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TRENDS | INNOVATION / GARY CHAPMAN

For Now at Least, the Net Is Not a Political Animal

September 16, 1996|GARY CHAPMAN | Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu

The Internet is frequently touted as a new medium for democracy and civic participation. As federal Judge Stewart Dalzell wrote in declaring the Communications Decency Act unconstitutional in June, "It is no exaggeration to conclude that the Internet has achieved, and continues to achieve, the most participatory marketplace of mass speech that this country--and indeed the world--has yet seen."

But at the peak of a political campaign season, the Internet is pretty quiet about U.S. politics. Whatever constituency exists of "Netizens" (the term describing political activists on the Internet), it seems to be largely impotent.

The big political issues on the Internet this year, such as the CDA and the telecommunications bill, are absent from the presidential campaigns. The once-widespread hope that the Internet would replace managed TV coverage of politics and the "spin" of professional handlers appears dead for now.

There are several reasons for this failure.

First, look at the numbers. People connected to the Internet add up to between 12% and 15% of the total population of the U.S. That means that between 85% and 88% of the population isn't online.

Whereas Internet users are on average wealthier, better educated and, by extrapolation, more likely to vote than nonusers, hard-core Net enthusiasts are also likely to be young people, who vote in smaller numbers than their elders.

Moreover, although there are Web sites for nearly all the presidential candidates, Web sites aren't anywhere near the focus of campaigning that television is. A single TV ad can reach as many voters in one showing as are connected to the Internet, whereas a political Web site has to lure interested--very interested--Web surfers. And so far there is almost no crossover of content from the Web to TV.

Advocates for an Internet political constituency typically argue that Internet users display an emerging "post-partisan" political philosophy that finds the campaigns of 1996 irrelevant, and that therefore there's no reason for them to participate in electoral politics. Of course, that also means there are few reasons for politicians to spend money to try to appeal to them.

"At its young and affluent heart," writes Jon Katz, a columnist for the Netizen pages of HotWired, the Internet version of Wired magazine, "the online community is libertarian, educated, materialistic, worldly, tolerant, rational, technologically equipped, and blissfully disconnected from conventional political organizations like the Republican or Democratic parties, and from narrow labels like liberal or conservative.

"[As] Netizens, our sense of being neglected by the people who would run the country--perhaps right into the ground--isn't merely our paranoid imagination going into overdrive. They really aren't talking to us," Katz continues. "Or about us."

Jon Lebkowsky, also of the Netizen Web site, says, "There's a skepticism that 'presidential politics' is any more than the perpetuation of a system that is losing its viability in much the same way as monarchies have lost viability."

This mind-set of the "digerati" has some serious political shortcomings, as the fight over the Communications Decency Act illustrated. No issue dominated the Internet as thoroughly as the CDA, Sen. J. James Exon's (D-Neb.) attempt to regulate speech in cyberspace. Yet the terabytes of anger and rebellion on the Net did little to prevent the bill's passage by Congress or its signing by President Clinton.

A counter-example is that of the Christian Coalition, which uses e-mail and the Web effectively but which puts most of its energy into grass-roots organizing and electing sympathetic officials. The Christian Coalition has made the Republican Party its home and has been so effective that no politician can ignore its power. The new generation of Netizens has no political home at all and is far from creating one.

Dick Sclove, director of the Loka Institute in Amherst, Mass., and author of the recent book "Democracy and Technology," finds Internet conversation about political issues too amorphous to accomplish effective change.

Most people who have spent time in newsgroups or e-mail listservs know that organizing people via computer is like herding cats. Political themes and messages get lost in the white noise of Net chatter. Everything stays "virtual," including the potential for focused collective action.

In political terms, the Internet is good as a straightforward means of facilitating communication, reaching out to people, storing and distributing documents and developing ideas.

But it's not a substitute for the street-level politics that will probably always be the way we resolve public problems.

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