Is Social Software Bad for Campaigns?

In the short essay Many-to-Many: Is Social Software Bad for the Dean Campaign? Internet pundit Clay Shirky dares to ask the provocative question of whether the Dean campaign’s reliance on social software tools has created a great sound and fury that doesn’t actually deliver results at the polls.

While it may still be a _wee_ bit early to write the post-mortem on the Dean campaign (‘ja think?), Shirky is right to question the assumption that online action equals real-world activism.

The Dean campaign has brilliantly conveyed a message to its supporters, particularly its young ones, that their energy and enthusiasm can change the world. Some of this was by design, but much of it was a function of people looking for something, finding it in Dean, and then using tools like MeetUp and weblogs to organize themselves. The story of the bottom-up and edge-in style adopted by Dean’s staff has been told a thousand times, and it’s a good one.

But what if this style has also created a sense of entitlement or even inevitability about the change, and a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes from participation in the effort, but hasn’t created a sense of urgency or threat? What if Dean supporters believe that believing is enough, and what if the Dean campaign’s brilliant use of tools to gather the like-minded both online and off fed that feeling?

Voting, the heart of the matter, is both dull and depressing. Standing around an elementary school cafeteria is not a great place to feel like your energy and excitement is going to change the world, and unlike getting together with like-minded Deaniacs, where affirmation can be the order of the day, the math of the voting booth undermines any sense of inevitability – everyone in line not voting for Dean cancels your vote.

Interesting… now here’s the punchline:

The Dean campaign used [online tools] organically, while everyone else is playing catchup. And many of us… thought that the inorganic adoption of social tools by Kerry, Clark, et al left them at a disadvantage….

Maybe the adoption of those tools by a traditional campaign is a better way to fuse of 21st century organizing and 19th century “Get out the Vote” efforts. This would be especially true if these tools, used on their own, risk creating a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that doesn’t translate to driving down to the polls in freezing weather.

I think that the Dean campaign is actually much more based in traditional grassroots organizing techniques than Shirky gives them credit for, but this is the key question that all Internet-centric organizers must ask themselves. How to _fuse_ new tools with traditional campaign strategies? Unfortunately, Shirky doesn’t explore this idea much further.

Adam Greenberg followed up with this insightful comment in another key reason that Dean may have failed in Iowa:

It wasn’t people’s neighbors ringing their doorbell and asking them to vote Dean. It wasn’t people who resembled the potential voters in broad demographic or psychographic outline. It was a cadre of out-of-staters who went so far as to visibly brand themselves out-of-staters with the orange hats – dumb, dumb move.

Nobody likes to be told how to think, least of all by self-appointed, parachuted-in vanguardists. Where the Dean Internet campaign “didn’t scale,” I tend to think it was in the opposite sense than the one in which we generally use this phrase. It scaled up just fine, which is what fooled all of us (and much of the national media). *It simply didn’t scale down*, to neighborhoods and districts and precincts and wards, where it might have motivated people if it had ever once touched a chord of commonality or shared experience.

This is a key point I’ve been hammering over and over again — Internet campaign tools are great for creating a national media/political pundit buzz (are you listening, MoveOn?) but they have yet to really prove their ability to deliver small scale results at the local level.

For some good insight into the lessons real-world organizers _should_ learn from the Dean campaign, I highly recommend checking out Katrin Verclas’ series over on the Summit Collaborative Blog.

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