Dean's implosion and the 'Net
This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on March 19, 2004
Howard Dean's improbable run from national unknown to presidential front-runner to yesterday's news will have political analysts dissecting his campaign for years to come.
What is of most interest to those of us with an interest in the computer end of things was that most, if not all, of Dean's early buzz was over his ability to use the Internet to bypass the traditional methods of building a campaign organization. Well, that and his ability to raise scads of cash online without taking his clothes off once (and for that, we're frankly grateful).
But despite what a media that often doesn't understand the Internet reported, the former Vermont governor was not the first to mine the Internet's political potential. Campaigns have had Web sites for nearly a decade now, and have been using e-mail to communicate and raise funds for even longer.
Dean did tap into a deep vein of political discontent, though. But finding people who feel left out of the political process and taking as much of their money as you can isn't the same as changing the system. If that were true, Rush Limbaugh would be president today.
Limbaugh, remember, also tapped into a large segment of the population that felt alienated by the existing political system. Instead of the 'Net, Limbaugh used AM radio, which was being abandoned by music stations in favor of the higher audio quality of FM. But the talk radio revolution wouldn't have happened if Limbaugh's message hadn't resonated with millions.
So the Dean phenomenon, such as it is, was never really anything new. All that was new was the method of building this community. Instead of radio waves, Dean used the Internet and Meetup.com.
Without Dean in the race, Meetup.com's buzz is unlikely to be sustained. The week Dean dropped out, Meetup.com sent out a press release showing how many people were still signing up for John Kerry, John Edwards and George Bush. And all that may be true. But Kerry, Edwards and Bush aren't going to be using Meetup.com as their primary vehicle for building their campaign. In fact, I'd wager that the Kerry, Edwards and Bush meetups are far more "grass roots" than the Dean campaign was Dean's campaign steered the Meetup.com phenomenon on behalf of their candidate. Meetup.com is so far below the radar of the Kerry and Bush organizations that if there are Bush or Kerry meetups going on, it's because real voters have taken it on themselves.
No great technology
There is no new technology per se behind Meetup.com. It is, instead, an innovative blending of existing technologies. A scheduler, an e-mail list manager and a database and voila! you have Meetup.com. It's a fairly simple application tied to some very savvy marketing not so different from Yahoo's "groups" model. (None of which is meant to disparage the programmers at Meetup.com converting even a straight-forward concept into a polished, working piece of software is no mean task, and there are plenty of failures to prove that.)
Unless the suits at Meetup.com screwed things up in the debt department, the company should be able to enjoy continued if less intense growth.
Using Meetup.com to meet other people who share your interests isn't confined to politics. There are plenty of non-mainstream interests where there might not be anyone else in your neighborhood who shares your passion but probably are plenty of people within a half-day's drive. The Web is already full of examples of niche businesses that couldn't make a living as a storefront but do quite well in the much grander market of the 'Net.
Why shouldn't hobbyists be able to do the same? Yahoo Groups meets part of that demand, but Meetup.com's emphasis on actually meeting others of a like mind in person speaks to a deep human need.
© Copyright Jim Trageser
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