was literally impossible to find a reference to Meetup on The Bush campaign, likewise, briefly flirted with using Meetup and then quickly stopped. While Meetups dedicated to both candidates continued to exist, their respective monthly meeting numberss stopped growing, or at best merely inched forward.

By contrast, in the Dean campaign we noticed a clear relationship between our campaign website and our Meetup numbers. Every time the Meetup icon dropped below the top part of the screen, our Meetup growth dropped in half. Every time we sent an email asking people to sign up for Meetups, growth spiked significantly. It's obvious, but really critical to recognize that Meetups that are not encouraged by their candidate/group will not grow.

These past months, I spoke to many Kerry Meetup attendees who didn't know what they should be doing to effectively help the campaign. Some ended up working for other groups. Kerry's Meetup numbers never topped 130,000. With nearly three million online supporters, they could easily have reached a million members, if not more, and half a million regular attendees. The Dean campaign ended with 160,000 Meetup members and 1,000 regular Meetups. Kerry could have had a Meetup in every county in America if he wanted to.

But not without some central leadership. An unbidden Meetup group--i.e. one that is running on its own momentum with little input from campaign HQ and little lateral contact with its cousins--is less likely to organize a campaign to write letters to the editor about the war, say, if they don't know whether the Meetup 10 miles away is doing the same thing, something different, or at cross purposes. To feel nationally powerful, local groups need a connection to a national campaign -- and to grow, local groups need a constant evangelist.

The great missed opportunity of 2004 was the failure of every major leader and leadership group to embrace and nurture the capacity of local groups of volunteer activists to form ongoing face-to-face organizing cells using the Internet. The Bush campaign did this using churches, but no group embraced the unique power of the net to do the same thing.

To be sure, Bush, Kerry and MoveOn all used the Internet to enable very particular kinds of offline meetings--house parties. In house parties, people who already know each other come together for a very specific purpose, typically raising money. House parties require a leader who is willing to organize a house party. By comparison, Meetup requires no leader initially--it creates them. Meetup does the hardest work of modern collective action problem-solving for you--it finds the location for you, sets the date, and requires no initial contact with a leader. What we learned on the Dean campaign is that simply by bringing 10 to 30 people together in a room with a shared purpose, leaders would emerge. After looking around at each other and chatting, someone would volunteer to host, to bring pencils, to communicate with headquarters. Others would volunteer to lead committees focused on particular actions.

What If…?

America Coming Together, which grew from 8,000 to nearly 300,000 members in half a year, did not use Meetup but did create a tool that allowed people to create their own organizing events and encouraged people to create them at any time. Somewhere between house parties and Meetups, this group without a deep background or clear ideology discovered tens of thousands of people willing to solve their own problems locally, if given a little direction and the sense that they might be useful. What if Kerry had actively pushed the same thing?

What else didn't happen? In September, Kerry started listing volunteers publicly for other volunteers to find, with a link similar to the one that makes social networking sites like and Friendster and Classmates explode. But then they didn't provide a way for people to instant message or email each other through this site. It was as if they walked up to the edge of allowing local connections, but then got cold feet. With Dean, we started to allow people to feature their volunteer interests and contact each other through instant message or email (optional) and immediately saw a 30% increase in local events being planned through our event planning tool. Local volunteers unwilling to flyer on their own found one other person willing to help, and started creating communities. This is not difficult—it’s just echoing the bet made by companies like with our own bet that people want to connect not just romantically, but politically.

What if every campaign made public those volunteers who chose to publicize themselves? What if we finally moved into the eBay age of end-users creating 99% of all content, where citizens were at the center of politics? These things will happen, I'm sure, because they have started to, with effects we can't even imagine now. This election, the numbers were too small and the campaigns didn't push the power to the edges -- or pushed it all over the edge.

Time for a Group Hub

To call this “bottom-up” isn’t exactly right, because what I’m talking about is a productive tension between leaders and end users. Just as Ebay is better than a thousand separate auction sites, and each auctioneer on Ebay is happy that Ebay advertises and improves its user interface and sets good rules for all to follow, the most powerful political network needs a center and something of an ideology. But if it’s built right, the imagination, language, and work can all come from the edges. Not just individuals on the edges, but groups and communities on the edges.

All powerful networks have hubs. In the best case, the hub is responsive, but even in the worst case, an evangelist at the core allows for networks to grow and coordinate -- and the individuals in the network to know each other and feel powerful.

I believe the collective-action solving power of the Internet can transform politics, in the best way, creating possibilities for localized but connected political communities, but I don't think it's a sure thing. Simply put, we face a battle between three interests--corporate interests, radical theological interests, and the interests in building civil society. Arguably, whichever group can best use the Internet to create new channels of power and community may well define the next couple hundred years. So this is mildly terrifying, but it creates a tremendous opportunity. We can seize the opportunity to transform public life --international and national -- in a civic, deliberative, democratic way.

Zephyr Teachout was the Director of Internet Organizing for Howard Dean's campaign, the Executive Director of Baobabs College Labs Project, and a consultant to America Coming Together. She was previously the Executive Director of the Fair Trial Initiative.
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