When technology writer and consultant Howard Rheingold wrote Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution in 2001, his notions about the rise of spontaneous groups linked by the Internet and mobile communications were a little tough for many people to understand. Not anymore. Howard Dean's Presidential campaign built upon Rheingold's ideas, using the Net to organize surprisingly large groups of backers -- and get them to contribute millions of dollars.
Still, Rheingold thinks that's just the start of a long battle on the part of activists of all stripes to seize some of the power now wielded by political professionals and large media companies. He recently talked with BusinessWeek Silicon Valley Bureau Chief Robert D. Hof about this topic. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: What's the essential impact of the Internet on politics today?
A: Most people know that you can connect with people with whom you share an interest via the Internet even if you don't know them, even on the other side of the world. The Dean campaign, of course, used Meetup.com, which brought Internet capability to the face-to-face world. You can find people who share your interest in a particular candidate, who live in your neighborhood, and want to get together face-to-face.
That brings the unique capability of the Internet to connect people with shared interests, together with the ability to perform some kind of action in the face-to-face world. It becomes collective action when that group of people decides they're going to put some money into a pot and send it to a candidate, or they're going to do some work for a candidate.
So our standard political activities of organizing to support a candidate and organizing to raise money can be done much faster and cheaper. The Dean campaign was able to use e-commerce engines to raise large amounts of money very rapidly from small contributors. Raising $100 million by getting $1,000 contributions is the way it has been done. If you can raise $100 million by having a million people send in $100, suddenly the game changes. That's got to be a permanent and major change in the political equation.
Q: Does this benefit one party more than another?
A: It's not owned by any particular party. In fact, years ago, the religious right pioneered a lot of the use of technologies like databases to keep track of constituents. I expect this to be used by all parties.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? As long as you play by the rules, I would rather have a large number of people participating than elites -- or what the founders called factions -- controlling it.
Q: Smart mobs involve the combination of the Internet and mobile communications, but so far, in U.S. politics at least, we haven't seen mobile phones play much of a role.
A: The mobile telephone doesn't enter into that at all. Where the mobile telephone is important is when you have something that happens in a widely dispersed area in a limited period of time, such as getting out the vote. You can use it to coordinate volunteers or professionals. You can use it to provide feedback to a fine degree that wasn't possible before.
Q: What other role can smart mobs play in politics?
A: This is even being used in Kenya and Ghana. What was interesting there was that in those places, you have an infrastructure problem and a corruption problem, so the question of whether the votes were corrupted between the remote polling places and the central counting stations was dealt with by observers at the polls with telephones, text messages, sometimes in combination with radio stations.
There's also some effort in the U.S. for people at polling places here to use a combination of the Internet and mobile telephones to report any kind of irregularities that can legally be disputed. So there's a role [for these technologies] in keeping elections honest.
This is not owned by any particular faction. Anyone who wants to make sure that, whatever the rules are, [they're] adhered to now has the ability to deploy a smart mob. You can get your volunteers out in the field and report to a central headquarters, which can then broadcast the information to many people.
Q: Does that guarantee a more democratic result in elections?
A: I don't think you can necessarily draw that conclusion. You know, fascists used mobs. You can fool some of the people some of the time, and all you need to do is fool them at the right time and get them out to act on that. So I wouldn't confuse the democratization of the Internet with necessarily healthy activity for democracy. That would be projecting magical thinking onto the technology.
Q: So what are the benefits to using the Internet in politics?
A: I do think it gives an opportunity for more people to be involved in the process, and that's sort of the idea behind democracy.
A lot of people flocked to Dean because Dean allowed [former campaign manager] Joe Trippi and [campaign Internet director] Zephyr Teachout and the others to deploy these Internet-based tools to enable self-organization. So a campaign that didn't have a lot of money and was not blessed by the Democratic National Committee was able to organize 150,000 meetups.
It takes a lot of money and a lot of organization to do that from the top down. People felt empowered by that. They weren't left out of the process.
Q: Why didn't all this help Dean win the nomination?
A: I don't think that the pros and the volunteers came together effectively on the Dean campaign. Let's say you've got to reach retired steelworkers at the Elks Hall or the African-American church ladies down at the Baptist church. Well, if you could match up appropriate volunteers from their neighborhoods and give them guidelines for how they could persuade those people, you now have a combination of knowing who specifically you need to reach to win this election and the self-organized volunteers in the vicinity.
I think sending a 23-year-old from California to talk to farmers in Iowa isn't going to be that effective. But if you can match your volunteers, who have self-organized at no cost, with the task that needs to be done, I think that could be a powerful combination.
Now, it's difficult to treat volunteers like slaves. Typically, the amateurs get to stuff envelopes and run phone banks. If they're going to self-organize Meetups, contribute millions of dollars, and have a blog in which they're making suggestions, they're going to want to have a bit of a say.
Q: What advice have you offered other candidates aiming to mobilize smart mobs for their campaigns?
A: The pros and the candidate have to agree that they're going to give up some decision-making power to the volunteers. It doesn't mean you're going to let them run amuck. You can give them guidance. You can say, "Look, wear a suit to the church." You got someone whose father was a Teamster, send them to talk to the Teamsters. Don't send a 23-year-old to talk to a 60-year-old. You can give them talking points that are effective ways to persuade people.
If you have to send down orders through a hierarchy, then you have a less responsive organization than one in which you have self-organization out in the field. So there are some inherent advantages to what the Internet and mobile communications afford to people. But those advantages have to be deployed with political savvy, or they will be ineffective. They are not in themselves going to guarantee anything. You can waste that money, as Dean did, and lose.
Q: Blogs have given voice to once-marginal, sometimes extreme views. Is there any danger moderate voices might get drowned out?
A: You got a million or 10 million bloggers out there. A bunch of them are nutcases. A lot of them are at the extreme ends. Many of them are totally uninformed. Some of them are going to be decent journalists. Some of them are going to be better than the pros.
I think there's a Darwinian process when you have a large number of people doing it. If 10 million people are publishing their own opinions instead of sitting slack-jawed in front of the tube, that's got to be healthier for the public sphere. The mass media have disempowered people from the process and made them feel disempowered.
Q: What could make blogging more useful to the masses?
A: What's lacking is grounding in good journalism. It's a learned skill that requires some tutelage by people who understand it. I wish that the people in the news business, instead of fearing the bloggers, would help educate them.
You've got these rumor-mongers out there. Matt Drudge is the paradigm example but certainly not the only one. I think he hurt his credibility, such as it is, with the Kerry intern rumor. The next intern he turns up, I don't think he's going to find a lot of respectable journalists risking their reputations to follow it. So I think there's a kind of marketplace of credibility online.
Misinformation and disinformation and bad information can now travel to more people much faster than ever before. The only hope is that it comes from more channels than ever before.