The Medium Is Still the Message

Once again, the annual Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco provided stimulating technology-oriented thinking on developments in health care, media, the military, clean-tech, music and "traditional" technology from storage to semiconductors. Given that the event was last week, perhaps the most timely insights involved technology and politics.

Overwhelmingly, the speakers on the web and politics panel confirmed the wisdom and prescience of Marshall McLuhan, acknowledging "the medium [really] is the message."

In 1964, four years after JFK used the by-then widely distributed television to upend politics as usual, McLuhan wrote "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man" to explore the effect of the message-transmitting mechanism on the recipient society. That book helps explain some of the massive enthusiasm we saw in the eyes of the folks at Grant Park last Tuesday night and in the hoards that rang doorbells and gathered for call-a-thons in the weeks leading up to this historic election.

The conference panelists, Democratic campaign consultant Joe Trippi, Web site publisher Arianna Huffington and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, drew parallels to the 1960s election, not so much between the victors but to the way they used technology to unbalance the "old-guard politicians" and to propel a young, more technically savvy politician to victory.

The panelists agreed that effective use of the Internet was a major reason Sen. Barack Obama was able to outmaneuver two of the most successful political machines of our time, the one spearheaded by the Clintons and the up-until-this-time unstoppable force-field directed by Karl Rove.

According to the panelists, both those teams relied heavily on top-down strategies and messages, speaking from above to the electorate about why their respective candidates were good, and why the other came just short of having horns and a pitchfork.

The Obama campaign, on the other hand, worked its magic from the bottom up as one of the speakers pointed out, much like a community organizer, relying heavily on e-mail, Facebook and YouTube. In the words of Joe Trippi, "In the '04 election, the Internet was like the Wright Brothers' plane; in '08 it was Apollo 11."

In the 2004 election, the Internet was useful as a fund-raising mechanism. In 2008, the Obama campaign harnessed the network to engage voters one-on-one, to foster a personal connection to the cause. It's one thing to write a check; it's quite another to upload a video, write a blog or join a social network.

Specifically, according to data presented by the panel, voters this election season watched more than 14.5 million hours of political messages on YouTube, at a cost to the campaigns of practically nothing. To buy that sort of time on television would have required a check for an estimated $47 million.

Forget the Paid Ads

Additionally, it's tough to recall a professional campaign ad that was fun to watch. On the other hand, the singers and dancers who produced and posted candidate cheers or jeers at home spoke of their support (or disregard) with such humor as to not only be genuinely entertaining but also to merit massive, spontaneous forwarding efforts. Talk about the impact of user-generated content and large-scale contribution systems.

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