What do Obama and Meg Ryan have in common?

Tidbits from pdf europe

The pdf conference in Barcelona was fascinating, as expected of course. Great atmosphere, great crowd, great ideas. So, here are a few belated scattered tidbits and thoughts:

Pdf being a New York-born conference brought in a whole bunch of people from the other side of the Atlantic, people we usually “follow” through the web. The heavy artillery were of course the people who were involved with the Obama campaign. Now, a couple of things come to mind when talking about the Obama campaign.

First of all, our American friends have a tendency to paint an almost activist picture of the campaign. There is always talk around notions of “bottom-up”, “citizen engagement”, “grassroots mobilization” and so on. However one cannot fail to notice that the Obama campaign was still a … hmm…well, “campaign”. Which means that by definition was a top-down exercise and a very expensive one.

Listening to Joe Rospars from Blue State Digital and Kate Albright-Hanna describe their experiences – possibly for the 1000th time – this came very clear.  The “dinner with Obama” idea is a campaign idea, the 2.000 videos (!) produced and the incredible amount of content developed and shot across the web galaxy can only be produced at great expense in money, human effort, coordination and so on. Not considering the sophisticated web platforms developed and maintained.
This is not to detract in any way from the brilliance of the campaign. On the contrary. But it is worth reminding because too many politicians in Europe now “want whatever he’s had” (remember Meg Ryan’s famous orgasm scene?).

What do European politicians want?

And what’s worse, some still think that the internet is a “cheap campaign medium”. Nothing can be further from the truth of course and for all of us working in the field know that it is a highly labour-intensive effort. However, this point was never raised by us starry-eyed Europeans. Throughout the pdf conference the lines were consistently blurred; between online political marketing and the web’s potential for self-organization and mass mobilization or novel e-democracy experiments for which old Europe can still show a thing or two (at the same time, in Malmo, Sweden an eGov exhibition was showcasing 52 projects from all over Europe).

I think that the success of the Obama campaign must be attributed to a conscious strategic decision to invest heavily on the web vs offline media. And with crystal clear conversion metrics: Votes & Donations.

On the question then of whether the Obama case can be copy-pasted to Europe most European commentators rightly gave a clear NO answer and Dominique Piotet emphasized this from day1. But I didn’t hear (I did not follow of course all the parallel breakout sessions) the simple argument that the US President has always been nominated through a bottom-up process whereby you need to form community support two years before election time whereas in Europe political parties more-or-less “appoint” their leaders. It’s worth re-reading this article in MotherJones which explained well the online/offline link.

Other tidbits that I can recall:

  • Linkfluence presented their First Map of the Eurosphere. An impressive visual map of the structure and dynamics of the European political web and the communities that form inside it. We recall of course the Politicosphere, the similar work they carried out for the American presidential elections.
  • Rishi Saha, Head of New Media for the Tories, reminded us that politics in the past was never the cosy, small-town, get-together, personal, honest, face-to-face affair that some people think we are moving away from in this internet age. In this sense today, he said, “we are not re-inventing politics, we invent politics”. I couldn’t agree more.
  • A true activist spirit was demonstrated by Jeremie Zimmermann who put the case of the mobilization against the Telecoms Package. He explained how decisions were constantly overturned between the European Parliament -where the case went public -and the Council of Ministers -where decisions were taken behind closed doors. “When the issue was decided in public we won, when it was decided behind closed doors we lost”, he said (not exact words). Jeremie said that putting relevant and accessible info on the web raises the political cost for the politicians and also made a useful distinction between “lobbying” (you have to be nice to everybody) and “advocacy” (you have to annoy some).
  • Jack Thurston put the case of farmsubsidy.org which is a great case of a european transparency project, tracking the single largest EU budget, out of which 85% goes to the 18% wealthiest farmers in the EU. He noted the significant difficulties they had in unlocking the data from government agencies and how important it was to have succeeded in doing so for the two first countries, Denmark and UK. The rest had to follow. Their umbrella project is followthemoney.eu and the next project is the fish subsidy programme. Good luck to them.
  • Julian Assange of Wikileaks, said that there are 200-300 secret gag orders in the UK forbidding press to write about certain topics, something that cought many people by surprise, and he wondered why aren’t more journalists arrested in Europe, which he attributed to a “lack of courage”.

But for me the higlights were the following, which just confirmed my preconceived “groupie” tendencies:

  • Tom Steinberg of MySociety.org , who won’t tell you that for many in the UK he is a “black sheep” (a medal of honour) because he builds innovative projects on a shoestring budget (6.000 GBP  for the whatdotheyknow.com project). He said that we need to build online projects that don’t stem from or replicate our offline ideas (“think of something that could not happen before”) and that we need to “nurture the geeks who can really make a difference, not just hire them”.  At the closing of the conference he rose from the auditorium to put a question he said “he may regret”. He proposed for pdf to start a movement to kick-out the people in the European Commission who fund the wasted e-participation projects and give the money instead to some of the people who can do a better job with it. Well, I think only Tom could say this, which is in many people’s minds but nobody dares to express.
  • The other highlight, was watching and meeting in the flesh, the people of the Sunlight Foundation, the predominant force of e-transparency in the USA and possibly beyond. Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director, said that transparency and technology is a hot issue right now, that “technology is not a slice of the pie, is the pan” and that when asked by the administration what should they do, their answer was “put out data in raw, machine-readable format; we’ll do the rest”.
    Esther Dyson, member of the Sunlight’s BoD, gave her top-line five points to consider and I keep from those: “power corrupts but also seduces, even people with little power. It’s not enough to change govts, we need to change citizens also” (quoted because it is relevant and true for my country Greece).

There are many more interesting points and discussions that went on and thanks to the amazing work by Civico, they are documented and archived.

Thanks to Google for making my presence feasible (as part of the Google fellows team) and thanks to Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry for being great hosts. See you next year (with better wi-fi access hopefully).

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