It’s amazing what you’ll find face to face

March 27, 2008

I read this column in today’s by Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry called “Welcome to the age of the soundblast.” Raseij, who ran for New York City Public Advocate in 2005 on a platform of municipal wi-fi, and Sifry are the brains behind the Personal Democracy Forum, which closely examines the evolving role of the internet in our democracy.

The article makes some terrific points about how the internet has been used by the presidential candidates during this political season. But in my opinion it overstates the internet’s role and impact.

Internet applications for information sharing such as YouTube,, Facebook, and others are only one part of the equation of how powerful ideas spread and persuade. The Times today is running an article about how influential online article-sharing has become among young people. But the article only speaks to the fraction of the electorate that spends a significant amount of its social interaction time online. In order to have an impact across generational lines – as each generation “consumes” information at a different pace and with a different set of assumptions about that information’s credibility – the campaign must also depend on traditional social institutions like unions, clubs, schools, or places of worship to make a lasting impact.

Perhaps the most important lesson that emerged from Howard Dean’s failed national bid in 2004 were the limits of online enthusiasm. Dean’s campaign pioneered the internet as an organizing tool on a national scale four years ago. But the support he generated online didn’t translate into votes partly because the online organization was not able to plug into traditional “off-line” social networks.

The timing of Obama’s “Race in America” speech last week demonstrated that his campaign is seeking ways to address the internet’s limitations. Just as it was politically expedient to deliver a speech addressing the issue of race after several days of cable news replaying videos of his pastor’s controversial remarks, it was delivered just days before Easter, when millions of Christians would be paying their churches a visit. That Obama opted to eschew easily digested sound bytes and deliver a speech in a muted, professorial tone, he was betting that his speech would have a life beyond the typical bloggy news cycle.

Remarkably, for the first time in my memory, a speech was perceived as an actual event. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert called for the speech to be required classroom reading; the Times also reported that the speech had penetrated numerous sermons at Easter masses across the country. Throughout the week, the transcript of the speech itself was high on the New York Times “most emailed” list, consistently ranking above articles about the speech.

It is clear that Obama was trying to do more than just control the damage from the videos of Rev. Wright. The speech itself – explicitly and implicitly – was a critique of the mass media’s imprimatur of disposability. But was Obama’s audience ready for a nuanced discussion of racial issues, or were they just looking for a shot of Red Bull to wake them up from their media fatigue after a slogging primary election calendar? Probably a little bit of both.

Of course you could regard the pre-Easter timing of the speech as pure luck. But the upcoming holiday informed Obama’s rhetorical style as much as the gravity of the Wright public relations fiasco. As a community organizer and an acolyte of Alinsky-style power analysis, Obama must understand how institutional values play an important role in how messages are communicated. By employing a more substantive discursive style, Obama was able to plug right into “off-line” social institutional qualities of depth, trust, and intimacy. Each of these qualities are scarce on-line.

Therefore, in my opinion, all of the decisions wrapped up in Obama’s speech reflect his campaign’s understanding that in a media-saturated age, people’s opinions aren’t formed solely by the talking heads of cable news channels or the “netroots.” One could make the case based on the recent decline in the number of times people click on GoogleAds that just as the number of people who watch videos on YouTube increases (as Rasiej and Sifry point out to make their case), people are becoming more immune to being persuaded by messages they find on the internet. Thus, no single medium – whether it’s tv, radio, or the internet – acts alone in influencing public opinion. The pendulum swings back, and it turns out that ideas and arguments are most persuasive when they are shared among individuals who engage one another face to face.

New media has great potential, as Rasiej and Sifry demonstrate each day with the Personal Democracy Forum and the TechPresident blog. But it’s important to understand the internet’s limitations as an impersonal and faceless form of communication. For messages to rise above the din of an over-saturated media environment, one that is oriented towards instant gratification, campaigns must be able to plug into institutions where people gather, communicate, and engage one another on more personal, substantive, and intimate levels.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: