Mother Jones: In your view, what’s the most exciting new use of technology in politics?
Colin Delaney: I would say it’s the diffusion of control. It’s not any particular technology, it’s more that campaigns—whether they’re corporate promotional campaigns or electoral campaigns or advocacy campaigns—don’t really have full control over their message anymore. And that to me, as someone who is a democrat with a small “d” at heart, that’s very exciting.
MJ: Could you point to one Web 2.0 technology that’s most overhyped?
CD: Viral spread of a message or of a video. It happens; it’s a real phenomenon. But it’s extremely difficult to make it happen. It’s really difficult to predict what’s going to take off and what’s not.
MJ: What makes something go viral?
CD: Things rarely go viral on their own. You know the “macaca” video—they pumped it out there. Well, let’s put it this way, things rarely go viral on their own. Somebody’s usually pushing it. But the “macaca” video spread because it showed something about George Allen in a way that people couldn’t see before. It made part of his personality—this bullying personality—very obvious. Something somebody wrote the other day really struck me: For every one of these videos that hits and makes big, there are hundreds and hundreds of others that may be influential within a niche audience, and those ultimately might be more important in the aggregate than the single large, popular videos are.
MJ: Which candidate is doing the most important things with technology so far?
CD: I don’t know yet. I think we’re still shaking out. I think the most important thing for a candidate isn’t going to be any one tool or tactic; it’s going to be how well they integrate them all, and how well they actually use them to turn supporters into people who actually show up on Election Day. So we probably won’t know until the primaries. I think the things that are really going to matter aren’t obvious to the eye right now necessarily. Often the most important stuff is database-driven behind-the-scenes targeting. People are going to be very aggressively going out and trying to find supporters.
MJ: What aspect of the political use of Web 2.0 makes politics less democratic and what makes it more democratic?
CD: The availability of easy video, audio, and text-publishing tools—blogs, video-sharing sites, podcasting—these things that allow people to put their own opinions out as an equal to any major media outlet. The mainstream media have traditionally acted as information filters for people. Using video where candidates are speaking directly to voters lets people bypass that. And they may be saying things that aren’t true, or that are shading the truth. This is what political campaigns do. So it takes at least a partial check off the communications from a candidate—but that seems to be what people want. People want to be able to make up their own minds, rather than having media outlets being the only ones telling them what to think. People are going to be taking in information from CNN and also from blogs and some YouTube videos that their friends passed them.
MJ: Is that less democratic or just different?
CD: I don’t know if it is less democratic, because you’re channeling the campaign’s message unfiltered, which might be seen as anti-democratic because you’re not analyzing that message and dissecting it. But it might be seen as more democratic because you’re letting the politicians speak directly to the people.
MJ: What do you think about the term “open-source politics”?
CD: That’s not bad at all. The open-source model sort of conceptually applies, in that you are crowdsourcing the political process. And just like open-source software, it’s going to be messy. It is less efficient, generally, to have a 100-person centrally controlled programmer team solving a problem than having 10,000 programmers scattered around the world solving the problem independently. Those independent programmers are going to waste more time, but they’re likely to come up with a better solution than the tight team. And the same thing will happen in politics. I mean, how many blogs are actually worth reading? How many videos that are posted are politically related or worth watching? The wheat-to-chaff ratio isn’t going to be very favorable. But the good stuff is going to be better than most of what we’ll see from the professionals.
MJ: To what degree is politics really going to become more responsive to voters?
CD: I don’t have any illusions about the ability of traditional interests to influence the system in ways that normal citizens can’t. Lobbyists are always going to exist, campaign contributions are going to exist; there’s going to be a whole sphere that citizen politics can’t really touch. But if the voters are actually talking, the politicians are going to have to listen to them. So it’s less that it’s going to change the world, and more that it’s going to put a little more balance into the system.
MJ: Do you think this will bring people into politics who weren’t interested before?
CD: Yeah, I definitely think so. When all they see are these horrible, poor-quality, vicious, overplayed campaign ads, that turns off so many people to politics. Now are voting rates going to go up? I don’t know, but I think that the people who are involved are going to be much more directly involved, and I would say more passionate.
MJ: Do you think a candidate can win without doing anything on the web these days?
CD: Can they win? Absolutely, anyone can do anything. Can they win without it? Sure, I mean the vast majority of money is still going to be spent on television this election cycle. Are they going to be able to win without the web in four years, six years, eight years? That becomes much more problematic. But for this cycle, I think traditional organizing—let’s say on-the-ground, face-to-face organizing and television—are still going to be more important. But we’re seeing the rise of what might be the next way politics is organized in this country, and it’s fun.