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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Readers vs. Users

There is something inherently sad about reading a writer with a reputation for greatness and coming to the sudden, jarring realization that time and technology have inescapably passed him by. But that kind of conclusion is hard to avoid after reading Leon Wieseltier’s latest Washington Diary for The New Republic.
The centerpiece of his column is a complaint about an email he received from President Obama after the Inauguration. The crux of Wieseltier’s argument boils down to this: Obama’s rhetoric and the tools he uses to advance it are based on the premise that we are one nation, united with common purpose and goals, but we are in fact a splintered collection of people with divurgent views of reality and all Obama’s techological ‘networks’ only succeed in creating a veneer of actual connectivity.
The argument about our relative level of unification as a country seems silly knowing that close to three quarters of Americans approve of Obama’s rhetoric, and perhaps that’s why Wieseltier saves his real ire for the networks. Toward the end of the piece, he writes:

For one of [Obama’s] innovations in American politics has been the zealous adoption of the ideology of the network. To be sure, there were practical reasons: email and YouTube are cheaper than direct mail, and of course cooler–but direct mail is all they are. The number of people who can be reached in an instant is genuinely astounding–but this is a marketer’s dream, nothing more.

This statement is indicative of a fundmentally-flawed and outdated worldview.
If I were to guess, I’d bet that Wieseltier still pays for a newspaper subscription. Why does that matter? Because people who purchase print newspapers are readers.
People who read newspapers online, however, are users. Using tools built by the media outlets, we email articles to friends. We share op-eds on Twitter, react to news stories on blogs, and we post columns to Facebook.
People read direct mail. People use Internet communication.
We forward the emails that Obama sends to our family. We rate YouTube videos and then we post them to our personal websites. We react to everything, which in turn sparks a ‘national conversation.’
Compare that with offline communication. No one ever puts new postage on a piece of direct mail to send on to a friend.
And the remarkable thing about Obama and his staff is their ability to turn online communication into offline action.
Since the campaign ended, thousands of individuals have signed up to Facebook groups with the expressed intent of lobbying Congress to pass Obama’s recovery bill. This weekend, thousands of people attended ‘Economic Recovery House Meetings’ to discuss the president’s plan. Organizing for America tells that there were 3,587 meetings in 1,579 cities in 429 congressional districts and all 50 states.
Try getting people to do that with a piece of direct mail.
UPCATEGORY: Democratic Strategist

2 comments on “Readers vs. Users

  1. Matt on

    While I am an Internet optimist, I really don’t think anything I’ve described is technological triumphalism. I’m not forecasting what people could do; I’m describing the political reality that exists.
    When Obama sends out an email, millions of people read it. Some click on the links in the body, some forward the message to their friends, and sure, plenty just delete it and move on. But even if the use rate is 20 percent, that means that 2.6 million people take some sort of subsequent action. That means that email is social media.
    Even more so with YouTube. The reason that the most popular Obama speeches have been viewed tens of millions of times is because Internet users are finding ways to share that content with their friends. Video of the president’s speeches are posted all over the Internet — from blogs, to Facebook, to Whitehouse.gov.
    By the way, you and I (and others all over the Internet) are arguing the merits of a column which I have never seen in physical form. Even Wieseltier’s column is a type of media it wouldn’t be if The New Republic only existed as a print publication.

  2. ducdebrabant on

    I never forward political emails to friends or family, because they’d rightly regard them as spam. I don’t read half of the emails from the Dems I’m supposed to “use” and I fail to see how I’m using emails I don’t even read. I usually sign the petitions I’m asked to sign, but I think the people who receive them can probably gauge my true commitment at the same they gauge my true opinion. The ease with which I sign an online petition devalues the petition. What does it mean to rate a YouTube video? All of the “interactive” stuff I do with what Mr. Wieseltier correctly considers direct mail that is supposed to make it something more than direct mail is just me spamming back at whoever the DNC is targeting this week, or (in their dreams) my friends. This is all a very romantic view of the wonderful internet but it reminds me of the 1990s value of publicly traded .com stocks, of the “paperless office,” and of the promise that soon, very soon, we’d all be flying around our metropolises with our own jetpacks. There’s nothing new under the sun.


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