Welcome to the Empowerment Age

Earlier this week, the Pew Internet and American Life project released a brief report on “voter engagement” in the 2008 election, which argued primarily that:

Voters expect that the level of public engagement they experienced with Barack Obama during the campaign, much of it occurring online, will continue into the early period of his new administration. A majority of Obama voters expect to carry on efforts to support his policies and try to persuade others to back his initiatives in the coming year; a substantial number expect to hear directly from Obama and his team; and a notable cohort say they have followed the transition online.

Photo by Joe Crimmings
Photo by Joe Crimmings

The report resonated well with me since I’ve just finished reading Joe Trippi’s excellent book from 2004, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. (A second edition is also available, including an author’s note and afterword on the 2008 campaign). (Although I do wonder about the difference between “being engaged” and “support[ing] his policies.” The choice of terms in the PEW report which seems to collapse the two. I’d argue the most important way to be engaged is to continue to examine everyone’s policies critically, not just to support them or ask others to do so. For example, the choice of Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the inauguration, while mostly symbolic, certainly deserves widespread critical comment).

The book focuses on Trippi’s experience with the Howard Dean presidential campaign and what he calls “open source” campaigning. Although many remember the campaign’s collapse (and the “scream” which was its highly visible, overplayed sound bite), Trippi argued (in 2004) that it is wrong to think of the campaign as a failure:

. . . it was a stunning victory that will resonate long after the election of 2004 is forgotten.
In fact, it was the opening salvo of a revolution, the sound of hundreds of thousands of Americans turning off their televisions and embracing the only form of technology that has allowed them to be involved gain, to gain control of a process that alienated them decaides ago. In the coming weeks and months and years, these hundreds of thousands will be followed by millions, and this revolution will not be satisfied with overthrowing a corrupt and unresponsive political system. It won’t stop at remaking politics. And it won’t pay attention to borders.

Trippi points the way for later candidates, including Obama, who would use the power of Internet-enabled, grass-roots, bottom-up, hyperlocal organization for political change:

Imagine the presidential candidate who is able to continue Dean for America’s exponential Internet growth . . . when it grows to two, then four, then six million online Americans – which Dean would have had if he’d been the nominee – all linked up on the Internet. At that point, the election will only be the beginning. That president’s mandate would be a living, breathing thing.

Joe Trippi - Photo by J.D. Lasica
Joe Trippi - Photo by J.D. Lasica

Trippi doesn’t just limit the impact of the shift to the arena of political campaigning, but seems it as symbolic of a much broader shift:

In fact, if every business and civic leader in every sector of the economy and in ever segment of society doesn’t think that in the next decade they’re in for Howard Dean-style surprises from the people they’ve been treating with total condescension, they haven’t been paying attention. Every business that spends $20 million on television advertising and just $20,000 to post a static web site that is updated once a month had better watch their backs. Every institution that doesn’t understand that the technology is finally here to allow people to reject what they’re being given and demand what they want had better start paying attention.
The revolution comes for you next.

Ultimately the key metaphor in Trippi’s tale is the contrast between the age of Television and the age of the Internet. (Trippi points to data from Bowling Alone which links the rise of television viewership and the decline of civic engagement). He argues that the ‘net has ushered in an age of empowerment:

In the beginning of this book, I wrote that we had misnamed this era The Information Age. I said that it should be more appropriately be called The Empowerment Age. This is what I meant: The Internet is the most democratizing innovation we’ve ever seen – more so than even the printing press. There has never been a technology this fast, this expansive, with the ability to connect this many people from around the world. If Madison was right, and the people can only govern when they can ‘arm themselves with the power which knowledge give,’ then the Internet is the first technology that truly gives people full access to that knowledge – and empowers them with the ability to do something with it.

Empowerment mural in Detroit - Photo by Taubuch
Empowerment mural in Detroit - Photo by Taubuch

Related posts from elsewhere:


  1. Yes! The Dean movement is still alive; kicking and screaming ;-) We started an event back in 2004 for Deaniacs to continue to network and plan (I also happened to get my copy of Trippi’s book at that first DemocracyFest) and we’re now planning it for the 6th year! http://www.democracyfest.net

  2. Have you seen any studies in recent weeks that delve into Obama’s online supporters and their activities on various social networks, their level of internet knowledge, and other anti-Luddite know-how?

    I can see how many “supporters or followers” he amassed on different networks, but as you know, “following @barackobama” is different than actively following him.

  3. Unfortunately I haven’t seen any studies that really go into any depth. Obviously the level of online engagement with Obama during the campaign, during the transition, and (it seems quite certain) ongoing into the administration is quite high – but how Obama supporters actually act on networks isn’t anything I have a handle on. (Clearly one might start by defining different levels of what it means to be an Obama supporter online, with a range from “mildly supporting” to “active in the campaign” or the like).

    I’d also be interested to see “Obama Supporters in General” compared to “Obama Supporters in Social Media” – that is, how are his online supporters different than his offline supporters, assuming there is such a thing. ;)

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