Interview with David Weinberger: Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School

Interview with David Weinberger: Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School

Mother Jones: What are some of the lessons you took away from the Dean campaign?

David Weinberger: What affected me most was the serious commitment to enabling supporter-to-supporter conversations since they—Joe Trippi explicitly—wanted to break the old broadcast model of campaigning, where there’s one guy at the top and it’s a one-dimensional relationship. It was more or less unlearning all the lessons of campaigning. I’ve learned the dangerous lesson of the web: You succeed by giving up control, and that’s inverse of the normal campaign.

MJ: What do you see as some choices and/or changes campaigns are going to have to make during this election cycle?

DW: The degree to which campaigns have become dominated by marketing is breaking the spirit of democracy, and we’re all just so sick of it, across party lines. It’s dispiriting to watch campaigns get played out in sound bites, in controlled ads that say nothing. This stuff works—but each time they play an ad that ramps up our emotions on some trivial point, they’ve taken away a little bit more of our democracy. So now we have an opportunity to undo a lot of that, but it involves some difficult choices. The most difficult choice is just to wake up and smell the coffee. Candidates’ control is already being taken away from them. They may think they’re running a good Internet campaign because their site is spic-and-span and shows no sign of human life. Nevertheless, there’s a roaring conversation going on off of the site and it’s probably about how the site sucks. We want more spontaneity. We want candidates off message.

MJ: Do you think that desire has anything to do with the web?

DW: Yes, I think that we’ve always wanted that, but we couldn’t have it. The means by which we saw the candidate were so constrained. It was a broadcast medium; it’s not simply that vested interests decided what we see. If you have a half-hour broadcast, you’re forced to show the little clips. All that we could get were the little polished pieces that were shoved through the pipe. Now we can see everything. It’s all going to be there. So if the candidate tries to maintain a pose of perfection, it doesn’t matter. The humanity is going to be shown and everybody’s going to see it. Every embarrassing moment is going to be shown on the Internet, whether the candidate likes it or not. The ones that can’t deal with that are going to fail. I don’t know if this is happening this election or the next one, but I think this change is happening really quickly. We want imperfect, human candidates. We want them back.

MJ: How should a candidate deal with those unscripted moments?

DW: If you accept it with a chuckle, I think you will advance. This will be a very positive thing for you. And if you sue to have the material taken down—which is the worst possible response—you’ll just look like an ass.

MJ: What about Edwards? See any downside to what his campaign is doing?

DW: It’s one of the examples of a site that is not insisting that you go to their site. It’s one of the sites that’s taking the Dean blogging model to the next level. In general, yeah, there’s a problem with that model. In the Dean model they appoint a blogger or four or five and it’s still a controlled environment. We’re at this crossroads; we’re in this deadly dangerous transition period. There are opposition researchers who are spending all their time trying to find the thing that can be used against the candidate. And you know how it works, it goes on for days and the candidate gets pounded for something that sometimes should never have been raised in the first place. But now you’re magnifying that risk by every blogger who’s writing for your site because somebody’s going to come along and they’re going to unearth what some blogger on your site—someone who used an inappropriate word or said “too bad they missed Cheney” when they made an assassination attempt. And that’s going to be trumpeted.

MJ: You’d think that candidates wouldn’t be held responsible for a stupid comment posted on his or her site by someone else.

DW: You’d think that, but not so.

MJ: Is the blogosphere the modern-day equivalent of a political machine?

DW: It’s an entirely different way of thinking. Although this looks like a new machine, and it looks like the new broadcast system, it is profoundly different than that in the way it works. It is not a static model; it’s not a one-way model. It’s a circulatory system.


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