Friday, August 31, 2007

On Tactical Coordination

Here's an essay that gets into what this is about.

Politics is war by other means. It is an abstract war, fought with ideas on an ever growing multi-dimensional landscape. As the newest addition to that landscape the blogosphere is a dimension whose potential we have barely began to discover.

The explosion of political blogging in the 21st century was born in large part from frustration over the Democratic Party's impotent response to Republican media tactics. Just as Goldwater's loss to LBJ fueled the conservative political revolution, two losing Democratic campaigns are to this day causing waves of change within the Democratic Party.

The first wave came from the 2004 Howard Dean campaign's use of the decentralized blogosphere in order to raise funds and promote activism. It was entirely focused on the race for the White House and used large portal sites to concentrate the message. The second wave came from the greatly enhanced decentralized swarm that was the 2005 Hackett campaign. This race added the dimensions of local targeted blogging and improved coordination between hundreds of small sites thanks to the power of automated content syndication. The ability of these sites to quickly disseminate information and raise money was a sea change that the political establishment has barely begun to grasp intellectually let alone take advantage of.

Large scale political change is usually the child of technological innovation. However, it is not enough to just possess technology, one also has to understand how it sings. In order to fully leverage the political blogosphere one needs to play to the blogosphere's strengths. As Marshall McLuhan said, "the medium is the message" and the blogosphere is a decentralized, grass roots medium. This bodes well for Progressive causes since it is a naturally democratic medium.

While the blogs have been good at countering lies and distortions in traditional media there is still a large disconnect between what is talked about in the blogs and what is actually happening on Capitol Hill. How things work in the world's most powerful sausage factory is still largely the domain of beltway insiders. This creates patterns online that are largely superficial and reactionary. Form over function.

Breaking down the barriers that separate the day to day actions of Representatives and those they represent is the next wave of progressive political activism online. The key is for progressive legislators and progressive interest groups to use the twin technologies of web syndication and the semantic web to extend the legislative battlefield beyond Washington DC. (These are really the same thing. - Chris)

Here are several cases in point:

1) Caucusing the blogosphere

The farm bill is currently working its way through Congress. While this is a topic of much discussion amongst agribusiness around the world, you will hear almost nothing about it on the blogosphere. While progressive Senators are fighting to streamline farm subsidies rural members of Congress are pushing for legislation that addresses the interests of corporate farming.

By having Senate staffers simply document the struggle they make it much easier for bloggers local to the rural members of Congress to put political pressure on the representatives. Normally this information would only be available to lobbyists and connected insiders.

One of the big points in this is that it completely changes the natural of how legislators attempt to influence the blogosphere. The natural tactic of politicians is to initially try to court someone that they see as an influencer, and if that doesn't work chalk them down as another political enemy. The key dynamic is that they try to directly influence things. However, a decentralized force like the blogosphere is not something that you can just move. It is much easier to feed the stream than try to redirect its course.

Bloggers are starving for information. Their key weakness (as well as one of their key strengths) is that it isn't a job for them. They rarely have the time or the connections to talk with movers and shakers. This is why they are so reactionary. They are dependent on steams of information in order to blog. That means that while they are ranting and raving about what's written in their local paper, they are still dependent on it in order to have something to write about. What other's say through their various connections is the pallet in which they paint their picture. Add colors to their pallet, and they will automatically use them. Information is their oxygen.

What votes are happening in the House? How do they put mega farms over family farms? What legislation are we fighting for and why? What are the sticking points? These are all things that as a local blogger writing in a rural district would love to know about.

Rather than trying to hire bloggers, and sending them free copies of your book (although I did love getting a copy of Senator Obama's new book and don't want to discourage the practice), and inviting them to posh fundraising dinners, politicians and beltway activists need to be set up syndication feeds that provide legislative information that on the ground activists can easily use. Legislative aids needs to add to their resumes the job skill of blogger even though on the surface it would never seem like that is what they are doing. Rather than creating public personas they would be documenting their struggles on the Hill in order to be picked up by interested activists through automated tools.

Politicians that are beholden to large corporate interests need to feel the pinch every time they walk into a room full of small family farmers and have to explain votes that ignore their interests. The tactical coordination that I am talking about would do this on a shoe string budget.

2) Leveraging the Semantic Web

The semantic web is all about creating patterns for reuse. An address... an email... a date... a phone number... an event... a blog post. How can we make it easy for tools to automatically reuse that information? How can the event that I've written up in Outlook be made available to my friends through their Google calendar and also be sent to my public events feed so that anyone who's interested can show up? The semantic web makes this possible.

For the last few weeks Senator Brown has been storming around the state of Ohio promoting the Children's Health Insurance Program. I know this because I've read about it online. Every time a newspaper or a blog writes about an event that involves Sherrod Brown (or Jean Schmidt or a bunch of other politicians that I am interested it) I get a handy notice from Google. If I want to spend some extra money I can have LexisNexis tell me every time his name is mentioned in a business journal or TV transcript. But the problem is that I only know about these events after the fact. As a blogger I can't cover the event unless I go out of my way to find out what the Senator's schedule is. That means making contacts with his staff and hounding them for information. It ends up being a royal pain for everyone concerned.

It shouldn't be that way. Thanks to the people involved in the semantic web there are standards that make it easy for tools to import and export events. Every public person that wants to promote what they are doing should have their public calendar available online. Bloggers in the area can then be notified whenever any politician is holding an event within an X miles radius of their location. That way Sherrod Brown’s speech on the importance of health care won't just be condensed to a few sentences by a reporter. They can also be video taped and placed on YouTube . If he has a particularly good day it will quickly bounce around the blogosphere. This will in turn cause reporters to cover the events in more detail since they are now in direct competition with new media. The makes the semantic web a force maximizer as the Senator's voice carries beyond the confines of a specific place and time.

CAVEATS

The rub in all this is that one actually has to want people to know the "people's business." Part of the power that is being a member of Congress is that very few people know what you are actually doing. This makes it easy to promote legislation that helps your friends and campaign contributors.

The cool thing is that while the tools to leverage these technologies are currently very primitive, they are improving every day. As they improve it will be cheaper and cheaper for progressives to feed the semantic web with information that can be reused in ways that we cannot even imagine. Since we are empowering the people it is a force that naturally favors progressives. It is a technology that inherently promotes Progressive change.

CONCLUSION

The hardest thing about any battle is tactical coordination. The key to that coordination is information. An army that knows what is going on in other sections of the battlefield is able to naturally work in concert inflicting more damage at less cost. In my opinion this tactical coordination is the future of the political blogosphere. In reality it is simply a facet of the future of the web as described by its creator. This has been my focus for the last two years. The tools are being created even as we speak, and as we build them progressive change will come.

3 comments:

Jeff said...

Hi, Chris! Congratulations on this new venture. It is a fascinating essay, and I can definitely relate to the limitations and constraints you describe.

b l u e m o s a i c said...

Chris, this is awesome! The discussion potential is limitless, especially around this notion of a "semantic web". Interestingly, this type of thing came up in two different conversations this week...now I have a name for it! I would like to do more reading on the subject and will add it to my google alerts.

Count me in as a regular! (I am Debra on your other blog - my google handle is as listed here).

Chris Baker said...

Hey Jeff and Debra! Thanks for indulging me dumping out the stuff that's been bouncing around in my head over the last few years.