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article | Posted November 4, 2004

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The Rise of Open-Source Politics
(page 3 of 6)

Micah L. Sifry blogs about the issues in this article at http://www.personaldemocracy.com/.
It's the Network, Stupid

The differences between MoveOn.org, the big, liberal e-mail activist group, and DailyKos.com, the biggest of the new blog-centered sites, are illustrative. MoveOn and its associated PAC give its 2.8 million subscribers lots of easy, timely and mostly well-chosen options to get involved in national affairs. Most people are too busy to get deeply involved in many issues, and thus many respond positively to a request for help if action is one click away. MoveOn's sheer size makes small actions feel larger--maybe you'll do a bake sale for democracy if you know 10,000 other people are doing it too. It has raised millions of dollars for political candidates and advertising, and involved its subscribers in many innovative experiments, like its June 2003 online presidential primary and its "Bush in 30 Seconds" ad contest.

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But MoveOn is still very much a top-down organization. Technologist and organizational strategist Tom Mandel says, "MoveOn is to liberal politics as Wal-Mart is to retail." Wes Boyd, Joan Blades, Eli Pariser and the other members of its leadership team may sign all their mass e-mails with their first names, but they set policy for the organization in much the same way as every other nonprofit, by talking among themselves, fielding proposals from various suitors, polling their audience and talking among themselves some more. Periodically they will ask subscribers to offer their ideas about priorities using an "ActionForum" program that enables visitors to suggest an issue, read what others have said and vote on their preferences. But that tool gives MoveOn members little ability to talk to each other directly or to aggregate their ideas independently of the choices its leaders make for them.

By comparison, DailyKos is a multilayered community engineered to reward ideas that bubble up from below. Like many bloggers, Markos Moulitsas, the Gulf War veteran who runs it, requires visitors to register (for free) if they want to post a comment. He also encourages users to set up their own "diaries," or blogs within his blog, where they can post their own entries. Unlike most blogs, the DailyKos is built on a tool called Scoop, which includes peer moderation, where members rank each other's entries and comments. Smart diary postings thus often rise to Moulitsas's attention, and if he reprints them on his main page they gain an even larger audience.

In addition, people with high rankings become "trusted users" who have the ability to recommend that visitors who try to disrupt conversations or simply post right-wing taunts be banned from the site. Only Moulitsas has the power to make that decision, and he weeds his garden carefully. "If somebody posts and I haven't seen them in a while," he told me, "I'll say, 'Where've you been?'" Amazingly, he insists that he has developed personal relationships with hundreds of people. "That's what happens after two years of reading the same names over and over again," he says.

As a result, the Kos community has become a very efficient collaboration engine--not only for pooling money for candidates (at least $600,000 has been given through the site) but also for rapid fact-checking of political statements and news stories, quick dissemination of news of voting irregularities and brainstorming of campaign themes. During the presidential debates, Kos's daily traffic surged to more than a half million visits. The DailyKos, to be sure, is still an egocentric organization dominated by one person who is not without blemishes, like refusing to disclose who his paying political clients are. But his success shows the power of an open network approach to organizing.

Beyond Kos, blog-based political networking has had all kinds of concrete political effects. Best known is the way prominent bloggers like Joshua Micah Marshall, along with some conservatives like Glenn Reynolds, fired up the Trent Lott-Strom Thurmond story, which led to Lott's fall from grace. More recently, bloggers have spurred the resignation of a homophobic Congressman (Ed Schrock), undermined the credibility of key evidence in Dan Rather's story on Bush's National Guard service, distributed Jon Stewart's blistering October 15 appearance on CNN's Crossfire, beat back Sinclair Broadcasting's plan to force its stations to air an anti-Kerry documentary, and formed a back channel for unhappy soldiers in Iraq and their families back home.

The new political technology works because it gives individuals a way to pool their time, attention and resources around causes they may hold in common--and to do it without needing to become a professional activist or wait for approval from any authority figure. "It's not about the technology or the blog," says Mathew Gross now. "It's about having a conversation and treating people with respect."

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about
Micah L. Sifry

Micah L. Sifry (http://micah.sifry.com/), senior analyst with Public Campaign, is the author, with Nancy Watzman, of Is That a Politician in Your Pocket?/ (John Wiley & Sons) and the executive editor of http://www.personaldemocracy.com/

 
 
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