SAN DIEGO—Listening to former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, I kept hearing the echoes of John Edwards “Two Americas” theme. The occasion was the Digital Democracy Teach-In, a conference track appended to the third OReilly Emerging Technology Conference here.
Trippis keynote was a free-form post-mortem on the fading Dean campaign, but the audience of technologists treated it more like a call for renewed action than a wake.
In this political season, technology keeps cutting both ways. Productivity is up, keeping the market moving forward, corporate profits up and interest rates down. But that same efficiency also maintains the jobless recovery. So too does broadband, virtualization and outsourcing.
Where Edwards Two Americas are classic Democratic haves and have-nots, Trippis are The Onlines and The Offlines. And the same dynamics that brought Dean to prominence also served to accelerate his decline. The transparency of the network that allowed rapid fundraising and bubble-up communications within the campaign also allowed Kerry, Edwards and Clark to cherry-pick voter lists and redirect them to their own volunteer corps of handwritten letter authors.
Trippis somewhat defensive tone was reminiscent of the reaction by tech-industry captains to Nicholas Carrs “IT Doesnt Matter” story in the Harvard Business Review. Carr suggested that commoditization of technology neutralizes the competitive advantage of information technology investment. Gates and McNealy countered with the argument that R&D trumps commoditization and that history shows innovation inevitably produces new winners.
Trippi didnt have the luxury of waiting out the down cycle. The Dean campaign was primed to counter the front-loaded primary schedule designed by DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe to wrap up the nomination by early spring. If anything, Trippi was too successful, peaking too soon. Though an experienced operative, he violated the fundamental rule of salesmanship: Once youve closed the sale, shut up.
We all know how quickly things fell apart once the campaign went off the rails. But Trippi made it clear he understood from the beginning the fundamental disconnect between the Internet and political crowds. “The Internet community doesnt understand the hard realities of American politics,” he said, and the political press doesnt get the Internet.
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Of course, Trippi then tarred the mainstream media with the “broadcast-politics” brush, charging the networks with purveying entertainment, not information, with 933 replays of Deans infamous scream speech. To Trippi, what the media did in taking the speech out of context was damaging—”not what the Governor did.”
Sorry, Joe. Even on a 1-inch cellular phone screen tuned to MSNBC at 1 frame per second, I knew that Dean was in trouble when he hit that part of his “concession” speech. It wasnt the technology that was betraying him; it was simple tunnel vision, a purely political miscalculation about who the audience was. Sure, Dean was pumping up the troops, but somehow he forgot that the little red light means the speech is being broadcast to a much different audience.
Its the same myopia that Microsoft has suffered from, where the companys behavior is judged not just by its technical acuity but by the reality of its market position, the history of platform lock-in, the very success of their extension of their monopoly power. Trippis success in harnessing the Internet platform scared the daylights out of the entrenched stakeholders—not just the Democratic Party regulars but the mainstream media and its threatened revenue model.
Its not the technology, stupid. Its the battle for control of digital rights management that is roiling the three parties—Republican, Democrat and media. Trippi is essentially warning us about the emergence of a new military-industrial complex, where the notion of a one-party system now includes the Fifth Estate.
While Kerry rolls up delegates in offline “meatspace,” onliners are choosing between a different slate of candidates. Steve Jobs is the insurgent here, promising to take back control of Washington on the Pacific (Hollywood) by jettisoning its relationship with Disney. Kerry, er, Disney promptly counters with a digital media alliance with Microsoft.
Biting the Hand That
Covering a story about the conglomerates that pay their bills is certainly a challenge for the traditional press. It also strains the credibility of artists locked into long-term catalogue contracts. Thus we see Bob Dylan signing RIAA petitions in the full-page spreads of national newspapers.
As with the political campaign, this is fundamentally a battle for shelf space—where ideas and messages compete with entertainment favorites (sex, violence, more sex) for airtime. Although the content industries are making their stand on file-sharing technologies, the real contest concerns eyeball time—the amount of time paying attention to an information feed.
Trippi correctly recognizes the tactical power of the onliner tools—blogs, wikis, the loose federation of emerging “social software.” But as a straddler of both constituencies, he may be missing the political dynamics of the Internet world and technologys impact on the field troops in the campaign.
Take blog comments—please. The CTOs of the various campaigns defend their use as a simple user interface for casual involvement by newbies. But converting the undecided into active offline participation involves more than just the harvesting of good ideas. Comments destroy the signal to noise ratio of blog brands, trading the appearance of democratic participation for muddied messaging and vulnerability to comment spamming.
Instead, authenticated private RSS feeds could replace e-mail and public blogs as a collaboration engine, routing separate comment feeds via group filtering to allow good ideas to bubble up and noise to wash out of the system. Dynamic group formation and attention feedback loops such as Technoratis attention.xml service could be harnessed to manage rapid response teams, monitor media trends and squeeze more strategic business intelligence out of the information firehose.
Many observers attribute Deans collapse to a decision by the electorate about his electability. Dean himself bought into that when he declared his Iowa rant “unpresidential.” But it may be that many voters looked at how the Kerry and Edwards campaigns adopted Deans tactics—particularly technology—to their own ends.
No one is calling Kerry the Internet candidate, but he is well-positioned to take advantage of those tactics, given his decision to follow Dean in opting out of federal matching funds. Technologists from all four major campaigns used the OReilly conference as a gathering point for discussing shared usage of campaign software in the general election.
Trippi is not yet willing (at least publicly) to separate the candidate from the insurgent technology that launched him. But if there was a daily RSS briefing circulating to that new Insurgent Party campaign, you might be reading a more blunt assessment. When that feed exists, and comments are routed into relevant threads by social software dynamics, whichever candidate leverages the platform will have my vote.
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eWEEK.com Messaging & Collaboration Center Editor Steve Gillmor can be reached at email@example.com.