Technology Changes Politics in Quiet, Subtle Ways

 
 
By Chris Nolan  |  Posted 2005-10-13
 
 
 
Well, Ive seen the future of social networking technology, and I have to tell you, its kinda dull.

In a good, warm-hearted, Craigslist kind of way.

Much of the talk about Web logging, wikis and social software centers are their revolutionary potential: Getting folks who havent been connected to talk to each other. From that new sense of communication, the theory goes, a new kind of politics will rise up.

A great deal of this—as the experience of many left-leaning tech folks demonstrated in the last presidential election—is wishful thinking. Technology may, in fact, change some aspects of politics; it certainly makes it easier to organize people, and organization is the key to winning any election.

But much about politics will remain unchanged. After all, politics is fundamentally the product of human nature. And if the clothes dont make the man, his laptop software doesnt either.

Greensboro, N.C.,—which should become a high-tech test bed right now—is a not-very-big city tucked away in the North Carolina piedmont. The city has a reputation for being a kind of blogging nirvana, mostly through the efforts of one man, blogger and journalist Ed Cone, whose family has lived in Greensboro for four generations.

Cone has preached the religion of online with remarkable success in a town thats about as far from Silicon Valley as you can get. In part, his success can be attributed to the citys history. Greensboro has become a place where people engage in the citys civic life. And they do so in a measured and reasonable way that—for someone living in the belly of the progressive mothership of back-biting class warfare that is San Francisco or the "Politics: Who cares?" attitude of Silicon Valley—is refreshing for its optimism and good faith.

Blog acquisitions signal tipping point for user-generated content. Click here to read more.

This is certainly a product of the citys history: Greensboro is the birthplace of the peaceful civil rights sit-ins. Almost 50 years ago, students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College—where the recent Converge South event was held—went to their local Woolworths and asked to be served lunch. A movement was launched.

Folks in Greensboro dont see their online activity as earth-shattering; they talk with a bit of embarrassment about what they do. But they do take it seriously. And they do think what theyre doing is important. To them. Says Cone: "Greensboro has a strong Quaker heritage, which is bound up in the civil rights story, and that all contributes to the sense of open dialog."

And that, in the end, should really be the idea behind social software.

The tone of discussion at ConvergeSouth, the Greensboro event held this past weekend, was measured, mature and kinda goofy. The folks involved in building the citys community sites are soft-spoken, well-meaning and, well, just the sort of people youd like to have living next door. They use the Web to raise money to help ailing neighbors, , run political campaigns or talk back to—or above—the local newspaper, to air their points of view on local issues. There are so many blogs, theres a run-down of local writers, Greensboro 101.

In other words, theyre not geeks. Theyre also not macho code jocks, although certainly some of those at ConvergeSouth could fake it after a few cans of Red Bull. These folks are interested in the new, but only if its useful and easy to understand and practical. Theyre approaching the use of technology and fitting it into their lives. They are not taking technology and seeing what they can prove with it. And they think what theyre doing is no big deal.

Thats not very different from the way in which one of the most successful online businesses going was created. Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, knew a lot about technology; he was (and remains) a classic nerd programmer. But his main goal in starting his Web site wasnt to change the world. It was to provide people he knew with good and useful information. It wasnt a big deal at the time.

Thats one reason why Craigslist has done so well. Its also, fundamentally, the reason that more folks in the tech business should look to the good, if a bit dull, folks of Greensboro for some hints about where social networking software and its many cousins and offspring are headed.

eWEEK.com technology and politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology at Spot-On.com. She can be reached at CNolan@spot-on.com.

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