If you only read one thing this Christmas break, make sure it's Erick Erickson's post on rebuilding the party with technology. At the heart of it is an admonition not to confuse blogging with "technology." As Erick writes:
That a person can run a blog, has a Twitter account, edits and posts video to YouTube, has 1000 friends on Facebook, or can install a Joomla/Drupal/WordPress/MovableType/etc. site and customize the CSS does not make that person a technologist.
This is SO true. I've been in more than a few settings where a politician will want to talk to bloggers first about technology, not unlike how people approach Erick for his advice on tech. Yet all the bloggers would want to talk about when it came time for Q&A was politics not technology. Bloggers tend to be more tech savvy than the average, but what really drives them is politics and policy. Blogging is ultimately about good content not technology, just as a strong party has to be about a good message supported by today's technology.
What Erick is talking about is recruiting the people who build the tools, not just the people who use them, however avidly. When Ev Williams started Blogger and then Twitter, he wasn't thinking about how these tools could be used to revolutionize politics. He was just out to build a cool tool -- and opening up politics was just one of many applications of the technology.
The GOP needs geeks and engineers to build the tools. 115,000 people have just been laid off in the technology sector. There needs to be a concerted effort to identify those who are politically libertarian and conservative and get them to work building tools for the movement. I don't have any illusions that the majority of this group are on our side, but if we are better organized it won't matter. Even if we only have a pool of 10,000 to pick from, that's about 100 times better than what we have today.
But as much as we need people who are focused on the pure tech -- and this means more than just skinning the latest Web 2.0 fetish -- we still need better political operatives who will understand a good idea when it comes to them and won't cut the technology off at the pass. This doesn't mean they personally have to do technology, but they need to appreciate all the ways the Internet upends the traditional playbook.
Mark McKinnon, senior strategist for the last three Republican Presidential campaigns, says that the problem with the GOP is people like him. Kill him off, he says. I disagree. Until the OPOs are the senior strategists on campaigns, we'll still need people like McKinnon as allies.
This is a case in point. I have heard from numerous sources that smart voices within the McCain campaign urged the campaign's leadership to announce its Vice Presidential pick online. The idea of it being done by text message was considered -- months before the Obama campaign announced it would do the same thing. Yet, the idea was shot down by senior staff as undignified.
This wasn't just a campaign failing to be more aggressive online. It cost the campaign where it mattered most, in money and volunteers. By not building online buzz for the Palin announcement before it happened, the McCain campaign left a potential doubling of its e-mail list on the table. Obama netted 3 million e-mail addresses off his VP pick. If the enthusiasm gap meant that we only would have gotten 1 to 1.5 million, it still would have been worth it. A million good e-mail addresses is worth tens of millions of dollars at the height of the campaign. This alone would not have made the difference, but good campaigns are about doing all the little things right. And from where we sit right now, Norm Coleman sure could have used some of that extra money and volunteers.
In this case, we did not lack for tech people proposing good ideas. The problem is that the non-tech people didn't want to hear it. And they were the ones in the drivers' seat.
The kind of cautious, old thinking that holds the campaigns (and movements) are the work of a single leader, tens or hundreds of operatives, and thousands passively send in checks needs to be exploded in every way -- before they learn the hard way that small and networked crowds beat big and atomized institutions every time.
Offline leaders need to understand what's at stake. They don't need to know PHP or Rails, but they need to understand that the ethos of the Internet demands openness, and creates an unprecedented opportunity for millions of people to massively participate at the same time. Those people can organize for you, or organize against you, and what they do is largely up to you.
One thing I hear often from offline people is that they don't understand computers/IT/the Internet, and won't I explain it to them? It's actually puzzling to me why anyone would ask me this. The Web is actually more a culture and a mindset than it is a set of technologies -- and it's a culture you're a part of you've used an e-mail chain to spread a viral video or signed up to receive political e-mails. That culture is actually much easier to understand than old media, because there are fewer practical limitations to what can be done and when -- if one fully embraces the new mindset.
The culture of the Web is about communicating freely and openly, without geographic boundaries, and with theoretically infinite impact. More than old media, a message stands on its own merits, without reference to how many points of TV you put behind it. New media does not require one to figure out the hodgepodge of local papers, TV, and radio stations; the niceties of press embargoes; or how a subject will be lit for the big interview. New media means politics without limits, and infinitely scalable campaigns that let anyone directly participate.
An open system like the Internet is actually a lot easier to understand than a closed one with dozens of internal inefficiencies and countless PR flacks whose job it is to game the system. Any smart person can figure this out. But it does require people to unlearn a lot of bad old habits that cause people to build fortresses around their campaigns / groups, lest someone come in and post a bad comment.