Thursday, December 07, 2006

"Web 2.0" and the Future of American Politics

The 2006 elections were the first since the "Web 2.0" phenomenon really arrived and "new media" reached maturity. The rise of blogs, wikis, social networking sites and online games also had an indelible effect on these midterm elections, not only in the type of candidates that ran but also the new approaches to campaigning they took. This new approach to modern campaigning could be a potential paradigm shift for the entire political process.

One area in which this could occur is the appeal to young people, who are typically apathetic towards and uninvolved in the political process, but who make up the majority of Web 2.0 users. Since the Democratic demographic skews younger, this could emerge as a Democratic counterpart to the Republicans' previously highly successful get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts. This would certainly explain the fact that the majority of politicians (both professional and aspiring) who have taken advantage of new media are left wing.

But is it working? Even trying to harness the power of the Web 2.0 phenomenon may not be enough to motivate that most stubbornly indifferent of constituencies, the youth voters. Just ask Bob Brister, a Green Party candidate for Utah’s 2nd Congressional District, who extensively campaigned using new media, including creating a profile on the popular social networking site, MySpace. But despite this and a public endorsement from the controversial-yet-popular Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, Brister only managed to get 1.43 percent of the vote on election day.

Much more successful was Pete Ashdown, local internet guru and defeated Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate representing Utah, who had a respectable showing against a deeply entrenched and perceived-out-of-touch incumbent. Ashdown also has a MySpace profile, used to DJ raves, and used a collaborative wiki for his campaign. One contribution to that wiki formed a cornerstone of his platform: that the Iraqi people should vote through a referendum on whether U.S. troops should stay in their country. Nevertheless, despite such progressive, tech-savvy, youth-oriented campaigning strategies, going for the youth/techie vote may have let him down, as he only mustered 31 percent to Orrin Hatch's 62 percent.

"Right now in Congress -– and especially Senator Hatch -- is grappling with the last 30 years and trying to understand it," Ashdown told Wired in October, just days before the election. "Dennis Hastert comes out and says, 'Well, we don't understand how to monitor instant messaging.' It's ridiculous. We need people there that have the expertise, ability and knowledge to push this country forward on technology because it's such an important part of our lives." When asked by Wired about the wiki version of his campaign platform, Ashdown said, "It's worked very well –- I've received some great input and taken some of it on the road with me on the campaign trail, talking to people . . . It's an extremely powerful way to collaborate with the American people, and of course I'll use it after I am elected into office."

Of course, that didn't happen, but during the same interview Ashdown said, "I considered forming a [political action committee] after this race and actually I was thinking about doing a technology PAC. I'd really like to see some of these open-source advocates get out there and form their own PAC and be more active in the political process."

Before that, last May, Ashdown told Wired it was a matter of transparency in politics. "In regards to the broader question of how MySpace and being open and transparent have benefited me in this campaign, people are finding it refreshing. People are finding it remarkable that a candidate is taking this kind of approach and advocating this in government because it's so rarely seen. On the drawbacks, I really haven't seen a lot. You know, they may come later when the opposition tries to attack me, but I really feel that in my own business being transparent has been my policy and providing internet service in that we document the good along with the bad."

High-tech entrepreneur, former Virginia Governor and potential Democratic Presidential Candidate Mark Warner hopped on the Web 2.0 bandwagon in a different way –- by making a virtual town hall appearance in the online virtual gaming world, Second Life. On August 31, Warner appeared as a Mark Warner avatar sitting on a stage and taking questions from a number of other avatars that were attending the virtual world event. It is the first known use of an online virtual gaming world by a political figure. Ted Leonsis of AOL is advising him on Web 2.0 and he seems to be getting it. Warner plans to make additional Second Life appearances as he continues to campaign for the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination.

And as of October 16, there will be a Second Life-based major news bureau there to cover it –- that's the day that Reuters opened its first all-digital bureau, a building in the virtual Second Life world modeled on its New York and London offices. Almost immediately, news agencies around the world noticed the story, intrigued by the fact that one of the oldest existing news outlets would choose to station a full-time reporter in a virtual environment. For its part, Reuters is using the bureau to disseminate its real-world news feeds to Second Life residents, hoping in the process to find a new audience. Reuters is not the only news outlet to set up shop in Second Life; CNET had previously opened a bureau there and has been using the virtual space as a venue for interviewing luminaries from the technology community. Still, the fact that Reuters –- which is better known for financial and business reporting than for culture coverage –- decided to participate in Second Life is noteworthy.

Ashdown perhaps best summed up the position of American politics and emergent technologies in an interview last March, "I get it, as far as the internet goes. I have been on the internet since 1987 and I realize the power that it has, in not only news reporting and social aspects, but I realize the power that it can bring to government. And that's my mission: to knock down the walls of government, make it interactive with the people in a two-way sense rather than in a one-way sense, and make our democracy democratic." This is indeed the future direction of politics, but that future, its ramifications for candidates, constituents and voters may still be far off yet.

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