virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Thu 21 Oct 04 15:28
Christian Crumlish is a writer, consultant, and artist who has been involved in developing and writing about web technology for the last decade. He is a prolific blogger and moves both in the social-software arena and among technically savvy political organizers. His previous books include Coffeehouse: Writings from the Web, The Internet for Busy People, and The Internet Dictionary. Christian is (in principle at least) a contributor to GreaterDemocracy.org, a contributing editor for the forthcoming retooled Personal Democracy Forum website (PersonalDemocracy.com), and co-host of the Well's blog conference. In his copious free time, he is also a literary agent with Waterside Productions, Inc. (http://waterside.com/). He lives in Oakland, California. Jon Lebkowsky leads the conversation with Christian. Jon is an activist who also writes about technoculture. He has worked in the social software scene with Howard Rhengold's "Electric Minds" community site during the 90s and here at The Well as co-host of inkwell.vue and the virtual communities conference. His activism portfolio includes work with Bruce Sterling's Viridian Design movement and the WorldChanging weblog on tools for change. He recently managed the University of Texas' Wireless Future project and a national wireless conference within South by Southwest Interactive. Jon lives in Austin, Texas. Great to have you two paired in the Inkwell. Welcome.
Christian Crumlish (xian) Thu 21 Oct 04 15:34
Thanks! I've been doing a lot of radio interviews lately and there's nothing so cozy as an Inkwell interview among friends. Jon also co-hosts the blog conference with me, so it's really all in the family here. I drew on the Well heavily in writing my book, too. It's a big part of my social network and social networks is partly what the book is about.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 21 Oct 04 17:47
What was the impetus for the book, Christian? Did the inspiration strike while you were working on the Dean campaign? Or had you been thinking about it for a while?
Christian Crumlish (xian) Fri 22 Oct 04 07:53
I'd love to claim credit for thinking up the topic but that goes to my editor, Pete Gaughan, and my publisher, Dan Brodnitz. They were tasked with coming up with some innovative book ideas and, yes, it was largely the Dean campaign at the time that turned their attention to the subject. They called me up and asked if I'd like to do a book on "digital organizing." At first I thought they were talking about PIMs (such as Palm) and it took some explaining and convincing before I saw that not only was there a good book in what they were proposing but that it was in fact a book I was well suited to write. Beyond my involvement with the Dean volunteer movement, I've also been blogging for a long time and generally tracking and analyzing the evolution of the Web as a communications medium for a good decade or so. I kept wishing I had more time to write the book, but I consoled myself by saying that I had been preparing to write this book for years without realizing it. I started the weblog last December when we inked the deal, the first draft was finished in March and the final draft was done in June. Having a blog running the whole time was really useful, btw, and meant that the book's website had a running start before our pub date.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 22 Oct 04 07:59
You started the book while the Dean campaign was full of steam, but Dean was out of the race before you finished. Did that have any impact on the book - the content, your enthusiasm for the subject, the publisher's support, etc?
Christian Crumlish (xian) Fri 22 Oct 04 08:33
There was definitely an impact. Had Dean gotten the nomination, his name would probably have been in the subtitle and his image may have been on the cover. I got one comment already that I didn't cover enough of what Kerry was doing online, but remember I finished the book in June and Kerry's campaign has adopted only a fraction (mostly the money-raising aspects) of what the Dean people were doing. It absolutely affected the conntent. I wrote Chapter 2 in the present tense in December when we were expecting Dean to triumph. I revisited it in February and had to put a lot of it in the past tense and change a lot of the suppositions. Of course we worried that Dean's failure to win the nomination might discredit the grassroots-online activities of his campaign and its supporters but my publisher felt that the story would still be meaningful in November and that has proven true. I may tend to do interviews more on Daily Kos and how the readers there are trying to affect media spin (such as after thd debates) but interviewers still want to know about the Dean campaign - what it meant and what it bodes for the future. As you know, the full story of the Dean campaign has still not been told. My chapter just outlines the aspects of it I was aware of or able to get access to. And it should be noted that while I cover politics and activism and community organizing, a lot of the book delves into other forms of spontaneous ad-hoc digitally facilitated group behavior, including recreation, arts, socializing, and doing business deals. My enthusiasm never flagged. As I worked on the book I started seeing the themes everywhere and I became more convinced that we were catching the zeitgeist wave at the right time. I've been chasing trends for years and usually you're either a little too early or a lot too late.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 22 Oct 04 08:48
How did the Dean campaign get into online organizing, and why did it become so much a part of the operation?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 22 Oct 04 08:48
And why, with such a promising start, did Dean fail to win in Iowa and thereafter? (I've heard two different answers from Joe Trippi. Early on he was suggesting that Dean failed because powerful forces within the Democratic party made sure that he failed. More recently I've heard him say that it was Dean's inexperience as a candidate facing a real challenge, given the fact that he had run virtually unchallenged in Vermont. I suspect that the truth is more complex than either of those statements.)
Christian Crumlish (xian) Fri 22 Oct 04 09:07
I'll tackle the first question first. There was no single reason why the Dean campaign embraced online organizing - many people suggested it to them and Joe Trippi had a lot to do with it, but to a large extent necessity was the mother of invention. It may be hard to remember this now but Dean was a dark horse candidate from an obscure state, an "asterisk" as he likes to call it. My sense is that the first bump of support for Dean came from the gay anad gay-friendly community because of Vermont's civil unions law. I started hearing more about Dean in places like here on the Well when the online buzz about Dean started. The first milestone may have been when Dean won the MoveOn "primary" - at the time I thought MoveOn was more left than it really was and I was expected Kucinich to win that. This told me that Dean had an online constituency. So the bloggers kind of adopted Dean and the Dean campaign embraces blogs and they all sort of met in the middle. Trippi had been a reader and commenter on Jerome Armstrong's MyDD.com site and later Markos Moulitsas Zuniga's DailyKos.com site and he took advice from them and many others suggesting that the Dean website have a blog, that the Dean campaign reach out to bloggers, and specifically that they work with Meetup.com to enable local supporters to meet each other and plan local activities in a decentralized way (without waiting for a green light from some command-and-control hub). Trippi has long been an advocate of what he calls "concentric circles" organizing and he did some time in Silicon Valley during the bubble, so he saw that the Net had a real potential to put that rippling-out form of organizing on steroids, if I can painfully torture my metaphors suchly. At a certain point, I think success just bred more success. Not least of which was the fundraising power which led many journalists to project a Dean win based on their older models of how you win primaries. Ironically, not everything scaled up with the online support - most painfully in the area of actual voters choosing the candidate on caucus day in Iowa and primary day in New Hampshire. Let me spend a little time gathering my thoughts before answering the "Why didn't Dean win" question, for which there is probably no single definitive answer but about which I hope I have a few insights to offer.
David Kline (dkline) Fri 22 Oct 04 09:41
How about, "The voters simply didn't embrace him in enough numbers"? Anyway, I'm still stuck on the fact that you signed your book deal in December and had a first draft completed by March. Given that I've got to write 80,000 words by Thanksgiving for my own book, could you become me for 6 weeks and finish my book for me? In return, I'll mention you in the acknowlegements. Sound fair?
Jeff Dooley (dooley) Fri 22 Oct 04 13:43
Hi Christian, in the book you mention the distinction between "finished" sites, books, posters, etc on the web and the "living web," comprised of blogs, discussion boards, shared workspaces, IRC, IM, which are dynamic, interactive, and fluid. It's interesting to imagine the trend of the ratio of these two elements as time goes on. If we can assume that the "living web" activity is an increasing share of this ratio, what are some of the factors you see as important drivers today. And, since artifacts of the "living web" have been around for nearly 20 years already, what do you see as having bene constraints keeping this side of the web from taking off in a broad way earlier?
Farai N. Chideya (zimby) Fri 22 Oct 04 16:47
I'm interested in how you see "high tech" and "high touch" converging... if you do at all. I see a lot of online activism also having a very human and local component which seems to make it stickier.
Christian Crumlish (xian) Fri 22 Oct 04 16:54
As for explaining why Dean lost, definitely he didn't get enough votes is one easy way of putting it. One thing is that the online participation and donation rate had the effect of "gaming" some of the metrics that had accurately predicted voting results in the fast. Dean built a very wide geographical base (although it had large clusters in California and New York - one interesting angle someone should pursue is the way the Dean campaign became a sort of California-driven venture / vehicle) but didn't close the deal in Iowa when it counted. I posted at http://mediajunkie.com/edgewise/ recently about a Zogby talk in Hong Kong reported on by a blogger there in which he detected a change in Democratic opinion around the New Year. Ironically, Dean gave the party members back the sense that they could win, which drove up the whole value of the "electability" judgement. At the time, Clay Shirky and Steven Johnson and Jay Rosen did some of the best coverage online. I'll dig out those URLs from my book blog and post them here. Ultimately, I don't think the full ramifications of what the Dean people were doing has caught on and it will be a few cycles before it has fully taken hold, but I don't think we'll see a major race in the future without a "living web" component. When Dean addressed the convention bloggers in Boston (I was lucky enough to be one of them), he said that the other campaigns had figured out the fundraising element (which is important both from a credibility / feasibility standpoint and because it can free a candidate from the constant drumbeat of raising large-money donations) but had not yet really grokked the idea that the campaign had fostered an online community and freed up the people at the edge to decide together what actions to take.
Christian Crumlish (xian) Fri 22 Oct 04 17:02
Re " If we can assume that the "living web" activity is an increasing share of this ratio, what are some of the factors you see as important drivers today." Well, I think mainly these media and tools fill the inherent needs of people to be social to communicate with each other, to gossip, to project their status into a larger group, to jostle for connections, and attention, and resources, and love and so on. Clearly as the technology interface thinking evolves and the digital hardware itself becomes more compact and ergonomic and affordable, that's one of the biggest drivers. In a way we've seen such drastic *quantitative* changes that they've become qualitative. We could send instant messages over acoustic couplers at, what was it, 150 baud? back in 1976 but it wasn't a practical worldwide communications tool yet. I am, by the way, enamored of the idea that this is not an overnight success or even a decade-long trend but a hundred-year phenomenon that probably started with telegraph (the Victorian internet). Improvements since then have increased bandwidth and the expressive potential of the media, and done away with the wires, for sure, but the idea of web of connectivity for signals or messages has been ramifying for quite some time. "And, since artifacts of the "living web" have been around for nearly 20 years already, what do you see as having bene constraints keeping this side of the web from taking off in a broad way earlier?" It's just that Flickr is better than Shutterfly which is better than "here's a link to my website" which is better than ftp mediajunkie.com / xian / password / I / put example.jpg, and so on The tools have gotten way easier and people who don't think of themselves as technical and don't enjoy solving puzzles and don't want to know how everything works can still look at pictures of their grandchildren or have webcam conversations or belong to a Yahoo group or pass along petitions or decide to boycott General Mills because it won't take its ads off Sinclair network to prevent it from forcing its affiliates to air Stolen Honor as news. Speaking of Yahoo - I thinks its Groups and Profiles and email addresses and Y!M probably constitutes the most successful SNS (social network system; a/k/a YASNS, "yet another social network system") out there at this moment. But that's probably getting a little ahead of ourselves.
Christian Crumlish (xian) Fri 22 Oct 04 17:32
Farai, "high touch" is a new term for me, but I'll take a stab at it... You said, "I see a lot of online activism also having a very human and local component which seems to make it stickier." I absolutely agree. One rubric Pete my editor held me to, to the benefit of the project, was that I was only to research and write about organizations and phenomena that had some "real world" component. This is not to devalue the virtual world as less meaningful than the physical world, but I wanted to look into activities that partook of both, since I believe that judicious use of both physical and virtual interaction with others can lead to a more rich human experience. It seems that some of the creative flowering in the dotcom bubble got redirected into dot orgs in the last few years as people who made a lot of money started wondering if they could do some good with it and others who lost their jobs figured if they weren't going to strike it rich they'd rather do some kind of work they personally valued. I interviewed the founder of Convio for the book and he talked about just noticing how nonprofits (in the example it was a local public TV station) were using antiquated methods for keeping track of members (what you'd call customer-relationship management in business). This led him to believe that there was a business opportunity providng that sort of what I call "activist relationship management" tools to nonprofits. Still, a lot of that has to do with getting donations and having people sign petitions and pass along viral messages. You have to go up a few steps on the involvement ladder before you need to get away from your computer screen and come face-to-face with other people in your neighborhood or further afield. By far what was compelling to me as a Dean volunteer wasn't the use of blogs and automated voterfile tools but the exhilaration of meeting my neighbors and realizing I wasn't alone. I was extending myself further into my physical world and finding something that had really been lacking in my life. The tools helped me find the people who shared my priorities and values, at least temporarily, but the reward came when I left my house and went to the coffeeshop or attended the rally or went door to door encouraging people to stick with my candidate.
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Fri 22 Oct 04 18:19
>>It seems that some of the creative flowering in the dotcom bubble got redirected into dot orgs << My co-editor at WorldChanging.com wrote a terrific piece along these very lines last year entitled "The Tech Bloom In Full Flower" http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/000108.html
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 22 Oct 04 18:42
Christian, had you been involved in more traditional political organizations at any point before your experience with the Dean campaign?
Christian Crumlish (xian) Fri 22 Oct 04 19:09
Thanks for the pointer, Jamais - I'll blog it at the POM site. JonL, this was my first time getting involved in politics in an active way. I've always voted in every election since I became eligible and I've always formed opinions, but beyond occasionally writing a modest check I'd never done anything like that. I had done a little volunteer work before, mostly in the area of labor organizing, but that hadn't really panned out for me. Even before I settled on Dean, though, I had pledged to myself to become involved this time around. I felt that the stakes were high and that I could no longer afford to sit back with a kind of cynical purer-than-thou political philosophy. I decided it was time to get involved or stop griping. I also found I wasn't alone. In my local group (East Bay for Dean, now East Bay for Democracy) I'd guess we were about 1/3 experienced activists 2/3 newbies *among the leadership* with a much larger proportion of first-time activists among our larger volunteer corps. At Meetups I heard variations on "this is my first time" from people of all ages.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 22 Oct 04 20:37
What makes so many people who have never been involved before decide to jump into the fray?
Mack Reed (factoid) Mon 25 Oct 04 09:21
Hi, Christian - another question - one that I hope is not too cosmic: It may be safe to say that the simple majority of "lesser" blogs (read: apolitical, acultural, hermetically diary-style musings - I always think of them as hair blogs, e.g. "I hate my hair today") are begun with the best of intentions, and abandoned within a year. Blogging solo on any subject on a regular basis is a commitment, not pure out-of-the-box fun. The current boom in new blogs is beginning to feel like the CB radio fad in the 70s. Everybody wants to give a shout-out and get one back, but when it comes down to it, not everybody has something to say that everybody else finds worthwhile, nor the stamina to commit when the rewards of self-publishing don't seem as shiny as they did in that first week of blogging. Once the faddishness has worn off the medium a year or three from now, where do you see the medium's stance and value for average folk - as a news source, social network and societal cabinet of wonders - "settling?" Give us a view of the living web's shape - and its worth for nonparticipants - two years, and then five years down the road.
Christian Crumlish (xian) Mon 25 Oct 04 11:01
Jon, it's hard to answer for more than myself and the other volunteers I encountered, but it seems that a sense of crisis motivated a lot of us. We felt that the country was going off the tracks, that the debate was skewed too far to the right, that the Bush administration was too radical, and that the Democrats were not doing an effective job of opposition. I think the electronic tools just offered a way for people to speak up, meet, and encourage one another to become involved. So the combination of rising urgency (post the 2000 election debacle, post the 9/11 terror attack, post the 2002 terror-baiting interim election) with the falling "cost" of getting involved seemed to do the trick.
Christian Crumlish (xian) Mon 25 Oct 04 11:17
Mack, I'm not sure it is safe to say that "apolitical, acultural, hermetically diary-style musings - I always think of them as hair blogs, e.g. "I hate my hair today") are begun with the best of intentions, and abandoned within a year." Journaling or diary-style blogging predates the political and technical forms that have become so popular and LiveJournal, a service designed to facilitate that approach and friend-and-family oriented blogging continues to thrive. Probably half of all blogs of any type are abandoned after a false start. I started a daily online journal in 1997 but there were two year-long lapses between then and now when my life just didn't permit the routine involved in contributing daily to the living web. "Blogging solo on any subject on a regular basis is a commitment, not pure out-of-the-box fun. The current boom in new blogs is beginning to feel like the CB radio fad in the 70s." Perhaps that's true, but people have been declaring blogging a fad since 2000 and there's Blood's law which says that the year you started blogging is always the year that blogging went mainstream. I think there is a danger in focusing too specifically on the arbitrary details of blogs and the way they are done now. We will outgrow the terminology and hte jargon eventually, but I don't think we'll ever see a time when people stop putting their thoughts and ideas online in their own spaces. Living part of your life online is now an option anyone can choose to partake of or not. It will never feel right to some people but for a lot of other people it enables another dimension of friendship and social life to complement the physical/geographical/proximity-based world. "...not everybody has something to say that everybody else finds worthwhile..." well, sure, just about nobody has anyhting to say that everybod else finds worthwhile, but I don't think the key to blogging is doing it professionally or finding a ginormous audience. I think for a lot of people that "long tail" of the power curve is where it's at. The people with 20-100 readers who influence each other and whose ideas occasionally, if ever, bubble up to the masses. As for predicting the future, I expect these mini boom/bust cycles of fad and backlash to continue but if you watch how younger people use the web and other digital media, they much more reflexively (and casually) communicate through it without the gee-this-is-so-cool frame around it. To them it's like a telephone - a fixture of their social life. I think the trend of people taking the incoming streams of media and remixing them, sending them back out to the public, will continue as well. The era of one-to-many broadcast media as the dominant form of storytelling in society may succumb to the ability of ordinary people to speak to each other in various sized groups and present narratives that are appropriate to each context. So I guess I see more of the same, better, more convenient tools, richer communication, and so on. I think we'll have to grapple with privacy (which of the things we "log" do we want others - either defined groups or the public in general - to be able to access), the ongoing problems of info overload and the embarassment of choices about where to spend our attention... a lot of scaling issues will come up. I'm also not trying to sound utopian about this. I think the technologies are value-neutral and can be coopted or even weaponized. Al Qaeda benefits from "the power of many" every bit as much or more than your local neighborhood group can. What excites me the most is seeing people organize themselves into ad-hoc or longer term groupings (I hesitate to call them communities) for the purpose of pursuing mutual goals. We've got new organizational models to look at now beyond the tried and true corporate, guild, feudal, etc. approaches, and the new shapes are more "webby" more "networked" and less "pyramidal." I don't see this as anticapitalistic, but it does present a potential disruptive change to traditional top-down corporatism. OK, I don't know if this is answering your question. I've either had too much coffee this morning or not enough.
Mack Reed (factoid) Mon 25 Oct 04 12:22
Coffee or not, it was certainly well-answered. Thank you! I guess the bulk of the abandoned blogs I stumble across fall into the personal-only category, but I oversimplified the phenomenon. Certainly, there are plenty of abandoned political and pop-cult blogs as well. But just to further the discussion of the future a bit: The concept of blogging as an act of sifting, commenting upon and remixing media for communities of interest seems to be one of the more powerful aspects of this new medium. And representatives of the media that are being remixed have been occasionally scornful of blogging, dismissing it as the product of fevered egos with little regard for facts: Does a sort of fact-ness emerge from the common wisdom created in these communities that is as legitimate as any news reporter's research? In other words: Can consensus of the living web stand in for objective fact? And do the traditional media have anything to fear from the living web (as they so often aver) in terms of erosion of the public's trust in them or the devaluation of their work? How much of the world's mindshare - for its understanding of itself - do you see being occupied by the living web in the future?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 25 Oct 04 16:41
While we wait for Christian to answer, I'd like to say something more about the nature and future of blogs. Blogs depend on light, personal content management systems, and as such are part of an evolution of web automation for easier publishing. The blog format has evolved, too, and some of the conventions (like reverse chronological order, comments, permalinks, etc.) are so well established that they'll probably be fairly permanent, just as some elements of the book or the magazine are consistent for most of those kinds of publications. Christian, how do you think blogs relate to the zine phenomenon 10-15 years ago?
Christian Crumlish (xian) Mon 25 Oct 04 18:14
Mack, you touch on really vital questions. I think there are new models for authority and credibility coming on line. Generally, we've outsourced expertise and filtering to professionals, credentialed people, editors, and other gatekeeper-type, although that's always been relative: you may defer to your local family political junkie or sports junkie when seeking out a specific kind of knowledge you don't want to have to track down personally. It doesn't have to be Walter Cronkite or The New York Times. Instead, I think a more "distributed" form of credibility and an "emergent" form of authority could be in the offing. These may be fuzzier concepts than the top-down chokepoint bottleneck model, although I think appeals to distant authority often hide the fuzziness inside the black box of someone's head. This is why people compare the open-source ethic to the Reformation, in which priestly middlemen were (sometimes) routed around. The command-and-control media management of the military, for example, has succumbed to the culture that fostered digital photos of prisoner abuse ending up burned on CDs and being used as screen savers on computers in the Abu Ghraib prison's cybercafe. Jay Rosen just posted something about this at PressThink. He is groping towards some kind of idea about competing realities and trying to weave the Jon Stewart phenomenon (refreshing trickster speaks truth-to-power?) into the storyline. Lessee... yes, I linked to it here: http://x-pollen.com/many/2004/10/25/too_many_realities.html
Christian Crumlish (xian) Mon 25 Oct 04 18:34
Jon, there's clearly a direct lineage from the people xeroxing and stapling 'zines together in the '80s on the office equipment of their temp job and those of us making ezines in the '90s on the spare web cycles of our servers. The niche publishing aspect is similar, as is the personal voice. Zines and ezines could be one person or a small-ish crew. For me, noncommercial ezine model didn't scale well and I cast around for about four years trying out different content management approaches until blogging seemed to be the just in time good-enough method I needed to get back into things. I'm also following the developments of projects like Dean Allen's TextPattern and Paul Ford's Ftrain Sitekit, looking for clues and solutions to my personal-publishing needs. A while back I decided that any blog I published that was not by, for, and about me me me should have multiple contributors. So my political blog, Edgewise, has a team of contributors, as does Radio Free Blogistan and the Power of Many blog. This is a quasi-publication format that seems better suited to the web's publish-anytime freedom than the periodical model I was copying when I did Enterzone in 1994-1998.
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