What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Mon 29 Sep 08 10:06
We're pleased to welcome to the Inkwell the authors of Netroots Rising: How a Citizen Army of Bloggers and Online Activists Is Changing American Politics, Lowell Feld and Nate Wilcox. Lowell Feld is founder and editor of RK, the largest progressive blog in Virginia. In 2003, Feld was a leader in the Draft Wesley Clark movement. In early 2006, Feld co-founded the Draft James Webb movement, helping persuade Webb to enter the race against George Allen. In July 2006, Feld joined the Webb campaign as its netroots coordinator, helping to raise more than $4 million online. Currently, Feld consults for the South Dakota Democratic Party and Judy Feder for Congress campaigns. In addition, Feld worked for 17+ years as an international oil markets analyst with the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Nate Wilcox is a political consultant with over 10 years of experience at the nexus of traditional political communications and the internet. He has worked for Senator John Kerry, Virginia Governor Mark Warner and the late Texas Governor Ann Richards. He is the co-author of Netroots Rising and lives in Alexandria Virginia with his family. Leading the conversation with Lowell and Nate is the Well's own Jon Lebkowsky, who writes about culture, technology, media, politics, and sustainability. Jon has been blogging since the late 1990s. An acknowledged authority on social media and online community, he also leads web development projects and consults with businesses and nonprofits on web strategy and social technology. He was involved in progressive social media initiatives in the 2004 and 2006 election campaigns, and is co-editor with Mitch Ratcliffe of _Extreme Democracy__, a collection of writings about technology and politics. Welcome, gentlemen! This is certainly a timely topic, isn't it?
Nate Wilcox (natewilcox) Mon 29 Sep 08 10:26
Thanks for having us. Its certainly a political nail-biter of a week/month/year! Arguably the netroots helped decide the Democratic primary because Obama's victory in the caucuses relied so heavily on online organizing. However we're at that nasty part of the election cycle where everyone who's been paying attention has to sit back and angst over the last minute decisions of the great uninformed middle who tune in at the last minute and decide the election based on God-only-knows-what. Should have a lot to chew over this week!
Lowell Feld (netrootsrising) Mon 29 Sep 08 10:39
Ditto, glad to be here and thanks for having us! Last week, Nate and I had the opportunity to speak at Vanderbilt about the netroots, and also about "Netroots Rising." This Wednesday, we're speaking to the University of Virginia college Democrats. Obviously, the netroots is a popular topic these days, and for good reason. When I think about how much things have changed just since 2003, when I first discovered "Meetups," the Draft Wesley Clark movement, Yahoo groups, Daily Kos, instant messaging, etc., it boggles my mind. In 2006, when I was the Webb for Senate campaign's netroots coordinator, I had a front-row seat to what arguably has been, to date, the greatest netroots victory ever - Jim Webb's improbable upset win over George "Felix Macacawitz" Allen, powered by a "rag tag army" of 10,000 grassroots and netroots activists. I also watched the messy, difficult, not-completely-successful integration of the standard "top-down" political campaign model with a "bottom-up" movement. That was fascinating (and frustrating at times) in and of itself. One question for possible discussion here: was the Webb campaign sui generis or a sign of things to come? Subsidiary question: are we seeing the netroots and top-down being integrated in the Obama and/or McCain campaigns? I'm interested to hear what you guys think!
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 29 Sep 08 12:10
As Nate already knows, I was already involved in net.activism during the 90s, though mostly focused on Internet-related issues - privacy and free speech, and the sort of things the Electronic Frontier Foundation was tracking. We could see the potential for the Internet to have an impact on mainstream politics as adoption ramped up. My colleagues Shabbir Safdar of Voters Telecommunication Watch and Jonah Seiger of the Center for Democracy and Technology created early Internet campaigns, and had a lot of influence on Wes Boyd at Moveon, which was an early example of mainstreaming. Were you both aware of and influenced by the earlier net.activist work?
Lowell Feld (netrootsrising) Mon 29 Sep 08 12:24
For my part, I discovered the netroots in 2003 pretty much without any knowledge of what came prior to that. Basically, I was a total "newbie" to blogs, didn't even know what Daily Kos was (I think Sterling Newberry clued me in, if I remember correctly), and had no concept of the blogs' potential. In fact, if anything, I was skeptical early on that blogs could make a difference, but my involvement in the Draft Wesley Clark movement demonstrated to me what the netroots could do (at least, potentially). Unfortunately, as Nate and I discuss in the book (and as Clark's first campaign manager, Donnie Fowler, Jr., confirms), Washington insiders like Eli Segal basically pounded their fists on the table and said "get these netroots rabble outta here." That wanted control, so they killed the goose - the Draft Wesley Clark movement - that laid the golden egg (the Clark campaign). As Donnie Fowler, Jr. says in the book, the netroots is like a "wild, raging river" that is a lot more damaging to try and "dam up" than to let run wild. The political "top down" people came in to the Clark campaign and tried to dam it up. The results were...less than favorable, let's just say.
Nate Wilcox (natewilcox) Mon 29 Sep 08 12:28
I was. In the 1990s I was working at a high-powered public affairs firm in Austin, TX. I went from being a $5/hr intern assembling and faxing packets of news clips to being a Director in the corner office in less than 3 years because I became the resident "internet genius" (ah the 1990s were heady times). My genius move? Putting the news clips on a simple web site. As head of a division my job was basically keeping an eye on the rapidly evolving theory and practice of online activism and imitating as much as we could. The day the Internet went black to protest the communications decency act (organized by Safdar and Seiger among others) was the sort of thing I wrote white papers and gave power point presentations about. I think I'm fairly exceptional in that regard among the liberal blogosphere however. I remember a pointless spat between various veterans of the Howard Dean effort about the influence of the original online activists and theoreticians on the Dean campaign. Essentially, many of the mid-level leaders of the Dean campaign were oblivious to the Clue Train, etc and were not looped in on Trippi's conversations with those guys either. Honestly I think a lot of the stuff that was revelatory theory 10 years ago seemed obvious as early as 2003 to anyone online in a serious way. I think its a testament to the validity of some of the insights of the Clue Train or Rheingold's older books that they would be seen as utterly obvious to most 20 year olds today.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 29 Sep 08 20:41
Lowell mentions the traditional politicos that took over the Clark campaign and pushed the Draft Clark people away in 2004. I'm sure Washington insiders never supposed that the grassroots, empowered by technology, would come together as a real and coherent force. Since 2004, has there been any change in the perception of the netroots by the political establishment?
Lowell Feld (netrootsrising) Tue 30 Sep 08 02:44
"Since 2004, has there been any change in the perception of the netroots by the political establishment?" I'd definitely say yes! When I started Raising Kaine in January 2005, most politicians didn't even know what a blog was. Few contacted me, almost none tried to win my support. Today, it's completely different. For instance, in 2007 Virginia had legislative elections, and I had candidates and campaigns contacting me all the time. Ben Tribbett (of the Not Larry Sabato blog) and I hosted a Blog Talk Radio show where - among other things - we conducted a series of live candidate debates leading up to the Democratic primaries in June 2007. Also in 2007, Raising Kaine helped to raise $25,000 for Virginia legislative candidates via ActBlue, the online progressive fundraising tool that is yet another new development (and an important one!) since 2004 (in fact, ActBlue was founded by two Clark alum's - Matt DeBergalis and Benjamin Rahn). And candidates actively sought our blog's endorsement. All big changes from 2004! :) Another big change: today, many if not most candidates have fairly sophisticated websites with YouTube channels, Flickr and Twitter accounts, blogs, Facebook pages, you name it. Also today, we've got numerous legislators in Virginia who are also bloggers themselves, not just "live blogs" on Raising Kaine or Not Larry Sabato or whatever, but their own blogs which they regularly update. Finally, candidates increasingly are hiring bloggers to work on their campaigns. Right now, for instance, I'm consulting to Judy Feder for Congress, the South Dakota Democratic Party, and Jon Bowerbank for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia in 2009...
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 30 Sep 08 04:44
It seems to me that traditional political operatives are always, inherently going to have a problem with any kind of grassroots movement, and especially with a grassroots empowered by technology - so I'm wondering if candidates using blogs and other forms of social media is really a manifestation of changed perception, or are they just adding another form of media to their bag of tricks and using it in their usual top-down way, still controlling the message while trying to appear cooler and somewhat more authentic?
Nathan Wilc (natewilcox) Tue 30 Sep 08 10:56
Nate Wilcox (natewilcox) Tue 30 Sep 08 11:00
"I'm wondering if candidates using blogs and other forms of social media is really a manifestation of changed perception, or are they just adding another form of media to their bag of tricks and using it in their usual top-down way, still controlling the message while trying to appear cooler and somewhat more authentic?" Very much the latter IMO. Some exceptional candidates are slowly emerging who actually read blogs and respond to the online expression of popular will. But for the most part, candidates want to maximize contributor revenue and activist volunteer time while minimizing problematic debates and eliminating controversy. On the other hand I think its less a matter of trying to appear "cooler and more authentic" than a matter of (finally) trying to seize the communication possibilities of a new medium.
Lowell Feld (netrootsrising) Tue 30 Sep 08 14:32
I'd generally agree with Nate on this one, although not totally. :) I guess I see this mainly as a challenge - to take the best of both worlds, top-down and bottom-up, "professional" and "netroots," and meld them together in a way that optimizes the outcome. Having worked on campaigns, I'm well aware of the need for message discipline. I'm also aware that this can run up against the blogs' need for "authenticity" and "independence." I don't believe it's an insurmountable obstacle for the two worlds to work together in a mutually beneficial, even synergistic, way, but it's not easy either as we saw on the Webb campaign.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 30 Sep 08 21:42
We should come back later to the question of the two approaches and how the work together, but I'm wondering what motivated the two of you to collaborate on this book? How did it come together?
Lowell Feld (netrootsrising) Wed 1 Oct 08 06:45
"I'm wondering what motivated the two of you to collaborate on this book? How did it come together?" Nate and I had "met" - in quotes because it was on instant messaging, not in person until later - during the Webb campaign. Nate had come to Virginia to work on Mark Warner's budding presidential campaign, and had contacted me as part of his job. Through the Webb campaign and our almost daily conversations, we became friends. After Webb defeated Allen, I strongly felt that there were some great stories to tell from a netroots perspective. I approached several publishing companies regarding a book mainly focused on Webb vs. Allen, and Praeger responded almost immediately with definite interest. However...they wanted to broaden the book out from just the Webb campaign to a more comprehensive look at the rise of the netroots, the blogs, the new media, etc. Knowing that Nate had tremendous background in netroots activism and Democratic campaigns, I asked him if he'd be interested in co-authoring the book. He said "yes," agreeing that there were a lot of great stories to tell, etc. So, we went back to Praeger with our modified proposal, and they accepted. Voila! :)
Nate Wilcox (natewilcox) Wed 1 Oct 08 08:06
One of our main goals in authoring the book was to document some of the best accomplishments of netroots activists in a non-digital form. I'm a big believer in the proven historical power of books to survive over time. Something I'm not convinced online media will do. (I'm with Neil Young in worrying that the digital era will be a historical black hole). Anyway, both Lowell and I had worked on grassroots efforts that had made an impact and weren't getting the attention they deserved. Richard Morrison's 2004 campaign against Tom DeLay is one example. Morrison raised over $800,000 and forced DeLay to quadruple his spending over previous years. DeLay's relatively weak showing (only 55% in a district drawn personally by DeLay to give him 67% of the vote) was a key blow against his power. And yet because the Texas establishment press corps refused to acknowledge that Morrison was mounting a real challenge to DeLay during the race, they and the national Democratic establishment (who didn't support Morrison) have consistently ignored what Morrison pulled off in 2004. Current incumbent Nick Lampson is frequently credited with standing up to DeLay even though he never actually faced DeLay on the ballot and only challenged for the seat in spring 2005, after DeLay had already become a front-page story and national symbol of political corruption. Lowell's work on the ground-breaking grassroots effort to draft Wesley Clark is another subject that has been criminally overlooked. When people talk about netroots activism in 2003 its all Howard Dean and the Clark campaign -- which was 100% bottom up -- is ignored.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 1 Oct 08 09:24
Looking at the various campaigns discussed in the book - Morrison, Webb, the other challenges to Delay, like Fred Lewis's, the Clark Campaign - how connected are these stories to the national evolution of Netroots? As in, for example, the coevolution of some of these efforts with the growth of Daily Kos...?
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Wed 1 Oct 08 11:27
How does a group avoid the echo chamber effect?
(dana) Wed 1 Oct 08 19:06
(NOTE: Offsite readers with questions or comments may have them added to the conversation by emailing <firstname.lastname@example.org> -- please put the author's name in the subject line. Thank you!)
Lowell Feld (netrootsrising) Wed 1 Oct 08 19:56
"How does a group avoid the echo chamber effect?" It's always a balancing act in any group to decide how much diversity is encouraged and/or allowed. On blogs, there usually are rules, editors, and sometimes community ratings schemes in place. I can definitely say that there's a diversity of opinion on my blog. I've seen diversity on other Democratic blogs, but there are times when I've felt it has become much closer to an echo chamber, and that can be problematic. Still, I'd point out that the web is a huge place, and that the "echo chamber effect" may be present on one blog, but the opposite will be the case on another blog, something else on yet another blog, etc.
Nathan Wilcox (natewilcox) Thu 2 Oct 08 07:28
"how connected are these stories to the national evolution of Netroots? As in, for example, the co-evolution of some of these efforts with the growth of Daily Kos...?" The rise of large audience national political blogs like DailyKos, MyDD, Atrios, Talking Points Memo, etc are tightly interwoven with the stories in the book. Morrison's big break as a campaign came when he was embraced by the Kos community. In a post-election analysis I did of the race, almost 1/3 of Morrison's donors first came to the campaign by way of DailyKos (this was estimated by counting donors whose first donation included a certain amount of cents added to the donation -- this was before actblue and other tracking sites made it easy). The book spends part of two chapters on the Howard Dean campaign, with an emphasis on netroots activities in Texas and grassroots activism in Iowa. Obviously, the Dean campaign triggered and was triggered by the explosion in blog activity in early 2003. We document several underreported aspects of that story, including the launch of the Dean Nation blog in early 2002 by two Texas activists and Jerome Armstrong of MyDD. That was the first Howard Dean for President focused blog. We also address tensions between national and state bloggers. Particularly the frustrations of state bloggers trying to get help and support from the national blogs. Our sections on Paul Hackett's campaign in 2005, Jon Tester in 2006, and Ned Lamont's challenge to Joe Lieberman focus pretty heavily on the role of the national blogs. Our overall narrative thread is the way the netroots wave moved across the country from key election to key election from 2002 to 2006. Beginning by giving feeble support to losing and misguided campaigns, launching a series of protest challenges for the Democratic nomination that came very close to winning, supporting outsider candidates like Richard Morrison in 2004, nearly winning a huge upset with Paul Hackett in 2005 and finally winning big with Tim Kaine in 2005 and a huge series of wins in 2006: Webb, Tester, Lamont (in the primary), etc. Obviously we couldn't tell every key story of a very widely distributed movement but we attempted to cover most of the major developments.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 2 Oct 08 08:43
Are there particular stories we might include here that didn't make it into the book? For instance, you don't talk about Deanspace and similar efforts that were not formally connected to the campaigns...
Nate Wilcox (natewilcox) Thu 2 Oct 08 11:48
There are lots of stories that didn't make it into the book, I'll have to scour google.docs to find a good one. Lots of topics -- like DeanSpace or DeanLink (the Howard Dean social networking ap) -- didn't make it into the book but were very interesting. I never even got a chance to write that stuff up before it was excluded though!
Nate Wilcox (natewilcox) Thu 2 Oct 08 12:24
Mentioning DeanSpace does bring up one point I've been making alot in speaking engagements recently. The Dean and Clark campaigns essentially did all the conceptual innovation we've seen to date in Democratic politics. Pretty much everything done by the Obama campaign was done first by Dean or Clark's supporters in 2003. The exceptions are technologies like Google maps and YouTube that didn't exist in 2003/2004. But all the big ideas -- blogs with open comments, goal driven email fundraising tied to web sites with fundraising meters, yahoo/google groups, online advertising, blog swarms, etc. were pioneered in 2003.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 2 Oct 08 12:31
Wow, I'm stunned by that. I would expect innovation to be trickling up from small local campaigns, especialy since this year tools like twitter and facebook have to be factored in. The Dean and Clark campaigns were both bottom up and, in a curious sense, top down too, in that regard. The Top of Ticket contests are sexiest in terms of innovation as well as other aspects of voter attention, I guess. I never would have expected that, but perhaps I am romanticising the creativity of local efforts. Have you seen anything good coming from the little guys?
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 2 Oct 08 14:08
Did you guys see the guy running for legislator in Kansas, I think it was, who raised his funding via PayPal asking for $8.32 from everyone?
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Thu 2 Oct 08 14:45
Yeah, Sharon! That was excellent. Nate and Lowell (and Jon): As folks watch the VP-candidate debate tonight, and paying attention to things afterwards, any special advice to offer us in seeing the role of social media, the blogosphere, new tech, etc. tonight? Also, Nate and Lowell, I'm wondering how things went for you in your visit to the University of Virginia yesterday. What are the students asking you, what do they know about already? (Explain the "young people" to us! :)
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