28 May 2007

back on the grid

two weeks away from work, away from anything resembling a computer. didn't even have good phone service on the outer banks, let alone a servicable blackberry.

I managed to see some first-life things like brown pelicans and sandpipers on the shore. a family of deer roaming through the woods. i reacquainted myself with a seabreeze. most importantly, i spent time with my wife on her birthday.

i also managed to read three physically tangible books. thick, heady books that described things like Chinese exploration in the 1400's and the uprising in Delhi in the 1850's. Not an emoticon in sight. i even bought a fourth book - a biography of a pope's daughter in renaissance italy - and maybe i'll get to finish it.

I looked at two newspapers the entire time. one was a throwaway USA today. The other was a WaPo and of course, there on the front page, was David All and a story about republicans playing "catch-up" online. I've met David -- he's a smart guy, a nice guy.

The biggest reason politico's care about blogs -- maybe not the only reason, but right now the biggest reason by far -- is the capacity to raise money online. I don't think people necessarily care that Senator Clinton's campaign website has gotten more unique visits than Senator McCain's has. Even with my obvious political biases, I can't say that dems are having more "success" online because they have better ideas or because R's are unpopular. There's more to it.

All of the candidates have made relationship building with bloggers a priority. I sense that the terms of the relationship are different between D's and R's, however, and there are hints to this in the WaPo piece.

I think sometimes the R's view "the blogs" as a component of the echo chamber, another effective channel to distribute their messaging. The messaging platform is still top-down. That's worked for the R's very well in the past because the messaging has come from essentially a single source or someone recognized as affiliated with that source -- the President or the Administration. Conservative bloggers (not all but probably most) have pretty much seen the President as their leader, and they want to support him. They're inclined to be helpful. They want to give their take on what the administration is saying, but the discussion is led by the source of the message, the leader, and the bloggers assume particular roles in spreading the message. They want to play a role in an overall messaging strategy, but there's an underlying assumption that something orchestrated is going on. No, there isn't a conspiracy, but there are certainly meetings with bloggers where someone representing leadership says "here's how you can be helpful." And the bloggers are glad to do it. As David says in the WaPo piece:
We've always been a party of staying on message," All said. "It's the Rush Limbaugh model. What Tony Snow says in the White House filters down to talk radio, which makes its way to the blogs."

That's because they have a Tony Snow. It's an echo chamber, and he's the voice.

Sometimes this approach works very well and sometimes it doesn't. And it limits you to those who are already inclined to be helpful. It can strengthen your base, but it can't grow it much. The top-tier republican presidential candidates aren't just competing with each other, they're competing with a president who remains omnipresent in the media and politics, despite his low favorability ratings. When the R's have a nominee, he will have a voice, and the echo chamber will make subtle changes, but the model will remain intact. However, as long as the GOP talks only to the same 50 or 100 blogs - the blogs most inclined to be helpful and not critical -- each ping of the online echo chamber will produce diminishing returns. They'll only be talking to each other. That's what we're seeing now with fewer hits on the candidate websites and less cash coming in.

Dems, on the other hand, don't have a recognized leader. They haven't for some time now. The candidates building relationships with bloggers don't have the luxury of telling them what the message is and how they can be most helpful in spreading it. They court bloggers aggressively and give them some input on policy. Bloggers feel some ownership, so they give some money.

The dems' current situation is more suitable for the blogosphere. it allows for more participants and more robust participation and access. with apologies to Senator Clinton, it's less of a lecture and more of a discussion.

Once the dems have a nominee, however, we might see them adopt a model more closely resembling the R's. The leader may want bloggers to fall in line. We'll see if those bloggers will feel comfortable making the switch from being part of the discussion to towing the party line. less ownership of the discussion may lead to less investment from the bloggers.

The answer to this, IMHO, is to extend the discussion beyond the "beltway blogosphere." Each party currently sees the blogosphere as a universe of 50-100 noteworthy sites on each ideological side. There are more than 70 million blogs, and most of the best bloggers are interested in politics but not political bloggers.

The party that draws them into the discussion and makes sure they still can provide input will win the online fundraising race and probably win the election.

In the coming days and weeks, I'll be building up this blog -- adding links and some useful 2.0 tools. I hope to build this into a useful bigthink outlet that someone else might want to read from time to time.

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