Micah Sifry Responds To Douglas Rushkoff | Digital Nation | FRONTLINE | PBS
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Micah Sifry responds to Douglas Rushkoff


Micah Sifry

I'm going to start by offering some answers from the perspective of how the internet is changing the structure of American politics, mostly for the better.
1. Ten years ago, the only people who could effectively speak in the public arena and be heard were either already famous, wealthy, or under the employ of some other wealthy entity. The pathways to break into that public arena were tightly constrained: go to the right schools, know the right people, etc. Or fall into a well.

Today, while there is no guarantee that you will reach millions of listeners, you don't need millions of dollars, or the right connections, or fame, to reach millions of people. You do need a compelling message, and this is not something everyone has the ability to make. But the barrier to entry into the public conversation is much lower.

To take a pretty unusual example, a middle-aged homeless man using the handle "Slumjack Homeless" can write a comment on a blog post on a relatively low traffic site explaining why he prefers the streets to shelters, and end up featured on the New York Times and BBC websites. A college student named James Kotecki with a cute way of reviewing political videos can become a star on YouTube. A Twitter user named Amanda Ross can rally her friends to launch a grassroots fundraising campaign that, within weeks, raises a quarter million dollars via home-grown events in 200 cities. A campus activist named Farouk Olu Aregbe can create a Facebook group with a million members supporting a presidential candidate, etc. An 80-year-old man can email his 50 closest friends a video of Barack Obama on the campaign trail and have more influence on their votes in a few minutes than it would have taken him if he had to speak to each one personally face-to-face.

2. The Internet is a freer and more interactive medium, and the result is a richer and more diverse public conversation than what we had when the free press was just for those who owned one. Even as the political blogosphere matures, with some bloggers becoming bona fide media stars and longtime journalists taking up blogging, the result is a more democratic medium.
First, bloggers are their own men and women. Being your own boss means you are freer to speak your own mind. It's not surprising that some bloggers have earned large audiences--there has always been strong latent public demand for red-blooded journalism and opinionizing, just not much of that was offered by the old, big corporate media.

And even the bloggers who now work for media conglomerates are subject to the readers and competitors in ways that old media workers never were. It isn't just being exposed to commenters (who can make you smarter or show how dumb you are); it's knowing that you are in competition with other bloggers who are more transparent and interactive--that is what is changing the medium in a small-d democratic way--regardless of how concentrated the traffic may be.

Blogging about politics, unlike the old days of oped columns and talking heads, means being in constant contact with your readers, who collectively exert tremendous influence on the public conversation through their ability to comment, rate and share blog posts.

3. The "netroots" hubs online are far more than mere blogs; they are switching stations for action, not just opinion--sifting the news and pointing readers to all kinds of tangible political activities. For example, there's a lot more going on on the biggest liberal political site, DailyKos, than meets the eye, and anyone who simply equates that site with its founder, Markos Moulitsas, is missing the big picture.

DailyKos is more like a virtual city than it is just a national blog. Kos's personal contribution, contentwise, is about 1%, in terms of words written, of all the content on his site. Likewise, he probably gets a similarly small fraction of the overall number of comments posted on his site every day. The site gets several thousand diary posts a week, and these are read and rated by thousands more. It's also not just focused on national politics; there are all kinds of sub-communities buried inside it focused on more local concerns. There's even a progressive gardening club that "meets" every Friday where people share pictures and news of their gardens. To talk about a site like DailyKos in the same breath as an old media entity like the Washington Post is to compare apples and oranges.

4. The web is flattening, somewhat, the financing of politics, and to a modest but real degree, reducing the importance of large, maxed-out donors on who can become a viable candidate for office.

At the highest level, we've seen an important shift towards smaller donors, according to a careful analysis by the Campaign Finance Institute. Obama had more than 400K individual contributors, more than Bush and Kerry combined in 2004. And the percentage giving under $1000 were 53%, compared to 40% for Bush and 44% for Kerry. [Details here.]

The Democratic hub Actblue has channeled more than $111 million in contributions to more than 3000 Democratic candidates since its founding in 2004, with a median contribution of $50. The small-donor shift isn't as important in down-ballot races as we'd like, but it definitely is making it easier for candidates and members of Congress who want to take a more maverick approach--from Joe Wilson to Alan Grayson.

5. As an abundant medium, the web puts far less of a premium on the sound-biting of politics, and indeed often rewards rich political content. I've written about the rise of the "sound-blast" plenty of times and won't repeat that here, but it isn't just about the fact that Obama's second-most viewed video on YouTube is his 37-minute speech on race. Lots of popular political video clips tend to run anywhere from one to three minutes long; we should recognize this as a tremendous improvement in the public discourse.

To conclude, let me just suggest that it is dangerous to make conclusive statements about such a young and dynamic space. Four years ago, YouTube was just starting. Two years ago Twitter was just starting. Now something like 30 million people now have iPhones, and by 2012 the number of Americans with some kind of smartphone will probably be double or triple that. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of what happens when you combine real-time web access with location services with tools that you can carry anywhere in your pocket.

posted February 2, 2010

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