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Hot on the Web

Politics and the 'Net

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on August 22, 2003
(Issue 2134, The Good Internet)

The rapid rise of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean from national nobody to top-tier hopeful is being offered up by the national media as an example of a revolution in the symbiosis between technology and politics.

Yet that attitude of breathless "wow" from the TV networks and the news wire services is really more an indication that they haven't been paying much attention to the way the Internet has been used in the past few elections.

While Dean's use of the 'Net to build up a national organization has been impressive (more on that below), the fact is that there are few politicians at any level who aren't using the Internet to communicate and promote in some fashion.

The Web was an important part of the 2000 presidential campaign, with all of the major candidates having slick, professionally produced Web sites as their primary races began. In 1996, most of the big players had sites – if a bit primitive by today's standards. In 1992, of course, the Internet was only newly made public and the Web was taking its first baby steps – there were only a couple dozen web sites in the entire world!

E-mail lists have also played a part in most presidential campaigns for the past decade or so, as a cost-effective and timely method of communicating with supporters.

The real change

Given the historical context of the current presidential primary campaign, the real surprise isn't that Dean has used the services of but that more candidates aren't doing something similar (although in light of Dean's success, many now are now – including rivals John Kerry and Dennis Kucinich).

The reality in 2003 is that not only are the presidential campaigns all using the Internet as part of the efforts to reach voters, but so are candidates for just about every other office in the country.

From statewide offices to the local school board, city council to statewide ballot measures, nearly every campaign these days uses a Web site as a sort of electronic brochure.

The beauty of a web site is its cost-effectiveness – the biggest cost associated with a web site is its creation: hiring someone to design it. But once that's out of the way, the hosting costs are minimal.

And unlike a print brochure, a campaign can use a web site to establish a real relationship with potential voters – many campaign sites now include a sign-up form where folks can subscribe to e-newsletters, volunteer to help with the campaign, or even donate online by credit card.

The Dean phenomenon

As for Mr. Dean, the former Vermont governor and current Cinderella story of presidential politics, he – or more likely, one of his young staff members – came across and recognized that this represented another cost-effective way of reaching potential voters.

When Dean's campaign started, he was woefully short of cash compared to the other Democratic candidates. Money is the mother's milk of modern politics – it's what allows a candidate get her/his message out to voters. Having Dean supporters and those just curious use the service to arrange local gatherings cost them nothing (more on the business model below).

A side benefit for Dean to using – or perhaps, actually, the real benefit – has been the extraordinary amount of media coverage given to the fact that Dean used Most of this coverage has been of the "gee whiz, isn't that clever" variety – giving Dean's campaign a patina of tech-savvy hipster.

And all the coverage has undoubtedly contributed to the swelling bank account at Dean headquarters. Yes, most of the money in the last campaign finance reporting period had come from the 'Net (The Dean campaign web site includes a secure donation form), but who knows how many of those folks were driven to the Internet by the traditional media coverage? Most Americans still get their daily news from television, so there's a cause-and-effect relationship of some sort at work there.

Which isn't to downplay the effectiveness of the model – before the media caught on, the Dean campaign was busy organizing local meetings, and linking to the Dean campaign web site. Dean tapped into a vein of political passion on the 'Net, and created a real grass-roots effort unseen since the Ross Perot campaign of '96.

The phenemon isn't complaining about all the free publicity it's getting out of this, either! was just another small, niche-technology company before the Dean campaign put it on the national map.'s business model is based on an insightful application of database technology – one that mirrors the eBay model in its recognition that there are many human passions too obscure to succeed locally but that can flourish if given a national or regional scale.

While the eBay model allows collectors of all stripes to find each other and create a viable marketplace (where do you think I go to add to my reel to reel tape and Laserdisc collections?), is creating the same kind of viable community for non-commercial passions – politics, the arts, sports and anything else you can think of, because the interface allows users to create their own groups.

Think of as the eBay of clubs – instead of selling to one another, denizens of simply want to meet with one another.

By creating a free account with your ZIP code, you can then connect with others who share your passions and live near you. Assuming continues its meteoric growth and reaches a critical mass (as eBay and Yahoo have before it), this is a model that may well have staying power.

As for profitability, is free for anyone who wants to sign up – but they offer a Plus account for a small fee. They also charge for-profit businesses that want to use the service or license the technology. Whether that's going to be enough to pay the bills over the long haul remains to be seen.

If so, if beats the odds and becomes a with the ability to turn a profit, the owners will forever owe Howard Dean for giving them the publicity that allowed it to happen.