The Power of Many
By Christian Crumlish
John Wiley & Sons ISBN: 0-7821-4346-6
Chapter One People Get Ready
So, anyway, dinner. It was a great reminder of the real-world rewards of this new electronic community I've become a part of. Allan and I had a great time talking, laughing, eating, and sharing a bottle of wine. That kind of experience cements a friendship in a way that instant messenger just can't do. I don't use technology for the sake of using technology-at least, I try not to. I use it to enhance the things that I care about in my life-friends, family, my research. Yesterday afternoon I spoke to my kids over iChat audio. I arranged to meet Allan using email and IM. And I participated in great discussions about my areas of research interest during presentations. But all of those spill over into the real world, and I use them to enhance the real world, not replace it. -Elizabeth Lane Lawley, "Step Away from the Laptop"
The phone rang; it was Catherine Saint Louis, who introduced herself as calling from the Sunday New York Times Magazine and asked to speak to my partner, Briggs Nisbet. Great, I thought, another solicitation; at least they didn't call her "Mr. Briggs Nisbet." But, no, Catherine told me that she edits the Lives column, that they were doing a special issue on landscaping in two weeks, that she'd been reading Briggs' gardening blog, True Dirt, and did I think Briggs would be interested in writing a piece for her column in the magazine?
I nearly passed out from shock and stammered that I suspected that she would indeed be interested and here's her work number, her work email, her personal email, and my email address. Oh, you don't need my address? Of course you don't, sorry about that. No, that's fine, bye.
Over the next five days, Catherine and Briggs collaborated via email and cell phone on three different versions of the column until it was just so.
What does this have to do with the power of many or the living Web? I asked Briggs to ask Catherine how she found True Dirt. Catherine had wanted a personal insight for the Lives column. She thought that searching the Internet for weblogs on gardening might help her find a suitable columnist.
She googled for something like "gardening blogs" to find a writer for the Sunday ever-lovin' New York Times Magazine? She trusted the Internet to help her find a suitable writer? Interestingly, the chain that led to the call went through a web-archived article from the Boston Globe (owned by the same company that owns the Times) on garden blogs that listed True Dirt in its short list of recommended sites at the end of the article.
How did that author find True Dirt? Perhaps because of some of the other people who publish their thoughts about gardening or nature or food or related topics on the Web, some of whom sometimes link to True Dirt. How did they find it? Because of promotional efforts online and word of mouth from True Dirt's publisher: a tiny web operation that consists mainly of me and whoever else is helping out with the current front-burner projects. Which means mostly me.
True Dirt, written by Briggs and Richard Frankel, is part of a network of sites presented as a group site at Telegraph.nu. It is an example of niche journalism in the old-fashioned sense of journal writing and an example of what is sometimes semi-facetiously called "nanopublishing." Nanopublishing is niche publishing managed with lightweight content-handling systems that users like using, including blogs and wikis, but usually at the moment blogs.
The quality of the writing at our sites and the pertinence of the material to its subject matter is apt enough to attract the sort of people who notice stuff on the Web, link to it, and keep running logs (or blogs) of links, insights, interesting thoughts, and notes-that is, people who take note of their surroundings and sometimes remark on it soon after making observations, usually in the form of a sequential log. Those people have at least occasionally linked to us, and we point to each other, and we are thus in some ways like the bogus "link farms" used to try to game Google's page rank system. But in our case, the sites are real, the domains are distinct, and the authors are many.
By hosting True Dirt on Mediajunkie, I helped ensure that Briggs' writing would have a better chance of being noticed by the larger network through which certain bridge nodes connect my various small cliques to the wider Internet culture of early adopters. It also helps connect to what are sometimes called the influentials, the people whose sites offer trend-tracking clues to mainstream media (and other sales, advertising, marketing, publicity, and communications professionals), the freelance meme watchers of the living Web: the independent bloggers.
In My Day, We Shared Music via Snail
When I first got on the Internet more than a decade ago, I did so by using my modem to dial up to a service called Netcom. Once connected, I found myself at a command line. A few geeky friends taught me how to use the mail programs ("elm" and "Pine" were my options, or the even more bare-bones "mail") and how to use the "man" command to read manuals and learn about other command-line options.
This was before the Web had a graphically driven interface available (Mosaic and later Netscape were still more than a year away). Somehow I managed to stumble onto Usenet, a worldwide distributed network of networks hosting discussions on any topic imaginable. I was a fan of the Grateful Dead but had few nearby friends with whom I could discuss the band, so I quickly discovered the rec.music.gdead newsgroup, which became my first online community "hangout."
It was great to be able to connect to people all over the world who shared my interests and to ask questions and share information that otherwise would have maundered unaired in the back of our minds or on someone's shelves. But what truly amazed me was the first time I opened my mailbox to find a package containing cassette tapes. The tapes featured a recording of my first Dead concert-a show in Saratoga, New York in 1984. As I stood there with a physical artifact in my hand, it dawned on me that throughout this Internet cloud-sitting in front of their own computers and typing messages to the same forums-were in fact real flesh-and-blood people. It took something happening in the real world, an actual object being sent through the so-called snail mail, and my chance to hear once again music that I'd heard for the first time twenty years ago to bring this point home to me. I immediately got online and posted something silly to the effect of "Wow, I just found out you all are real!"
Over time, I started running into people at Dead concerts in the Bay Area, whom I knew only from being online and that was another revelation. Some people were exactly like they seemed online. Others were very different from the personas they projected. In each case, I had to expand my mental file to add new information about these people: what their faces looked like, how they stood, what they did with their hands while talking, and the timbre of their voices. In each case, a virtual person became a real person.
These were my first clues that the true power of the Internet would be unleashed only when online interaction crossed over into the so-called real world.
By the way, I realize it doesn't help my credibility much to talk about this love of Grateful Dead music, but I'm told by researchers such as danah boyd that the online world frequently caters to otherwise marginalized parts of one's public identity. When I interviewed boyd, I told her about my involvement in the DeadHead Usenet group when I would ordinarily not mention that aspect of my online experience around hip younger Bay Area folks, for fear of being stereotyped as dope-smoking hippie with flowery aesthetics and half-assed politics. I think I did this deliberately to expose my own vulnerability, my own marginalized identity, even as I risked a stereotype of me clicking into shape in her mind.
The other reason I mentioned it was because I had just been through the second meaningful online community experience of my life-this time with the Dean campaign-and I wasn't the only person to remark on the Dead-show atmosphere at some of the big Dean rallies and events in California last year.
Who Was Howard Dean and How Did He Go So Far?
Before I get too far into this, I should probably get my biases out on the table. This book isn't about my political opinions or my ideology. The lessons I am discovering about how the living Web works, how it's changing group behavior and organizing techniques and politics, have nothing to do with the political spectrum of left to right (and perhaps a bit to do with the spectrum of decentralization vs. hierarchy). Nonetheless, my own experience is relevant both because it informs my ideas about what is changing, and because it will enable readers who don't share my political leanings to factor out any bias that I am unable to eliminate from my point-of-view.
I volunteered for the local grassroots group working to support Howard Dean in the Democratic primary in 2003 and early 2004. (I live in Oakland, California, so for me that meant East Bay for Dean.) Through the course of my involvement, I performed a wide range of political organizing and activism roles and ended up on the local organizing committee. After Dean lost the nomination, the group that I belong to changed its name to East Bay for Democracy, and its work continues with goals that still include electoral activities but will continue beyond the upcoming November election.
One of the hats I wore in the thick of the campaign was "giver of the fundraising pitch" at houseparties. (Because of a loophole in FEC regulations, it's easier to host a fundraiser in a person's house than it is in a public accommodation, so houseparties proliferated to raise the insane amount of money required to keep a national campaign in the game.) This involved attending houseparties, answering guests' questions about the Dean candidacy, and giving a speech making the case for supporting Dean financially and evangelizing the idea of a $100 revolution (more about that in Chapter 2, "All Politics Is Personal").
At one such party, my host told me how he got involved in volunteering in the primary. He attended a meetup in San Francisco to learn more about the candidate in March 2003, twenty months before the election and a full year before the California primary. He noted that by the next meetup he attended, a month later, twice as many people were present, and that the growth continued exponentially all that summer.
Once the meeting had been called to order, the attendees were given a chance to introduce themselves and discuss the political issues that most affected them. (This was something called "The Great American Conversation," because a large part of the effort involved getting people to meet in person in coffeehouses and living rooms, meet their neighbors, and start rebuilding the American community one block at a time.) After the introductions, though, came the most striking activity of the event, from my host's point-of-view. The meeting organizers-who had obtained their materials to run the meeting by downloading position papers from the DeanforAmerica.com website, by participating in a conference call, and by signing up and receiving packages in the mail-handed out packages to each of the attendees who were willing. Each package contained the names and addresses of two undecided Democratic voters in Iowa who were eligible to participate in the January 2004 Iowa caucuses. Also in the packages were stationery, envelopes, and stamps.
Participants were asked to write personal letters to their two assigned recipients, telling them in their own words why they supported Howard Dean for president and why they hoped that the Iowan would brave the cold and snow, attend the caucus, and stand for Dean. My host was impressed not merely that the campaign wasn't scripting or controlling or reviewing the contents of these letters before they were sealed and sent. (Yes, they provided some suggested "talking points," but each participant was free to send whatever message they deemed worthy of committing to paper.) What blew him away was that the campaign had leveraged the Internet-that famous disembodied tool of virtual connections and anonymous interaction-to get a group of local people together in the same room and to motivate them to hand-write snail mail to send to people in another state, one with a much more crucial early nominating event than California's March primary.
"My hand was cramping up," he told me. "I can't remember the last time I wrote one letter, let alone two. Plus, I was sort of worried about what the other people were writing. There was this one guy next to me who looked horrendous. I couldn't imagine he was going to convince an Iowa farmer to support Dean, but I was struck by the trust the campaign was showing in us volunteers."
The Internet is finally starting to become an integrated tool for face-to-face communication and directed, intentional, "real-world" actions. That combination of virtual organizing and physical activity, of structured top-down direction and fringe-driven, self-organized, spontaneous organization, that marriage of order and chaos, began to be recognized as Dean rocketed from an obscure dark horse insurgent to the presumptive frontrunner before a single primary vote had been cast. His was a revolutionary new story about how people could use these technologies to connect to each other, take action, and effect change in these media-driven, TV-anesthetized times.
This book, then, is an examination of the lessons that can be learned from what has worked and what has not worked. It's an attempt to tease out the intertwining sinews of networked telecommunications with real minds and bodies, and an attempt to look ahead at how these enabling technologies might be leveraged most effectively as they become ever more embedded in our day-to-day lives.
Usenet traditionally scheduled "burgermunches" as a way for their participants to meet in person; the pioneering online service The Well learned that its community coalesced best after parties where people had a chance to meet face to face. This lesson continues to trickle out to others trying to take advantage of the unprecedented reach of the Internet. Without embodied action, without face-to-face interaction, and without people meeting up together in place and time, the Internet might as well be a dream world. As the interconnectedness of the Web reaches into the mundane details of ordinary reality and causes actual bodies to share space, real conversations to take place using lips and tongues, heard by ears and processed by auditory apparatus in brains-that's when the magic starts to happen.
The Dean nomination run failed in its principal goal-but, as craigslist founder Craig Newmark said at a recent conference, "We're still talking about it." In the aftermath of that campaign, a thousand flowers are blooming or dying back in the form of new organizations-from skeletal websites to large functioning networks of people-that have emerged in the wake of the Dean for America (DFA) project to emulate those parts that worked so well to get people up off their couches and out into the streets.
When Did Everyone Get a Blog?
So why has it taken so long for these lessons to be applied in the real worlds of politics, civic communities, activism, and other forms of real-world organizing? For one thing, in the long scheme of things, the Internet is still young, still new. In time, a generation will grow up for whom the Internet has always been there. These people will be natives of the Internet, and they will be intimate with its folkways and fluent in its protocols. For now, many of us are still grasping at these new models of interaction and still trying to draw analogies from our earlier lives and imagine and invent ways to connect up the virtual world with the real world.
And to be perfectly honest, the Internet and computers are still too difficult for many people to use. There are still multiple, overlapping digital divides. There's the matter of generation, as well as economic class and other factors as well. My parents are still not sure what they're looking at when they're looking at the monitor of their Apple Macintosh. What to me is naturally a modal dialog box is to them just another rectangle among many on a screenful of confusing metaphors.
Excerpted from The Power of Many by Christian Crumlish Excerpted by permission.
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