Ten years ago today

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Ten years ago today

Jun 21, 2013

Nicco Mele

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It was in late April 2003 that I packed my car and left Queens, New York to join Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. Today I’m repeating the drive, this time from Boston, headed back up to Burlington, Vermont to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Howard Dean’s run for president.

Dean’s candidacy changed the direction of the Democratic Party – and changed the tactical landscape of political campaigns. It also changed my life – personally, professionally – and it was out of the ashes of the Dean campaign that we started EchoDitto.

The Dean campaign’s internet operation was built on three core pillars: the big email list; the blog community; and the online/offline hybrid of the Meetup events. All three of these pillars had antecedents – MoveOn pioneered the big email list; MyDD and DailyKos provided the model for the blog community; Meetup.com was alive and well long before the Dean campaign came along. (For a book-length discussion of these three pillars, see Dave Karpf’s The MoveOn Effect.) But the Dean campaign brought them together in the service of a presidential candidate – and at the time, in the context of a moribund national politics, it was a revolution. Not just any revolution: as Dean was fond of saying, it was a “people-powered” revolution.

Ten years later, the Obama presidential campaigns have taken the big email list, the online community, and the online/offline hybrid to new and astonishing heights. Some of these approaches are moving into the private sector and other fields. The vast majority of money raised online by political campaigns and non-profits is raised via email solicitation; email acquisition and the conversion of your email list into active, engaged donors is the core of any successful online program. Online community requires an investment in media creation. With a minimum of mainstream media coverage, and with the inbound marketing content prerogatives of search engine optimization and social media, you must create your own media unit to cover your work – and encourage a community to join you in co-creating that coverage. Meetup.com continues to grow and may prove an essential part of a re-invented democracy in the 21st century – an antidote to the 20th century chilling effect of television and air conditioning.

Despite the innovation of the last ten years, there are tantalizing opportunities for another round of disruptive innovation in the near future – perhaps even in 2016. Although Obama’s 2012 online fundraising haul was prodigious, the vast majority of it was spent on television advertising. With the enormous growth of online video – who watched the new season of Arrested Development on Netflix? – the prospect of a 2016 presidential campaign fought primarily via 30 and 60 second television spots is unlikely. But how will that money be spent? What is the future of “people-powered politics”?

Two weeks ago, I spoke about this at the Personal Democracy Forum. The power of our technology is the power it places in the hands of each one of us with a smart phone. We are radically connected to each other, with almost unimaginable power. If all we do is replace 30 and 60 second television spots with customized, tailored emails designed to maximize response rates — well, we haven’t moved the needle.

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” says Jeff Hammerbacher, formerly of Facebook.

If we really want to re-imagine the future of political campaigns and maybe even of government, we need to get beyond where we are right now and invent new process. Our leaders need new ways of engaging with the public — structured ways, local ways.

On the Dean campaign, we were terrified of the day that everyone might hit “reply” to one of those emails — but we kept sending the emails, because it kept the money coming in. And what public figure can keep up with the volume (and unstructured madness) of Twitter mentions?

There is a new infrastructure that needs to be built for our politics, and it is the infrastructure of participation, of process. The country — the globe — faces enormous challenges: youth unemployment, the vanishing middle class, climate change (to name a few).

If we’re going to change things, then we need to imagine and build personal democracy. Technology, process, and culture that understands that politics is a process, a discussion, a give-and-take — not a ladder of engagement, not a conversion funnel, not a targeted message.

There is a gap between our traditional institutions (like the news media and the political nomination process) and the power of social media. That gap is wide, and growing. And we’ve got to find ways of bridging that gap, of bringing the power of the person into the power of the institution.

The next ten years will bring even greater change than the last ten years. All of our institutions are much more fragile than they may immediately appear, and technology is leading to an explosion of exciting, innovative but also disruptive new vehicles. (I just wrote a book about these trends, buy it today!) But ultimately it is up to each of us to take an active role in shaping the future – of building the infrastructure of participation.

This weekend, I’m looking forward to seeing old friends and reminiscing about the exceptional, unusual moment that was the spring and summer of 2003. What will the next decade bring? It is up to us – so we better get started.

As always, I love to talk about these things – you can find me on twitter @nicco – but since I’m in Vermont this weekend, replies may take a while.