How Many Technologists Does the Republican Party Need?

Over at DailyKos, Markos Moulitsas offers a spirited defense of what I term the theory of “ideological congruence” in partisan technology adoption.

There’s a reason that conservatives have fallen so far behind liberals on the technology front, and it truly is cultural. Go read Wired or Ars Technica or The Verge or any gadget blog and note how overwhelmingly liberal the publications are—pro-science, pro-progress and pro-net neutrality. They don’t believe that AT&T would provide better service without government regulations or interference. They loathe our current intellectual property regime (both copyright and trademark). They want something done about global climate change (that science stuff) and stem cell research (more of that science stuff).

Markos is making an important point here.  Silicon Valley votes Democratic.  Google and Apple employees donate Democratic.  When technologists volunteer for campaigns, they tend to volunteer for the Dems.  That makes it a lot easier for Dems to hire talented analysts, engineers, and digital campaigners.  It’s a built-in advantage that has nothing to do with the outparty status.  I don’t expect it will go away any time soon — big databases aren’t inherently progressive, but the people who build them often are.

That said, I often worry that we make too much of these ideological bridges.  The Republican Party doesn’t need a majority of Silicon Valley residents or Wired readers to come work for, donate to, or volunteer with them.  They just need a few dozen good ones.  Plenty of wealthy technologists have a right/libertarian bent.  Plenty of others believe that campaign technologies should be evenly distributed, and are happy to work for Republicans.  In the early years of the World Wide Web, conservatives carved out a lead with sites like the DrudgeReport and FreeRepublic.  Until after the 2004 election, they also had better campaign data practices than their Democratic opponents.  The ideological affinity of Silicon Valley didn’t change in the intervening years; Democrats just came to their senses and started investing in technology, testing, and training.

The real challenge facing Republican campaigns today isn’t their hostility to scientific analysis or scientists themselves*.  The real challenge is a series of intra-party fights among networks of candidates, donors, campaigners and consultants.  When Republican digital strategists like Patrick Ruffini talk about launching new organizations to replicate the Democratic successes like the New Organizing Institute, Analyst Group, and New Media Ventures, he surely knows that he’ll face some stiff internal competition. Romney’s digital director Zac Moffatt made a ton of money on the 2012 election.  I imagine his company, Targeted Victory, will try to resist the new competition from Ruffini and company.

The hidden story of the current Democratic tech advantage is that losing in consecutive cycles (2000, 2002, 2004) led for major internal calls to “fire the consultants.”  This created a market opportunity for new consultants and campaigners, many of whom came out of the old Dean campaign.  Firms like BlueStateDigital probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if Al Gore or John Kerry had been president in the last decade.  Dems would’ve kept hiring Bob Shrum and company, and they would’ve kept demanding that campaign investments and databases remain exactly as they were.  In American elections, to the winner goes the spoils, and to the loser goes the incentive to try something different next time.

I don’t think Republicans are going to fix the sorry state of their campaign technology overnight.  And one reason is certainly the ideological disconnect between (most) Republican elites and (most) technological elites.  But the much bigger factor is that they aren’t quite ready to fire the old and invest in the new just yet.  Party elites are quick to point out the 2010 victory.  2012 was just “bad luck,” or “lack of message discipline,” or “the hurricane,” even.  Republicans haven’t experienced the same series of depressing losses that Democrats experienced from 2000-2004 (and it isn’t like 1994 or 1998 provided any comfort to Democrats either).  We’re now seeing the start of those conservative intra-party fights, but I don’t expect them to finish any time soon.

Make no mistake, though.  If Republicans work out those internal fights and make a concerted effort to invest in infrastructure and hire new people, they’ll be able to find plenty of candidates.  Silicon Valley may be a blue region, but there’s still enough red to go around.

 

*It sure doesn’t help, though.

Outparty Innovation Incentives in the News

The Democratic Party has a clear technology advantage over the GOP right now.  Many are now asking a single question: “is this a permanent advantage?”

I’m pretty confident that the advantage won’t be permanent.  In my book, The MoveOn Effect, I offer a theory of “outparty innovation incentives.”  Simply put, new technological opportunities sync well with countermobilization.  The party in power tends to maintain their existing systems and reward their victorious campaigners and consultants.  The party out-of-power tends to search around for new ways to “change the game.”  Particularly after losing consecutive election cycles, they tend to fire the old “coaches” and bring in new ones.  The same pattern holds among partisan advocacy efforts.  It’s a lot easier to build membership, funding, and momentum when you’re opposing government overreach (The Left had “Win Without War,” the Right had “Keep Your Government Hands Off Our Medicare) than when you’re trying to move major legislation through the sausage-making process.

Steve Friess at Politico offers us the latest glimpse at GOP efforts to address the campaign technology gap.  The whole article is worth reading, but three quotes stood out for me as particularly noteworthy:

At their recent leadership retreat, Chairman Reince Priebus and others sounded the bell for closing the vast technological divide that made all the difference for Democrats in getting out the votelast fall in numbers that stunned the pundit class. “Let’s host Skype-based training sessions and Google hangouts on campaign strategy, fundraising, door-to-door advocacy, and digital tools,” Priebus urged at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in Charlotte, N.C. “We need to give the next generation of organizers access to the brightest experts.” (emphasis added)

Notice that phrase, “the next generation of organizers.”  It wasn’t so long ago that Republicans were treating “organizer” as a punchline.  From Sarah Palin on down, the craft of organizing has been viewed with active disdain.  I attended a Political Innovation Summit at Google last Friday, and top Republican technologists went out of their way to announce that “the stigma is gone” from the title.  Republican party leadership realizes that message consultants can’t win elections on their own.  I’d call that a necessary-but-insufficient condition for broader changes within the party.

“We absolutely need a centralized database to record voter history, online and offline interactions and add in demographic data that we can learn from and social data we can learn from to get a full picture of our customers,” [Peter] Pasi [Santorum digital consultant] said.

[…]

The nature of conservatism is about individual free-market thinking and competition and not about looking to create a strong collective for the betterment of society,” said [Vincent] Harris, who also managed the digital efforts for Newt Gingrich, Allen West and Linda McMahon in 2012. “It’s almost a socialist premise. But Republicans need to adopt that collective mind-set because we are going up against a data giant and a data giant that is built by really, really smart tech geeks that Republicans simply don’t have.”

In this second quote, we see the personnel hurdle that Republicans face.  Vincent Harris helped coordinate social media for Ted Cruz’s Senate vicotry.  He recognizes the need for better technology and, in particular, top-down coordination.  But he also thinks that party-based voter files are “almost socialist.” That is an… extraordinarily dumb thing for him to believe (apparently socialism is both top-down and bottom-up!).  Last time I checked, corporations in a free-market were pretty good at behaving as an oligopoly when it suited their shared interests.  Constructing a good voter file doesn’t run against conservative ideology.  It just runs against the interests of existing stakeholders who currently make a lot of money off of the inefficiencies in the current data market.  Losing another election or two can do wonders for clarifying their “values,” just as it did for the Democrats after 2004.

The problem for the Republicans is that even if they could get it together to create their own VAN-style system and use it properly, the Democrats now have years of historic data that continue to expand. It would take years to catch up if only because fine-tuning and collecting such information is a laborious task that is difficult to hasten, Harris said.

“We better all put our egos behind us and do what’s best for the party,” Harris said. “We’re now nine months out from the 2013 election, 21 months to the mid-terms. People are saying the right things, but not much is being done.”

This third and final quote helps explain why outparty innovation incentives tend toward the next wave of technological innovations.  There’s nothing stopping Republicans from constructing a better data system that competes with NGP/VAN.  But it is going to take them a lot of time, and the Democrats’ first-mover advantage means they will continue to refine the dataset and reap increasing value from it.  Republican will likely invest in data for the 2014 midterm, but they are unlikely to catch up right away.

The Democratic Party network currently has a technological advantage.  But new technologies continue to ripen all the time.  As Republicans start hiring new organizers and technologists, they’re going to be looking to the latest wave of technological innovation, experimenting with untested strategies and tactics.  A few of them will work out — perhaps not in 2014, but almost certainly by 2016.  As Democrats continue to focus on perfecting the tools which worked so well in 2008 and 2012, this creates space for Republicans to assert an advantage in the next area of internet-mediated mobilization (whatever it may be).

Beck’s new “album” and the Boundaries of Participatory Community

Beck kind of has a new album out.  But only kind of.  He’s partnered with the folks at McSweeney’s* to produce “Song Reader,” a collection of sheet music that fans can play and upload themselves.  Will Burns at Forbes.com raves that “It’s more than an album. It’s an invitation.”

“Beck fans the world over will be drawn to the “invitation” this sheet music presents. Go ahead, grab your guitar, find a friend who plays keys, get your brother to play drums, and then turn GarageBand on and record these Beck songs. And record them the way you want to record them. Be inspired by the imagery in the packaging, be inspired by the compositions, but generate your own takes.”

Burns sees this as The Future.  David Weinberger tweeted “Mind. Blown.”  I’m a little more circumspect.  Bummed out, even.

The exciting thing about this innovative approach is that it draws upon and contributes to participatory culture.  The tools of music production have been small-d democratized.  When I was in high school, it was a big deal if you could get access to a 4-track recorder and record yourself playing.  It was pretty costly too.  Today, it’s elegantly simple.  Beck is sharing his music with a participatory community.  Partnering with McSweeney’s is a nice touch – I imagine there’s a nice overlap between McSweeney’s readers and people-who’d-find-this-cool.

But it’s easy to forget that, even with democratized tools of production, participatory communities are still sharply bounded.  Participatory communities that produce user-generated content are the equivalent of lead-adopter/innovator communities in the diffusion of innovations.  These are tiny slices of the overall populace, but they are also heavily engaged and central to the development of new products or innovations.

 

Beck’s innovation is a little gimmicky, but it’s also a blessing to the lead-adopters.  If you love uploading covers of songs to YouTube, or if you’re a giant Beck fan, this is a nice invitation.  That community will be happy.  They’ll get to play around with his new songs.  They’ll modify, share, and generally play around with the songs.  I’m sure it’ll be a lot of fun.  But it sucks for the rest of us.

I’m 33 years old.  It’s been a decade and a half since I had a band to play with.  Beck isn’t my favorite musician, but he’s in my top 25.  One of my first academic articles was written with Modern Guilt humming along in the background.

I’m a casual fan.  Given the opportunity, I’d buy the new Beck album.  Beck is good writing music, and I’d probably write to the album in the fall. But I’m not going to record the music.  I’m not going to search out the most popular song submissions through McSweeney’s.  His music in particular isn’t a passion of mine.  I care a little, not a lot.

Looking beyond this particular album, I think there’s a lesson here about the boundaries of participatory communities, the limits of user-generated content.  The most-committed fans or community members provide the vast majority of activity.  But their also a tiny fraction of the overall audience.  The finest online innovations (YouTube and Wikipedia, for instance), engage the participators while also appealing to the passive appreciators.  Innovations that presuppose a vast public just waiting to remix some culture tend to have much weaker echoes.

My hunch is that six months from now, folks like Will Burns won’t have seen nearly as much engagement with Beck’s new album as they’d hoped.  That’s just how these online community boundaries work.  But hey, Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime, right?

 

 

*Home of David Eggers, author of that really good book you probably started but didn’t quite make it through.

Jaron Lanier’s technologist myopia

Jaron Lanier is at it again.  Two weeks ago, at Personal Democracy Forum, Lanier unveiled the central thesis of his next book: computer networks are causing the demise of the American middle class, threatening Democracy as we know it.  New information technology has exacerbated the distribution of wealth.  The Internet has undermined a set of “levees,” including academic tenure, copyright, and taxi medallions (???).  All sorts of social problems — from Wall Street shenanigans to the decline of unions — can be laid at the feet of technologists.  And, in Lanier’s eyes, these technological problems have technological solutions.  We simply have to rewrite the entire Internet, embrace Ted Nelson’s failed Project Xanadu and rebuild from the hyperlinks on up.

If that sounds extreme, don’t worry.  It’s supposed to be.  Jaron Lanier is the Great Curmudgeon of the Internet Community.  An influential technologist in the 1980s and 1990s, Lanier later began to ask “what hath our efforts wrought” sorts of questions.  He thinks on a grand and abstract scale, he does not like what he sees, and the Internet Community regularly provides a platform for him to voice his objections.  Among my friends and colleagues in the Internet research community, everyone either loves or hates what Lanier has to say.  But he is always provocative, and that indeed is largely the point.

We need good curmudgeons (or skeptics, at least) in the world.  Particularly in the technology & society community, which has a habit of falling into boundless optimism.  Good curmudgeons force smart optimists to engage in healthy self-reflection.  For that, if nothing else, they should be thanked.  My problem with Lanier, however, is that I don’t think he’s a particularly good curmudgeon.

As usual, there’s a kernel of truth in his work.  Technologists ought to be mindful of the values that they encode in software.  The individuals who construct our digital environment make up an increasingly important social elite.  Facebook and Google are, indeed, monetizing our every action – we create value, they harvest that value and turn a profit.  We ought to think through the social consequences of technology-driven disruptions.

But, as with his last book, the power of his critique evaporates due to a pair of gaping flaws.  The first is a problem of style, the second an error of analysis.

Stylistically, Lanier writes the way he talks — stream of consciousness, hoping from one example to another.  If you have trouble following his argument in the book or in the video, that isn’t because he’s just so brilliant.  Like many technologists, he likes to begin from first principles, designing his arguments basically from scratch.  That’s a fine method for create operating systems.  It’s a poor tool for social analysis though.  There are too many complicated moving parts, too much that cannot be simplified or assumed away.

His haphazard style exacerbates a habit of treating correlations as causation.  Lanier sees the rise of computer networks and the decline of unions in America and thinks “this is all connected!”  Yet unions began their decline well in advance of personal computing.   He sees computer networks driving wealth creation, but seems to forget that past advances in technology drove wealth creation as well.  History cannot be neatly divided into “pre-Internet” and “post-Internet” categories.  In doing so, he fails to take history seriously.

The bigger problem is Lanier’s error of analysis: Technologists are an elite, not The Elite.   The decline of unions (particularly the recent union fights in Wisconsin and Ohio) is not caused by the new information environment.  It is caused by motivated political elites, enacting policies that favor their own narrow interests.  The Wall Street crash was orchestrated by “quants” using computer networks, but it was made possible by the repeal of Glass-Steagall.   The decline of the American middle class has not been caused by technology.  The solutions to that decline lie not in the realm of bits and bytes, but in the realm of policies and votes.

A better skeptic would take other social forces into account.  To borrow from Larry Lessig, the information environment is shaped by four forces: laws, norms, markets, and architecture.  Indeed, one of the lessons from SOPA was that, if internet architects don’t exert political pressure, then Hollywood will reforge the internet.  Lanier looks at the Internet and sees the rise of a digital elite.  He then makes the moral argument that they should give up their power, creating an egalitarian internet along the lines of Ted Nelson’s original vision instead. Better skeptics, like Siva Vaidhyanathan, also see the rise of a digital elite.  But instead, Siva concludes that we should think of companies like Google and Facebook as though they were utilities, and regulate them accordingly.  Siva’s perspective is not just more realistic, it’s also more nuanced and accurate.

We dealt with the old robber barons (eventually) by regulating their influence.   Even if you agree with Lanier’s claim that technology is undermining the old “middle class levees,” the solution is to create new ones through public policy.  Blaming Facebook and Google for our social problems may be gratifying, but it lets the real culprits off the hook.

For Jaron Lanier, All Roads Lead to Code.  That perspective has made him the most popular internet curmudgeon.  Lanier has the ears of the entire tech community.  He occupies a space in a network – the space reserved for the critic.  With that role comes the responsibility to use it well!  Sloppiness either in thought or execution makes it too easy for his audience to dismiss all such criticism.  I can only hope that, as he transforms his PDF talk into his next book, he takes this responsibility seriously.  Technologists are not the only architects of our society.  We should be mindful of the values encoded in our technologies, but just as mindful of the values embraced by our public policies.

 

 

Lean Startups and the Nonprofit World

At Personal Democracy Forum last week, I saw a very interesting panel titled “The Lean Startup Model for Politics” (check out Jackie Mahandra’s cool visual notes here).  I was a little amused that the whole panel was premised on an article I’d read in last month’s Wired magazine, “Upstart Eric Ries Has the Stage and the Crowd Is Going Wild.”  Then I was intrigued.  Then I was concerned.

Eric Ries is the latest Silicon Valley Guru.  His new book, The Lean Startup, is a hit with both venture capitalists and startup managers.  It teaches the differences between “vanity metrics” and “actionable metrics,” preaches about “minimum viable products” that allow a company to test market demands early, argues for “iterative” productive development and for “pivoting” when a product isn’t working out.

There’s a lot to like in these concepts.  I’ve written previously about the difficulty of measuring success in online campaigning.  Most of the easily accessible metrics (facebook “likes,” twitter followers, petition signatures) provide only a weak signal of whether or not you’re achieving your campaign goals.  Advocacy campaigns are about applying pressure to specific targets in order to convince them to do something that they would not otherwise do.  Tactics that garner a lot of facebook “likes” are not always the same tactics that provide leverage on your targeted decision-maker.  That sounds an awful lot like Ries’s distinction between “vanity” and “actionable” metrics.

Likewise, the recent success of Change.org came after several previous failures.  Ben Rattray (Change.org’s founder and CEO) was on the panel and discussed their years of experience with iterating, failing, and pivoting.  I think it’s fair to say that, if you view Change.org as an important part of the advocacy landscape, then The Lean Startup is worth thinking around.  It clearly has influenced their strategic thinking, and helped guide important decisions.

The question, however, is just how far we can extend the comparison.  Nonprofit advocacy has some important differences from for-profit companies.  Bringing disruptive new tech into the mix doesn’t erase the difference.  Most importantly there’s a simplicity to business management that is not present for political advocates.  The simple goal of businesses is to maximize profits.  This goal is central to all elements of the lean startup model.  Actionable metrics are the ones that actually tell you whether the product will sell.  Vanity metrics don’t tell you that.  Minimum viable products let you test the market before sinking a ton of resources, thus improving profitability.  Iteration and pivoting are both driven by the profit motive.

The nonprofit world has no such prime directive.  The goal of RebuildTheDream.com  (whose Executive Director, Natalie Foster, was also on the panel) is to build a “movement for a sustainable economy, more jobs, accountability for Wall Street, fair share taxes for corporations—and an America that delivers on its promise of opportunity for all.”  How should we measure that?  What counts as an actionable metric?  When do you know that it is time to pivot?  There are, to be sure, answers to these questions.  But they are not simple answers.  They are the subject of deep debates among practitioners and social movement scholars alike.  And lacking a simple, measurable bottom line, the foundations of the whole Lean Startup model become a good deal shakier.

This became particularly clear in one of Natalie’s answers during the Q&A session.  Responding to a question about vanity metrics, Natalie noted that one of the biggest challenges was funder expectations.  If foundations and major donors demand large petition drives and follower-counts, then organizations will be stuck pursuing those goals even if they know they’re nothing but vanity metrics.  Advocacy groups are donor-driven in a way that startups aren’t, because it is much simpler for a startup to convince funders of their profit model than it is for an advocacy group to convince philanthropists of a social change model.

Indeed, this is even more the case today.  One of the major points I make in The MoveOn Effect is that the Internet’s disruptive impact on nonprofit fundraising has made advocacy groups far more donor-driven than before.  Organizations that used to rely on a stable base of direct mail fundraising now turn to a mix of targeted internet fundraising and large donor fundraising.  Both of these sources tend to be program-specific — it’s much easier to raise money for a specific action than for field organizers or trainings.  Some of the most important organizational infrastructure in the advocacy community simply isn’t very attractive to donors.  And, lacking the simplicity of a for-profit bottom line, it’s pretty hard to move donors in the right direction.

Listening to that panel, I couldn’t help but sense a new bubble forming among advocacy professionals.  “It’s so simple, success lies in following the lessons of silicon valley!”  I see some value, but also plenty of risk down that path.  So I suppose my take-away from the panel is twofold: (1) advocacy professionals should read The Lean Startup, there are some useful concepts in it. (2) they should read it with a skeptical eye.  Applications to political advocacy are going to be messy and inexact.

Stop Online Piracy Act: Terrible Law. Great Example of Internet Mobilization?

We’re in trouble. The future of the internet is in danger, and if that danger comes to pass, it’s both unhealthy for and a very bad indicator of the health of our democracy.

Congress is already very close to passing companion bills to censor the internet, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA, H.R. 3261) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA, S. 968). This is in addition to the domain name seizures already underway by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

All of these efforts are terrible ideas. Their supporters don’t understand or care about the internet and are happily willing to break the internet to appease the content industry. It is among the very worst contemporary examples of a government that is of, by, and for special interests, and if it passes, it will be a slap in the face of democracy, free expression, due process, and technological innovation. To top it all? It won’t even do much to stop online infringement.

Fortunately, there may be signs that things are turning our way. I’ll get to that further below.

EFF has a great summary of the several ways SOPA can lead to a site getting shut down. Section 102 deals with foreign sites and is the most all-encompassing, but 103 and 104 are actually easier for rights holders to (mis)use, and they apply to domestic as well as foreign sites, so I’ll start there.

Section 103 allows IP rights holders to go directly to a website’s payment processors and advertisers—and to demand that these third parties cease all business with the website operator. These payment processors and advertisers then have just five days to act. The website operator has the right to file a counter-notice that they are not substantially dedicated to infringement, but (a) they may not get the chance until after the payment processors and advertisers have already cut off payments, and (b) the third parties have no obligation to take the counter-notice as final and re-establish a business relationship.

Section 104 takes this “default=censorship” strategy even further. Everyone in the internet ecosystem—registrars, web hosts, advertisers, financial processors, search engines, etc. etc.—gets near-categorical federal and state immunity for any decision to terminate a business relationship with a site (or even to shutter a site) “in the reasonable belief” that the site is dedicated to infringement. Under Section 103, a rights holder must at least file a claim. Under Section 104, even the intimation that a site is infringing might be enough to get it shut down—and the site would have no legal recourse.

The Administration also gets in on the fun in Section 102, which gives the Attorney General the power to use government-mandated Domain Name System (DNS) filtering to stop Americans from accessing “foreign infringing sites.” A domain name, such as Google.com, is an easy-to-remember way to tell one’s computer to go to a specific numeric address (e.g., 74.125.39.147). It is this number (the IP address) that identifies that site’s server (the computer that hosts the website). Everyone enters the domain name into their browser’s internet address bar, but the numbers would take one to the same site. Click on the numbers above or paste them into your browser to see for yourself.

Under Section 102, if a site were found to be primarily dedicated to infringement, the government could “seize” the site’s domain name. More precisely, the domain name registrar—a company that keeps track of which domain names are attached to which servers—would, if US-based, be compelled to stop sending users to the correct server. All domestic ISPs would also be forbidden to take you to the right server (the number behind the name), and advertisers and banks would be forbidden from doing business with these companies.

If the government found a foreign site to be infringing under these bills, the government would try to make it disappear for US audiences.

If this bill becomes law, we will see the shuttering and/or financial starvation of thousands of websites—which are, of course, a form of speech and/or press. They would be silenced and/or starved based on either an affidavit by a rights holder, a mere suspicion by a business partner, or (at best!) a one-sided court hearing with a low burden of proof. Little wonder then that legal scholars from (my friend and) rising star Marvin Amorri to the legendary constitutional scholar Laurence H. Tribe (pdf) have concluded that the bills are unconstitutional threats to the First Amendment.

By now it should be clear that, if passed into law, SOPA or PIPA would have devastating consequences for innocent actors who are mistakenly identified. The web seizures undertaken by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), beginning in 2010, illustrate this peril all too well. Several websites have been taken down for posting media files that were authorized and even actively shared by the copyright holders or their representatives. Others have apparently been seized merely for linking to allegedly infringing content.

One in particular, DaJaz1.com, has become the cause célèbre of the anti-domain-seizures movement. It was one of a cluster of hip hop websites seized last year. Major voices from Vibe to Kanye to P. Diddy were actively promoting the sites, hardly a sign that they are dedicated to copyright infringement.

Last week, the feds finally gave up on DaJaz1. TechDirt (which has nearly gone all-SOPA, all-the-time) had the headline:

Feds Falsely Censor Popular Blog For Over A Year, Deny All Due Process, Hide All Details…

Their opening clarifies exactly how unconstitutional this is:

Imagine if the US government, with no notice or warning, raided a small but popular magazine’s offices over a Thanksgiving weekend, seized the company’s printing presses, and told the world that the magazine was a criminal enterprise with a giant banner on their building. Then imagine that it never arrested anyone, never let a trial happen, and filed everything about the case under seal, not even letting the magazine’s lawyers talk to the judge presiding over the case. And it continued to deny any due process at all for over a year, before finally just handing everything back to the magazine and pretending nothing happened. I expect most people would be outraged. I expect that nearly all of you would say that’s a classic case of prior restraint, a massive First Amendment violation, and exactly the kind of thing that does not, or should not, happen in the United States.

They go on to detail how DaJaz1’s owners were stonewalled, blockaded, and never allowed their day in court by the feds—for over a year—while the feds managed to arrange a court process during which all court proceedings (including several granting extensions that DaJaz1’s owners should have been able to contest) were secret and all the filings were sealed and not open to the site owners.

Once the details of the accusations came out, it turned out that the allegedly infringing songs were given directly to the blog by copyright holders’ agents in the hopes of promoting the music. The RIAA was the source of the original complaint, and one of the songs in question was not even released by an RIAA label.

Another operation using similar methods but for a different goal—seizing sites with child pornography—mistakenly took down 84,000 sites in one shot, resulting in each of those thousands of sites being down for 3 days. Even worse, each domain was redirected to an ICE notice that the website had been seized for trafficking in child pornography. Nearly all of those sites were not dedicated to child pornography, and to my knowledge, ICE never even apologized to them for the error.

Further, it takes little imagination to picture a devastating chill on legitimate sites that make fair uses of copyrighted content. If I run a news and commentary site, I may be less likely to include portions of copyrighted works, even if such inclusion is very likely fair use and crucially relevant to my discussion of the matters at hand.

In particular, media criticism sites would be in grave peril; how long after the bill’s passage would it be before partisan news outlets started using the new law to silence their critics? How long before FoxNews goes after Media Matters for America? Think that’s far fetched? Witness Righthaven’s efforts to sue bloggers for using even brief quotations. And what was on the list of threats they used to scare people into paying licensing fees? Domain seizure. Among other things, these bills would give a hunting license for those who would like to shutter the sites of upstarts, competitors, and critics.

At least these bills will stop piracy, right? Hardly.

Dedicated infringers will still find infringing sites—especially foreign sites that host infringing files with impunity. Remember, the feds are seizing the site name (e.g., Google.com) but not the number behind it (74.125.39.147). All you need is a small program to tell your computer to go to the right number—and, because the bill will forbid your ISP from getting you there, a proxy server in the middle. The same strategies have already proven successful for dissidents behind government firewalls, who still manage to upload and download forbidden information—despite far more active, on-the-fly, and resource-intensive censorship schemes.

Programmers have already developed tools to work around these restrictions. The law hasn’t even passed yet, and already there is a Firefox plugin that would help users work around SOPA-like restrictions.

You might think that at least payment processors and advertiser networks would be scared off of dealing with these sites. If it were that easy—if we could target the banks and advertisers that support internet scofflaws—then spam and other internet evils would have long since been wiped out.

The internet breeds decentralized innovation, and innovators will spring into action to help users circumvent ISP and search engine filters as well. This software will also be considered grounds for legal action—with the goal being to ban the tools, as the 1998 DMCA bans DRM-hacking devices. That’s worked so poorly that multiple free circumvention tools are available for most major DRM systems. There are so many DVD rippers that LifeHacker has a post comparing rippers to help you choose the best.

As if all of the above failures and offenses were not enough, these bills would harm our economy and reduce our competitiveness in the internet age. If SOPA were law when YouTube was getting started, the site probably would have been shuttered. The next YouTube will be much less likely to be born in the US if it can be kicked out of the legitimate portion of the web before it has really grown up. The EFF warns that sites like Etsy, Flickr, and Vimeo would be in danger.

Internet innovation is one of the few bright spots in the economy, and major internet firms have warned that this will increase the cost of regulatory compliance and decrease our competitiveness. Venture capitalists have also warned that SOPA would substantially decrease their willingness to invest in US technology start-ups. Union Square Ventures, just down the street here in NYC, even put this link saying the same thing on their homepage.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has placed a hold on PROTECT-IP, and he has even vowed to filibuster the bill should it come to the Senate floor. Because of this principled opposition and his long record of standing up for internet freedom, I made a donation to Sen. Wyden’s re-election campaign—even though my wife and I are watching every dollar as we save to buy our first home.

So these bills are terrrrrible, but they enjoy a lot of support in the House and Senate—30 cosponsors in the House, and a whopping 40 in the Senate. This post is derived from an email I sent to my Senators and Representative, and all three wrote back with disappointing notes to the effect of, “Yeah, but we gotta stop internet infringement.” Surely this is unrelated to the content industries having spent far, far more money on lobbying and campaign donations than their opponents on this issue.

Which brings us back to democracy.

In response to these bills, we have seen the swelling of a major internet movement—nearly the groundswell we saw around network neutrality in 2006. Opponents created a campaign declaring November 16—the day of a hearing in the House that was heavily stacked in favor of SOPA—as “American Censorship Day,” a campaign that went viral in a major way. Over 6,000 sites including Wikipedia, Creative Commons, Mozilla (including the default start page in Firefox), Reddit, TechDirt, and BoingBoing, directed traffic to a single action site, AmericanCensorship.org. At the time, the site said that it had generated over 1,000,000 emails and four calls per second to Congress. To date, AmericanCensorship.org has earned over 650,000 Facebook likes and 63,000 tweets.

This is democracy in action. After all, most people don’t support draconian copyright enforcement, and a solid majority of people oppose government attempts to block access to infringing materials. (40% support, 56% oppose; this skews to 33% for, 64% against when framed as censorship.)

If Wyden’s hold and the opposition can stop this fast-moving train(wreck), then perhaps democratic values and majority opinion can actually shape the future of the internet. Just maybe, a public outcry can stop a terrible idea backed by special interests.

If not, we may be in big trouble—and not just because the internet will be broken.

A Tale of Three E-mails

There are a lot of different ways for advocacy groups to use their e-mail lists.  They can mobilize. They can fundraise. They can educate or persuade. They can request feedback or user-generated content submissions. They can announce upcoming events.  Last year, I conducted a study of netroots and legacy organizations on the left, and found that there were some pretty interesting differences (PDF) in e-mail trends.

I’ve also been tracking an equivalent conservative group, Liberty.com, since its inception.  That group is essentially a stand-in for Eric Odom’s e-mail list — when he migrated to the Patriot Action Network, Liberty.com did so as well (to be clear, I’m not suggesting that’s a bad thing.  It seems like a reasonable application of the “post-bureaucratic” trends that Bruce Bimber has been forecasting for years…).  One major difference immediately jumped out at me: the left uses e-mail to mobilize.  The right uses e-mail to persuade.  As an example, take a look at three e-mails I received today:

The first e-mail comes from “Jim Dean, Democracy for America,” and is titled “Scott Walker vs Planned Parenthood.”

“This is it, folks. DFA’s campaign to recall six anti-union, anti-middle class Wisconsin Republican Senators is almost ready to go and it’s the biggest campaign we’ve ever run.

We’re going to be on the air with new hard-hitting television, radio and web ads against these six Republicans for their votes to destroy unions and middle-class families.

(…)

Please contribute $10 now to fuel our biggest campaign ever and fight back in the war on working families.”

There’s more text to the e-mail, of course, but those short segments give you the feel for it.  This is about Wisconsin, they’ve got a commercial on the air, and they want supporters to help fund it.  The link goes to an ActBlue fundraising page, through which they’ve raised over $100,000 already for their Wisconsin campaign.

The second e-mail comes from the “Stephanie Taylor, BoldProgressives.org” and is titled “Dave, Meet Eric.”

“David,

“The last thing we need to send to Washington is a Democrat who is a kinder, gentler version of the Republicans.”

New Mexico state senator Eric Griego said these words when announcing his candidacy for Congress.

And today, Eric Griego is the first House challenger of 2012 that we’re officially endorsing!

Click here to see Eric Greigo’s announcement — and chip in $3 to his campaign before the closely-watched June 30 fundraising deadline.”

Again, there’s more text to the e-mail, and that text includes an explanation of why Greigo is a Bold Progressive, and several reasons why it’s particularly important for supporters to donate to him now.

The third e-mail comes from “Eric Odom” and is titled “Obama Weak, but Could Still Win.”

Friends,

During the past few weeks I’ve gotten a lot of email with lines such as “we’ve got him on the ropes and he’s going down,” and “He’s toast, he can never win now,” in reference to Obama’s chances in 2012. While I agree he is at his weakest point right now, I in no way believe he’s going to be easy to beat. In fact I still think he holds the upper hand.

This week’s report provides a quick glance at Obama’s current standing, his weakness and his strengths going into 2012. Please read the full report and leave comments!”

Odom’s e-mail includes a few links to other articles on the web, but there’s no more text in the message.

Notice the difference?  DFA and the PCCC are using e-mail to persuade and then mobilize action.  Odom is using e-mail to offer his perspective on the days events, and then drive readership to his blog.

This is a remarkably consistent trend.  I’ve catalogued over 100 e-mails from Liberty.com.  That includes less than 5 e-petitions or calls-to-action.  It includes about 20 fundraising requests, but almost all of those are concentrated around the Nevada Senate election last fall, when Odom and company were raising money to run issue advertisements.  Since the end of election season, Liberty.com has pretty much solely been an information dissemination list.

Now, it’s possible that this is just a sample skew.  Sketching the ecology of the rightwing advocacy system is a tough gig, they don’t leave the same digital traces that progressive groups do.  But it’s also very similar to what Jessica Baldwin-Phillipi has been finding in her comparative analysis of rightwing and leftwing microsites: the left uses microsites to drive action, the right uses microsites for persuasion (Jesse is great, by the way.  She should blog more, and you should read her stuff).

What we’re seeing here is a dramatic partisan split in technology usage.  Everybody is accessing the same internet, but they are using it to very different ends.  What makes this particularly interesting is that we’re talking about e-mail – the granddaddy of online communications tools.  If there’s any single online medium where one would expect all actors to converge towards the same “best practices,” it would be e-mail.  That simply hasn’t happened.

I’m not going to argue that one use of e-mail is inherently better than the other.  Rather, I’d say there are two take-home points: (1) e-mail is maleable communications medium, which gets used for a variety of ends. (2) “best practices” among advocacy groups will very depending on the political network and organizing opportunities that the groups are built around.

Thoughts on Eli Pariser’s “The Filter Bubble”

Eli Pariser, the former Executive Director of MoveOn, has a new book out on the social impacts of the internet.  It’s quite good – reminiscent of Cass Sunstein’s Republic.com and Infotopia, in that it is utterly readable, carefully constructed, and critical in tenor.  The important difference between Pariser’s book and Sunstein’s books is temporal in nature: the digital environment continues to evolve, and Eli highlights some elements of that evolution that rightly should concern all of us. Essentially, we’re dealing with a different online environment in 2011 than we were in 2001, and Pariser’s book is a nice guide to the current threats and opportunities coming out of that space.

I had one big “ah hah” moment in the course of reading the book.  “Multidimensionality can be outstripped by improved point prediction.  And that would be a bad thing.”  Allow me to riff on that a bit below:

“Multidimensionality” is a shorthand that I often use when teaching Sunstein’s work.  In Republic.com, Sunstein introduces the concept of the “Daily Me.”  First envisioned by MIT Media Lab’s Nicholas Negroponte, the Daily Me was a personalized web portal, in which each individual received news and information customized to their interests.  Sunstein raised concern about the Daily Me, suggesting that it could produce “cyberbalkanization,” in which competing ideological communities only receive news that reinforce their own points of view, leading in turn to further radicalization.  American democracy has never been calm and deliberative, but we at least have historically been divided through divergent interpretations of the same events.  In the world of the Daily Me, we don’t even interpret the same events – our news becomes hypercustomized instead.

The Daily Me is a provocative concept.  It’s also clearly limited in two respects.  First, the concept is anchored in a time period when personalized web portals (Yahoo or MSN landing pages) were viewed as the future of the internet.  The developmental path of the internet veered off in a different direction.  Web 2.0 took off, and we increasingly spent our time at sites that feature user-generated content and community activity.  When I log on to the web, I check gmail, 3 blogs, and facebook.  Corporations are behind each of these spaces, to be sure, but they’re different corporations than in 2001, and they’re inviting me to engage in different activities than Yahoo and MSN were.  Rather than a hypertargeted news feed, there’s the socially-derived postings on my facebook wall.  So, for that reason, the Daily Me is a bit dated.  Sunstein himself noted this in Republic.com 2.0, where he suggested we’ve developed elements of a “Daily Us” instead.

The Daily Us can still provide reinforcing views and divergent news agendas though.  Take a minute to scan the blog posts at DailyKos and HotAir, the top political blogs on the left and right.  Depending on the day, you’re likely to find that they aren’t just using different frames to discuss the days news, but instead are talking about different news topics altogether.  Members of these communities, then, are still at risk of cyberbalkanization.

“Multidimensionality” mitigates the cyberbalkanization problem.  Simply put, members of a political online communities have non-political interests as well.  I may only interact with liberals on DailyKos, but I have several libertarian friends through Yehoodi and there are a few Republicans who are active Washington Wizards fans as well.  As a member of several communities-of-interest, I’m exposed to people with cross-cutting views on politics, broadly defined.  Our personalities, interests, and affiliations cannot be reduced to a simple one dimensional (left-right) spectrum, because we also build social capital through a variety of hobbyist communities.  The answer to online communities is …more online communities (cue the recitations of Federalist 10).

For those reasons, I’ve long been convinced that we don’t need to be all that concerned about cyberbalkanization.

And then I read Eli’s book.

The core of Pariser’s concern is well explained in his TED Talk.  Eli is a progressive.  He also has other hobbies and interests.  Thus, he consciously has developed conservative friends, and is tied to them through facebook.  One day however, he noticed that he was no longer seeing their updates in his news feed.  Facebook’s algorithm had recorded that he didn’t click on those links very often.  So it “optimized” his experience by removing those updates.

On the surface, that’s a small issue.  A progressive doesn’t see headlines that weren’t all that appealing to begin with.  But it points to a much bigger problem.  Even at the social layer of the web, multidimensionality is viewed as a type of inefficiency – an engineering problem to be solved.  For the engineers and the third-party advertisers, the goal is better point prediction.  Through improvements in automated filtering, they can reduce the incidental knowledge gains that come through membership in multiple communities.  Facebook, ideally, would like to only show me sports-related updates from my Wizards fan-friends, and only show me politics-related updates from my netroots friends.  Advertisers, ideally, would like to know which elements of those subcommunities most fit my profile.  It’s an engineering problem to them, with an engineering solution.

Of particular concern is that this personalization is going on without our knowledge.  Even if I don’t want it to happen – even if I’d like to hear the contrarian opinions of blues dancing Ron Paul fans – large social media hubs are going to treat those voices as noise and try to remove it.  Unless I decide to put outstanding effort into “fooling the filters,” I’m going to be stuck solely with reinforcing views.  And that increases the threat of cyberbalkanization.

I’m tempted to call this another example of the “beneficial inefficiencies” problem.  Multidimensionality may appear as an engineering problem for social media purveyors and the third-party advertisers who pay them.  But it also serves to mitigate some social problems.  As the social web continues to develop, cyberbalkanization could easily reemerge as a substantial threat.  In short, multidimensionality can be trumped by improved point prediction.  And that would be a bad thing.

It isn’t easy to conduct academic research on this sort of “point prediction.”  The engineers and data industries operate under copyright protection, proprietary data, nondisclosure agreements, and trade secret rules.  This is non-transparent data, and there are strong incentives for the companies and engineers to keep it that way.  Pariser’s interviews with Yahoo and Google engineers, as well as his conversations with dozens of social scientists, represent a substantial step forward in understanding the current digital environment.

I’m impressed with Pariser’s book.  It’s well worth reading, and explains these concepts with greater clarity and better examples that I’m providing above.  It’s a nice departure from the normal “cyberskeptic” book (Jaron Lanier and Nicholas Carr providing two recent examples).  It’s well-balanced, thoughtful, and serious.  In a rapidly changing medium, it helps highlight what the Internet has become, where it may be heading, and why that matters.  Pariser asks us not to fear, criticize, or dislike the digital landscape, but to help make it better.  As he notes in his conclusion, “the Internet isn’t doomed, for a simple reason: This new medium is nothing if not plastic.”

Indeed.

Book Blogging: Moore’s Law and Politics

Note: I’ll be spending the next few months writing a book about the new generation of internet-mediated political groups.  This post will be my first “book blog,” in which I try out new ideas that I’m planning to include in the manuscript.  Book blog pieces will be less tied to the politics-of-the-day, and will be a bit lengthier.  They also give readers a window into the broader project as it develops.  As such, feedback is particularly appreciated.

I’ve written once before on this blog about Moore’s Law, the surprisingly accurate 1965 prediction that computing capacity would double every 18-to-24 months.  What I’ve noticed recently is that, while Moore’s Law is common knowledge within the tech community (you see it mentioned in almost every issue of Wired magazine). it’s much less well-understood in the political and social science communities.  Those crowds are aware, of course, that their computer from 4 years ago now seems ancient, slow, and lacking in storage space, but it appears to me that the deep political implications of Moore’s Law (which I’ll be calling “Moore’s Law Effects” in the book, unless someone wants to earn their way into the acknowledgments by suggesting a catchier name!) have largely gone overlooked.

I checked through the indexes of several major internet-and-politics books and, sure enough, there’s no mention of Moore’s Law.  Bruce Bimber’s Information and American Democracy, Matt Hindman’s Myth of Digital Democracy, Bimber and Davis’s Campaigning Online, Phil Howard’s New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen.  I’ll check a few others on Monday when I’m in the office, but I’m pretty sure there’s no mention of it in Kerbel’s Netroots, Davis’s Typing Politics, Chadwick’s Internet Politics or either of Cass Sunstein’s books either.  …These are good books I’m talking about here — award-winners that rightly deserve the praise they’ve received.  I’d be thrilled if my book ends up half as good as many of them.  Yet Moore’s Law doesn’t earn a single mention, nor does it show up in most of the influential articles in the field.  It just hasn’t entered the discourse.

The one exception I’ve found is a Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy working paper by Zysman and Newman that eventually became the lead article of a co-edited volume, How Revolutionary is the Revolution.  It’s a political economy treatment of the digital era as a whole and seems pretty promising (amazon should have it to me by mid-week).  I really enjoyed the following quote in the working paper: “…Information technology represents not one, but a sequence of revolutions.  It is a continued and enduring unfolding of digital innovation, sustaining a long process of industrial adaptation and transition” (pg 8).  That “sequence of revolutions” line is what I think we’ve largely been missing when talking about digital politics.

Take Bimber and Davis’s Campaigning Online for instance.  They conducted first-rate research in the 2000 election cycle on citizen access to campaign websites.  The central finding was that, by and large, the only citizens who visit such sites are existing partisans.  The sites are useful for message reinforcement, rather than message persuasion.  As a result, Bimber and Davis conclude that the impact of the internet on political campaigns is pretty slight.  Web sites simply don’t reach undecided voters, so they aren’t of much use in determining election results.

Their book was released in September, 2003.  By that time, the Dean campaign had already attracted overwhelming media attention, leading observers everywhere to rethink the importance of mobilization.  It was an unlucky sequence of events, having a definitive work on the internet and American political campaigns come out just as the Dean campaign was overthrowing everything we thought we knew about the internet and American political campaigns.

Here’s the thing, though: Bimber and Davis weren’t wrong. The Internet of 2000 wasn’t particularly useful for mobilization.  John McCain raised a bit of online money around his primary, but online bill paying was still in its untrustworthy infancy, and the social web was still restricted to the lead adopter crowd who had heard of Pyra Labs.  The suite of technologies making up the Internet changed between 2000 and 2003.  It changed again between 2003/04 and 2006.  [Pop quiz: what was John Kerry’s YouTube strategy in the ’04 election?  (A: YouTube didn’t exist until 2005.)]  And it continues to do so.  The internet of 2010 is actually a different medium than the internet of 2000.  The devices we use to access it have changed.  Cheap processing power and increasing bandwidth speeds let us access video and geolocational aspects that were prohibitively expensive and technically infeasible or impossible in 2000.  We’ve traveled through five iterations of Moore’s Law, and that means that the devices and architecture of the earlier internet have been overwritten (html to xml being just the tip of the iceberg).

The internet is a sequence of communications revolutions, and that is entirely because of Moore’s Law.  It makes the internet different than previous revolutions in information technology.  Consider: as the television or radio moved from 10% household penetration to 80% household penetration, how much did the technology itself change?  I’d argue it wasn’t much at all.  A television set from 1930 is fundamentally pretty similar to a television set from 1960.  The major changes of the 20th century can be counted on one hand – color television, remote control, vcr, maybe a couple others.  It is frequently noted that the internet’s penetration rate has been faster than these previous communications technologies.  But what rarely gets mentioned is that the internet itself has changed pretty dramatically in the process. (Need further convincing?  Watch the 1995 movie Hackers and listen for the reference to one character’s blazing-fast 28.8 kb modem.  LolCats and YouTube aren’t so fun at 28.8kbs speed.  Or read James Gleick’s 1995 New York Times Magazine essay “This is Sex?” in which he explains that the internet is a terrible place for pornography because search is so complicated and the pictures upload so slowly!)

Transitioning into the political sphere, it bears noting that every election since 1996 has been labeled “the internet election” or “the year of the internet” by a set of researchers and public intellectuals.  The paradox, of sorts, is that they have been right every time.  2012 will be different than 2010, 2008, 2006 2004, 2002, and 2000.  It will be a different medium, in which users engage in modified activities, and this will create new opportunities for campaigns and organizations to engage in acts of mobilization and persuasion.  The cutting-edge techniques of last year become mundane, encouraging organizations to maintain a culture of ostentatious innovation.

Now I’m not suggesting that the internet exists in some state of quantum uncertainty, where we can predict basically nothing in the future based on the past or present.  In fact, as Rasmus Kleis Nielsen points out, the tools that will have the biggest impact on campaign organizations will be the ones that have become mundane, reaching near-universal penetration rates and no longer subject to a steep learning curve.  (As we recently learned with Google Wave, e-mail is much a settled routine at this point.)  Indeed, one of the lessons here may be that we are on much safer grounds when studying individual internet-mediated tools that have reached near-universal adoption (within a given community).  The techno-centric studies of facebook, youtube, and twitter that are a recent fad of sorts are on much weaker ground, because those tools are themselves still pretty dramatically changing thanks to increasing adoption and the ongoing influence of Moore’s Law.

The other thing it tells us, however, is that we should focus attention on the new organizations and institutions being built out of the digital economy.  The continual waves of innovation made possible by Moore’s Law mean that existing industries do not solely need to adapt to a single change in communications media.  Rather, an existing market leader who hires the best consultants, purchases a fleet of state-of-the-art hardware and software, and spends two years developing their plan for the digital environment will suddenly find that the internet has changed in a few important ways, their hardware and software is outdated, and the plan those consultants developed has collected more dust than accolades.

Communications revolutions (or changes in “information regime,” if you prefer to avoid talk of revolution) create a classically disruptive moment for various sectors of the economy.  Rather than advantaging existing market leaders, whose R&D departments let them lead the way in sustaining innovations, disruptive moments tend to lead to the formation of new markets that undercut the old ones (this is classic Christensen).  Startups do better under those conditions, because they have low operating costs and no ingrained organizational routines.  And while individual areas of the internet eventually give way to  monopolies (particularly if we lose net neutrality and let major firms capture markets and tamp down on competition),  those monopolies aren’t as secure as they were in previous eras.  Just ask AOL, Compuserv, Microsoft or Yahoo. The wrong policy decisions can still basically kill the internet, but Moore’s Law creates a scenario in which ongoing disruptions continually advantage new entrants, experimenting with new things.

That, frankly, is why my focus has been on the rise of these internet-mediated advocacy groups.  It’s because they represent a disruption of the advocacy group system.  They embrace ostentatious innovation, keep their staffing and overhead small, and otherwise continue to act like a start-up (and are often founded by technologists with a background in startup culture).  They fiddle with membership and fundraising regimes, and develop new tactical repertoires unlike anything found among the older advocacy groups.  And Moore’s Law suggests that the internet is still in a state of becoming, that the emergence of these new institutions is much more substantial than the mass behavioral patterns found among citizens in the internet of 2010, which may very well be altered as Moore’s Law allows the internet to become something else in 2012.

Moore’s Law, disruption theory, and new developments at the organizational level.  That’s what I think has been missing from our understanding of the internet and American politics thus far.

What do you think?

Tactical Innovations and the Quickening of American Politics

Jake Brewer has a fantastic essay up on the Huffington Post today.  Go read it.  Now.  Seriously.

You back?  Okay, here’s what I want to add:

The puzzle Jake identifies isn’t actually about digital activism.  Or, more specifically, digital activism is only the latest instantiation of the puzzle.  I told this story at Netroots Nation this past summer, but there’s a hint of it in Don Green and Alan Gerber’s book, “Get Out the Vote.”  They tell the story of Harold Gosnell’s 1925 study of political mailers.  Back then, he found through randomized field experiment that sending a piece of direct mail before municipal elections led to a 9% increase in turnout.  Today, of course, sending a piece of political direct mail has… well, let’s just say it has less of an impact, shall we?

This is attributable to 2 effects.  First is decreasing marginal returns.  Voters are already getting 15,000 political mailers.  The 15,001st makes very little difference. (This may seem obvious, but it’s overlooked repeatedly by field operations.  I frequently hear Green and Gerber invoked as an explanation of why canvassers need to hit the same door for the 12th and 13th time!)

The second effect is background noise.  In 1925, people received far less junk mail than we do today.  As the value of mail became apparent, various interests (political and commercial) flooded the zone.  People tuned it out in response.  Today, political mailers often go in the garbage.  That’s why we see the parallel phenomenon of Prospect Direct Mail with “urgent message” written in faux-handwriting on the front envelope — it’s a little trick meant to increase open rates.

In the earliest days of political e-mails, e-mail was a novel form of political communication.  There was also less junk mail.  That meant that constituent e-mails had a bigger effect on decision-makers, and citizens were also more likely to pay attention to such e-mail (a puzzle Brewer has also commented upon).  Today, groups send a lot of e-mail, and both citizens and officials have recalibrated in response.

Reading memoirs of political activists gives an indication of the broader importance of this phenomenon.  Former Sierra Club Executive Director Michael McKloskey writes about his education as an activist, how in the 1950s he could personally approach Members of Congress and talk to them about wilderness issues.  That simply isn’t true today (nor was it true 16 years ago, when I first joined the movement).

It’s a phenomenon that I refer to as the “quickening” of American politics.  Quickening occurs in parallel with the “political thickening” described by Stephen Skowronek.  As government gets bigger, avenues for citizen participation get increasingly clogged, and this contributes to a set of strong incentives for new, innovative tactics that move faster, faster, faster.

From the perspective of Political Quickening, Brewer’s “Tragedy of Political Advocacy” takes on a slightly different hue.  Consider his proposal, for instance, that

Advocacy groups can commit to hand deliver all petitions to Congressional offices after they are solicited online (a handful of great organizers like my friend Adam Green do this, and it’s about the only time petitions have an effect).

I agree with him that Adam Green’s tactic is valuable.  But that’s a function of everyone else not doing the same.  If all advocacy groups hand delivered all petitions, Congressional offices would soon develop systems to weed out this tactic.  Astroturf groups can hand deliver a big pile of ginned-up petitions *at least* as easily as grassroots groups.  My guess is that offices would appoint a low-level staffer or intern as the recipient of these petitions, and they’d then be deposited in the circular file as soon as groups left.  As the tactic is widely adopted and background noise increases, we are left with the same problem we had, and the incentive to innovate further pops up once again.

This is a systematic property of the American political system, with political thickening and political quickening driving change.  It suggests that citizen political power/social movement influence can be found in those spaces where either (1) old tactics are used, but at a much larger scale [if a member of Congress frequently gets 100 letters on every issue, send 1,000], or (2) new tactics that mobilize meaningful citizen resources are implemented [instead of another 1,000 emails, bring 50 people to the in-district meeting that never draws any attendance.  Instead of holding your 80th consecutive political march with the same old, tired chants, host a “moneybomb” for a favored candidate who you’re trying to convince to become a champion on your issue].