- Old and New Media: Competition and Political Space
Introduction: ‘It’s the Conversations’
Classically, election analysis, especially studies on voter choice, is focused on demographics and polling. Attention is also paid to news and media exposure — whether candidate coverage, commercials, talk radio and the like may be significant factors behind gaining an image of the candidate, understanding the substance of the campaign, and swaying the voter. Candidate communication strategies and media bias of one form or another remain the object of critical study of ‘media effects.’ Referenced in such popular books as The Tipping Point, the studies on the changing facial expressions of TV news anchormen as they speak of the candidates are one case in point.1 These are among the various efforts ultimately to account for fact and knowledge gaps between voter ideas about candidates’ positions and the actual stands.
Recently, analysts are turning to the role of conversations.2 (In new media analysis, online discussion lists, chat as well as blogs often stand in for ‘conversation.’3) Inspired by the ‘ignition’ of the grassroots by the Howard Dean campaign’s (and moveon.org’s) “meet-up’s,” the first articles about peer-to-peer voter decision-making are appearing. Conversations at ‘house parties’ and other informal gatherings may over-determine one’s image of a candidate, one’s understanding of substance, and also prompt voter ‘network effects,’ where, for example, one votes against one’s self-interest not because of ‘knowledge gaps’ but for reasons accounted for by network communication theories of contagion and/or balance. 4 (I vote this way because friends of friends do, or because these particular people do.) Most recently in the realm of political analysis, conversations are said to mitigate against ‘old media effects,’ or, as one author has put it, “limit elite influence.”5 In all, to create indications of voter choice and to understand the role of media effects, election analysts now weigh demographics and poll results as well as communication strategies, media bias, and conversation.
The Dean campaign both used new media and appeared to work with a set of new media-style assumptions, more in the vein of an NGO than a governor’s office scripting events for journalists (though that was taking place, too). Taking into account the role of raising funds on the campaign Web site; of volunteer bloggers keeping a running record of the campaign at blog.deanforamerica.com; of newsletter emailing; of tell a friend software use; of text-messaging alerts; of Dean Internet TV; of concerted chat room, message board, and newsgroup participation; and of dean2004.meetup.com in organizing campaign workers, finding hosts and guests for house parties, and eventually (and rather hopefully) building voter bases and swaying other voters through social network effects, the general feature of the Dean campaign may have been its new media style, one based more on ‘info-sharing’ and ‘personalization’ than on a proverbially message-disciplined culture, run centrally and perceptibly by such single communications strategy figures like a Dick Morris or a Karl Rove (though there was some of that, too, in the form of Joe Trippi).6 The Dean campaign may be held up as an effort that paid considerable attention to not old but new media effects.
The Dean campaign had its headquarters in Burlington, Vermont, which coordinated the official content and event scheduling. But their method, to a degree, approached new media-style franchising, which typically encourages the rise of decentralized, network-based groups, which fill in ‘the content’ within the formats afforded by the new media ‘tools.’ It is a model of practice, whereby once the kit is available, one can start one’s own network node, create and release one’s own content, and share one’s own innovations with the network. Dean’s campaign did not quite go as far as that. But supporters’ event and independent content creation were recognized by the campaign. There were open databases of house parties and supporters to meet socially, without a script. There were independent student Websites and listservs, receiving links from the official Dean site. And there were Dean Team Leader pages on the main campaign site, with...