The lesson of Lieberman's Web site crash.

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 9 2006 3:37 PM

Hi, I'm Joe, and I Won't Be Your Server

The lesson of Lieberman's Web site crash.

Joe Lieberman. Click image to expand.
Joe Lieberman

The mainstream media have voted in Connecticut, and the results are in: The bloggers have won. According to the New York Times, Ned Lamont's victory over Joe Lieberman "marked the first time that liberal political blogs … have been associated with a major winning campaign, suggesting a moment of arrival for this new force."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

For once, bloggers and MSM agree. But it's the whole Internet, not just the bloggers, who arrived in this election. And it's not just because Lamont used the Web well. It's because, in the election's final hours, the Lieberman campaign treated the crash of its Web site as fatal sabotage, and the media and law enforcement took the charge seriously. Losing your Web site on Election Day is now regarded as the equivalent of having your phones jammed or your TV ads rejected by stations. Even for campaigns that don't use it well, the Web has become not just an asset, but a necessity.

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By now, even folks on dial-up have heard the tale of how Lilliputian lefties used cyberspace to take down Joe the giant. They pounded him for kissing up to Bush and selling out the Democratic base. They raised $1 million for Lamont. Tuesday morning, Lamont sent out a mass e-mail activating an e-mail tree and directing voters to his Web site to locate their polling places. He set up a campaign room just for bloggers. Tuesday night, he sent another mass e-mail urging people to ask Lieberman not to run as an independent.

Lamont and his bloggers didn't just use the Web. They integrated it with other media. They used it to identify voters and recruit volunteers. A movement launched by out-of-state carpetbloggers mobilized a brick-and-mortar militia. They made and circulated videos, abolishing MSM control of that medium. The founder of Daily Kos, a staple of big-blog media, did a TV ad for Lamont. West Coast blogger Jane Hamsher famously did a stint as a driver for Lamont's campaign manager.

But a medium doesn't arrive as a dominant force when one candidate succeeds with it. It arrives when everybody else gives in. And that's what happened Monday and Tuesday, when Lieberman's site crashed. The senator's aides, not known for their cyber-savvy, reacted as though they were choking to death. Without the site, their e-mail and much of their get-out-the-vote operation was kaput. They called it "a coordinated attack" and an "attempt to suppress voter participation and undermine the voting process." They contacted state and federal law enforcement officials to request a criminal investigation. State officials contacted the FBI. Reporters spent the day chasing the story. Lamont was forced to clarify that he knew nothing about the crash and that whoever caused it should desist. For much of the afternoon, there was talk of a challenge to the election's validity.

For Lieberman, the debate over what had caused the crash was often humiliating. Lamont supporters, journalists, and other skeptics asked whether the senator's team had paid its server bills and had devoted enough money, personnel, machines, and disk space to its Internet operation. They pointed out that Lamont's site was fine. There was an argument over whether Lieberman had reserved only 10 gigabytes per month, or, as his campaign insisted, 200. "Bandwidth" was the word of the day. Lamont aides, offering to send Lieberman a techie, suggested that the senator could rely temporarily on Google's cache of his site. Lieberman's tech consultant pleaded his case, explaining that the campaign had upgraded its traffic capacity to handle video circulation.

This is what happens when a medium becomes essential. Losing it produces desperation, pity, schadenfreude, controversy, and official action. (If you liked the investigation of phone-jamming in New Hampshire, you'll love the investigation of Web site-crashing in Connecticut.) You don't realize how much you've come to rely on something till it's gone. A decade ago, Web sites were cute. Now, if you didn't pay for enough techies, gigs, and bandwidth, you're toast.

Yesterday, Times reporters tried to contact the company that hosts Lieberman's site. "Executives at Server Matrix did not return phone calls seeking comment," the paper reports. Next time, try e-mail.

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