Previously in Web Citations:
Alec Appelbaum on why the Web should do better than one-click charity.
Get a Life
Katie Bacon on Cyberguy, DotComGuy, and other intrepid trailblazers on the e-commerce frontier.
Wen Stephenson on why new commercial efforts to bridge the "digital divide" may only make it wider.
Shake Your Musicmaker
Are the days of the album format numbered? Ben Auburn looks at Musicmaker.com and other sites that let you build your own CD compilations.
Nicholas Confessore on Vote.com, Dick Morris's foray into online democracy.
Revenge of the Wizards
Harvey Blume looks at Neal Stephenson's "In the Beginning Was the Command Line," and wonders if a Linux triumph is really what we want.
Hey Ho, GIFs Must Go!
Charles C. Mann contemplates Burn All GIFs Day, perhaps the first political protest ever staged because of an algorithm.
More Web Citations in Atlantic Unbound.
April 6, 2000
If nothing else, the now-extinguished John McCain insurgency injected some life into what was otherwise shaping up to be an excruciatingly predictable race. Within forty-eight hours of McCain's upset victory in New Hampshire, the McCain 2000 Web site drew in 8,000 new volunteers and close to $1 million in campaign contributions. The latter was a record dollars-per-hour figure in presidential elections and, it seemed, proof positive that the Internet was finally beginning to have a serious effect on the dynamics of American politics. But McCain 2000 may have been just the beginning. A new wave of for-profit "politics portals" -- Voter.com , GoVote.com, Grassroots.com, SpeakOut.com, and others -- aim to do for civic life what McCain's insurgency did for the presidential race: shake things up a bit.
All of these sites are, for the most part, variations on a theme. Register and plug in information like your ZIP code or favorite issues, and they will funnel you user-specific news (mostly AP feeds and fluffy "exclusives"), candidate bios and legislative records, issue briefings from groups like the National Rifle Association, and even streaming video clips. (Warning: some of this seems to be "under construction." Even after supplying my Cambridge, Mass., ZIP code to Voter.com, I couldn't access the legislative records of my state representatives, congressional representative, or either of my senators.) And, in keeping with the general ethos of activism, most of the sites allow you to sign petitions, take part in online polls -- albeit the unscientific and therefore meaningless kind -- join politics-themed chat rooms, and even register to vote. "Get past the cynicism," admonishes Grassroots.com's editor-in-chief, Perla Ni. "We challenge you to rise above it, make an effort to participate -- join a club, start a group, or just become better informed about the public life around you -- and enjoy the feeling of being part of working with others towards a common and worthy goal."
Not that these sites are selfless works of public-spiritedness. In January, The New York Times reported that Voter.com planned to share users' aggregated data with "clients" -- advocacy groups, polling organizations, and other such firms -- and aim tailored political advertising and other appeals at the users. (You can parse for yourself the rather complicated conditions under which such sharing might occur by reading the carefully phrased privacy policies of Grassroots.com here and Voter.com here.)
The sites don't always live up to their names, either. Many of the new ventures have enlisted the same sort of Beltway operatives -- former White House press secretary Mike McCurry and former Bush Administration chief of staff John Sununu sit on the board of Grassroots.com, for instance -- who represent precisely the kind of old, tired politics to which the new sites have proclaimed themselves the antidote. And some of them seem a bit confused about how to make politics more responsive. Voter.com claims that on its site "the individual voter -- not the media or the campaign management -- sets the information agenda," and then hails its new partnerships with MSNBC and The Hotline (i.e., the media) and the Republican and Democratic National Committees (i.e., "the campaign management").
Ultimately, though, Voter.com, Grassroots.com, and the rest, look like nothing so much as a pretty typical bunch of Internet start-ups. To them, the marketplace of ideas is just another marketplace, and political discourse is merely another form of commerce -- the buying and selling of candidates, ideas, and issues. And just as the Internet can make conventional commercial activities (for example, shopping for books) quicker and more convenient, so do sites like Grassroots.com and Voter.com seek to make politics quicker and more convenient. Putting candidate bios, legislative records, forums, and petitions all on one site is the activist's equivalent of one-click shopping, whereby politics can be reinvigorated -- and apathy routed -- by changing its process. "The decisions haven't gotten any easier," goes Voter.com's motto. "Participating in them has."
But is ease of participation the real problem? Congress has passed two major voting reforms in the past three decades: the Twenty-Sixth Amendment in 1971, which brought the voting age down to eighteen, and the 1993 "motor-voter law," which made it far easier to register to vote. Neither has had a great impact on political participation, according to data from the Federal Election Commission: overall turnout has declined steadily -- from about 61 percent in 1968 to 49 percent in the last presidential election.
Arguably, Americans' apathy is less a matter of convenience or inconvenience (how easy or difficult it is to vote) than of substance (who and what you get to vote for). That means the for-profit political sites have it backwards. In the end, they are not e-commerce businesses, but content businesses -- and some kinds of content just don't sell. One-click shopping will never help Amazon.com sell more copies of Pliny the Elder's Natural History (current sales rank: 66,467), no matter how convenient they make it. The Web site of Libertarian candidate Harry Brown may be as easily accessible as Al Gore's, but not very many people are in the market for organized libertarianism.
Nothing demonstrates the whole conundrum better than John McCain's presidential run. The Internet may have provided a new and improved means to harness the rampant enthusiasm McCain inspired. But for all the attention paid to his campaign's smart leveraging of information technology, it was McCain's biography and entirely anachronistic campaign personality -- a throwback, really, to the Kennedy years -- that actually inspired the enthusiasm in the first place. McCain 2000, then, was a content-driven enterprise, not a process-driven enterprise -- and McCain himself was the content.
But as many Internet companies have discovered, if the content of a content-based business sucks, that business will fail. And, notwithstanding the novelty of a John McCain, if there's one thing American voters have pretty consistently agreed upon during the past few decades, it's that the content of American politics pretty much sucks.
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More on technology and digital culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Nicholas Confessore is a staff writer at The American Prospect.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.