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Politics, Blogs, and Time Magazine

PoliticsThe InternetOk, so my last post was a bit hard on bloggers. To even it out, I’ll go with something that takes it out on the politicos and their “outreach” toward the online community. Time Magazine covers the role of the “Internet Specialist” within the offices of elected officials.

As somebody who has been doing the online thing since Andreesson released the browser, I found the article really amusing. What it told me is the powers that be don’t get it, they don’t really care to get it, and they’ll hire some kid who does get it to try and make it look like they do get it.

From my experience in online politics, that’s just about accurate.

On the campaign, we were largely left to our own devices. We created the content that we wanted. Showed it to everyone when it was ready to go, they occasionally made minor changes, and we pushed it out the door.

All of that changed after the election. Much of the post-election buzz was about the role of the Internet and blogs specifically, how well the Bush campaign had done organizing online, how well Kerry/Dean had done raising money online, etc., etc. Suddenly everyone in the building had opinions on what we should do, and everyone had to be included in the approval process.

To his credit, Ken Mehlman really gets this stuff. He and I had conversations about the “MyGOP” concept, viral fundraising, party branded XMPP chat applications that featured RSS aggregation and much, much more. Unfortunately, these things make those who don’t get it very nervous so I ran into trouble with just about everyone else.

The biggest problem those “Internet Specialists” face. You have two or three generations of political operatives ahead of you, many in their 40s, 50s, 60s, or (in the case of candidates) 70s. They understand direct mail. They went to work for a direct mail house out of college and that’s their perspective. It’s simple. You label it and drop it in a box.

They understand telemarketing. You pay a guy to make a call and ask for money or a vote. That’s easy.

They understand TV, and how to craft a broad message.

They even understand databases to some extent. That’s where we keep all the data on voters – how they vote, how they’re likely to behave based on the scotch they drink. Ok, we get it.

Try to have a discussion about targeted online ad buys versus run of site buys and they can keep up for a bit.

Explain why you need more staff to monitor blogs, create MySpace/Friendster (a dated reference, but bear with me) profiles for your candidate, and they see no value.

Start talking to them about geographic information systems and why you need to ask for more than e-mail address and zip code when someone signs up, and they get a far away stare.

Engage them in a discussion on the relative merits of a .Net versus open source platform, and they tilt their head like a confused dog.

Explain to them that people don’t go online to watch video that looks like Meet the Press, but instead prefer the grainy homemade quality of videos on YouTube, and they shake their head. “But, But… It should look like a commercial. It should look like a TV news show…”

Talk to them about new technologies that let you buy ads in online games so the billboard you race past will display your campaign logo, and you have lost them completely.

We’re really at a nascent state in online politics. Those who came to power through their skills in other media – mail, phones, television – understand that there is a new tool. They understand that they need to pay attention to it, but they don’t speak the language, and they don’t relate to those that use the tools. I firmly believe that the people who will run politics for the next 20 years are those that understand the convergence of media, and how to effectively blanket coverage online. With more and more people ignoring mail, turning off the TV, and hanging up on telemarketers, the savvy “Internet Specialist” will be the next generation of political power broker.

Now, I’m 36, and realize I am rapidly becoming a relic in the world of online politics. But I know there is a wave of very talented people coming up behind me that will do things that make your head spin. My deputy at the RNC – Mindy Finn – will, in the next ten years, do some amazing work. She has done a great job with Santorum, but will really shine when someone gives her the budget and spotlight of a Presidential campaign.

My hope is that those who fought for the last 20 years to bring politics online will pave the way for those “Internet Specialists” to bring about the change in politics that we know is possible.

Written by Michael Turk