Not quite, Times

The Times — like many people in power — seems to have trouble grasping the full impact of the internet handing control over to the people. They have real trouble turning their personal prisms around to look at the world from the bottom up instead of their usual top down. Or to put it another way, they can’t figure out anymore who’s the dog, who’s the tail, and who’s wagging whom.

Today’s quaintly late story about the internet changing politics is exhibit A; another story that’s just shocked at big things not coming from big corporations is exhibit B; and throw in there the story about the shrinking digital divide, which I wrote about below, and the paper’s amazement that the internet is growing on its own.

The problem is that they still think the internet is something the powerful use to affect the rest of us. Wrong. It’s what the rest of us use to affect the powerful.

See this, the second graph, from Adam Nagourney’s political story:

Democrats and Republicans are sharply increasing their use of e-mail, interactive Web sites, candidate and party blogs, and text-messaging to raise money, organize get-out-the-vote efforts and assemble crowds for a rallies. The Internet, they said, appears to be far more efficient, and less costly, than the traditional tools of politics, notably door knocking and telephone banks.

Note how he portrays the internet: as a tool for politicians in power. But way lower down in the story, there’s this anectode — which is the real lead — about people who won’t be used and now wield power of their own:

On the left in particular, bloggers have emerged as something of a police force guarding against disloyalty among Democrats, as Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic consultant, learned after he told The Washington Post that bloggers and online donors “are not representative of the majority you need to win elections.”

A Daily Kos blogger wrote: “Not one dime, ladies and gentlemen, to anything connected with Steve Elmendorf. Anyone stupid enough to actually give a quote like that deserves to have every single one of his funding sources dry up.”

That’s the real story, Times, and it’s only just beginning: Politics are changing not because those in power are learning to use these tools but because the people finally have these tools.

Now shift to the business story, in which Richard Siklos simply can’t compute the idea that people create things on their own because they can and want to and not because they’re hired to. He can’t comprehend the scale — the small is the new big — of bottom-up business.

There is another breed of rival lurking online for traditional media, and it is perhaps the most vexing yet: call it purpose-driven media, with a shout-out to Rick Warren, the author of “A Purpose-Driven Life,” for borrowing his catchphrase.

These are new-media ventures that leave the competition scratching their heads because they don’t really aim to compete in the first place; their creators are merely taking advantage of the economics of the online medium to do something that they feel good about. They would certainly like to cover their costs and maybe make a buck or two, but really, they’re not in it for the money. By purely commercial measures, they are illogical. If your name were, say, Rupert or Sumner, they would represent the kind of terror that might keep you up at night: death by smiley face.

Probably the best-known practitioner is, the online listing site….

But this isn’t just do-goooder business. It is, instead, the realization that the politicians never owned politics and the businesses never owned the market and journalists never owned the news. The people do. And that’s damned hard for some to get their heads around. It’s especially hard for the the politicians, the reporters, the moguls — the powerful.

: LATER: Eric Norlin responds with a smart analysis. I think he’s right on all points. And he makes a point I meant to: that the reason to be cheap is to grow your network as fast and large as possible and good things will come of that. Google was free and became huge. Craigslist ditto. Eric says:

If you look at the crop of startups, you'll see two common themes: filtering and aggregation. "Value lies at the aggregation point." - I forget who said it, but it rings in my head daily. Newspapers' value lies in aggregating readers for advertisers (not in some high-horsed journalistic elite). Google's value lies in aggregating viewers. Conferences aggregate audiences. MySpace aggregates teens. Facebook aggregates college students. O'Reilly aggregates developers. Aggregation is where the value lies. As Seth Godin said recently -- its not that the power of "mass" has lost its value, its that its much harder to find mass. Filtering: Pure "news" (items being pulled off the AP wire) are along the same lines as stock prices, they're commodities. But filtering, perspective, a trusted voice -- that brings tremendous value. And people flock to the filters that appeal to them. Podshow filters. Newsvine provides community filtering. Digg filters. Memerandum filters. Hell, Rush Limbaugh filters. And the *filtering* layers value onto the aggregation. The world of new media keeps focusing on "who's producing the content" -- journalists or bloggers, users or professionals, etc -- but its not about "content," its about filtering and aggregation. Therein lies the current keys to value (not that that won't change).

  • Very interesting article…I think there is a definite balance between the power of media and the power of the people…and I would agree with you that the balance does lean more towards the people…but it’s balanced towards COLLECTIVE PEOPLE, which is different that just individuals.

    We talk about the power of Mass Media, we probably should talk about the power of Mass People.

    –RC of

  • If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read Steve Hall’s thoughtful (yes, he’s capable of that) comments about the cleansing of MySpace to pave the way for advertising. It’ll kill MySpace, he predicts. It may have already done so.

    Great stuff, as usual, Jeff.

  • Jeff:
    good analysis…”the internet is a tool the rest of us use to affect the powerful”. I made a similar point just yesterday on Ann Althouse’s blog in response to her post on KOS who btw does not get it yet.

    KOS is with the NYT and thinks the left libs will wield the internet to advance their cause but the tables have now been turned on the powerful.


  • Terrific insights.

    This really is starting to look like a major transformation in the making. But, as if it wasn’t enough that politics, business, and the media were being reinvented, there are even faster transformations afoot: Steve Rubel pointed out this week that the blogosphere is just one part of an exploding online universe that includes, among other things, the social networks. was unknown to me two weeks ago – now it appears to have the 7th(?) highest page views on the internet, with a valuation several times that of Myspace. This stuff is coming out of nowhere! And it is only since last week that Technorati is starting to index Myspace, so we haven’t even begun to see how the gravitional pull of these giants will affect things.

  • Eric
  • qcontent

    THAT WHICH unfortunately DOES NOT CHANGE—

    Some things the ‘few’ (in power) will always have and exercise that the ‘many’ (not in power) do not have, nor do they understand how to defend themselves against are these propaganda strategies and techniques:

    “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders–tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.” –Herman Goering– (Reichsmarschall, Marshal of the German Empire)

    “The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth becomes the greatest enemy of the state.” –Dr. Joseph Goebbels– (Nazi Propaganda Minister)

    “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly–it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” –Dr. Joseph Goebbels– (Nazi Propaganda Minister)

    “The great masses of people will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one.” –Adolph Hitler—

    “What luck for the rulers that people do not think.” –Adolph Hitler—

  • PSGInfinity


    What Leftists like Hitler assumed was that they’d control the keys to the doors of information. That’s PRECISELY what’s being wrestled away from them. And they’re afraid. Very afraid. As they should be.

  • jake

    Just a couple of years ago journalists were expending a lot of energy pumping the “too few media companies control too much distribution” line. Never mind that the largest radio network never had more than 11% of the market or that YouTube was already funded and building out its platform.

    Of course the more thoughtful media folks (hi Jeff!) pretty much knew that the tide had already turned and the danger for the traditional media model was coming from below. Funny how quaint the “Murdoch is taking over the world” arguement sounds today!

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  • qcontent


    Take a close look around, today, the GOP, Rove, and Bush operate by the same rules Hilter and Goebbels did. Their power base, the right wing religious fundamentalists allow them to get away with it. While the USA and the rest of the world pay the price. To date, the power of the people or the internet, have not been able to overcome the power of their GOP propaganda (my core argument). We will see what happens, but so far Rove does not seem overly afraid, nor does he show signs of less lying, or less abuse his power.

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  • Jeff, you say,

    “The problem is that they still think the internet is something the powerful use to affect the rest of us. Wrong. It’s what the rest of us use to affect the powerful.

    I’d say it’s both.

    The bottom-up (or as I prefer to say, edge-in) activities are clearly changing the rules of engagement for the powerful, and we can all be thankful for that. But the same tools that let us have this new impact are available to — and are being used by — the powerful, too.

    No, they can’t control the message as they once thought (and mostly succeeded). They can, however, help steer the conversation in directions they prefer, and can certainly do a better job dealing with their various constituencies.

    In this new world, transparency becomes a vastly more important facet of the “messaging,” if you want to call it that. Why? Because deception can be punished with viral, web-like efficiency when detected.

    But to think that the rich and powerful won’t find (and aren’t already finding) ways to put the conversational tools to work is a mistake. They may be slow on the uptake, but at least some of them will surprise us with their adaptability.

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  • At least the Times site has videos :)

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  • “That’s the real story, Times, and it’s only just beginning: Politics are changing not because those in power are learning to use these tools but because the people finally have these tools.”
    Nicely said. The internet is the ultimate tool for grassroots political action and sharing of information. The genie is out of the bag and governments around the world desperately wish to “control” the internet. Exhibit A = China. The NYT is a dinosaur and they don’t even realize it. After the Judith Miller fiasco, I really am not sad to see them go.