By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
NEW YORK -- Exactly how much will it matter, all this online activity among the presidential hopefuls?
There are Sen. Barack Obama's Facebook groups. Rep. Ron Paul's MySpace friends. And John Edwards's Twittering. (That is, he's telling supporters, via text-messaging, what he's doing at any given moment.)
"The holy grail of online politics is converting online enthusiasm to offline results," says veteran journalist Micah L. Sifry, as he sits in his colleague Andrew Rasiej's spacious SoHo kitchen.
Rasiej and Sifry are founders of TechPresident.com, a one-stop site for anyone trying to make sense of the Internet's influence on 2008 presidential politics.
It's a diverse, bipartisan group blog written, read and dissected by the who's who of the growing online political digerati -- made up of academics and young political operatives reared on the Internet, all Web-savvy enough to know the difference between MySpace and Facebook. (MySpace is like Los Angeles: chaotic, a tad bawdy, a maze of overlapping freeways. Facebook is akin to official, buttoned-up Washington: cliquish, orderly, business-card ready.)
And TechPresident is like the Census Bureau, tracking the number of YouTube views, MySpace friends and Facebook supporters of each candidate. But, more important, it tries to put them in context -- what the numbers could mean for campaigns and voters.
Typical postings on TechPresident: "Rudy Giuliani's been pretty late to the online video game, and he's been reluctant to use the Web for anything that smells of voter engagement."
"Hillary announces her campaign is a conversation. But her site looks like a re-direct from www.RiskAvoidance.com. It's the site of a front-runner thinking the goal is hers if she just doesn't make any mistakes."
Sure, the Internet played a key role in Howard Dean's insurgent campaign in 2003, but Facebook, MySpace, et al., weren't factors then. YouTube wasn't born yet. Indeed it's a sign of these hyperkinetic times that a site that's merely eight months old -- and draws no more than a few thousand page views a week -- has already found its niche.
Last month, TechPresident won the $10,000 top prize at this year's Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism. "The site not only reports on, but encourages, citizens to participate more directly in the political process," the judges noted. It was recently named one of PC Magazine's Top 100 undiscovered sites.
"It bridges the gap between technology and politics as effectively as any site I've ever seen," says Peter Daou, who authored the popular Daou Report, a comprehensive snapshot of the blue and red political blogosphere, before joining Sen. Hillary Clinton's team as Internet director.
Adds Robert Bluey of the Heritage Foundation, where he's tasked to reach out to the conservative blogosphere: "There's really no one else doing what TechPresident is doing, and doing it as consistently."
Rasiej and Sifry are an interesting pairing. A reporter and editor at the Nation for 13 years, Sifry, 45, has co-written books about campaign finance and the Middle East. Rasiej comes from real estate and the tech business. The 49-year-old was the big honcho at the Digital Club Network, now a part of eMusic, which created the largest live music archive online.
In 2001, Rasiej gave a presentation to the Senate's Democratic caucus urging lawmakers to pay attention to the Internet's inevitable role in politics. "In my mind no one articulated this issue better than Andrew," says former Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, who arranged the presentation.
Sifry had been vocal about the Web's role, too. After President Bush's reelection in 2004, Sifry penned an article in the Nation that got some quarters in the blogosphere buzzing. "Whether you're a Democrat in mourning or a Republican in glee, the results from election day should not obscure an important shift in America's civic life," Sifry wrote. "New tools and practices born on the Internet have reached critical mass, enabling ordinary people to participate in processes that used to be closed to them." It was that year when Rasiej, with Sifry's aid, launched PersonalDemocracy.com, an older brother of TechPresident that focuses on more than just the Web. It's looking at technology's effect on politics writ large.
"I just knew that the same changes we've seen happening, in entertainment, on television, in newspapers, was going to hit the political arena just as hard. That's why I called it 'Personal Democracy Forum': a personalization of one's own relationship to politics," Rasiej says.
Though both Rasiej and Sifry are registered Democrats -- Rasiej has written checks to Democratic candidates -- what distinguishes TechPresident in an often ugly, rowdy partisan Web is its bipartisanship. Bloggers include Patrick Ruffini, David All and Mike Turk, the Young Turks of the Republican guard. And their Democratic counterparts include Zack Exley, Spencer Overton and Philip de Vellis, a.k.a. ParkRidge47 -- the YouTuber who created the now infamous mash-up of the 1984 Apple commercial that likens Hillary Clinton to Big Brother. The site has a full-time staff of four and virtual offices, though the group does meet weekly in Rasiej's kitchen.
To Rasiej and Sifry, the Internet is allowing a flood of outsiders -- those living beyond the Beltway -- into the political process. And a lot more could take part, they say, if candidates spoke more about the nation's relatively unaddressed digital divide. "Yes, they're all using the Web to attract supporters," Rasiej says, "but they're not really talking about the fact that a lot of Americans aren't online, either because high-speed Internet access is too expensive or they can't get it where they are."
For months now, there's been a disconnect between the campaign that's being waged offline and the one fought online. And the digital divide is only one part of that gulf. Political support and political fundraising don't match up on the Web either.
Obama has outpaced all the candidates on Web fundraising; nearly a third of his $32 million haul in the second quarter came over the Internet. Yet Clinton continues to top the national Democratic polls. Online, Paul continues to squash the GOP field, leading former mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain and former governor Mitt Romney in the number of YouTube views, MySpace friends and Facebook supporters. Yet, like Obama with the Democrats, Paul is nowhere near the top of the national Republican polls.
"Here's the thing," Rasiej says. "The political establishment is waiting for proof to be handed to them that, 'Look, the Internet elected somebody!' But that's a completely ridiculous way of looking at it. Fact is, the political establishment is using the Internet to keep track of politics. The Internet has become the ringmaster, the pace setter, for the campaigns."
The answer to whether it will truly be anything more is waiting at the voting booths.