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Dean Backers Debate Internet 'Echo Chamber'

Web mavens hash over the campaign's failings -- one compares it to the dot-com bubble -- and ponder the future of online democracy.

February 07, 2004|Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writer

The near eclipse of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's presidential campaign is prompting some painful self-examination by a cadre of Internet intellectuals whose early enthusiasm helped attract tens of thousands of volunteers.

The loose-knit group of academics, software writers and online commentators have identified a range of factors responsible for the campaign's stumble, from the actions of Dean himself and former campaign manager Joe Trippi to those of the media establishment.

But some are also blaming their own habitat, what they now describe as an "echo chamber" of Web diaries and Internet message boards that lulled activists into thinking they were winning votes for Dean merely by typing messages to one another.

"We may have been too glued to our monitors to remember that while elections get won by money ... they are also won by people on the ground," John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Internet civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote last week on his personal Web log, or blog.

"We will have to turn off our computers occasionally" to talk to voters in the outside world, he wrote.

The debate's outcome will have major ramifications for the rest of the primary season, the general election in November and future campaigns, participants say. If Internet-based politics just needs fine-tuning, the thought leaders of the virtual world promise to stick around to help figure out how.

"We need to make a careful assessment of what we've learned so far," said Doc Searls, a technology blogger and coauthor of a 2000 bestseller on Web marketing, "The Cluetrain Manifesto." "What's going on here is more like tectonics and geology: It's great shifts taking place underneath everything."

Monday, Searls will join a throng of online mavens at a San Diego conference on "digital democracy" to hash over what went wrong and what can be fixed. Searls and Trippi are scheduled to speak, as are the heads of two Internet outfits that drove Dean's rise from outsider to front-runner. organized face-to-face gatherings of Dean supporters, while the 1.7-million-member activist group lent a staffer to revamp Dean's innovative Web site and blog.

To many of those who plan to attend the conference, Dean's implosion as the leading candidate resembles the dot-com crash in how much money the campaign raised and then squandered.

"Why did people invest so much money in companies with no business plans? They got excited about the ideas," said Dave Winer, a prominent Silicon Valley programmer and blogger now at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

"You're looking at exactly the same thing. People gave money because they were excited about the idea that a candidate might use the Net to communicate with the electorate."

Specific business and political disasters notwithstanding, Winer said the underlying beliefs of the Dean supporters eventually would be borne out -- just like those of the dot-com investors in the 1990s.

"On the dot-com thing, they were right. It was the way of the future," she said.

The Dean campaign attracted many technologists who, like Winer, didn't have long histories as political activists. Though most hoped to see Bush defeated, they said they were drawn in less by Dean the candidate and more by the promise of a new process in campaigning and governing.

Some who considered themselves politically agnostic contributed software, expertise, money and words of praise. That helped Dean rake in an unprecedented amount in small donations. It also resulted in a list of more than 600,000 e-mail addresses and an enthusiastic base of supporters who met each other, wrote letters or even traveled to Iowa to knock on doors in the cold.

Unfortunately for Dean, many supporters didn't get beyond the social connections.

"Barlow is right about the echo chamber," said Winer, who developed software that sent Dean news to thousands of subscribers. "There were a lot of people who thought it was about dating."

Winer added: "Will the Internet bring more people out for elections? Yeah. Do I know how? No. But this is what makes it fun."

With Dean still in the race, most of his semifamous supporters from the Internet aren't talking openly about who they might back next. Asked instead which other candidates are making the most of the Web, they often bring up retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark.

Thus far, the most-followed Net opinion makers have found plenty to blame beside themselves.

Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig, an Internet law expert and Dean advisor who wrote admiringly about Trippi's Internet innovations, said he was stunned by the campaign's heavy spending in Iowa and New Hampshire. Dean, who has failed to score a victory in any of the nine presidential contests thus far, has acknowledged spending nearly all of the $41 million he had raised as of last year.

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