Governing without a Net

Article excerpt

Byline: Daniel Lyons

Obama's online troops are clicked off.

What happened to the Netroots? That's what I've been wondering ever since the Republicans routed the Democrats last week. Two years ago, a lot of people--myself included--really believed that all those online activists who helped elect Barack Obama were going to stick around and support him as he pushed through a sweeping list of progressive measures. Instead, those idealistic young folks have all dried up and blown away, while Tea Party people like Sarah Palin have used Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to lead a backlash.

I cringe with embarrassment when I reread the article my NEWSWEEK colleague Daniel Stone and I wrote after the 2008 election. We raved about how Obama's Internet army of motivated young people would "stick around and help him govern" and, as one of Obama's tech strategists put it, "want to participate more, not less, and take part in the governing process." Swept up in the euphoria of the moment, we foresaw online brainstorming sessions where Netizens would generate ideas and vote them up or down in a free-flowing, collaborative, open-source manner. We imagined Web sites where regular folks could propose legislation. We even suggested that maybe the very nature of democracy was changing because of the Internet.

What were we smoking? In just two years, the pro-Obama Netroots movement has collapsed faster than the dotcom bubble. Look at traffic to the Web site Obama's team created in the run-up to the 2008 election, In October 2008 the site drew 8.5 million unique visitors in the United States. But by this past September, traffic had plummeted to just 664,000, according to ComScore, an Internet researcher. The site's social-networking component, millions of people came together and formed thousands of subnetworks like "Single Moms for Obama" and "Firefighters for Obama"--saw traffic fall from 4.2 million unique visitors in September 2008 to only 549,000 in September 2010, ComScore says.

Don Tapscott, an Internet pundit and author of a new book, Macro-wikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World, says that Obama "changed the way you get elected, but he didn't change the way you govern. In the process he lost the support of the young people who powered him into office. …