May 04, 2005
Organizing From the Edges

I just read through the new PACE/E-Volve report “Power to the Edges: Trends and Opportunities in Online Civic Engagement” — a survey of the state of “online democracy” circa early 2005.

It’s an excellent summary. And I’m not just saying that because they quoted me liberally :-)

I do have some thoughts about some of the points in the report…

  • A nitpick: the report cites MoveOn’s “Bush in 30 Seconds” campaign, where MoveOn members made their own campaign commercials and voted on their favorites, as an example of a good network-centric campaign. I liked “Bush in 30 Seconds” myself. But the report’s account of the campaign ends by asserting that members were told to vote for the ad they thought would be most influential to swing voters, and that later focus-grouping showed the winning ads to indeed be the best. This contradicts my understanding of what came out of “Bush in 30 Seconds”; I had always heard that the winning ads were not particularly well received outside the MoveOn audience, which is why you didn’t see them all over the airwaves. So which is it? And if the ads tested so well, why did MoveOn not go wide with them?
  • Another case study cited is what the report calls the “Republican ‘Create a Bush-Cheney Ad’ campaign”, which “asked individuals to design their own ad”. Let me excerpt the report’s account of this campaign for you:

    The risk here was that anti-Bush activists could use the same tool to create counter ads — and they did. But the Republicans may have pulled the plug too soon, not letting the network effect kick in to validate or deny the way the way [sic] the site was being used. Campaigns that trust the citizens as part of their strategy are more likely to go further and have greater impact.

    (Emphasis mine)

    OK. I assume that the “Create a Bush-Cheney ad” campaign they are referring to is the infamous Sloganator. If so, the report has derived exactly the wrong lesson from its brief existence. The great failing of the Sloganator was not that it didn’t “trust the citizens”; it was that it trusted everybody, unquestioningly. This is a Very Bad Idea for an application on a public network.

    You never, never, never put an application on the public Internet that will blindly take whatever input is offered and echo it back for the world. Doing so is asking for abuse, as the developers of the Sloganator quickly discovered. Forget leaving it up in hope of “network effects” — I was surprised it took them as long to pull it down as it actually did!

    The lesson of the Sloganator is not that trusting citizens will make good things happen — it’s yet another example of the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory at work.

    As noted software developer Ronald Reagan put it, the right thing to do is “trust, but verify”.
  • The report cites Wesley Clark’s decision to run as being prompted by a grassroots network. I’m sorry, but I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now.

Don’t get me wrong — the report is well worth your time, especially if you’re new to these issues. I just think it’s important to always push hard on every facet of e-activism, so we can determine which ones are solid and which can’t bear the weight.

UPDATE: Ruby Sinreich reminds me in the comments that MoveOn tried at least once to go wide with the ad, by running it on the Super Bowl, but were denied air time by CBS. I had completely forgotten about that! Thanks for jogging my memory, Ruby.

Posted by Jason Lefkowitz at May 04, 2005

Jason, I think the reason you didn't see the MoveOn ad on TV was that CBS refused to air it during the supeorbowl, for which it was intended. I don't know what they did with it after that.

Posted by: Ruby on May 5, 2005 9:50 AM

Thanks, Ruby -- I had completely forgotten about that. (Of course, they could have mentioned it in the report, too...) I've updated the post to reflect it.

Posted by: Jason Lefkowitz on May 5, 2005 10:05 AM
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