Lessons Learned From Open Source Politics

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Micah Sifry from the Andrew Rasiej New York City Public Advocate Campaign just posted long write-up with a lot of lessons learned from their open source political campaign -- a campaign that was ultimately not successful.

I had been in contact with the campaign after successfully pitching them on an idea to remix citizen videojournalism reports as part of their communications strategy to catalyze people living outside of New York City to encourage their NYC friends to vote for Rasiej.

They were going to use some of the footage from my second video blog, and vlogger Ryanne Hodson was going to recontextualize it to use for their campaign. Then we would promote both versions driving Internet traffic to both of our projects.

However, the Rasiej campaign was not able to follow through on this idea since they became overwhelmed in the chaos of the last weeks before the election.

In his post-mortem analysis, Sifry questions the feasibility of conducting an open source political campaign.

I submitted the following reply to his post by saying that I thought that more innovations happen within the collaborative media realm before we see any radical shifts in our political culture.

My intention is that Raseij supporters could support The Echo Chamber Project as a way to build up the necessary Drupal infrastructure to facilitate a open source communications strategy by producing collaborative media.

More details below...

Wow. Thanks so much for sharing all of this Micah. There are plenty of lessons learned in there -- some general lessons and some lessons specific to your race and political environment.

There is a definite struggle between the balance between the top-down leadership and bottom-up, grassroots participation. And the non-profit limitations for coalition building with grassroots organizations seems to be a considerable bottleneck for figuring out how to "involve local activists more directly" in your campaign projects.

All these circumstances you described brought you to a point where you became a "top-down campaign using some nifty online tools." As you say, "In retrospect, I blame my own inexperience for my failure to push harder for a different approach." You were trying to do a number of open source campaign tactics, but to accomplish a pretty traditional one-to-may broadcast communications strategy.

So the intention for all of these types of projects and viral schemes was to get media attention to build name recognition. And while the campaign succeeded to get many high-profile, mainstream media mentions it obviously failed to produce any measurable results.

This reminds me of Buzz Bruggeman's Meshforum presentation described by IT Conversations as "A four star review in USA Today read by more than 2.3 million people got ActiveWords all of 32 downloads. But a blog post by popular blogger Robert Scoble resulted in more than ten times that number."

A recommendation from a trusted source can be far more influential and powerful than any mass media endorsement or mention -- and I suspect even endorsements from major political figures. But in your case, it was obviously too difficult connect the dots between what it meant for Andrew to be elected to public advocate and what this would eventually mean for their lives and society. A tough sell to get people excited about such abstract concepts about a reality that is so-far removed from the present day.

I think a key lesson is to figure out how to tap into personal motivation and intention in the present moment -- and open source communities thrive whenever they're able to scratch the itches of the participants.

So what does an ecosystem look like where itches are immediately being scratched by those participating in the campaign? And do these volunteers have to be "Advocates" -- or can they truly be "Participants"? And do the answers to these questions have to come from electoral politics?

I think that open source politics still has a future, but I think that most of the innovation is NOT going to come from electoral politics. I'm a lot more optimistic about the potential for open source collaborative media.

I think that as the tools and methodologies are developed for creating participatory rich media, then these new communication tools and strategies will eventually flow into our democratic process.

I successfully pitched to you how Citizen Journalism Could Be Used Open Source Political Campaigns in late August after participating in a phone conference with the campaign -- but ultimately the campaign was too busy gather the footage and carry through with this plan. Not that it would have made a difference in the final outcome, but this is one example of a mutually beneficial collaboration that could have scratched both of our itches. And maybe a launching point for thinking about how else you can refocus attention on what you can do for people right away vs. sometime down the road.

I volunteered for some of ACT's Get Out the Vote field operations in the last Presidential election, and I can tell you that there were completely emotionally unsatisfying and could have been done by robots. I was a cog in the GOTV machine that was ultimately an elaborate marketing research and polling effort to figure out which empty campaign slogans and emotional propaganda to be included in the "expensive media campaign focused in the final weeks" before the election.

So my proposal was born of a need to do some more "intellectual activism" by collaboratively creating media that adds intelligence to the network, and could actually be more persuasive than the lowest-common denominator 30-second TV commercials that so much time, thought and money go into.

Political campaigns are communication problems -- and our culture is evolving to a more participatory and collaborative communications environment. The ethics of media transparency and authenticity will eventually make their way into the political realm. Many of the unanswered questions between the dynamic between the Old Media and the New Media will continue to be addressed that will result in new and more comprehensive journalistic paradigms. I don't think anyone can predict exactly what this will look like. But I see a lot of opportunities for political campaigns to move from having one clear message to having a long tail of niche conversations with a broad ecosystem of bloggers, podcasters, videobloggers and others on the wrong side of the digital divide.