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Just as the Internet and technology have shifted the playing field in media, allowing bloggers and podcasters to help set the news agenda, so has the realm of politics been disrupted by technology that gives voters more power to inject their own issues into the fray. And in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, that disruption has been strongest in online video, with Phil de Vellis creating the home-made Vote Different= anti-Clinton ad and CNN taking video questions from ordinary Americans for its YouTube debates.

But the folks at the group blog TechPresident thought they could improve on the CNN/YouTube debate formula by having people submit and vote on the questions they want to ask candidates the most. With the support of the New York Times editorial board and MSNBC, as well as various liberal and conservative bloggers, TechPresident launched the site, 10Questions, letting anyone post a video question to Democratic and Republican candidates. The top 10 questions= were chosen by online voting, and now the candidates have until Dec. 31 to submit video answers, which will then be rated by the audience.

This type of grassroots, “small-d” democratic process for a presidential debate fits in perfectly with the mission of the folks at Personal Democracy Forum (PDF), who started TechPresident and 10Questions. PDF was co-founded by political advisor Andrew Rasiej and journalist/analyst Micah Sifry, and has been an influential conference covering the intersection of technology and politics. PDF’s Manifesto includes the following passage:

Today, for almost no money, anyone can be a reporter, a community organizer, an ad-maker, a publisher, a money-raiser, or a leader. If what they have to say is compelling, it will spread. The cost of finding like-minded souls, banding together, and speaking to the powerful has dropped to almost zero. Networked voices are reviving the civic conversation. More people, everyday, are discovering this new power. After years of being treated like passive subjects of marketing and manipulation, they want to be heard.

Increasingly, these everyday people are using blogs, social networking sites and online video to make the case for their candidates or issues. So how do you track the effect they’re having? The cross-partisan TechPresident group blog includes commentary from political veterans of 2006 and 2004 campaigns — who rate the way campaigns are using technology and the Net. Plus, the blog has handy charts showing which candidates are leading in MySpace friends, YouTube stats and blog mentions via Technorati.

But PDF’s Micah Sifry told me that online popularity and social media usage might not necessarily translate into election victory.

“The two front-runners, Hillary [Clinton] and Rudy [Giuliani], prove that the Internet doesn’t trump fame,” Sifry said. “If you are already well known, you might not need the Internet. Both of them are showing that. People often say that Barack [Obama] has more friends on Facebook or MySpace than Hillary, so why isn’t he leading her in the polls? The answer is that she’s been around longer, she’s got a really well organized campaign, people know her. There are a number of strong reasons, so you don’t expect the Internet to trump them. But for a number of candidates — [John] Edwards, Obama, [Mike] Huckabee, Ron Paul — the Internet is buoying them, and they wouldn’t be nearly as much a part of the race as they are now.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Sifry told me there was interest from other countries in using the 10Questions platform for their own election campaigns, and that they would do another round of 10Questions in the U.S. general election next year. Sifry explained how they chose bloggers for TechPresident, and described how video and mobile usage were becoming big factors this election cycle.

What was your motivation for starting TechPresident, and what were your goals and vision for it?

Sifry: We started with a larger vision four years ago with the launch of Personal Democracy Forum, which is an annual conference on how technology is changing politics. That came out of Andrew Rasiej’s strong belief that the same sea change that is hitting other aspects of society — commerce, media, etc. — was going to hit politics. He spent a lot of time banging his head and trying to give advice to political incumbents about this, and they wouldn’t listen. So his feeling was, ‘I’ll go around them.’ And we launched PersonalDemocracy.com as a place to continue that conversation online.

What crystalized for us this past winter was an email that Andrew got in December from a college student who was actively supporting Barack Obama. The student said, ‘I wanted to let you know we’re launching a website, we’ve got 20,000 people, it all came out of a Facebook group we started, and we’re taking it into a more active mode.’ A light bulb went off for us: In this election, the Internet isn’t going to just be an adjunct to the action; it’s going to be the center battlefield. The new factor of voter-generated content would be an even more significant wild card.

This isn’t new. You can go back to Zack Exley’s GWBush.com [spoof on Bush] in 2000. There have always been a smattering of people with the skills and a bit of luck, who have created activist projects that interfere with the thread of the election. The JibJab cartoon is another example from 2004. Our sense was that this would be a much bigger factor and you’d see it in voter-generated message-making, in voter-organized field work, voter-generated fundraising. These were all new elements in the game. So we wanted to track this very closely and get it from both sides — both on what campaigns are doing with the web and technology, and what the voters are doing to affect the dialogue.

The most critical thing we wanted when we launched the site was to make sure the site was cross-partisan. We wanted to have experienced veterans of the last two political cycles involved who could comment in an intelligent and informed way about what the campaigns were up to. Mike Turk had already been reviewing sites for PersonalDemocracy.com, and he had been working for Bush-Cheney in 2004. To be able to launch with a diverse array of voices…we had one critical proviso: that they leave the partisan sniping for elsewhere. Their job is to analyze how campaigns are using the web or the web is using them. It’s not for them to say, ‘nah-nah, my candidate is winning.’

As long as they are open about any connections to any particular campaigns — open support or quiet advice-giving or consulting work — I think we’ve succeeded in having an open dialogue. It’s interesting to see partisans talk back and forth about the state of the art.

So if they write about a candidate they are working for, do they disclose that on the site?

Sifry: I will ask people to mention any conflicts in their posts. But I don’t ask people to always mention their partisan allegiances. It’s pretty plain. David All is a Republican consultant. You can tell that immediately from his writing. I have had to say to people, ‘Watch it.’ Republican writers forget that when they refer to the Democratic Party as the Democrat Party, it’s offensive. And it’s deliberate. They’ve been trained to talk that way, but not on our site. If the Wall Street Journal can refer to it as the Democratic Party, so can they. I think the readers will tell us if something we do is crossing the line or is unfair. That’s one of the great things about blogging.

How do you fund the blog?

Sifry: Andrew is the sole proprietor of our two blogs, and he has financed the Personal Democracy Forum since Day 1. They do not make money. The conference does make money, it broke even two years ago and last year it made some money. He hasn’t made back the money he put in for four years. There’s the potential for that, as it serves a niche and a community. Eventually he will be able to plow more money back into the blogs. We have a small staff, including a couple editors and business manager. This is not a big new media play, but like everything, you find a niche and serve it well and your community will support you.

We had 800 people at last year’s event and are planning to double the size of the conference by next spring. I don’t think we’ll have trouble filling it as we’ve hit that sweet spot. We’re not getting that much money from advertising. At the same time, Andrew and I started a small consulting practice that helps advocacy groups and media organizations to use the web effectively. But those are separate entities, and we disclose when they overlap.

Campaigns aren’t the best incubators for web innovation. They are under tremendous pressure, and it’s difficult to act in focused ways. There’s a brief period where they are willing to try new things, but that’s over now. The only campaigns willing to do more innovative things are the outsiders, the mavericks, the second-tier candidates who have less to lose but even those are under tremendous pressure.

How do you choose who blogs on the site?

Sifry: We started with a cross-partisan array of campaign veterans who had worked on the web side of several major campaigns in 2004 and 2006. We added to that mix people who had a particular specialty, such as Steve Garfield, who has been doing a regular video blog as long as anyone.

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Micah Sifry

And then in some cases they find us. Like Adam Connor, who writes about Facebook and approached us about writing. We look at people on a case-by-case basis. In effect some of our contributors are in a freelance mode and have to pitch us what the piece would be about, and see if we’re interested, and their pieces go through more of an editing process. The bloggers who are listed as contributing editors have a green light to post at will and I just keep an eye to make sure they don’t abuse it. The theory is when you have 20 contributing editors, if they write two to three posts per month, the result is a healthy daily mix.

And [the top editors] try to add to that. Right now, I’m working on a long post rating the various candidates’ tech policies. One of the fun things about blogging in general is when you pick a subject and start covering it well, the people who are interested in that subject come to you. So then we can ask them if they want to cross-post to TechPresident.

The one other thing in terms of picking our writers and the kind of thematic conversation we’re looking for: We are looking for people who view technology as a way to open things up, make the democratic process more participatory, more transparent, more interactive. That said, there’s still a big question mark hovering over all this: What will translate into political success? It’s not just which campaign is getting the most visitors to its website. It’s also about getting votes, raising money, getting boots on the ground.

The truth is that the insiders, the political technologists, are looking at all of this. If Ron Paul has figured out a new way to raise money, then everybody wants to know that.

Why did you decide to launch 10Questions?

Sifry: 10Questions grew out of two things. First, we watched as YouTube and CNN did their Democratic debate where they had people post questions online. And people asked us what we thought of it, and we said it’s not nearly as innovative as it appeared. It made for great television but it didn’t exactly expand the boundaries of what was possible because CNN got all these people to post questions but then they picked the questions. In some ways the debate was less interactive than a town hall meeting.

Part of it was that it wasn’t enough to just take potshots from the sidelines, and we thought we could get into the mix with our own idea. Luckily we weren’t alone, and we found another effort led by a guy named David Colarusso, who had begun a site called Community Counts, where they were attempting to pool the community’s responses through YouTube’s YouChoose Channel, and involve the community in choosing the best questions. And Edwards and [Chris] Dodd both went on Community Counts to answer those questions.

This gained steam when we went to the Yearly Kos convention. We asked people, including the top bloggers, if they thought this was a good idea, and everyone was interested in it. It answers the question, ‘What happens if we live in a world of abundance instead of scarcity?’ On TV, the candidates get time for soundbites and the audience can’t offer any feedback. Andrew said again that he would pay the bills, and with David, we merged our efforts and created a new platform. The great thing is that we’ve been able to get so many great co-sponsors, from the New York Times editorial board to MSNBC, and great blogs that are conservative and liberal — some strange bedfellows.

The voter-generated question round is over, and 200 questions were submitted on a variety of platforms. That’s pretty good without having a TV network asking people to submit questions. CNN got about 3,000 questions for their first debate. We got more than 30,000 people sifting through those questions and they made more than 120,000 votes…The community of users sifted through the questions and made a serious list, and there are questions on there that don’t normally get asked: Is the two-party system broken? Would you abolish corporate personhood? I don’t think any mainstream reporter has asked those questions before at a presidential debate.

Which candidates have agreed to answer the questions so far?

Sifry: Mike Huckabee was at MSNBC, and the news guys there had the foresight to have all the videos cued up, and asked him if he was willing to answer them on the spot. And to his credit, he said, ‘Yeah.’ He could have easily said, ‘Wait, I haven’t had time to study these.’ He just sat and taped his answers off the cuff. If you sit and watch him answer — I just spent about an hour working through his answers, and I learned a lot about Mike Huckabee. I am more intrigued by him now than I was before. That’s the potential for this, if you have a candidate who takes the time, he can stop and do it over, this isn’t television.

Both Edwards and Ron Paul have agreed to answer the questions. Obama answered one of the questions because it was posed directly to him during the MTV/MySpace dialogue he did a couple weeks ago. He answered the question about Net neutrality. We are on the phone pressing all the campaigns to answer the questions. The ball is in their court. They have until December 31 to answer the questions. We will get them up on the site as fast as we can. The fun part is that you don’t just get to watch, but you get to vote if they answered the question. If we managed to do anything with 10Questions, it is that [we showed that] the Internet can be a powerful tool for aggregating feedback. And not just the dial group numbers on a little focus group, but everybody.

Out of the candidates, you have tracked many ways that they are using technology, who do you think at this point is doing the best job?

Sifry: I think the book is still out on both the best use of the web and most effective use of the web. The two front-runners, Hillary and Rudy, prove that the Internet doesn’t trump fame. If you are already well known, you might not need the Internet. Both of them are showing that. People often say that Barack has more friends on Facebook or MySpace than Hillary, so why isn’t he leading her in the polls? The answer is that she’s been around longer, she’s got a really well organized campaign, people know her. There are a number of strong reasons, so you don’t expect the Internet to trump them.

But for a number of candidates — Edwards, Obama, Huckabee, Ron Paul — the Internet is buoying them, and they wouldn’t be nearly as much a part of the race as they are now. Obama and Edwards have made the most robust use of online social networking. Edwards started out as the innovator, doing everything — videoblogging, podcasting. But his site was almost too much, everything but the kitchen sink. A lot of people watching Obama think his campaign has bottled up more of the energy of supporters and could have a tidal wave if they let it go a bit more.

If you look at the Democratic campaigns overall, while they have clearly benefited by more interest from the electorate, more social networking activity, they haven’t done as good of a job letting the energy out in the opposite direction. It’s not as freewheeling as it was back in 2003. But you look at Huckabee and he has been successful by letting anyone share in the attention and not forcing people to go into his walled garden, his own social network that the managers decide what will be done with it. Huckabee’s the only one who has a visible blogroll on his home page.

Ron Paul is a classic example of the Internet propelling a compelling message upward. But you need a compelling message and messager. He’s benefiting from the same thing Dean benefited from in 2003 — he’s the only candidate in his party that is stridently against the war.

As we go into the general election, it looks like a good year to be a Democrat. Everything, from when I first started tracking the numbers back in January, the overall trend is about 2-to-1 for Democrats over Republicans. It’s a sign that the electorate is tilted that way.

How do you see this 2008 election being different than what was going on in 2004 or 2006 with technology?

Sifry: The biggest difference is the overwhelming reliance on online video, both by activists and campaigns. It is the lingua franca that they rely on now. A debate ends, and within hours, campaigns are scrambling to put their spin on the debate by finding the best clips from the debate and putting them up on YouTube. You see a lot of people trying to be the next Phil de Vellis, or the next Obama Girl. There is a range of ambitious would-be TV personalities who see the online video realm as the place to audition.

It’s frustrating to me. We do a weekly roundup of what we think of as the most interesting political videos of the week. But because the online video web is built on a different infrastructure than blogging, it’s difficult to produce a consistent way to track it. On blogging, I could tell you which candidate is being discussed, but I can’t tell you which candidate is being most video’ed about. I can tell you how big an audience each candidate has for their own videos on YouTube thanks to the tracking you can do there. But spotting the unusual voter-generated video is more of an art than a science because we can’t track it. We can’t find every video about Rudy Giuliani.

The second thing is what people do with mobile phones. We will see it as more of a mobilization tool. Someone should be watching to see how [Edwards consultant] Joe Trippi uses text messaging during the Iowa caucuses. This is a wonderful device for quickly communicating to large numbers of people, and you could see a role for that at the conventions. And text messaging during an election can increase turnout. So campaigns that build the best cell phone list could be at an advantage in some places.

If Facebook changes its policy on mass membership groups, then we might see some really interesting independent group activity happening. It’s too late for the primaries. There’s this tussle going on to get Facebook to lift its 1,000 email limit, so you can get 1 million people to join your group but you can’t email them. The organizers can’t really get access to the members. You would have to create mini-lists within the lists. It’s really clunky and not as good as a Yahoo Group or Google Group for messaging lots of people. But Facebook is a great platform for spreading information virally. But so far these are just virtual bumper sticker operations. But that could change, as they say they will lift the cap.

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