Web 2.0 gives birth to Politics 2.0

When it comes to adapting information technology, Washington is always about two years behind the rest of the country. So it makes sense that, finally, Web 2.0 is catching hold and gathering momentum here, in early 2007.

Washington’s political operative and consulting class has been energized by the early start to the 2008 election. And no one is ignoring the Web this campaign cycle. Call it Politics 2.0, and watch how it changes the media power balance when it comes to political discourse.

Consider YouTube’s YouChoose ’08, which last month launched its online channels for presidential candidates – and has 13 of them in a fortnight. Yahoo’s presidential election site is attempting to build community around Flickr photo-shoots of candidates on the stump. MySpace is likely to start a presidential space of its own.

Sure, every major candidate has paid lip service to glories of the Internet since 1996. Bill Clinton invoked the “information super-highway” and connecting classrooms to the Internet. Bob Dole clumsily mangled his campaign’s Web address during a presidential debate.

That was all window-dressing. Their teams – and their successors’ teams’ in 2000 and 2004 – mostly hired a few geeks to play politics on computers. The real campaigning went on in the broadcast television networks and in the pages of The New York Times and Washington Post.

That’s about to change. There is an energy about electoral politics and the Internet that is different this time around. Almost all of it has to do with maturation of software and social networking models that could upset the pre-ordained dance between candidates, media and voters. Already, we’ve seen John Edwards make YouTube a big part of his campaign, with others close behind.

To put it in other words, can Web 2.0 in 2008 truly displace the “MSM” as the premier medium of political discourse? Can the blogosphere bring down the mass-market media stage?

It could. Or at least it might. So says Joe Trippi, former campaign manager to Howard Dean. Sure, Dean lost. But Chuck DeFeo, who was eCampaign Manager for Bush-Cheney ’04, agrees completely with Trippi’s analysis. Now he’s trying to harness conservative backlashers – the people who do “not believe that Dan Rather was reflecting” their views – to congregate at Salem Communications’ Townhall.com.

Trippi and DeFeo were only two of the geek-politicos that gathered last week for Politics Online, the annual conference of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University. Optimism about the Politics 2.0 was high.

Even NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen, who predicted that candidates would use Web 2.0 technologies as a “symbolic gesture” but “keep things exactly the same,” was bullish on blogs and wikis. They would do for citizen journalism what his previous calling – promoting “public journalism” in an (unsuccessful) effort to get the press to focus on election issues, and not the horse race – could never do.

Also represented at the conference were the creators of innovative sites like TechPresident and PresVid.com, or “the YouTube Campaign.” Online strategies herald new voter engagement that will “make politicians more accountable, creating a virtuous circle where elected officials who are… less top-down are rewarded with greater voter trust and support,” wrote TechPresident creators Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry.

But if Politics 2.0 benefits smart politicians and engaged voters, who loses from this new turn of affairs? The mainstream media!

Indeed, the most entertaining part of Politics Online came from a panel that pitted bloggers versus MSM: Rosen and Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine.com and PresVid against Jim Brady, executive editor of the washingtonpost.com, and David Plotz, deputy editor of Slate (now owned by the Washington Post).

Plotz said that Web traffic shows that horse race is what readers want – and don’t “want to eat their vegetables.”

“Journalists are convinced that no one wants ‘issues’ stories,” countered Rosen. “I don’t think that is going to change. The wild card is all the people excluded by the earlier process and all the things they can bring.”

If there’s a king-maker in Politics 2.0, it won’t be the likes of The New York Times or the CBS evening news.

By there may still be an opening. Consider an off-handed comment at the conference by Eliott Schrage, vice president of global communications for Google: “We have reached out to all the candidates and invited them to come to Google, to talk technology and policy, and maybe even grab lunch. And we are going to put those videos up if we can, and if the candidates permit us, on our web sites as well.”

Is it possible that the most consequential media pilgrimage a candidate makes in the 2008 election will be to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, rather than to the mid-town Manhattan news rooms of The Times or the CBS Evening News?