Reflections on Personal Democracy Forum 2007

 [posted to the Institute for Distributed Creativity listserv]

Although it took place a little over a week ago, my impressions of the 2007 Personal Democracy Forum conference, which I attended on May 18th and helped to organize, are fresh in my mind.

First, a disclaimer: I’m Associate Editor for the PdF website and for a group blog called TechPresident, which both cover the way technology is changing politics. The former is an online companion to the conference and a blog in its own right; the latter is a more-focused group blog covering how the web is being used in the 2008 U.S. president campaign, both by supporters and the candidates themselves. Though it’s an offshoot of the PdF site, it’s become arguably more popular and influential, landing publisher Andrew Rasiej and editor Micah Sifry, and to a much lesser extent me, in the media spotlight.

The conference and the sites are devoted to covering the way that online technology — blogs, video, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, Twitter, mashups of all sorts, and so on — are helping citizens get more involved in the political process and self-organize outside of traditional campaign structures. For example, we’re interested in how MySpace, despite the problems of proprietary ownership and immaterial labor that Trebor Scholz and others have discussed, also provides a platform for citizens to organize around issues like the genocide in Darfur and to get the word out to potentially hundreds of thousands of supporters, or how politicians are using YouTube to connect to supporters and, ideally, inject a new kind of transparency and authenticity into the electoral process.

I try not to be a utopian but I’m constantly impressed at how much potential there is for activism in today’s mainstream online culture — witness Facebook’s new Platform that lets developers hook into their API and create apps that could take advantage of the viral nature of Facebook and could get a message out to thousands of friends in a single instant. Consider the fact that 80% of college students use Facebook; make it easy for them to get political or social messages out to their friends and you could seed a thousand campaigns.

This year’s conference was the biggest in numbers since it began in 2004. Almost 700 people showed up to hear Larry Lessig, Yochai Benkler, Tom Friedman, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, danah boyd, and others (those are just a few of the folks from the morning sessions) talk about the influence of technology on politics. The afternoon held more traditional panels, a series of demos, and a roundtable with techies working on current presidential campaigns.

While Lessig, Benkler, boyd, and others wowed the crowed (as Benkler spoke you could almost hear the sound of a hundred people clasping their hands to their heads in overloaded delight), less enthusiasm greeted a conversation between Friedman and Schmidt; they contentedly spoke about how this new Internet thing was really, really great and how it was bringing so much more information to so many more people.

The words “China” or “Tiananmen Square” were conspicuously and disappointingly absent (maybe they were censored by the Google higher-ups).

Then Friedman spoke for a [half]-hour, reading from an update to his book The World Is Flat and giving his take on the wonders of the web. It was a conference attended by experienced politicos and technologists from both sides of the aisle, and some attendees were upset that so much time was given over to the CEO of one of the largest corporations in the world that is open about wanting to own all information, everywhere, and a columnist for the New York Times who is notorious for his support for the Iraq war. They wanted participation, provocation, etc. — the kind of openness you’d find at a BarCamp — and we gave it to them at an “unconference” the next day, where the attendees were also presenters. Those that came to the unconference were generally happier with the structure, since if they had a session in mind they simply had to propose it and it would happen. You can read everyone’s reactions here.

So what did we actually talk about? Session titles ranged from “Embracing Voter-Generated Content” to “Web 2.0: Cult of the Amateur?” (moderated by me and featuring Andrew Keen, Clay Shirky, Craig Newmark, and Robert Scoble — that was fun) “Political Money Online: Getting It and Spending It More Effectively” and “E-Lessons from Overseas: Europe, Latin America and Australia.”

The discussion on the iDC list tends toward the theoretical, but although we never engaged in, say, a discussion of Habermas and the public sphere, we did look at how notions of distributed creativity or Benkler’s wealth of networks actually affect politics on the ground. Meeting Farouk Olu Aregbe, the man who created the “One Million Strong for Barack” campaign on Facebook, or meeting campaign staffers finding interesting ways to use Twitter, helped me see how people are using this idea of participatory online culture for political purposes. Although I tend to be uncomfortable supporting mainstream political campaigns and ideas, there is a ton to learn by watching how any groups are using social media and technology. And it’s fun to be around politicos who, at heart, are geeks like me.

Was the conference a success? From my vantage point it’s hard to tell. Although there were complaints about Schmidt and Friedman, they also helped to draw in the sponsorship that helped pay for the conference in the first place, and to get more media attention. It could also be argued that bringing them into the fold spurred a necessary critique of their corporate-utopianism and wide-eyed wonder of the web.

More than anything else, my experience co-organizing the unconference reminded me of how fun and important the BarCamp-style conferences can be. Their very structure is an exercise in applying our love of the wiki to something offline, and it largely works.

I know some of you on this list were at the conference and even spoke there; I hope to see some of you next year too, and to hear your opinions about taking this discussion to what some would consider the belly of the beast.

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