Mother Jones reporter Josh Harkinson interviewed Armstrong by phone on April 4th, 2007
Mother Jones: What do you think of the term “open-source politics”?
Jerome Armstrong: “Open source” refers to the code. What Web 2.0 means to me is integration. It’s letting content flow across as many different channels as possible. Ownership is not the question; it’s a matter of reach. How do you get your content out there to reach as many people as possible? That’s what the essence of Web 2.0 is.
MJ: So it is just a way to amplify certain content?
JA: It amplifies it sometimes; sometimes it falls flat. Sometimes you put on YouTube and nobody watches it. I look at it like outreach. It’s good to compare where we were in 2003 and where we are now. In 2003, at this point in time Howard Dean was just coming out into the scene and was sort of breaking out into the blogosphere and it really was the same time the blogosphere was coming of age. So you had this unique moment where the Dean campaign was embracing the Internet at the same time that activists were getting their feet on the ground and they had something compelling that was happening in the blogosphere. Well, that’s never going to happen again.
MJ: Web strategy seems to have changed a lot from the Dean model where the community comes to the website. Now the site goes to the community.
JA: If you look at Barack Obama’s site, it has a social networking component on it, sort of modeled off of Facebook. But Facebook is a very kind of Web 1.0 system. It’s very tweaked out, but it doesn’t really interact beyond its walls. It pulls in content, but it doesn’t push content out. If your content isn’t being pushed out, then you’re not really participating in the Web 2.0 phenomenon and maximizing your content.
MJ: In your view, what’s the most exciting new political use of technology right now?
JA: There’s a startup that allows you to take video clips from your phone and email them into the site and you can put it wherever you want on the web. I think that has a real strong political application because not everyone can walk around with a camcorder taping stuff. The limitations are that it only lets you take a 20-second clip. That’s enough to get a sound bite.
MJ: Are you an optimist or pessimist regarding cell phone technologies?
JA: All these technologies you see on the web developing are niche medias. I think the day of elections, mobile is a fantastic device that’s been proved around the world, literally—South Korea, France, Mexico—to influence elections on the day of election. Look at those states that have same-day registration—the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire—they have potential for mobile to be used by activists to further the vote.
MJ: Do you think this 2.0 stuff will make people who aren’t interested in politics interested?
JA: It’s broad participation on the web with normal people who come off the street, but the campaigns are like, “Holy shit, what is this?” They’re almost tightening down the screws. Candidates think, “These things that are being done, I don’t know who’s doing them. It might be one of my supporters; it might come back to me. There’s no way I can really tell. Obviously the kids know how to do this stuff and I don’t know who’s doing it.” It’s a generational gap between the decision makers that lead the candidates and campaigns, and the campaign managers, who are directors of the different departments. I interact with these people quite a bit because I work in campaigns, and most of them don’t have a clue.
MJ: Can you point to specific examples of where they aren’t getting it?
JA: There was more money raised by Democratic candidates in 2006 than in 2004. We had more money to spend than ever before, yet in ’06 there was less money spent on Internet advertising than there was in ’04. While corporations are ramping up, moving money off of television onto the web, political campaigns are doing the exact opposite.
MJ: Anything else besides the lack of advertising?
JA: You don’t see enough of the campaigns actually out there in the conversation. In old-school politics, it’s hand-to-hand combat out on the streets with everybody knocking on the doors. Well, the battle’s going on right now and the campaigns are sitting on the sidelines. And if you’re not out there actively engaging those narratives that build against your candidate, then you’re missing the boat in terms of persuading people.
MJ: Why are they not doing it? Are they afraid of ceding control to others?
JA: The mentality is, “If we’re real cutting edge, we’ll follow what Dean had in 2004, and he had a blog. They’ll come to the blog.” Well, no, that ain’t gonna happen. It is a Web 2.0 mentality of looking at these things from an inside-out perspective rather than the traditional political perspective of the huddle. Nobody wants to be transparent and open up to the world. I know people on all these campaigns that work on the Internet and they’re frustrated as hell. That’s throughout the Democratic Party.
MJ: What is the most overhyped technology?
JA: A big email list isn’t as important as cultivating your supporters with one-on-one communication. It’s quality over quantity. You can have a 2-million-member list, but if you only get 20,000 or 30,000 people from that because you’re sending everybody the same message, well, what’s the difference between that and an e-mail list of 60,000 people where your response rate is 50 percent?
MJ: Will 2.0 change the content of politics? How important should responsiveness be in comparison to the candidate’s actual stance on issues?
JA: What’s going to happen is you’re going to start creating actual records and there’s going to be much more accountability. If you begin to go down that road of involving people in your policies—not necessarily forming them, but having input—it’s going to lead to more accountability once a candidate gets into office. A lot of times candidates promise such and such, but there’s nothing like the written word to hold them accountable in the end.