Should Howard Dean be afraid of the Internet?

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
July 14 2003 7:29 PM

Peer-to-Peer Politics

Should Howard Dean be a little bit afraid of the Internet?

It's too early to say for certain, but Howard Dean may turn out to be the Napster of presidential politics: the force that enables the Internet to upend an entire industry, threatens to transform the way it collects money, and opens the eyes of the average person to yet another way to use the Net. But if Dean is a political Napster, it will probably mean more for politics in general than it means for Howard Dean. After all, two years after Napster went dark, people are still logging on to the Internet to swap music files. Ultimately, Napster empowered music users more than it empowered itself. Something analogous will probably be true with Internet politics. That's good news for political junkies, but it could be bad news for Howard Dean.

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So far, of course, the Internet has been a critical element of Dean's success. The Vermont governor obviously takes the Internet seriously, and his campaign is using the medium in more interesting ways than any of his competitors. (For example, this week he's guest-blogging for Lawrence Lessig while the Stanford professor is on vacation.) Traditionally, campaigns use the Internet ineffectively, as yet another broadcasting medium: They push their message with boring Web sites that serve as nothing more than digital brochures. But Dean is encouraging his supporters to use the Internet for something it's uniquely good at—connecting small groups of like-minded people and getting them to interact with each other. In addition to the Meetup.com gatherings (which grew out of a posting on the unofficial "Dean Nation" blog) that have been garnering press for Dean across the country, Dean supporters have organized themselves into unofficial groups such as a "Dean Media Team" that (among other things) is distilling Dean speeches into streaming, Internet-friendly sound bites and the "Dean Defense Forces" that organize letter-writing responses to negative articles in the press. It's peer-to-peer politics—voters connecting to other voters without the middleman of official campaign sanction.

But by encouraging so much spontaneous organization, Dean has—knowingly or unknowingly—ceded a lot of control to these unofficial groups. It's a gamble that may pay off, but it's still a gamble. If television took some power away from political parties and handed it to the candidates, the Internet has the potential to transfer that power again—this time by handing it to the voters or, more accurately, to organized activist groups like the ones that are now swarming around the Dean campaign. Dean hopes to assimilate the growing online liberal Borg, but it's possible that the Borg will assimilate Dean.

Small, unofficial, decentralized campaign offices (like the ones on the left on this page) could narrow-cast the Dean message, doing to the Dean campaign what fan fiction does to Harry Potter: They could create their own narratives and highlight their own issues and points of emphasis. It's possible that this approach would be wildly successful, allowing Dean's campaign to target a broad variety of voters with distinct messages. Gays for Dean? Go to this site. Geeks for Dean? Click here. Nurses for Dean? Right this way. Let a thousand Dean campaigns bloom.

But the decentralized approach could also allow unofficial groups to hijack the Dean campaign, dilute Dean's message, and lead to strange arguments over who controls the "authentic" Dean message—the candidate, or the spontaneously organized groups that so far have been invaluable to his campaign? Part of the Bush campaign's success in 2000 was based on its obnoxious message discipline, and it's hard to see the Dean campaign replicating that.

In the end, of course, no one will control the Dean message more than Howard Dean. So instead of hijacking his message, the activists who have organized themselves online could simply abandon him. Already, some of them are distancing themselves from the Dean campaign and instead identifying with the larger grass-roots movement that has latched on to the candidate. At a July Meetup reported on by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, a Minnesota voter did just that: "This is not an official campaign event. It's all about us!" she proclaimed. Sunday's Washington Post provided another typical example: A New Hampshire voter whose bike sports a "Dean for President" bumper sticker and who attended a Dean appearance still hasn't settled on a candidate. "I'm for someone I'm convinced can beat Bush, and I'm not there yet with Dean, nor with Kerry," he said. These are angry Democrats who feel disempowered, but if their movement is about a candidate, it's more anti-Bush than pro-Dean.

Like Napster's servers, Dean can be shut down. His online supporters, however, are probably here for the long haul. MoveOn.org was founded to protest the impeachment of President Clinton, but five years later, the online organization has done everything but "move on": It's now trying to serve as a power broker in the Democratic primary. The Napster analogy is instructive: What did file swappers do after Napster went down? They turned to Gnutella, a system that doesn't require a central broker. Dean wants to be Napster, but his supporters are more like Gnutella: They don't need to go through Dean to connect with one another.

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