Bill, Baby, Bill: Ari Wallach's Assault on Binary Online Politics
BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, May 13 2010
Standing at the intersection of the 2008 campaign's Great Schlep and the U.S. State Department's Opinion Space is Bill, Baby, Bill.
Let me explain. The Great Schlep was the brainchild of Ari Wallach, in my humble opinion, one of the most creative online innovators working in the political space today. The premise, on one level, was simple. Rumors and innuendo were, in 2008, getting between Barack Obama and members of the Jewish community, particularly in the key state of Florida. Who better to convince Nana and Bubbie of Obama's merits than their Obama-loving grandkids? Sarah Silverman was even recruited to record a saucy web video. But there was a deeper intention: shifting the public discourse about Barack Obama by injecting more voices into it.
Then, there's Opinion Space. I profiled the State Department experiment in mapping global public opinion back in March, calling it "intriguing, exciting, engaging," and "the slightest bit inscrutable." Berkeley professor Ken Goldberg, the State Department's partner in the project, explained the project this way: "The model that is often used [online] is that there is a binary relationship -- friends or not friends, followers or not followers. All the nuances are not being all that well captured. But the real world isn't like that. Everything is messy and shades of gray. People feel more comfortable answering questions that allow them to convey a sense of gradation."
Wallach was a consultant to the State Department on Opinion Space, and cites Goldberg as a mentor. Both are influenced by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, and in particular his work on discourse ethics that examines the morality inherent in public debate and the role that consideration of differing opinions has in shaping how we, as human, interact with one another. Both Wallach and Goldberg use the word binary to talk about the way that online debate has trended in recent years, and both see other, better possibilities. "There was a post-partisan these that was alive for like four days," after the election of Barack Obama. "And that ethos is going to live or die depending on what we do online," says Wallach.
Which brings us to Bill, Baby, Bill. In sum, it's a Twitter campaign to try to counter the opinion of one U.S. Senator, Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, that it is "impossible" to pass a climate change bill through the Senate at this juncture. The site, BillBabyBill.info generates tweets in favor of a bill, directed at your home state senator (unless your home state is Kentucky, West Virginia, or Rhode Island; those state's senators don't have Twitter accounts).
"I initially though of this not as a 'Twitter thing,'" said the Manhattan-based Wallach in an interview yesterday. "I thought of it as a 'How can I hack Google Alerts?' thing. People are tracking their buzz rating. Communications directors are tracking their Google feeds. The thinking is, 'How can I game that?'" Wallach had the idea in the shower on Thursday, he says, and the New York City-based firm Empax had the site up and running in short order.
What's important here, says Wallach, is that the Bill, Baby, Bill campaign is, really, anything but binary. It's a push for debate, for the United States Senate to utterly reject the idea that a bill on climate change isn't made impossible by politics or public events.
Its inspiration, of course, is the "Drill, Baby, Drill" push made popular by Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign. "Drill, Baby, Drill is a very binary thing," says Wallach. "And that ethos is very dangerous to our world, those sort of narrowcasted solutions. It's a great short term play. But it's a shitty long-term play for my grandkids."
"Everyone wanted there to be axes on Opinion Space," said Wallach. "That would be a great thing for a polling firm to do. But Opinion Space is about thinking through what other people think about what you think. You know, we don't have to be black or white on these things."
Wallach knows that Bill, Baby, Bill is an experiment, and a small one that that. But it raises the question: can Wallach, Goldberg, and others reorient online activism and engagement towards what Wallach calls the Internet's "IRC roots," referring to the free wheeling discussion forums of the early days?
One thing working against them is that, says Wallach, traditional advocacy groups tend to want to pay consultants for online campaigns that are for Bill X or against the extinction of animal Y. Wallach says he talked to a number of people in the environmental and energy advocacy worlds before launching Bill, Baby, Bill. "A lot of the organizations had a specific points that they wanted in the bill -- Yes on Nukes, No on Nukes. People said, 'If you say this, or if you say that, we'll pay for it. There's a membership-industrial complex that wants to wait and see." Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke blogged yesterday about the new Kerry-Lieberman bill draft, "It is too soon to say where NRDC stands on every aspect of the bill. As I write this, NRDC experts are combing through the document, and I imagine they will discover things in it that NRDC likes and things we don’t."
"I'm the little guy shouting into the wind," says Wallach. "And I understand that. But there are already a lot of people making a lot of money online doing transactional politics. I don't think the Internet is built for that. I think that's just fancy direct mail."
"It's an uphill battle. It's not where dollars and audience is right now," says Wallach. "But it's an uphill battle that's also our jobs."