The New Gold Rush
If conventional politicos had doubts about that proposition after
Dean's late-January collapse in the Democratic primaries, their
questions were muted a few weeks later, when a $2,000 investment in
advertising on a few political blogs generated more than $80,000 two
weeks later in small contributions to Democratic Congressional
candidate Ben Chandler. Chandler went on to win the special election
for the 6th District in Kentucky. Suddenly politicians were adding
community-building tools to their websites and buying ads on popular
blogs. For firms that specialize in selling Internet plumbing and
the expertise needed to run it, like GetActive, Issue Dynamics,
CTSG, Groundspring, IStandFor, Right Click Strategies, Kintera and
Convio, these are flush times.
ADVERTISEMENT In late March an audience of several hundred
technologists, venture capitalists and journalists gathered at
Esther Dyson's annual PC Forum in Scottsdale, Arizona, a top venue
for the computer industry. This year the hot topic was social
software. The crowd listened intently as Bob Epstein, a member of
GetActive's board of directors, told them that the company's
clients--groups like Oxfam America, Earthjustice, Riverkeeper, PBS
and the AFL-CIO--were seeing huge jumps in online fundraising.
Noting that $70 billion is spent every year on direct mail and "some
of that will move online," he reassured the crowd that "our goal
isn't to change the political system, it's to get a good return on
That seemed to be the main focus, too, at the "Politics Online"
conference at George Washington University in April. To most of the
audience, which was thick with consultants from both parties, the
Internet is just a new place for a more sophisticated kind of direct
mail, the kind where each solicitation message can be tailored
precisely to a voter's concerns and foibles, and where a dribble of
quasi participation ("Become an E-Captain!" "Click Here to E-Mail
This Pre-Written Message to Your Member of Congress") can produce a
torrent of donations.
It fell to David Weinberger, a co-author of the Cluetrain
Manifesto and an Internet adviser to the Dean campaign, to try
to pierce the marketing talk at the conference with a harder truth.
"I am not a 'customer' and I am not a 'consumer,'" he fumed during a
panel with representatives of MoveOn.org and RightMarch.com over the
issue of how best to manage online campaigns. "I am a citizen and a
voter. I flee from 'message.' It is advertising. I want to avoid
advertising," he roared. Recalling the hullabaloo over Kerry's
comment that the Bush campaigners "are the most crooked, lying group
I've ever seen," caught when he thought a mike he was wearing was
off, Weinberger insisted that this was the best thing that had
happened to Kerry. "That was the first time he had been allowed to
speak as a human being." Speaking off-mike, he argued, was like
blogging--in both cases people's real voices could be heard, which
is what we hunger for. "Control kills scale. Control kills passion.
Control kills the human voice," Weinberger insisted.