Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The Tyranny of E-Mail Subject Lines

December 18, 2012

This blog post was cross-posted on as “Hey”:

That’s right, Hey. As my grandmother used to say, “Hay is for horses”.

A recent businessweek article titled “The Science Behind Those Obama Campaign Emails”, detailed how casual and even profanity-laced subject lines delivered crucial fundraising performance. In the article, Toby Fallsgraff, the campaign’s e-mail director, is quoted as saying “The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people… ‘Hey’ was probably the best one we had over the duration.”

Butchering of the English language began well before Obama campaign email subject lines; our online proclivities for brevity and casualness have seeped into and contaminated virtually everything, watering down our thinking and making clarity a rarity indeed. I have long believed that power is directly derived from purpose. If you have clarity of purpose, you will have power. This is a crucial element in successful online strategy work: you must know your purpose, and pursue it with a focused intensity. The problem is that the casual nature of our online culture can dilute purpose to a drab subject line.

We’re guilty of it at EchoDitto; our email last week had the inspiring subject line “December newsletter”. We all get so much email — better to say something interesting, something valuable, something with purpose and focus. The Obama campaign could resort to casual email subject lines, posing as intimate friends, because of the larger narrative context of the campaign. Every day, every news outlet in the world was focused on the presidential campaign. Many of your friends on social media were focused on the presidential campaign. You were not receiving these “Hey” subject line emails in a vacuum; there was a larger cultural context provided by the presidential campaign.

So what do you do when your cause, your work, your purpose is not embodied in the culture, the way the overpowering, all-encompassing presidential campaign consumed the country and I daresay the world for the last six months? The great challenge of email, from an online strategy point of view, is the tension between test-driven messages designed to boost performance (See Micah White’s clicktivism critique) and the need to give your work a narrative arc, one that inspires and compels your audience to action (See Dave Karpf’s response to Micah) White’s clicktivism critique.

In general, I preach (and worry myself) that we simply don’t spend enough time writing our emails, and thinking about their relationship to each other. Two crucial lessons I learned from Joe Trippi during the Dean campaign:

First, use your email list to break news. It will help the list grow (because people will sign up to get the next round of breaking news you release to the list first) but also communicate to the list that you value the people there, that they are your primary constituency and your first loyalty.

Second, use your email list to tell a story over time. Build a narrative arc to your emails that leads your online community to a moment of action with building intensity and engagement. (“Thus my life draws fuel ineluctably from triumph.” writes the poet Jim Harrison in “27” from “Letters to Yesenin”). Too often the emails I read aren’t building towards anything; they have no “story of us” and are instead one-off emails, written without any larger context: no cultural context, no context even within the prior and future emails we’re sending to the list.

Yes, we have to do it all: write beautiful, compelling emails, in a sequence that builds towards engagement and action like installments in a Dickens novel, with incredible subject lines that bring the campaign to life — while also A/B testing and seeking to maximize performance, keeping the core purpose in mind. The environment of a presidential campaign is highly unusual, and incentives tactics that won’t succeed for most organizations.

P.S. Yesterday is the anniversary of my grandmother’s death a few years back, and her exquisite sense of language and grammar inspired this post.

The Future of Politics, Internet style: A Conversation with Steven Johnson

December 9, 2012

I was invited to join FireDogLake for an online chat with Steven Johnson, a noted author most recently of “Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age“. This post is an edited version of some of the material I posted at

When I first read Eric S. Raymond’s landmark essay on open-source programming, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, I was delighted. Here was a perfect exposition of my experience with programming and the open-source community. You can write code in a Cathedral model – where Bill Gates is the architect and hires thousands of Micro-Serfs to write code that conforms to his blueprints – or you can write code in a Bazaar model, where your work was part of the community, “a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches… out of which a coherent and stable system could… emerge.” I knew which camp I was in: the Bazaar model as embodied in the open-source community was intellectually exciting and full of innovation, even if it didn’t pay as well.

As I became more involved in politics, the ethos of the open-source movement seemed confusingly in conflict with my experience of the Democratic Party. In their book, “Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics“, Jerome Armstrong (of MyDD) and Markos Moulitsas (of DailyKos fame) described the explosive encounter of the netroots with the Democratic Party establishment. But that isn’t the full story – the power of the netroots and the open-source movement stretches much deeper, well beyond mere party power politics. Something else is at work – something that Steven Johnson has surfaced and named in his excellent and insightful book, “Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age“.

One of my great frustrations about the digital age is how poor our language is to explain and understand what is happening in our midst. At the outset of Future Perfect, Johnson offers us a new word to describe an emerging political consciousness: peer progressive. It is an apt term, well-coined. Peer progressives believe in the progress of humanity – that we are on a path of continual improvement, and that the exciting technological innovations of the digital age offer new and compelling ways forward. While embracing a progressive worldview, peer progressives believe in the power of peer-to-peer networks, not institutions. They are “wary of centralized control, but they [are] not free-market libertarians…they [are] equally suspicious of big government and big corporations.” (page xxxvi)

In many ways, “Future Perfect” follows directly from Johnson’s earlier books on the impact of technology on our culture. Here, he describes what it means to be a peer progressive, including provide a historical context that suggests there is a long tradition of the decentralized anti-institutional progressive point of view. He goes on to look at the impact of a peer progressive point of view on our politics, our government, our media, and our corporations. A key framework of the book is the difference between the Legrand Star and the Baran network. The Legrand Star is the French railway plan where all roads lead to Paris, the “star” at the heart of the rail system. Johnson uses “Legrand Star” as vocabulary to describe how the priorities of a large institution can deliver a centralized solution with significant constraints. On the other end, Paul Baran is one of the founders of the digital era. His primary insight about how to harness the power of networks led to packet switching, a technology upon which the entire internet, from email to TCP/IP, is built. A Baran Web has no center, and consequently is enormously flexible in responding to a wide range of challenges. Johnson looks at different examples in the spheres of politics, government, policy, and corporate strategy: is this a Legrand Star solution or a Baran Web solution?

I’m ready to call myself a peer progressive. This grows out of my own experience, of having liberal values about many issues, but not seeing government as the solution to many of our challenges. Part of it is my experience of the open source movement, where complex problems (albeit technical ones) can be solved in an open collaborative way without formal institutions given good leadership and clear process. Johnson has begun the process of integrating a peer progressive point of view into a coherent political agenda that combines liberal social values with a more libertarian attitude about institutions. But remember that institutions includes corporations: an important characteristic of the peer progressive is that “peer progressives genuinely like free markets; they’re more ambivalent about CEOs and multinational corporations.” (p. 29)

I’ll be honest: I have significant reservations about what we might leave behind as we embrace the opportunities of the networked age. (I have written my own book on this subject, which won’t be out for a few months.) Regardless of my own reservations, I am convicted of the moral imperative to peer progressive approaches to our institutions. Johnson notes that “The peer-progressive framework is in its infancy, after all. We don’t yet know its limits.” (p. 208) It is up to us to find those limitations; I suspect we will all be surprised at the resiliency and opportunity that a peer-progressive future might provide. Read this book; our future depends on it.

A few thoughts on the election

December 3, 2012

A few thoughts on the 2012 election cross-posted on as “Small Money, Hard Data, and TV”:

It is going to take some time to understand what happened during the 2012 cycle, and how the Democrats achieved such a decisive victory. To be sure, demographic shifts, a Republican Party weakened by Tea Party insurgents, and an unprecedented field operation from the Obama campaign were all crucial elements. But understanding what lessons may be learned from the actual tactical work of the Obama campaign will take some time to sort out — especially how those lessons might apply to non-profits, advocacy groups, and companies. Two details in particular appear to loom large for us in the aftermath of the election.

First: small money online dominated. Time magazine noted that the Obama campaign raised significantly more money online than in 2008: “In total, according to new campaign calculations acquired exclusively by TIME, the Obama team raised about $690 million digitally in 2012, up from about $500 million in 2008, according to a senior campaign adviser.” $690 million from more than 4.4 million people — that’s an average gift of about $157. According to, about 34% ($214m) of Obama’s fundraising was small dollar donors, whereas about 22% ($71m) of Romney’s fundraising was small dollar donors. Note that a small dollar donor is someone who gave less than $200. In other words, online donors were the silent engine of the Obama campaign. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by secretive Super PACs, the small dollar online donor, giving anywhere from $5 to $150, ended up making a difference.

Second: the demise of traditional television advertising. The Romney campaign and Super PACs supporting Romney spent almost every dime they had on standard political television ads — $492 million, and more than 91% of that spending on negative ads. And yet those ads had very little impact. Sure, they might have been bad ads — certainly the now infamous Jeep ad might have backfired — and sure, the Obama campaign and Super PACs supporting Obama also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on television. But (1) the Obama campaign’s TV ads were highly targeted — a scalpel to the Republican sledgehammer. And (2) that sledgehammer didn’t get the job done: according to the Washington Post, the Romney campaign and Super PACs spent $100 million more than the Obama campaign on television — while the Obama campaign and Super PACs opted to spend money on field and digital in addition to television. Overall, the Obama campaign spent more on advertising – in part because they spent $78.9 million with Bully Pulpit, a digital advertising firm.

The common thread of these two seismic shifts in the campaign landscape — and where rubber hits the road for advocacy groups, non-profits and companies — is the shift of decision-making power away from the old guard that based strategy on “experience” and “best practices” to instead making decisions based on cold, hard data. Team Obama collected an unprecedented amount of data on voters and based their campaign spending on what their models predicted would make the biggest impact on voters. The technological feat that has captured the attention of many was based a far more radical notion: data will beat “expertise.” And on the other side of the coin, Nate Silver outperformed all the talking heads who “knew” who would win and why.

We, of course, welcome our new pocket-protector wearing overlords.

Movement-Building and Email-Sending: a conversation about the MoveOn Effect

August 6, 2012

I was invited to join FireDogLake for an online chat with Dave Karpf, author of The MoveOn Effect. This post is an edited version of some of the material I posted at

My first job out of college in the late 1990s was as the “webmaster” and online organizer for Common Cause. At the time, Common Cause was one of the largest grassroots advocacy groups in Washington, DC and had offices in almost every state capital. It was probably at the height of its power and financial resources and just about every single dollar of its sizable budget was raised via direct mail. My job, as a young nerd, was to build an online advocacy capability that would augment the power of the “armchair activist” Common Cause could tap through phone banking and direct mail. Little did I know at the time that the internet would provide a massive disruption to both the fundraising model and the advocacy model that built Common Cause.

Dave Karpf’s exceptional book, The MoveOn Effect, examines and explains the rise of the Netroots, putting organizations like , the PCCC, DailyKos, and FireDogLake in historical and academic context. There is a rich study of political institutions and organizations that Karpf is able to tap into to better plumb the depths of what we have now, how it is different from what came before, and where we might be heading. Dave not only brings an academic and historical point of view, but he brings an activist point of view. For many years, he’s been a leader in the Sierra Club, serving on their National Board of Directors from 2004 to 2010.

The book is essentially divided into four parts: first, an examination of and more broadly MoveOn’s model and its impact on political advocacy, organizing, and fundraising. He examines in the context of an earlier generation of advocacy organizations, like the Common Cause I experienced just out of college, and the Sierra Club that Karpf was active in as a college student. How did advocacy and political activism work before How did change things?

But and the giant email list is just one part of the Netroots landscape, so Karpf next deftly moves on to look at the role of blogs – and more specifically community blogs – as a new form of political association, one that shares characteristics with the old institutional Democratic Party infrastructure. Along the way, Dave invented something called the Blogosphere Authority Index, an academically rigorous and structurally coherent way of measuring the true community strength of blogs – not just their traffic, but the activity of a blog’s readers, comments, and contributors.

The third major examination of the book is a look at the relationship between online and offline, taking a deep dive into the Meetups of the Howard Dean presidential primary campaign of 2004, and the political meetings that continue to persist long after the campaign ended.

Finally, Dave takes a deep breath and plows into an interesting and compelling argument about why the Republicans don’t have a or an, and why their blog communities don’t carry the same impact of weight as the blog communities of the Left. He argues that the weakness of the Republican Netroots boils down to the fact that they were in charge in the 2000s, holding the White House and (for the most part) one side of the Capital. As the political establishment, they didn’t need technology for leverage and political power – so they didn’t develop it.

I have done his arguments a disservice in trying to quickly sketch them out so as to encourage some discussion; you should buy the book and read it to drink deeply from his compelling arguments, interesting observations, and provocative questions. I have a heavily marked up paper copy (I know, so old school! But the old habits of blue bic pen notes in the margin die hard; see Billy Collins’ poem Marginaliafor a chuckle) that I keep returning to, keeping notes with the ambition of sending Dr. Karpf a detailed missive peppering him with questions, observations, and the occasional complaint.

But coming out of reading his book, I have three main questions, all of which I raised in our online chat and which Dave addressed:

1. One of my concerns about the MoveOn Effect is the extent to which online activism is tethered to what Dave calls “issue salience”. A less charitable characterization of “issue salience” might be “issue opportunism”. MoveOn is able to be nimble, and quick, because it doesn’t have a core issue or group of issues to which it must remain faithful. It’s hard – perhaps impossible – to anticipate the issue topic of the next email. I wonder what the implications for issue salience might be for advocacy and potential ideological drift, as well as issue selection. Dave has aptly explained why traditional political organizations are “unlikely to [have] a smooth transition” to Netroots style activism. What gets lost in this transition from the old organizations to the “postbureaucratic” generation of political organizations? Dave’s response:

I see good news and bad news here. The good news is that most of the leading netroots organizations have taken proactive steps to make sure they don’t spend all their time “headline chasing.” FDL is a good example: in the past 24 hours, FDL has run stories on the aurora shooting and on Mitt Romney’s Bain problems. But it has also run a couple pieces on WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning. That’s because FDL has made a proactive commitment to working on the Bradley Manning issue. I’ve seen similar commitments from PCCC (campaign finance reform) and MoveOn (other 98%). So it isn’t all-headline-chasing, all-the-time. That said, I share your concerns about what gets lost in the disruptive transition from old advocacy groups to new ones. In particular, I think a lot of large-scale, long-term social movement efforts require an investment in infrastructure – trainings programs, field organizers, etc. The direct mail fundraising associated with armchair activism was really good for that kind of infrastructure. It was a reliable base of unrestricted funding that organizations could apply wherever it was needed most. The targeted online fundraising that MoveOn pioneered is better suited for other things. It’s great for raising a bunch of cash quickly to put a commercial on the air. But money raised for a tv commercial is restricted to the purpose of airing the commercial. You can’t simply divert it to field staffers. That’s what I call the loss of a “beneficial inefficiency.” Direct mail was an inefficient tool. Email is more efficient. But the inefficiency supported a public good, and now we don’t know we’re going to support that public good in the future.

2. Micah White, editor of Adbusters magazine, is one of the founders of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. He wrote a compelling “Total Critique of Clicktvisim”where he decries the A/B testing, performance-oriented culture of activism that is part of the MoveOn Effect: “The trouble is that this model of activism uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing. It accepts that the tactics of advertising and market research used to sell toilet paper can also build social movements. This manifests itself in an inordinate faith in the power of metrics to quantify success. Thus, everything digital activists do is meticulously monitored and analysed. The obsession with tracking clicks turns digital activism into clicktivism.” In a sense, White seems to be critiquing the creativity and “soul” of performance-driven professionalized digital activism. While I don’t believe that it is necessarily an either/or question, I do think that successful activism/movement-building has powerful stories and core values that drive participation and ultimately drive change. There is a role for leadership in the digital, distributed age – drive and direction matter. Take 2008 – the Obama presidential campaign sent emails about the state of the country, about real issues like race relations, and about the tactical moves required to defeat McCain. This cycle, in the midst of endorsing gay marriage and changing immigration laws, the campaign is sending emails encouraging people to donate $5 to win dinner with Sarah Jessica Parker and related celebrities. Which is more powerful? I’m going to guess that the “win dinner with someone famous” performed much better in A/B tests, but is that really the kind of presidential politics we want?

I’m glad you mentioned Micah White’s “clicktivism” critique, Nicco. I’ve written a couple of blog posts directly replying to him. I honestly don’t think very highly of his criticism. A/B testing provides a form of passive democratic feedback to netroots organizations. MoveOn can hear the will of their membership far more effectively than, say, the Sierra Club can. That’s an unqualified positive development. I would rather have advocacy groups that can hear from their supporters than ones who basically can’t. Political organizing is equal parts art and science. I do agree that we need to avoid putting too much faith in the metrics. There are plenty of questions that simply aren’t testable, and we don’t want organizers to shy away from the untestable-but-important. That said, this has always been the case. All the critiques of clicktivism apply just as well to the previous era of armchair activism. This is an ontological distinction within the activism world — a difference between activism-as-political-art vs activism-as-political-process. The culture jammers at Adbusters have always been critical of the political-process activists. And I’ve always been a political-process activist. But in that sense, I really don’t see Micah White effectively addressing “clicktivism.” He’s mostly providing the latest version of a very old argument within activist circles, and doing so in a style meant to piss off the maximum number of people!

3. I loved Dave’s examination and description of the MoveOn Effect. I think he has done an excellent job of clearly articulating a major change in our politics. I’m also on board with his Blogging Authority Index and characterization of community blogs as political associations – more excellent work. The final chunk of his argument is the rise of off-line/on-line hybrid activism, which he describes as “neo-federated” organization building. Our ability to translate online activism to offline people power does not have the power and force that I would expect, or that the country needs – as evidenced by the Tea Party. Right now, there are more than 700 active Tea Party Meetups, with each Meetup leader paying $12 a month out of pocket – in most cases paying that monthly fee for over a year, and in many cases for over two years. (The Tea Party’s use of Meetup definitely reinforces Dave’s argument of outparty incentives for tactical innovation.) I would argue that we need to compare apples to apples (or at least apples to oranges, instead of apples to lug nuts): the point of comparison for the neo-federated model should be the local Democratic Party meetings of old, the patronage-heavy party – and we’re simply nowhere near that kind of power. In the MoveOn Effect, Karpf makes a powerful comparison of to the earlier generation of organizations like Common Cause and the Sierra Club. In Political Blogs as Political Associations, he makes an equally powerful comparison of community blogs like DailyKos and FireDogLake to the earlier generation of legacy organizations. But I’m just not sold on the comparison in the neo-federated model. His lead example is compelling – Philly for Change carries more power than the local chapter of the Sierra Club – but I suspect there are many, many more local chapters of the Sierra Club than Democracy for America.

You’re right about this. It’s the reason why I spend part of that chapter discussing the Drudge Report and proto-blogs. I think Democracy for America is a proto-example of what a neo-federated org could look like, just as the Drudge Report was a proto-example of what blogs later looked like. The missing ingredient, I think, is the mobile web. That really didn’t exist in 2004. It is now reaching a point in the its diffusion curve where we can see political and social applications. Tea Party groups (current outparty) have led the way. The mobile web blurs the distinction between online and offline experiences. You no longer have to be tethered to a laptop to be online. I honestly think we’ve only scratched the surface of how civic organizations can use mobile tech to enhance community engagement. I think there’s real promise and real power in neo-federated organizing. And I think it’s still on the horizon. But you’re right, the current examples of the model are really pretty limited.

To all you cynics out there

January 26, 2010

Cynicism is for cowards.

Someone I don’t even know very well recently challenged me to name three leaders who were true to “public service”, suggesting there weren’t any and that “those who might have the ability and resources to “change our world” put their professional and personal agendas before the need of those they might help, and therefore the world is screwed and there is no reason for anyone to think they can make a difference.”

Cynicism is a form of fear.  You’ve got to have personal courage – among other things, the courage to believe that your actions will make a difference, even if you cannot see or measure that difference, even if that difference does not come to fruition in your own lifetime.

But in trying to name some “heroes” of public service, I balked. I don’t like the idea of heroes.  None of us are heroes.  A couple weeks ago I watched on Netflix Streaming a documentary about Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi-hunter, called “I Have Never Forgotten You“. To me, the most intense part was in the last two minutes, when he is very old, in his 90s, and receiving another award, and he starts to cry and he tells the crowd — don’t give me this award. Don’t make me special.  I am not hero.  We all carry this responsibility. And if you make me a hero, and you don’t carry this responsibility as yours but make it a hero’s responsibility — then this will happen again.

We are each called to our own kind of service. I believe this.  We may ignore service to our neighbor, to our fellow men and women, but we are each called to it — it’s part of the human experience, to help each other.  Every society, every culture, every tradition, every history on earth has it.  So if we each carry some responsibility — well, then it’s up to us.

Our culture is obsessed with heroes — not only with heroes, but with celebrity, and the lines are getting very blurry, and that’s bad for everybody.  I really believe that service, public service, needs to be a deep part of our lives — and the only way to get there is to live it, to look for your own public service, your own generosity and your own responsibility.  And for me, public service is tied intimately to the idea of change: we need to change this world we live in, to make it a better place.

Change requires struggle.  We forget this.  Change in this day and age is accomplished primarily by money changing hands; you go from walkman to CDs to iPods to iPhones in just a few short years and all it costs is money.  We elected a president who urged change by entering our credit card number and clicking. At this time last year, we could not help but feel giddy with the change that was upon us – Barack Obama as the President of the United States! Consequently, when epochal change on an issue as fundamental to our very breathing as climate change fails to materialize in the face of what feels like broad global public consensus, it feels like defeat.

I’m amazed to read about artists like Picasso or Thelonious Monk, who managed to imagine an art beyond the present, seeing beyond their contemporaries and the traditions of the past, striving for something new.  Activists for social change do something similar: through an act of imagination, they see a new world, a brighter future, and then struggle to take us there.  But in this day and age it’s easy to leave imagination behind, indulging in the insanity of our media-saturated world obsessed with every incremental step forward, each new version release.

The start of a new year is a good time to amp up the imagination and decide what kind of world we really want to live in. I am reminded of the tenacity of activists of earlier eras, who imagined a world and then struggled to bring it into being – even when the struggle was apparently fruitless for lifetimes.  We all have our heroes, people we look to for inspiration in our movement-building; one of mine is Ammon Hennacy, a self-described Catholic Anarchist. If that description doesn’t pique your curiosity, I don’t know what will.

The networked nature of the modern world offers new opportunities for movement-building – for bringing the imagined brighter future into reality – but at the same time it seems to threaten the act of imagination with the amount of noise it introduces into our lives.  The struggle is to find ourselves, to take personal courage to heart, to seek out stark beauty.  That’s what work is.

My favorite quote for almost twenty years is from an HG Wells novel (from a book, incidentally, that was given to me by 10th grade Geometry teacher — now that’s Public Service!):

But in these plethoric times when there is too much coarse stuff for everybody and the struggle for life takes the form of competitive advertisement and the effort to fill your neighbor’s eye, there is no urgent demand either for personal courage, sound nerves or stark beauty, and we find ourselves by accident.

HG Wells wrote that in 1909 in the novel Tono-Bungay, 100 years ago.  Today I saw a Teddy Roosevelt quote from the same era that could have been written this morning, it so perfectly described our current political dynamic.  My point is that this is our world and it is what we make of it — and people haven’t changed that much. It’s up to each of us. What kind of world do you want to live in? Go make that world.

Go ahead, be cynical and let fear rule your life.  I’ve got (stuff) to do, worlds to change, and it’s fun, so I’ll see you later.

Cross-posted to

Campaign media could be so much more exciting

July 2, 2008

Between my work on NewsJunk and PDF last week, I’ve been mulling over the state of political campaigning and technology. On the Dean campaign, the campaign’s blog – Blog For America – was a critical communications implement. We built a big daily readership and we thought of it like our own cable channel or major newspaper. There was an explicit understanding that it was our media outlet, and that Matt Gross, Zephyr Teachout, and Joe Rospars (among others) were our “reporters on the ground”, covering the campaign – inside the headquarters and out on the road.

Dean desperately needed alternative sources of media. When I joined the campaign, every single news story about the presidential primary started something like: “John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, Joe Leiberman and five other presidential candidates…” Dean never got any press of any kind. But Trippi noticed that the blogs were writing about Dean. There was even an unofficial Dean campaign blog. Now here was a way to get ink, even if it was the virtual, blog kind of ink! Trippi started by posting on the unofficial Dean campaign blog as the campaign manager. And then there was an explicit decision: if the mainstream press isn’t going to write about us, then we’ll cover our campaign ourselves. Our rallying cry became: To the blogs!

Recognizing the power of new media to build our own work-around the “gatekeepers” of the modern political process gave the Dean campaign critical fuel, and the energy of the entire blogosphere was gasoline on the fire of Dean’s growing grassroots momentum. I’ve long thought that the secret sauce of the Dean campaign were the monthly in-person Meetups that Michael Silberman managed, but watching this election unfold I’m realizing that our blog’s end-run around traditional media (with the help of the rest of the blogosphere) was equally important.

All of which leaves me mystified why the campaigns haven’t built their own media operations. And I don’t mean just blogs. Why not a 24-hour newsroom, with anchors and field correspondents and commentators? The technologies needed – and even the distribution – are not expensive any more. You can buy a lot of consecutive time on cable with the kind of budgets we’re seeing this election cycle. Presidential campaigns of either party could attract top talent to create and manage the content. Not to mention the grassroots power of utilizing your supporters to create content.

Feeding NewsJunk over the last few weeks has made me recognize some of the gaps in media coverage – and the opportunities the campaigns are missing. There remains a mysterious and much revered relationship between the political campaigns and the political press corps, but I’m unconvinced that it serves the people well. And in all honesty, I’ve been disappointed by most of the blog coverage and commentary of the election; that’s why on NewsJunk you see mostly mainstream news sources. The blogs seems to mostly repeat items from the mainstream press – not just the news, but the commentary as well.

And it’s not just political news, commentary, and policy debates. Have you ever listened to Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell sportscast one of the Eagles’ football games? It’s fun. Give Al Gore a show on how to go green. Who would host “Deal or No Deal” on Obama’s network?

The great challenge of creating a news organization – or if it’s going to be broader than news, let’s call it a media organization – the great challenge is honesty. Campaigns are famous for spin and obscuring the hard questions. Even on our Dean campaign blog, it was hard to find an accurate and serious accounting for our loss in Iowa the morning after. But the radical transparency and honesty of your own media outlet would say volumes about the kind of President you might make, and the opportunities to set the agenda seem enormous.

I noticed that Linda Douglass, a major television journalist for ABC News, joined the Obama campaign as senior staff. [Full disclosure: EchoDitto does unrelated tech work for Linda’s husband, John Phillips.] It’s time to kill the 30-second spot and instead focus on the exciting opportunities and possibilities of the next generation of Fireside Chats. It’ll be fun. I promise.

My fellowship at Harvard's Institute of Politics

June 17, 2008

Barack Obama is an exceptional candidate – but he would not have defeated an establishment candidate like Hillary Clinton without the help of the internet. The 2008 election cycle has already been a historic milestone for the role the internet is taking in political campaigns, and we have yet to really move into the general election — I’m sure there are some surprises and innovations ahead.

Which is all a prelude to saying how delighted I am to be teaching at Harvard’s Institute of Politics next fall as one of their Resident Fellows. I’m looking forward to a front-row seat on the political cycle with a bunch of smart Harvard students as my co-conspirators. We might even have to get in on the action, and some innovating ourselves. I’m also excited by the prospect of getting to know the other fellows, all of whom are exceptionally accomplished. Of course I’m having some of that “I wouldn’t want to be a part of any club that would have me as a member” syndrome…

Since the press release announcing my appointment is only available as a PDF, I’ve taken the liberty of republishing it in it’s entirety below. And don’t worry — my work at EchoDitto, NewsJunk, and a fistful of other projects like ProxyDemocracy will continue.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Esten Perez JUNE 16, 2008 (617) 496-4009


Cambridge, MA – Harvard University’s Institute of Politics today designated six Resident Fellows to join the Harvard Kennedy School community for the fall semester. Resident Fellows interact with students, participate in the intellectual life of the community and pursue individual studies and writing projects.

“This extraordinary group of Fellows range from one of the preeminent governors in America, to the highest ranking woman in the Central Intelligence Agency, to one of the most respected diplomats in the Muslim world, to America’s foremost expert on internet politics, to a talented presidential media consultant, to a gifted young journalist and television analyst,” IOP Director and former U.S. Representative (R-IA) Jim Leach said.

The following Resident Fellows will join the Institute for the fall semester and lead weekly, not-for-credit study groups on a range of topics:

  • Alex Castellanos, founding partner, National Media, Inc.; served as senior strategist for Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and as a creative member to Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential campaign;
  • Jennifer Donahue, political director, New Hampshire Institute of Politics; on-air political analyst and contributor to broadcast networks during past three New Hampshire presidential primaries;
  • Mary Margaret Graham, former deputy director of national intelligence for collection, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and retired senior CIA officer;
  • Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom (2003-08) and ambassador to the U.S. (1994-97, 1999-2002); a diplomat, journalist and academic, considered one of the most accomplished women professionals in the Muslim world;
  • Nicco Mele, founder and president, “EchoDitto;” former internet operations director, Vermont governor Howard Dean’s presidential campaign;
  • Tom Vilsack, governor of Iowa (1999-2007); former Democratic candidate for President of the United States; former chair, Democratic Governors Association; former executive committee member, National Governors Association; and co- chair of U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

“The Harvard community, particularly undergraduates active in Institute of Politics programming, will benefit from the opportunity to engage with this group of extraordinary leaders who have such vast experience in international as well as domestic politics,” Leach continued.

The Fellows program is central to the Institute’s dual commitment to encourage student interest in public life and to increase interaction between the academic and political communities.

Harvard University’s Institute of Politics (IOP), located at Harvard Kennedy School, was established in 1966 as a memorial to President Kennedy. The IOP’s mission is to unite and engage students, particularly undergraduates, with academics, politicians, activists, and policymakers on a non-partisan basis and to stimulate and nurture their interest in public service and leadership. The Institute strives to promote greater understanding and cooperation between the academic world and the world of politics and public affairs. More information is available online at

June 2, 2008

I’ve been working on a new project with Dave Winer — For the last few months, I’ve been annoyed at how hard it is to follow the political coverage. News pops up in a lot of different places, and having single source to follow what’s happening throughout the day has been an itch that needs scratching. Dave remembers the briefing books we had on the Dean campaign, a fixture of many campaigns. So started as a way to scratch the itch of the political news junkie, and a way to begin to build an open briefing book.

During the 2000 cycle, I worked as the webmaster and technical director of the Shadow Conventions. That’s actually where I first met Dave, through Edit This Then during the 2004 cycle, I worked as the webmaster for Howard Dean. This cycle (2008) after a false start, I’m excited to be working on NewsJunk.

Dave nicely summarizes what you can do on NewsJunk right now:

  1. Refresh the home page periodically.
  2. Subscribe to the RSS feed.
  3. Follow it on Twitter.
  4. Befriend it on FriendFeed.
  5. 5. Watch for developments on the weblog.

A brief interview with Bernard Rapoport

March 4, 2008

Bernard Rapoport, now in his 90s, is a hero and inspiration to me. On the day of the Texas Primary, I called him for a brief interview about politics.

New Hampshire Debate Photos

January 6, 2008

My wife Morra was credentialed for tonight’s ABC/Facebook presidential primary debates in New Hampshire (she’s blogging for,, and I was on a work trip for the last three days and so in an effort to get some quality time with my wife, I tagged along. Given the importance of both debates, credentials were hard to come by, but our friend Adam at Facebook saw fit to let me have one and I was able to accompany my wife as her photographer and tech support. We had a blast, but it’s late and I’m fighting a cold (making me very cranky), so here are some photos from the New Hampshire ABC/Facebook primary debates.