Blown To Bits

A Political Revolution, or Modern Tools for Old Politics?

Friday, December 26th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Since Obama’s victory, an interesting debate has been going on about whether he really tapped the collective energies of Internet users in a collaborative way, or whether the Internet that was just a tool he used to conduct a very effective but fundamentally top-down campaign. There was a conference at the Berkman Center to discuss this and related questions; Yochai Benkler is eloquent in this video taking exception to the way Marshall Ganz had described Obama’s use of the Internet as an organizing tool. Some succinct essays surrounding these issues appear on the Berkman Center site here.

There’s an interesting short article in the Takoma (WA) News Tribune today entitled “Is Obama’s Web-based political revolution real or an illusion?” (It came to my attention because my wife, Marlyn McGrath, was quoted on the subject of how long it takes to read a college application — a number the reporter thought relevant since Obama has received 300,000 online applications for jobs in his administration. Also quoted is Professor Lillian Lee of Cornell, a Harvard PhD who used to be a teaching assistant for me — Lillian notes that the popularity metric used by the site for allowing certain posts to move up in the list is actually not awfully democratic in practice.)

Obama is trying lots of things, and that’s great. He probably could have been elected without the Internet, though it surely did him no harm to have collected millions of cell phone numbers on the promise that you’d be texted in the middle of the night about his VP pick, and a free “Go! Go! Go! Obama!” ring tone. Figuring out what actually works will take longer.

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