Through the looking glass: Presidential weblogs

Through the looking glass: Presidential weblogs

: Warning: I’m going to say three contrarian things. But holster that snarkgun until I’m done.

1. In terms of policy and substance, presidential campaign weblogs are not two-way. They are necessarily one-way.

2. In terms of policy and substance, presidential campaign weblogs must be essentially propagandistic.

3. In terms of organization, presidential campaign weblogs and community effectively exploit their participants.

Stop! I said to put down that snarkgun. Gimme a minute, huh?

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of that. In fact, that is how things should be.

But it seems to me that we have been assuming — in a case of accepted wisdom I now don’t fully accept — that presidential campaign weblogs and communities are all about the people gaining control of campaigns. That’s true mostly in an operational sense. But as as I thought about this and as I heard a few anecdoes from campaigns, I came to realize that in matters of policy and substance, this can’t be so; presidential campaigns cannot cede too much control to their weblogs and communities. And here’s why:

If we don’t want candidates to shift with the winds of special interests and the gusts of polls, then we certainly don’t want them to shift with the baby’s breath of blog comments. No, a candidate must stand for something. A candidate must have a plan and principles and experience and ideas. They come to the party with that. I haven’t heard of a case yet where a candidate has changed his stand because of what he read in his weblog or its comments. Of course not. So let’s not go overboard saying that weblogs shift control. The candidate is still in control. Thus, it is one-way. That’s my first thesis.

So now the second: The way the candidate controls the agenda is perhaps changing because weblogs and online community enable candidates to bypass media and speak directly to supporters. But the candidate and the campaign must control that message even in the midst of interactivity, for the interactivity speaks for the candidate and when voters come to the weblog to see what the candidate says, they must, in fact, see what the candidate says (not the minions). This is accomplished in a fascinating — and perhaps new — social structure that passes the party line through the troops, who in turn defend it and keep it pure when trolls invade and try to corrupt it. We’ve all heard how true believers in the Dean community beat down trolls by pledging to contribute more for every trollism. So this is about the collective distributing and confirming and maintaining the orthodoxy of the campaign. It’s propaganda. I said this today to an American at lunch, who was horrified. “Jeff, you’re saying it’s Stalinistic!” I grinned and said, “Well, only for effect.” Then I had coffee with somone raised in Eastern Europe. I went through the same scenario and he only nodded and said, “Of course.” A politician must be propagandistic — a politcian must control the message and spin the spin, whether that’s for media or directly for citizens’ media. That’s my second point.

So now to the third thesis: The way in which the people really do gain some measure of control is in the operation of the campaign. And the Dean campaign has been very smart about using this dynamic to get people to do more things: Hey, people, invent new and wonderful ways to spread the message and elect our man. And they do. Here, the more two-way the process is, the better.

Now, once again, I’m not saying there’s a thing wrong with any of this. It’s how the world should work. But I do think that in some ways, we’ve gone overboard thinking that weblogs and communities are changing the essential nature of the relationship and conversation that is a campaign. They are changing the organization, profoundly. But they can’t change the substance (or if they can, I haven’t seen the evidence of it yet).

That makes weblogs and community in campaigns different from weblogs and community in media (where they are all about two-way conversation and influencers influencing influencers) and marketing (where — once all marketers read Cluetrain — they will realize that listening to your market is more important than marketing to them) and the academe (where this medium creates a perfect channel for discusssion) and even government (where a wise person in office will use these new channels to listen and learn and adapt). A campaign, on the other hand, is still about broadcasting a message to get elected.

: See also Everett Ehrlich’s wonderful piece in the Washington Post last weekend on Dean’s organizational use of weblogs and community. See Jay Rosen on new campaign narratives and on the Dean social experiment. And, of course, see Ed Cone’s opus on the Dean machine.

: UPDATE: Matthew Stinson adds on.

: UPDATE: Ed Cone, the dean of reporters covering this phenom, has a response and he doesn’t eviscerate me.