Advocacy in the Age of mechanical reproducibility (Reading Assignment 1)

by Yussi Pick

For my Internet Advocacy class (one of two final summer classes in my program) with Alan Rosenblatt, I have to blog about the reading assignments every week. This is a welcoming outside pressure to update the blog more often with Internet stuff I would write about anyways. In words of my friend Erica: “(…) writing about the topics I like to read and write about already?  Not a bad deal.”

For our first assignment (well, technically first and second – hence the length, I apologize for), we had to read the following three introductory texts.

All three of those texts are must-reads for people interested in the intersection of Internet and politics and perfect reads for those who are not very knowledgeable in the field. Hence, of the three, I had already used two in my thesis “Mobile Strategies in Political Campaigns” (which will be posted on this very page very soon) and one (Colin’s piece) I had bookmarked for months now and finally was forced to read it.

In my thesis, I tried to figure out a definition for the classification for 2.0 and what I found was, aside from O’Reilly’s original blog post, Rosenblatt’s Three Dimensions of a Digitally Networked Campaign. While the classification x.0 let’s us describe various stages of the web, his three dimensions lets us describe the changing relationship between sender and receiver. The first dimension is the foundation for every campaign and as important in a connected world as it was in a pre-web world. Obviously there are more channels to do that then there were, when Walter Cronkite announced the way it was, but the mission is the same: A campaign has to push information out. Campaigns got more conscious of the second dimension  with the rise of the Web, but it is not new necessarily: Two way communication, or as Rosenblatt calls it “transactional.” An Audience and a campaign shares information, one might give an email address to a campaign or money or feedback and get something in exchange. What’s new is that this exchange that is triggered by a call-to-action is almost barrier free, one click away.

Finally the third dimension is, I believe, equally the most important and the most overlooked one (and should evoke a “duh – why didn’t I think of that” with every one): People talking with each other. Also nothing the Internet invented. However, what the Internet did is making it easy for strangers talk with each other about a common interest.

While there have been a gazillion articles how the Obama campaign used social media and the Internet to win the election, few talked about this addition: The campaign used social media and the Internet to encourage people to talk to each other to win the election. For example one of the key features of the Obama iPhone App (that wasn’t a big success compared to other channels, but shows how the campaign embraced this third dimension) was that the App connected with the user’s address book, pulled out friends from swing states and encouraged the user to call them and talk to them about Obama. People trust people. People trust people more than people trust candidates or institutions. The Clinton campaign understood “2.0” philosophy: Don’t talk to people, talk with people. The now infamous Clinton announcement video was all about conversation with voters. BUT she never took the extra step to engage voters in engaging with each other.

The only thing I would add to Rosenblatt’s model when I used it for an analysis is the question who the communication was initiated by. I believe there is a huge difference between a second dimension that is top-down initiated versus a second dimension where constituents demand/evoke a reaction by the campaign.

What I especially like about Rosenblatt’s text is that he doesn’t condemn any of the dimensions like so many Web x.0 evangelists do. He emphasizes that every one of the three dimensions is equally important.

Ben Rigby on the other hand uses the 2.0 classification even in his title. What I find particularly worth pointing out is that he is not talking about the web 2.0 but about the generation 2.0. This acknowledges the important fact that the web didn’t change communication, but changed how my generation and those thereafter. I think what is most important in Rigby’s book is the characterizations of this new mindset that he calls 2.0 (parentheses are my explanations):

  • A massively connected world
  • The network effect (the more people use a service, the more valuable it becomes; Wikipedia)
  • Users as cocreators
  • Decentralization
  • Openness (as in open software)
  • Remixability
  • Emergent. (user oriented development)
  • Rich experiences
  • The Web as a platform (rather than brochure webpages)

Other than that it is a very basic introduction to how organizations can use blogs, social networks, video and photo sharing sites, cell phones, wikis, maps and virtual worlds (R.I.P. Second Life) to engage the target audience. In his conclusion he emphasizes the importance of knowing one’s audience and orienting oneself along their needs, not the needs of the organization. He also points out the importance of not getting distracted by the shining blinking exiting newness that is technology: “However, there’s a danger in fixating on the technology alone. If your supporters are highly technical, these applications may offer fertile ground for recruiting, organizing, and engaging them. However, most people, even youth, won’t take the time to download, install, and learn technologies that are not already central to their social lives. Effective campaigns use technologies that are relevant and appropriate to the people they’re intending to influence” (p. 252).

To put the need of the audience over the need of the organization is also an important lesson in Colin Delany’s text:”Never forget that your subscribers are in it for what THEY want, not what YOU want.” As Rigby’s text it is a little bit outdated in regards of the actual tools, but very accurate to describe the mindset an organization has to understand and be in in order to be successful online.

However, he includes an important tool, Rigby leaves out (probably because he doesn’t think it’s 2.0): Email and Email lists. This brings us to an important dilemma.

In 1935 German Philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote a piece called “The work of art in an era of mechanical reproducibility”: Is art still art when can be copied. We have the same dilemma with email campaigns. When everyone can copy/paste a form email, more emails get sent, but because of this simplicity the recipient doesn’t take them that serious. Delany therefore suggest to encourage your activists to edit messages; supplement or replace email actions with phone calls, replace emails with faxes, print the messages out and bring them in by hand.

Concluding, all three are quick reads, if you don’t have the time skip Rigby, not only because the other two are freely available online. Oh, and you should also subscribe to www.epolitics.com, Colin’s Blog.

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