Tipping Crowds on the Internet

by Scott Henson


The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, The Internet, And The Overthrow of Everything

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, 2nd edition

Back Bay Books

The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business , Economies, Societies and Nations

By James Surowiecki

Normally I have little truck with memoir. To me, writers are entitled to one autobiography late in life, if they absolutely must, but more than that seems a bit self-involved. I’m not a snob about it. I enjoy writers like Henry Miller and David Sedaris using memoir as a form for a more ambitious project. And I’ll suffer a single but significant exception to this rule: I’ll read memoirs by participants in extraordinary events. This exception has always been a pure leap of faith; the experience seldom rewards the investment. Then again we all want to know the inside scoop, don’t we? We want to know, “How did they do it?”

That’s what drew me to Joe Trippi’s book, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. I was looking for the inside dope on the campaign that became the biggest political story in America in 2003.

I still hope somebody writes that book. What we have here, though, is an extended pitch for Trippi’s post-Dean consulting business couched in the techno-populist philosophies of Wired magazine, open source software, and Napster. The first third of the book provides his personal story, literally from birth, and often reads like a September essay by a schoolboy asked to describe what he did on summer vacation. The overarching theme of this section can be summarized thusly: Joe Trippi is really smart. At one point he even provides his SAT scores, just in case you were wondering. And did he mention that Joe Trippi is really smart? An extended section describing Jerry Brown’s use of a 1-800 number during the 1992 presidential campaign turns out to be essentially self-serving. The point of the story is that Trippi thought of using the 800 number before Brown’s campaign manager, Joe Costello; he just never got the chance.

Most of the book promotes Trippi’s vision for the future. Trippi thinks the future will bring “open source” campaigns, where the creative energy, constructive labor, and financial resources will all come from online supporters instead of from a top-down hierarchy. The Internet will require political campaigns to adopt this organizational shift from the top-down communications strategy that television, by its very nature, imposed for the past two generations. Political clout will shift downward to volunteers and voters.

The main problem with the book though (over and above its relentless self-aggrandizement), is that Trippi offers no useful self-critique other than the fact that he gets grouchy when he works too hard. By insisting that the Dean Internet campaign changed “everything,” he eschews a critical analysis of what the campaign did well and what didn’t work out, what did change and what remains the same.

Obviously, the Dean campaign and MoveOn.org together transformed campaign fundraising in ways that were unimaginable just a decade ago. I wish the book told more about how they did that; Trippi insists that much of the momentum created was beyond his control and understanding. He includes an anecdote about losing $4 million in a day because the Donate button didn’t appear where people could see it on the web page, which would seem to confirm the old adage that the devil is in the details.

Unfortunately, that’s the kind of detail that is far too rare in this book. Trippi’s explanation for the collapse of Howard Dean’s campaign in Iowa is simple: The media and Dean’s opponents started attacking him once he became the frontrunner, and the attacks worked. The book grumpily sidesteps questions about whether Dean’s Internet tactics themselves contributed to the spectacular bursting of the campaign’s bubble.

The Dean strategy assumed the existence of an army of mostly young nonvoters who, once energized, would enter politics and transform electoral democracy. In Internet terms, strategists thought these folks were “lurkers,” previously content to watch the action from outside politics until Howard Dean finally gave them a reason for hope. In the end, though, polls leading up to the Iowa caucuses overstated support for Dean.

While attack ads certainly account for some of his spectacular decline, it’s also possible that, in the end, Internet support doesn’t translate directly into on-the-ground political support. Where are all those new voters?

There were thousands of young volunteers—dubbed Deanie-babies—who came to Iowa from out of state to knock on doors and promote the Dean candidacy.

But many experts think those out-of-state door-knockers actually scared off voters, including voters whom polls said were previously planning to vote for Howard Dean. Everyone would benefit if Trippi offered a more candid evaluation of the Dean campaign’s techniques. MoveOn is mobilizing volunteers to make 800,000 calls per week in swing states from now until the election. The organization gives each volunteer a script and background information, but every professional political consultant knows that a certain percentage of volunteers will freelance it and just chat. Depending on what’s said, that can turn off voters. If MoveOn volunteers go off-message in just 20 percent of calls, that could cost the Democrats whole swing states. I hope to God I’m wrong.

Joe Trippi takes such concerns as a personal affront: “The Dean campaign did not lose because we relied too much on its populist Internet supporters,” he harrumphs. “The truth is this: The only reason the Dean campaign ever got close enough that it mattered was because of those people.”

But can’t both be true? Can’t Internet supporters be a source of strength in some areas, like fundraising, but an unreliable medium for other things like generating votes on Election Day? Not every campaign tactic can be open- sourced, and there’s a reason people hire campaign consultants. MoveOn hires professional firms to create their TV ads and field their polls. I wish they regarded phone banking in a similar light, using supporters to pay for the service, not necessarily as the delivery vehicle, if only so I’d sleep better at night.

So, what can we really say about the Internet and its effect on political communications and electoral politics in general? The first edition of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (2000) never mentions the Internet. In the second edition, published in 2002, Gladwell doesn’t get around to talking about the Internet until the afterword. But arguably, his book offers a far better explanation of why the Howard Dean campaign took off and fell apart than does the account by Dean’s campaign manager. A joy to read and keenly instructive, The Tipping Point is today taught in college courses across the globe. In a short span of time, it has become one of the most influential books in the world on the subject of how trends regarding products, ideology, and cultural phenomena are created and spread.

Gladwell’s analysis provides a structure and terminology to understand processes that many of us recognize instinctively because they constitute how we communicate with the world, and the world with us. The simplicity of his model is a source of its power. Ideology and culture spreads among people in patterns roughly similar to those of medical epidemics—one to one, with some individuals transmitting to many people, while others remain relatively isolated.

He identifies three types of individuals who develop and spread cultural epidemics: Mavens, Connectors, and Salespeople. Mavens gather information and distribute it to others. Connectors know lots of people and connect the mavens’ information with people who may have use for it. Salespeople promote the information generated by mavens. Individuals may themselves perform more than one of these three roles, and he shows how some exceptional people—his most delightful example was Paul Revere—play all three. Trippi cites The Tipping Point, declaring that Gladwell’s “connectors, were called “bloggers” in the Dean campaign.

Just having each of those types of people doesn’t guarantee success, though. Gladwell identified the characteristics of “stickiness” and “context” that can play a decisive role. It’s not just that bloggers are connectors; they’re “sticky.” They give people a reason to return to a web site, either to read the new day’s blog or to see if anyone responded to a post (for many an addictive pastime).

At a time when 70 percent of Americans are online, blogs provide a cheap, easy way to communicate with core supporters. For example, Brad Carson, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Oklahoma, uses a daily blog to promote his campaign. “Of 11,000 unique visitors on the Carson Web site in June, some 9,000 went to the blog—8,350 more than those who read Carson’s formal statement under ‘Issues,'” reported Wired magazine. Maybe voters are looking for more authentic communications from candidates and fewer canned statements, or maybe there’s another reason, but web users are voting with their feet. One thing that the Dean campaign did manage to show was that blogs will be a central part of near-term web organizing.

Gladwell describes how “context” may be the most important factor in determining whether social epidemics “tip.” The context that explains the Dean campaign’s meteoric rise is simple: He was the only candidate running more than a symbolic candidacy who opposed the war in Iraq. Dean demonstrated backbone when the Democratic Party was searching for one. Trippi acknowledges that, but downplays the role of the war, preferring to congratulate the campaign for reaching out to people “where they live,” i.e., on the Internet. But it’s impossible to imagine Dean’s Internet campaign working the way it did outside the context of Democrats like John Kerry and John Edwards, who were running scared after September 11 for fear of being labeled “soft on terrorism.” If John Kerry opposed the Iraq war and the Patriot Act from the get-go, then Dean’s “insurgency” campaign could never have existed. Howard Dean came forward with the right message at the right time, and it resonated with a large number of disillusioned Democrats who otherwise wouldn’t know him from Howard Johnson.

Like Malcolm Gladwell, James Surowiecki, the author of The Wisdom of Crowds, writes for The New Yorker magazine, and both men thank some of the same people in their acknowledgements. The similarity between the two books doesn’t stop there, though. Gladwell blurbed Surowiecki’s book, and the jacket flap announces it to be a “biography of an idea,” an artful turn of phrase used by Gladwell in the opening pages of The Tipping Point.

Surowiecki explores a bold thesis—that collective wisdom exceeds individual wisdom. Unfortunately, the circumstances that must exist for his argument to be correct seldom occur in any meaningful real-world scenario. That leaves the part of his thesis that’s true a mere novelty; the rest is simply unproven.

First, the part that’s true. Surowiecki makes much of the odd phenomenon that an average of ignorant guesses can sometimes be more accurate than a response from the most intelligent individual. The book opens with a discussion of a British scientist who examined the results of a contest at a county fair to guess the slaughtered weight of an ox. When the scientist averaged their guesses, the crowd was off by just one pound. Surowiecki has many other examples, such as guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar, or even estimating the location of a missing submarine. His best-known example comes from popular culture, the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? whose audience routinely outperformed the experts that contestants were allowed to call.

In essence, Surowiecki and Joe Trippi hold quite similar philosophies. Both believe in letting “the people,” defined as broadly as possible, make decisions. Both see Linux and open-source programming as the new dominant model of social organization, and neither envisions much of a problem with that. Both see Google, which provides information seekers with the best links using an essentially democratic mechanism, as a model. But Surowiecki’s version contains many caveats and much bet-hedging. He’s willing to explore the subject, not just pitch a theory. That’s why The Wisdom of Crowds is worth reading, even though its thesis is overstated (and even though it lacks an index).

Surowiecki is infatuated with the notion of information markets like the one operated by the University of Iowa Business School, where investors guess elections with money riding on the outcomes. (See www.biz.uiowa.edu/iem, which describes the Iowa Electronic Markets as “real-money futures markets in which contract payoffs depend on economic and political events such as elections.”) He also laments the fact that the federal government won’t create a market on terrorism information where people could buy shares predicting the likelihood of various types and targets of terrorist attacks. (He thinks such markets would be better at predicting such events than the CIA. I’ll grant that they couldn’t do worse.)

Surowiecki uses several academic examples to argue that small groups are “smarter” than individuals, flying in the face of conventional wisdom that a camel is a racehorse designed by committee. Using experiments with marbles, where groups discuss and predict patterns involving which color will come out of a jar, he finds that even small groups make better decisions than individuals under ideal circumstances. The problem is that, for his theory to work, the individuals in the crowd must be diverse, they must be completely independent, and the subject matter must be value-neutral.

Circumstances in real life are almost never so ideal. As Surowiecki acknowledges, everything from media reports to the weather to the actions of a single charismatic individual can relieve a crowd of its independence. Even Google can be “Google bombed” to skew outcomes. (Don’t believe it? Type in “miserable failure” and press the button labeled “I’m feeling lucky.”) To use Gladwell’s terminology, crowds are wise until someone tries to “tip” them. But someone’s trying to do that all the time!

Surowiecki tries to get out of this conundrum by saying that, even when an individual creates a new idea that “tips” among the public, the “wisdom” of the crowd lies in its decision to imitate the extraordinary individual. At this point, his argument devolves into tautology.

At the end of the book, it falls completely apart (much like the Dean campaign itself), when he applies his “wisdom of crowds” analysis to electoral democracy. Surowiecki declares that differing values about what constitutes the public good make it impossible to judge whether an election results in a rational outcome. Well, no kidding! That’s what’s wrong about the whole theory.

Our choices in life are seldom as simple as the weight of an ox or the number of jelly-beans in the jar. Our politics, in contrast, reflect our considered opinions, our frequently less considered reactions to events and messages, and the influence of our peer groups. Even in the age of the Internet and instant communications, relationships between individuals and the direct impressions we make on one another still matter—maybe more than ever.

Scott Henson is a veteran political warhorse and a former associate editor of the Observer.