Interview with Julie Barko Germany: Deputy Director, Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet

Interview with Julie Barko Germany: Deputy Director, Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet

Fri Jun. 29, 2007 3:00 AM EDT

Mother Jones: What's the most exciting new use of technology in politics?

Julie Barko Germany: I think there are several things. The most exciting thing we've seen this week is MoveOn's virtual town hall, which occurred last night. The idea is interesting because for the first time people have been allowed to set the political debate. It's almost like the first adaptation of crowd sourcing in the political space.

MJ: And on the flip side, what do you think is the most overhyped open-source politics technology?

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JBG: The most overhyped thing is counting the number of friends you have on sites like MySpace and Facebook. The sites are incredibly useful, but if all you're doing is counting the number of friends you have as a candidate, then you're missing the whole point. It not about the number of friends you have; it's how you use them.

MJ: Do you think that campaign-generated video will have a powerful impact?

JBG: People are watching their favorite shows on DVR and on the Internet. So if you really want to reach people and you want to use a medium as powerful as video to do it, the Internet makes sense. Now, does it make good political sense to pull together the online equivalent of a standard 15- to 30-second campaign advertisement and throw it up on the Internet and expect it to affect the way people vote? No, the idea is to use video in a way that allows people to see who your candidate is as an individual.

MJ: Do you think the novelty of open-source politics technology makes us believe that it is somehow going to improve the way people engage in democracy, similar to the way TV campaign ads did, but that over time these advances will degenerate into a political slugfest as well?

JBG: I think it's different. I'd like to point you in two directions. The first is to a blog post that Chris Bowers wrote last week on MyDD. And the second is a blog called Techpresident.com. Chris Bowers essentially blogged, "Hey campaign, I might not be a professional political consultant, but I have a lot to say about how you're running campaigns. And you know what, so does everybody else, so you should listen to us." Techpresident is a blog wherein you have a bunch of what I like to call the "new political elite"-people who are politically and technologically savvy online, playing armchair quarterback with the presidential campaign.

MJ: Is OSP truly going to change the candidates' platforms?

JBG: A real shift is going to occur when someone wins by having an incredibly open campaign. They're using new technology but they're still using it in the same old ways.

MJ: How do you think open-source technologies will affect the old way of doing things, like canvassing?

JBG: To some degree, there's still this idea that you use the technology and you fit the square peg into the round hole, use it to do the same things you've always done.

MJ: Do you think that OSP can change the content and substance of politics?

JBG: Over time, I think there's a great potential for technology to do that—to engage everyday people, voters in policy discussions. It's going to be a slow evolution.

MJ: Who does OSP affect and who are the candidates more responsive to-the person with the loudest blog?

JBG: Think of concentric circles: Picture a huge circle that is basically the entire U.S. population. There's another circle inside that of people who are registered to vote. There's another circle in that of people who actually vote. Then there's a circle inside that of people who are involved in politics in some other way—who are on the board of the PTA, who volunteer—and inside that you have a circle of people who read blogs. And inside the circle of people who read blogs you have the people who create content and post content. Those are the people setting the agenda online.

MJ: So in reality, we have a small chunk of the population that is vigorously engaging with OSP?

JBG: You are absolutely right. It's kind of like the metaphor of the American Dream, right? It's available to everyone, but a select few actually achieve it.

MJ: What do you think are the pitfalls for candidates who harness OSP?

JBG: Candidates and elected officials are worried that if they put something out online, people are going to pull pranks on them, or are going to use what they've put online in some sort of mean-spirited way to make the candidates and elected officials look ridiculous. Sure, people can get your picture, or a video of you, or something that you said and change it around to make you look foolish or make you say something you didn't mean to say, but the opportunity is so much greater to engage people online that it's worth the risk.

MJ: And if we turn the situation around, do you think that OSP will be abused for political gain?

JBG: I think the potential for the negative is there, just like there is a potential for the positive. Political campaigns are known to be tricky and it's all about winning.

MJ: Could you give me a few examples?

JBG: Sure. Think about how easy it is to spread rumors online. You have your supporters spread them so that it looks like a very organic movement. But the blogosphere is a great group of detectives. If they start to smell something fishy, you have hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people online who will spend all of their free time—and some of their work time and family time too—trying to get at the truth. With the "1984" video, it only took them, what, a couple of weeks to figure out who did it? I think we can only expect the turnaround time to get faster in the future. So, yes, there's a potential to spread rumors; there's also the fact that the blogosphere is a great group of detectives.

MJ: Would you happen to know which party is reflected the most in OSP users?

JBG: It's tough to tell. Here's why: Democrats will be very open with what they're doing with technology; Republicans won't tell you a thing. Often times they are developing similar applications and programs, and they've got just as many people online as the Democrats but they don't tell you about it, they don't make as much noise. They are a bit more stealth.

MJ: The politics that we're seeing right now that is being voiced through OSP, are we seeing a more radical angle, or do most of the agendas fall under the traditional Republican and Democratic camps?

JBG: Between 2004 and 2006 we were seeing that a little bit more on the Democratic side. But what we found in our 2004 survey, we found that people who are influential and engaged with politics online tend to be slightly more extreme.

MJ: Notwithstanding whether they are Democrat or Republican?

JBG: Right, on either side.

 

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