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Participatory media: Democracy's killer app

There were some interesting shifts in the internet and politics brewing in 2000 and 2002 election cycles. This year, many of these shifts turned past tense into lessons learned. Some are nearly de-facto rules of political engagement. There were new shifts in play in 2004, and there are already plenty of predictions for 2008.

As Dan Gillmor wrote in his book on participatory journalism, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People, “A safe prediction: Net-savvy campaigning will be the rule by 2008, and it will be lower-level candidates who do the next wave of innovating.”

We thought we’d take this opportunity on Election Day to reflect on observations about the 2004 election season and the role of participatory media.(1)

1. Participatory media has changed politics (and media), forever.
Because of the Howard Dean campaign,, and host of other innovators, politicians now use the internet and participatory media to communicate and collaborate with constituents, empower grassroots meet-ups and fundraise online and off.

Dean’s campaign manager Joe Trippi, in the September issue of Wired, adds: “The Internet has been revolutionizing business and culture for years — and that was just a side effect. What’s really going on is a political phenomenon, a democratic movement that flows naturally from our civic lives and spills over into the music we hear, the clothes we buy, the causes we support. Today, the Amazons and Friendsters seem like the peak of Internet development. But that’s changing. The 2008 election will be the first national contest waged and won primarily online. The Web puts us over the tipping point; it’s democracy’s killer app.”

In Chapter 5 of We the Media, The Consent of the Governed (PDF, 78KB), Gillmor observes: “What the third-party sites such as independent blogs showed was the value of niche journalism in politics. The issues of our times are too complex, too nuanced, for the major media to cover properly, given the economic realities of modern corporate journalism.”

(Need more evidence? Today’s New York Times Op-Ed piece surveys influencial bloggers from Reynolds to Wonkette.)

2. Participatory media is a powerful tool for activism.
To paraphrase Gillmor in Chapter 5 of We the Media, there are simply too many political races and issues, from the local to national levels, for big media cover even if they cared. “This is a golden opportunity for citizen activists to get involved,” says Gillmor, “to help inform others who do care about specific topics. Maybe the masses donít care about all the issues, but individuals care about some of them.”

Activists, large or small, — for any issue, party or politician — now have an extremely powerful set of tools at their disposal. When used in conjunction with traditional, tried-and-true methods of persuasion, participatory media — such as email petitions, discussion groups, cell phones, wikis, weblogs and social network sites — can change the face of fundraising, bring P2P to political advertising, and reinvent grassroots activism.

According to Trippi’s aforementioned Sept. Wired article, “As I’m writing, President Bush already has $229 million and Senator John Kerry has $185 million, 37 percent of it raised through his Web site… For the Dean campaign, the average donation was $77; for Kerry, it’s $106. These donations aren’t coming from the Global PAC of Balding White Men Who Rule the Earth. They’re coming from people like you and me.”

3. Participatory media enable a proliferation of ideas, opinions.
The internet is apparently not the echo chamber that some predicted it would become. According to a recent study by The Pew Internet and American Life Project and The University of Michigan School of Information, The Internet and Democratic Debate, “Wired Americans hear more points of view about candidates and key issues than other citizens. They are not using the internet to screen out ideas with which they disagree.”

“The internet is contributing to a wider awareness of political views during this yearís campaign season. At a time when political deliberation seems extremely partisan and when people may be tempted to ignore arguments at odds with their views, internet users are not insulating themselves in information echo chambers. Instead, they are exposed to more political arguments than non-users.”

Researchers were surprised by this finding: “Most Americans prefer their news straight, without an obvious point of view. However, about one-quarter of respondents say they like to get news from sources which conform to their political outlooks. One of the surprises in the survey is the finding that a fifth of Americans (18%) say they prefer media sources that are biased and challenge their views, rather than reinforce them.”

4. Participatory media empower the audience to fact-check big media and politicians.
Just ask George Bush, John Kerry, Dan Rather, Trent Lott, The New York Times and a host of others who were called to the carpet on getting their facts right. Pulling a fast one just isn’t as easy as it used to be. As weblogger and president of, Jeff Jarvis, wrote a year ago, “Weblogs fact check our ass. It’s wonderful to have this world of natters and nay-sayers out there, for they will fact-check (and even copy-edit) blogs and newspapers, magazines, and broadcast. That is a good thing. That adds to the credibility of all media.”

(Side rant: We know Jeff knows this, but we need to get this right — form does not dictate function. Weblogs are a tool for the creation and distribution of information, among other things. They do not have an inherent function, like fact-checking. Most participatory media forms — forums, mailing lists, discussion groups, wikis, chat rooms, etc. — made admirable showing for the creation and distribution of fact-checking information.)

5. Participatory media empower the audience to set the agenda for big media and politicians.
This one is not quite there yet, but we are shifting in that direction. According to an article for the on Sunday (Oct. 31), David Usborne noted that, “When it is all over, editors and reporters will finally have a moment to reflect on everything that was different about this presidential campaign. What they are likely to conclude is this: the traditional outlets, whether it is CBS News or the New York Times, mattered less. New forces nudged voters’ sympathies and even drove the traditional news agenda. This was the year when the mainstream media outlets unexpectedly found themselves looking over their shoulders at the internet and, perhaps most surprisingly, at the new armies of political bloggers.”

Trippi echoes this sentiment, yet again in the Wired article: “The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that in the days immediately after 9/11, just 3 percent of Americans who were on the Internet used it as their primary source of information. Less than two years later, as the US was preparing for war with Iraq, that number had risen to 26 percent. Now, 77 percent say they have used the Internet to interact with news about the war. They’re not just reading the Web; they’re emailing one another, posting messages, writing blogs.”

“In Iraq, the U.S. media is facing the same military censorship as they did during World War II. But skeptical Americans, hungry for real debate, can now go online and read foreign newspapers, listen to the BBC, and read blogs from people in other countries. The more homogenous journalism becomes, the more it drives people to the Web. No newsroom, not at The New York Times or ABC or Wired, can scoop 100 million reporters.” Bold is our emphasis.

Likewise, no newsroom can compete with 100 million readers demanding that politicians and the media engage in a conversation about the issues that matter most in their lives. If not, they will be marginalized in favor of those that are willing to collaborate.

6. A president could use the internet to push agendas that have traditionally stagnated.
This idea caught our eye last week on Bill Moyer’s NOW. Trippi said he thinks the next president (he’s voting for Kerry) could use the internet to build momentum for his initiatives in a way that disintermediates the traditional agenda-setting process:

“Take it to the internet. Take it to the American people. Let them rally around it. Then send it to Congress with ten, 20 million Americans pounding on Congress’s door saying, “You better pass this thing or we’re throwing you out.”

“‘Cause there’s one thing Congress understands more than money. And that’s a whole lot of people backing the president’s agenda. So I actually think Kerry as the president has an enormous, enormous opportunity to change the country.  But if he (Kerry) does it the old way, send the health care bill to Congress, we’re gonna have the same exact result we’ve had since Truman.”

Bibliography of resources on citizen journalism and politics
This bibliography is a supplement to We Media. It is a collection of resources that appeared online in the last 18 months, or ones that we did not discover in our initial research for writing that paper.

We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People
By Dan Gillmor, O’Reilly; 1st edition (August 2004) | ISBN: 0596007337
“Grassroots journalists are dismantling Big Media’s monopoly on the news, transforming it from a lecture to a conversation.” This book is loaded with great examples of how politics is being transformed by participatory media.
Free online PDF version, book weblog, Slashdot review

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
By Joe Trippi, Regan Books; (July 6, 2004) | ISBN: 0060761555
“This is the story of how Trippi’s revolutionary use of the Internet and an impassioned, contagious desire to overthrow politics as usual grew into a national grassroots movement and changed the face of politics forever.”
Joe Trippi Web site
• Interviews of Trippi by: Christopher Lydon, Lawrence Lessig

Extreme Democracy: The Book and Discussion Forum for Networked Activists, edited by Mitch Ratcliffe and Jon Lebkowsky
See Chapter 10: Social Network Dynamics and Participatory Politics (PDF) by Ross Mayfield
Politics Moves Online: Campaigning and the Internet (Century Foundation Report), by Michael Cornfield
Campaigning Online: The Internet in U.S. Elections, by Bruce A. Bimber, Richard Davis
Winning Campaigns Online: Strategies for Candidates and Causes, by Emilienne Ireland, Phil Tajitsu Nash
The Civic Web: Online Politics and Democratic Values, by David M. Anderson (Editor), Michael Cornfield (Editor)
The Web of Politics: The Internet’s Impact on the American Political System, by Richard Davis
Click on Democracy: The Internet’s Power to Change Political Apathy into Civic Action, by Steve Davis, Larry Elin, Grant Reeher

Articles: The Dean campaign
Is there an echo in here? by David Weinberger
“The Dean campaign’s demise threatens to tar the whole Internet as an ‘echo chamber’ - but the real closed system is in the mass media.”
Dean and the Last Internet Campaign, by Clay Shirky
The Last Internet Campaign?, by Kevin Werbach

Articles: Political conventions and weblogs
Meet the Bloggers by Carl Bialik and Elizabeth Weinstein
(Alternate article link)
Meet the Bloggers, Part Two by Carl Bialik and Elizabeth Weinstein
Boston’s Bloggers, Filling In the Margins by Howard Kurtz
Web Diarists Are Now Official Members of Convention Press Corps by Jennifer Lee
What we learn from the Convention blogging by Dan Bricklin
What the media don’t understand about blogging by David Weinberger
Blogsploitation: Big Media Try to Steal Bloggers’ Thunder at DNC by Mark Glaser
Technorati and CNN by David Sifry
Are Bloggers At Conventions Deluding Themselves? by Joe Gandelman
Convention Coverage is a Failed Regime and Bloggers Have Their Credentials by Jay Rosen
Godzilla vs. the Blogosphere by Glenn Harlan Reynolds

Wired’s September 2004 issue: Rage Against the Machine
Power to the People, by Joe Trippi
“The 2008 presidential campaign will be waged and won online. Oh, and guess what: You’ll be in charge.”
The New American Idol
6 Ways to Reboot the System
Weapons of Mass Mobilization
The Dean Machine Marches On

Loose Democracy, by David Weinberger
Greater Democracy, collaborative weblog
We’ve steered clear of offering particular weblogs, forums, etc. that are about politics, party affiliation, activism. These should be relatively easy to find because they are everywhere. If you know of other resources in this category that are not politically affiliated, please post a comment with the reference.

1 - Over the last few weeks, we’ve been working on an epilogue to our July, 2003 whitepaper, We Media: How audiences are shaping the future of news and information. Instead of rewriting the 70-page paper, we thought writing this addendum would be a quick way to update what’s happened in the last 18-months of participatory journalism.

But participatory journalism is moving and evolving so fast, it’s nearly impossible to keep a paper like We Media current. Case in point: Podcasting came out of nowhere and has, somewhat unbelievably, proliferated to a vast number of outlets in a matter of weeks. This post is a chunk of ideas and research is from the forthcoming We Media epilogue, and extended bibliography, which we hope to have complete by the end of November.

JD Lasica notes that “On today’s New York Times op-ed page, the paper asked bloggers what they thought was the most important event or moment of the presidential campaign. Wonkette, Mickey Kaus, Joanne Jacobs (an odd choice), Kevin Drum, Glenn Reynolds and several others pitched in.
Blogs alter political landscape by C.W. Nevius in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.
Year of The Political Blogger by Sean Michael Kerner for
Looking Forward to the Internet and Politics, circa 2008, predictions by Charlene Li, analyst at Forrester Research.
So Much to Savor: A big win for America, and a loss for the mainstream media, opinion by WSJ’s Peggy Noonan.

Posted on Oct 29, 2004 | 10:52 am EST

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