Would online support vs. in reality smell as sweet?

In the 2004 Presidential Election, Howard Dean was an early standout with an enormous amount of supporters. According to many political scientists, his campaign was special because of its presence being predominantly online. His use of the Web to organize, invigorate, and finance his campaign was unprecedented among candidates; perhaps still a candidate has not had a similar history. For this reason, theorists like Hindman and Shirky continue to theorize why Dean’s campaign was as successful as it was early on by attempting to understand the Internet as a political tool. Hindman suggests the liberal-conservative gap in political Web usage as an existential contributor to Dean’s success, amongst other factors. On the other hand, Shirky is less motivated to even deem Dean’s campaign successful, pointing out the disparity between online success and reality.

In the early history of the Internet, web access was limited to the “rich and the educated”, as opposed to those with less money and education. Similar disparities were highlighted amongst gender, men more likely than women to have access, and racial divides, Caucasians and Asians being more likely to have access to the Internet than their African American and Hispanic counterparts. Not surprisingly, political theorists argued that those with conservative views would likely be dominating the forum as well. In understanding Dean’s campaign, Hindman was confused by such findings and theories. How could Dean have found such “success” on the Internet if those that largely dominated it were unlikely to support him? In analyzing his own survey data, Hindman revealed that this was not the case at all. Instead, his main finding was that liberals dominated the audience for politics online across a wide range of politically relevant activities. Thus, Hindman believes that this is the main reason why Dean was able to create such a buzz for himself.

As Hindman heavily invested in trying to figure out what made Dean’s campaign a hit, Shirky suggests the campaign was never actually successful. Though he was heavily funded and supported, when it actually came time for voters to show up, they didn’t. Shirky suggests this was due to the large disparity between the online world, in Dean’s case his online popularity and success, and “reality”, activity and participation outside from the Internet.  A campaign cannot be won with TV coverage, money, petitions, and online forums. Winning an election amounts to tangible activism, going out and casting a ballot.

The first question I would like to raise for the class is how is success measured? Do we agree with Shirky, that all this online non-sense never really meant a thing and that Dean was never truly supported? Or do we see an even brighter future for online campaigning? What about in the current election?

Secondly, though Hindman calculated that Dean’s support was a product of the liberal-conservative gap, he believes that this will not be the case forever. Conservatives will “invest resources in exploiting the Web” and will realize the key importance in using online participation as a main facet of political activism. How do we feel about this statement? Can we foresee a conservative candidate following a similar path to Dean in the future?

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