This piece was written in 1996
This new medium's ability to encourage participation, collaboration and to build community began to dawn on me in 1994, when in various online forums, I "met" a number of people who were as excited as I was by a renewed sense of participating in democracy.
I had not been a serious political activist in years, but I was hooked on this new form of expression. Every time I turned on the computer, I found a new message that challenged or stimulated me or stirred my political passions.
Many Americans are ambivilant about participating in the political party system. The images of party workers projected by the mainstream media have not helped:
* rigid ideologues and missionaries eager to impose their views and standards on others;
* Monied elites eager to buy influence and who care only about a candidate's stands on their particular special interest;
* fratty baggers and hacks with little curiosity about issues, whose main concern is obtaining or perpetuating political power.
* naive personality cultists who function as sycophants and dutiful followers to office-holders no matter how they perform;
* the peripheral majority of "activists", who might give $25 to $2,000 and be invited to attend a rubber-chicken dinner to hear candidates give long-winded, self-congratulatory speeches.
But I've known many citizen-legislators and activists (Democrats and Republicans), I 've attended enough party functions to realize that these stereotypes are frequently wrong. Many party workers are independent thinkers and motivated by the ideal of public service, not simply personal profit or to impose their ideology on others. For all their faults, political parties are indispensible when it comes to organizing political activity, selecting candidates for office, mobilizing voters, and getting legislation passed.
If the Internet can help the political parties function better and reconnect with "the people," then perhaps the system will work better, I thought. And one of the most freeing aspects of communication on the Internet is that activists don't have to get their opinions approved by a committee, or a bureaucracy, or get permission to speak out. They are entirely entrepreneurs. They can just do it.
Digitals: Computerizing the Democratic Party from the Ground Up
One who decided to just "do it" was Charlie Gallie, a software developer in San Francisco. In late 1994, he was way ahead of anyone I knew in reflecting on the possibilities of Internet organizing for political purposes. He posted an e-mail message announcing the formation of a group called "Digital Democrats--Democratic Party On-line Activists." The mission of Digitals, he wrote, was to computerize the Democratic Party "from the ground up" and generate thousands of new volunteers. Over the Net, he distributed a lengthy game plan on how it could be done. Charlie then offered a free, moderated e-mail discussion for Democratic Party activists on "nuts and bolts" organizing.
Several hundred people joined the Digitals discussion list. The daily e-mail messages from people around the country sharing their political organizing experiences were stimulating and insightful. By early 1995, Charlie was leading the way in using what to most of us was still a curious new invention called the World Wide Web. He created a web site for Democratic Party activists, one of the first if not the first home pages for progressives.
Internet Discussions Generate Face-to-Face Meetings
About the same time, Dorothy Dean, a Democratic Party chairwoman in Wisconsin and member of Digitals, announced that she was coming to Washington for a National League of Cities meeting and would like to meet with Digitals' members in the Washington area.
About 10 people showed up at the Washington Hilton, including Dick Bell, technology director of the Democratic National Committee; Eileen LaFleur, a volunteer at the White House, Ed Herlihy, an activist in Virginia, and Bill Woodcock, an activist in Maryland.
Eileen and Bill came up with a list of objectives for Internet activism in 1996. Dick asked for our ideas about the upcoming DNC site on the World Wide Web. Ed Herlihy discussed his desire to create a web site for the Virginia Democratic Party. I hatched the idea of an e-mail newsletter to communicate regularly with activists around the country. "If Rush Limbaugh can get 20,000 subscribers to his e-mail newsletter," I said, "the Democrats ought to be able to do at least as well."
Internet Democrat: Connecting With Activists
Charlie in San Francisco and I in Washington, DC had never met but we collaborated to create the "Internet Democrat" e-mail newsletter. I supplied the content, he supplied the technical expertise by creating a one-way "list-serv" or automated mailing list.
Early on, the newsletter exceeded our expectations. With no advertising budget, no institutional funding, and no public announcement, the Internet Democrat in the first three weeks acquired 2,500 e-mail subscribers. Our goal, we wrote, was "to bypass the cynical mainstream media filter, to empower citizens at the grassroots and present an alternative to the rabid right wing." We imagined "a revitalized Democratic Party, with thousands of new volunteers eager to help, well-informed and mobilized at a moment's notice, ready to win legislative victories and get out the vote in crucial districts across the country."
Convinced of the inevitability of computer-mediated communication dominating the political landscape of the future, Charlie Gallie moved in the fall of 1995 from San Francisco to Washington to speed the process along. And he began to invest a considerable amount of his own money to hire staff and purchase equipment to keep the Digitals' web site on the cutting edge.
By summer 1996, more than 10,000 people were regularly visiting the Digitals and Internet Democrat web sites or subscribing to the e-mail newsletter. By traditional mass market "broadcasting" standards, 10,000 is not an impressive number. But this is retail politics, retail marketing and community- building. These 10,000 people are not direct-mail "targets" but allies, partners, potential producers and consumers, volunteers--in essence citizens of the Internet (netizens).
On the Digitals site, visitors can join discussions with other Democratic activists on the national level, link up with a state discussion group, find web pages for every state party, every state candidate, every Democratic congressional candidates, web pages for a number of local candidates, and even purchase campaign items from a online store. The Internet Democrat site focuses on the substance of issues and political ideas--excerpts from Presidential speeeches and those of other Democratic leaders; discussions among subscribers on such topics as "Why are you a Democrat?"; "Why do you support the President?"; the Friends of Hillary; how to respond to Republican charges, etc. The idea is to stimulate thought and discussion among activists.
By summer 1996, Digitals' online store was bringing in enough revenue to begin to offset some of the costs of starting the organization. Digitals had, in fact, become one of the largest and most visited political sites on the web, according to the Lycos search engine.