This morning Joe Trippi, campaign manager for Howard Dean in 2003/4 and currently senior adviser to John Edwards, spoke at a seminar in the House of Commons about the role of the internet in politics and public life: Politics 2.0.
The event was organised by Bebo whose president, Joanna Shields, spoke first. To give an example of the importance of the internet she referred to the recent Irish elections where 25% of the population are on Bebo. Not surprisingly, Bebo worked closely with Irish political parties at the last election to get their messages out.
Trippi's main theme was that you could look at the evolution of the internet in two ways, as a shift in communication and as a shift in power.
A shift in communication - He said how politicians communicate depends on the nature of the media. With radio the question was "What does it sound like?"; with TV you asked "What does it look like?"; but with the internet the question has become "Is it real?". This shift has massive implications, not least as a challenge to complacency, but Trippi argues that the important thing about the internet is the shift in power that it has initiated.
He referred to the Nixon vs Kennedy presidential debate as an example of the importance of mediums - everyone who heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won, but visually he looked nervous, unshaven and sweaty. He also talked about credibility, recalling how in the presidential race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, horsemen were sent to towns throughout the country screaming either that Jefferson was dead or that Jefferson was still alive. Which side of the story that isolated citizens believed depended on how much credibility the messenger had, based on how personally trusted they were.
A shift in power - In the past power has been top-down, but it is now shifting to the bottom. Individually, people are powerless, but through the internet networks of people who share a common cause can have real power. If you characterise the past as being dominated by "Goliaths" - corporations, politicians and the media - we now have an army of "David's" and the question is what is the sling for these "Davids"? (see the book on this subject written by Glenn Reynolds aka Instapundit). These networks depend on trust. He gave the example of a new film, the film company may spend millions on promotion but if five friends you trust tell you it's a bad film you won't pay to watch it, however much money the film company spends. Equally, if they give it rave reviews you are more likely to make the effort to see it than if you saw a bilboard proclaiming it as the greatest film of the year.
With specific reference to British politics Trippi warned that too many politicians still see the internet only as a way to disseminate information, not to build relationships with individuals and networks. But building these relationships and networks takes time and we should not expect significant changes in the next general election but in the one after that. He also compared the American experience of knowing exactly when the next election will be favourably to the British one of only knowing when it is called relatively shortly before it happens, saying that you needed more time than that to build a significant web presence.
Another interesting insight he had was that grassroots internet donations had effectively ended state funding of presidential candidacies. Bush was the first candidate to reject state funding (he had enough big money), followed by Dean (he had enough small money) and now all candidates for 08 have rejected matching funding so they can spend more than the caps that come with it. America has a much more political and philanthropic culture than Britain, but the prospect of candidates and parties being funded by the many in this way, rather than either the rich few or the state, is very appealing.