Online in 2000

By Schneider, Troy K. | Tikkun, September/October 1999 | Go to article overview

Online in 2000


Schneider, Troy K., Tikkun


Call Off the Revolution

When Al Gore's campaign website was unveiled on April 6th, it included the declaration that online efforts were going to be "the most important" part of the vice president's bid for the White House. A few days (and media reports) later, that superlative had been modified to declare the website "a very important" part of the campaign; soon thereafter, the tagline was taken down entirely.

All in all, it was a fitting metaphor for online politics in general: first make change-the-world promises, then backpedal, then quietly move on.

Since at least 1996, technophiles have been promising that the Internet would revolutionize politics: that it would provide issues over attack ads; virtual town hall meetings to replace the six-second sound bite; real-time campaignfinance disclosure; cyber-coalitions; online voting; and more. In short, plugging in could offer purer, more productive politics and a more direct democracy

And sure enough, as we prepare to elect the first U.S. president of the twenty-first century, many of these promised improvements are indeed at hand. The DNet and the Common Cause website offer detailed issue positions for political hopefuls at all levels. Steve Forbes "officially" announced his 2000 presidential campaign online. MoveOn.org-a coalition created almost overnight by software entrepreneurs Joan Blades and Wes Boyd to protest the impeachment proceedings-collected some 500,000 names for its petition urging Congress to censure President Clinton and be done with it. Pilot programs are underway to allow U.S. citizens overseas to vote online in 2000. All well and good, but we still haven't seen that cyberrevolution-and we won't in 2000, either. The online world simply adds more tools to the political toolbox, and those tools-like television, talk radio and targeted mailings before them-play primarily into the hands of those already in power.

That's not to say the World Wide Web, email, and other online avenues are not tremendously elspowerful vehicles for interested parties at all levels-they are. But a brave new political world will not grow spontaneously from them.

Way back in 1997, Wired magazine commissioned GOP pollster Frank Luntz to conduct its "Digital Citizen Survey" and found that "digital citizens" were more politically active, libertarian, progressive, and male than their unwired peers. The survey also found that "connected" and "super-connected" Americans (those who regularly use a computer, cell phone, and/or pager and log onto email at least three times a week) made up a scant 9 percent of the population. By June of this year, however, a Nielsen Media Research/CommerceNet survey found that 92 million people over the age of eighteen are online in the United States and Canada-nearly half the North American population. The percentage of women online had risen to 46 percent.

The developing ubiquity of online activity is a good thing-it is certainly good for the AOLs and eBays of the world, and advantageous for individuals as well. But it also means that as Americans become more wired, the wired world becomes more like America. And what do most Americans do-online and elsewhere? They shop. They gab with friends. They follow their favorite teams, decide what movie to see, and track their mutual funds. Occasionally, maybe (and most likely just before an election), they check in on the world of politics.

There are, of course, politically interested citizens (if you're reading this, you're likely one of them). And for them, the online world is a wonderful place. Political headlines, government resources, like-minded discussion partners, and misguided debating opponents are ready and waiting. Want to bypass the self-important media and go straight to the source? Organizations from Handgun Control to Operation Rescue, government at all levels, and any candidate worth his or her salt will pipe updates into your inbox. …

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