Civic technology

YearlyKos Conference Portends Democracy 2.0

In the business world, the Wisdom of Crowds has been mashed up with Web 2.0 to create Crowdsourcing, and generally a more dynamic two-way relationship between corporations and their customers (see “Five Techniques for Using Web 2.0 to Reinvent the Customer Relationship“).

Similarly, online tools and communities have long (by our standards) held the promise of creating a more level playing field for our politics. A major milestone in the achievement of this level-playing field promise was attained in June at the seminal offline event of the Netroots, the inaugural Yearly Kos conference in Las Vegas.

More on Yearly Kos shortly, but first, a bit of diatribe on why the playing field of US politics has historically had such a steep incline… Of course, our democratic elections have always inherently been predicated on this Wisdom of Crowds— predicated on the feel-good idea that we all deserve to weigh in equally and independently to collectively determine who represents us, a few skeptical Founding Fathers and pesky Electoral College electors notwithstanding… The dirty little secret, of course (once we handled the dirty big secret and achieved one homo sapien – one vote with the 15th and 19th Ammendments and the 1965 Voting Rights Act), is that mass media plays a decisive role in shaping perceptions of political prospects, whether in the form of journalism, op-editorial, paid advertisement, or Foxaganda. And as a society in which consumption of mass media largely supplants more traditional and egalitarian forms of communication among citizens (e.g.: storytelling, sociopolitical socializing, etc.), mass media has an absurdly large impact on the outcome of our national elections in the USA.

Mass media is antithetical to the Wisdom of Crowds in, well, its massiveness, its unidirectional nature, and the fact that a small number of wealthy citizens and corporations (actually there is little legal difference in the US) have a disproportionately large impact on what mass media publishes… Only so many voices can be represented in aggregate and with only so much nuance, and thus the vast majority of the voices in our Crowd are never heard through Mass Media.

This phenomenon becomes self-reinforcing—the less opportunity we as members of the Crowd have to be heard or to make any impact on the views of those around us, the less likely we are to strive to speak, and the more likely we are to resign ourselves to being consumers of mass media. Rinse lather repeat. Not voting, for the ~50% of the country that does not, is merely the natural experiential evolution of this communal vocal impotence.

A potent “Netroots” community of active political bloggers and online activists would seem to hold one of they keys to reuniting the reality with the potential of our democratic politics. Having a voice begets speaking. As long as Net Neutrality is upheld, and increasingly with the inexorably growing penetration of inexpensive fixed and mobile Internet access devices and broadband connectivity, an individual’s vocal potential through the Netroots is generally gated only by the quality and authenticity of your voice. While the same mass media dynamics of celebrity cults of personality and a limited number of players with large scale influence persist in the Netroots to some degree, the playing field in the game of becoming influential is far more level and iterative online than in mass mediums, and money is rarely the decisive factor in attaining critical mass of influence. An intelligent and passionate voice can still create its own mass market audience of political consumers without regard for funding or pre-existing reputation, and once this audience level is attained, it is likely to fade if that audience is not engaged ongoingly as a peer in the political discourse. In fact, the most powerful online voices in the Netroots are actually many voices cohered as online communities of a distinct character. The voice in this Crowd is actually the collective and iterative pulse of that of 100,000s of individuals. Case in point is the DailyKos community, whose namesake actually creates little of the content that is written and read there by 100,000s every day.

The Netroots have flourished and matured since the 2004 election from whence they were born, and are currently passing major milestones in their evolution that portend their ability to finally meaningfully democratize politics in the most brass tacks realm of the ballot box / touchscreen (ok ok– well maybe only at the ballot box, depending who owns and services the touchscreen). The Netroots are now being mashed up with traditional offline organizing techniques and organizers to create a vibrant community of practice whose impact has now transcended the “blogosphere” and become an important force in the more traditional realms of offline grassroots organizing and meet and greet politicing.

And mainstream media, and mainstream politicians has noticed. Exhibit A was the YearlyKos conference earlier this month. Billed as an “unconference” “uniting the Netroots”, more than 1000 active contributors to the preeminent Progressive blog community– DailyKos– convened a star-studded very face-to-face conference in Las Vegas. What was notable and remarkable about Yearly Kos, beyond the fact that it was organized entirely by volunteers who did all their own fundraising, was the tangible sense there of everyone being in it TOGETHER, as creators and participants, presenters and listeners…. Where the Beltway-based Take Back America conference was star-driven and worried about having security lock-out Code Pink members protesting Hillary Clinton, YearlyKos felt like an intimate family united in the flesh for the first time, seasoned veterans of online organizing all, and all galvanized for action. The passion, energy, authenticity, and commitment on display throughout were born of the rich secret sauce that so many 21st Century politicians yearn to understand and to tap.

Mainstream media, and mainstream politicians have noticed. YearlyKos garnered traditional political star-power in abundance. Governor Warner wooed the crowd with a $60,000 party at the Stratosphere complete with free amusement park rides for all and a chocolate fountain. The press credential list—New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, C-Span, etc.– read like a White House Correspondents dinner guest list rather than a gathering of some lunatic fringe. However, the likes Governor Warner, Governor Richardson, General Clark, Ambassador Joe Wilson, Senator Reid, Joe Trippi, Robert Greenwald, and the rest were as much participants in the conference as they were the stars. Exhibit A: General Clark– former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and Presidential candidate who raised more than $20 million online in 2004– not only didn’t have a keynote, but was relegated to being a co-panelist in one morning session along with household names like “DarkSyde” (as the science blogger is known in the Daily Kos community). And best of all, far from being surly about what many celebrity politicians would have deemed a slight, Clark started early, pitched into the panel with passion, wit, and intelligence, stayed late, and by all accounts had a fantastic time. That performance and attitude spells credibility in this Crowd, and he knows it. Many celebrities stuck around for the entire four day conference, wandering the halls chatting with would be constituents as peers. Nary a limo in sight.

Where have we seen this before, and where will it go? The best clues may come from the folks that built the very open-source software architecture that now powers the servers that empower the Netroots… Consider this quote from software business guru Tim O’Reilly:

“It was the critical mass that was brought about by the global network… It allowed for free association by developers on a massive scale. In the 80’s… only companies had the resources to build critical mass around a technology. But on the internet, freely redistributable software could find adherents worldwide, and those adherents could freely associate, work together, and build something that none of them could have done alone. Still, physical proximity is useful to add to the mix once the community self-organizes on the net. I still remember the enormous buzz at the first Perl Conference I put together in 1997. All these people who’d worked together for years were meeting for the first time. “So you’re Larry!” I heard more than one person say. The mind at the other end of the teletype suddenly given flesh and voice. And if they were meeting Larry Wall for the first time, how much more were they meeting each other… Open source communities can form in cyberspace, but getting together in the flesh can really help them to reach the next level of critical mass. (full article at OReillyNet.Com)

Online networks yielding critical mass. Individuals freely associating and building works at a scale that only large organizations heretofore could. Legitimate celebrities also co-existing as just one of the contributors… Conferences as an important milestone and catalyst to attain meaningful scale and impact… No wonder the other operative buzzphrase in the Netroots is “Open Source Politics.” Political Parties as we know them ought to have cold feet now more than ever.

It’s 1997 all over again.

A vast minority of citizens in this nation are wholly dissatisfied with the status quo of our government and our political parties. And, by any global measuring stick, they’re wealthy, educated, creative, entrepreneurial, connected and passionate. A revolution is nigh. What form it takes depends heavily not just on the outcome of the 2006 and 2008 elections, but also on how those elections are conducted by our major political parties, the candidates, our government, and our news media. Their enduring relevance depends on how they perform.

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