The Medium Is Still the Message

Web experts draw parallels between the elections of 1960 and 2008.

Nov. 11, 2008— -- 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.

The panel pointed out that, beyond ads and fund-raising, the Internet enabled a more crucial function: myth-buster. In the last election, the heavily funded Swift-boaters made accusations about Democratic candidate John Kerry, which, post-election, were proved inaccurate. It didn't matter; the damage was most effectively done.

This time around, whenever a new catchy accusation surfaced, from Gov. Sarah Palin's list of books to be banned from the public library to the story of the nutcase who claimed to have been mugged and branded with the letter "B," an army of bloggers pursued the stories and proved many to be fiction.

Then there was the lipstick-on-a-pig brouhaha incited by the McCain camp until the blogosphere noted the senator had himself used the phrase years earlier in referring to Sen. Hillary Clinton's efforts. Thanks to Google and an army of web-enabled bloggers, that nonissue rapidly vanished from the news.

But there is at least one technology-enabled difference that we can't yet fathom, although it has enormous potential. Thanks to the Facebook and MySpace groups and undoubtedly many others, the president-elect's team has e-mail addresses for millions of Americans who volunteered them.

Never has a president had this kind of direct link to a geographically dispersed population. No one, but no one should underestimate the advantage this president will have because his words can now reach into the home of every American who cares to receive them.

Lise Buyer, a longtime Silicon Valley investor, is a principal at the Class V Group,