The Dean Campaign
I’m still working on my story about the Internet side of the Dean campaign for Wired. It is giving me information anxiety. There is too much going on. It is impossible to get a bird’s eye view. This problem is inherent in the nature of the campaign. In September, according to the campaign headquarters, there were more than 1500 events. Reporters called HQ and asked which ones would be good to cover, and the staffers couldn’t really tell them. They weren’t processing all of these events and evaluating them according to some algorithm that would sort them hierarchically. You could easily find an event in your neighborhood, using a Dean tool called “Get Local.” But you couldn’t take a look at a list of all the events, indexed by relevance. These higher order functions have not yet evolved.
I’m used to stories having an innate structure that allows you to start anywhere in the vicinity of the key actors and find your way in. You just follow the trails. When I’m talking to other reporters who are confused as to where to start their research, I always say: start anywhere. (It is too late to explain why this works in more detail, but anybody who has done research will probably know what I mean.) But the Dean campaign is different. Yes, it is centered on a single man – the candidate. But its activities are widely dispersed, control is decentralized, and many of the “happenings,” for lack of a better word, seem to have equal weight. Even the aura of celebrity, which usually moves with the candidate and one or two others, such as a famous spouse or a telegenic campaign manager, is spread out in this campaign. As Mathew Gross told me tonight: “People are going to take time off work to see Zephyr Teachout on her tour! Zephyr Teachout, if you don’t know, is the director of Internet organizing at the Dean campaign. She is taking a restored Airstream around the country in the kind of tour that candidates generally make. And Mathew is probably right about the crowds. Among certain types of Dean supporters, she’s very famous.
So, I’ve naturally decided to do what the campaign itself has done – that is, I’m making the network work for me.
Below is a draft of an idea inspired by Rem Koolhaas’s remarkable pseudo-history of Manhattan called Delirious New York. In his book, Koolhaas pretends that Manhattan was designed according to a theory of the modern city. The imagined manifesto gives Koolhaas a way to sketch a portrait of Manhattan as it actually exists, to take it seriously as manifestation of human creativity. His book is a just-so story, a fabricated history that explicates real forces.
Here, I’ve offered a Retroactive Manifesto of the Dean Campaign. These are the rules that might have been posted on the wall of campaign manager Joe Trippi’s office, if there were such a list of rules. I am looking for examples and counter-examples – confirmation and correction. Are these really the principles that underlay the architecture of the campaign? Are there concrete examples you can suggest? Is something here plainly wrong? Hack away.
(Each of these rules is taken from the work of the writer whose name is parentheses. )
A RETROACTIVE MANIFESTO FOR THE DEAN CAMPAIGN
ALLOW THE ENDS TO CONNECT (David Weinberger)
This is the principle that resulted in the massive Meet-Up momentum, with 128,878 sign-ups as of tonight. What goes on at all the meet-ups? The Dean campaign has only the vaguest idea. “They are allowing the ends to connect without any centralized control from the campaign,” says David. “The goal is not necessarily to have messages flowing up and down. Democracy is supposed to be about people talking with each other about what matters to them and then organizing to get the things they want. If all you have a is a TV set and a ballot box, that’s a shadow of democracy.”
DON’T BUILD THE SYSTEM – GROW IT (Kevin Kelly)
The Internet component of the Dean campaign has no blueprint, if a blueprint is taken to mean a set of plans that specifies the final structure. Instead it offers a constantly evolving layers of tools the provide a medium for network growth, along with a stream of encouragement (cycling in a feedback loop), that serves as a nutrient. As Kelly wrote in 1998: “The network economy favors assembling large organizations from many smaller ones that keep their autonomy within the large. Networks, too, need to be grown, rather than installed. They need to accumulate over time. To grow a large network, one needs to start with a small network that works, then add more sophisticated nodes and levels to it. Every successful large system was once a successful small system.”
SWARM AND SELF-ORGANIZE (Steven Johnson)
“The needs of most progressive movements are uniquely suited to adaptive, self-organizing systems: both have a keen ear for collective wisdom; both are friendly to change. For any movmeent that aims to be truly global in scope, making it almost impossible to rely on centralize dpower, adaptive self-organization may well be the only road available.” (From Emergence, 2001)
When I talked to Steven on the phone about the Dean campaign he was admiring but critical. Here’s part of what he said: “The Dean campaign is using lost of tools – they have a swarm like, ant-like structure. But there’s something missing. All of these tools are about organizing people and organizing their money. Finding people and putting them together to support a candidate. What they haven’t experimented with is how this could be used to generate ideas, to create emergent political values rather than just to organize support. Can you do grassroots organization of the message? Can you think of your ants not as thousands of people knocking on doors and stuffing envelopes but generating messages, and then creating a system to see which ones rise to the top?
A campaign platform is the perfect place for Wiki style document creation. A set of filters could be used to see which contributions rise to the top. Say, the 100 posters to the blog with the most karma drop the first draft of the document and then people can post changes to it. I don’t know if you’d just want to go ahead and publish something like that, but it is at least a great brainstorming method, better than just sitting down with your high priced political consultants and figuring out what’s going to sell in Iowa.”
UNTETHER (Howard Rheingold)
By permitting the action to drift away from the desktops at headquarters, the Dean campaign has taken advantage peer-production methods and open source models. Groups of supporters and volunteer workers are building tools that raise the value of the network. “Collective action does not just take place behind a desk,” says Howard. “It gets to you where you are in real time.”
YOU’RE NOT A LEADER – YOU’RE A PLACE (Joi Ito)
For people who support the Dean campaign, Dean himself is only part of the story – and sometimes a rather minor part. The larger part is the community itself.
I asked Joi Ito today to tell me what he thought was the difference between an emergent and a political opportunist. Both respond to the emerging direction of the crowd. Both become the public face of a movement. What is the difference?
Joi said: In an online community, “you can’t really jump on or rally support with force. You’re not a “leader.” You’re a place. You’re like a park or a garden. If it’s comfortable and cool, people are attracted. Deanspace is really about that. He represents a place for people to hang out. For instance, the NAN (Net advisory Net) of Dean, some of us don’t even agree necessarily with his politics but we are his advisors because it’s a great experiment and we’re meeting cool people doing cool things. It’s not really about Dean. It’s about us. The good thing is that Dean listens. The key to leadership here is listening. The good thing about emergent systems is that you can hear what they are saying even though they involve millions of moving parts.”
MAKE THE NETWORK STUPID (David Isenberg)
The Dean campaign is a network rather than an army – and that’s its strength. But it’s also a stupid network, and that’s its other strength. “Stupid” is used in the technical sense defined by David S. Isenberg in his classic telephony paper, “The Rise of the Stupid Network.” In this paper Isenberg advanced the principle that under conditions of uncertainty a network should not be optimized for some limited set of uses presumed to be definitive. Instead, the network should be as simple as possible, with advanced functionality (and intelligence) moved out to the ends of the network – to the users.
“Whatever we discover to be the new Stupid Network value proposition, my working hypothesis is that it will be based on intelligent end user devices, intelligent customers, employees whose intelligence is valued as a corporate asset, and companies that can learn.” (The Rise of the Stupid Network, 1997.)
I got Isenberg on the phone today and talked to him about the Dean campaign as an implementation of a stupid network. Here’s a little of what he said:
“I’m struck by how different that is from the Karl Rove point of view, where reporters are directed to cover the four or five stories they’ve selected – go to the aircraft carrier, set up the cameras right here so Bush’s face looks like another bust on Mount Rushmore, or whatever. For the first time in the information age we have tools appropriate for a real grass roots, bottom up campaign.”
“In the old telephone company, central planning was needed before the network could grow. You had to manage the scaling from the top down. This worked as long as growth was predictable. But the Internet was not predicted. It grew from the bottom, from interpersonal agreements among sysadmins at the edges, from a collection of networks, including small ISPs that were basically modem farms in somebody’s garage. Having a network without a strong center allows massive scalability without central planning.”
“If you have a Karl Rove, you know exactly where events will happen, who has to be there. But if you are a Howard Dean, and you are willing to let things happen from the bottom up, you can scale without doing all that planning.”
STILL COMING (I HOPE): CLAY SHIRKY AND OTHERS