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Citizen 2008: Using the Internet for Individual Political Advocacy in the Elections and Beyond

BY Colin Delany | Thursday, September 11 2008

Cross-published on e.politics

In today's spirit of getting things done, let's take a look next at how individual citizens can involve themselves in politics using the internet and do it effectively. So before we all stampede straight off to talking about specific tools like usual, let's think instead for a minute about some basic guidelines -- rules of thumb which can apply equally whether we're working on behalf of a candidate or a cause, and that'll stay relevant as technology evolves.

Effective Political Outreach is Usually Based on Relationships, Online or Off

Politics IS relationships, almost by definition -- without social connections, politics doesn't exist. For instance, "good" lobbyists cultivate relationships with elected officials and their staffs for the excellent reason that friendship solidifies their status as a trusted source. When you set out to do politics over the internet (or in person), you're most likely going to see the best results when you work through the connections you already have -- and you'll naturally see wider results as you reach out to make more.

When You Speak on a Campaign's Behalf, You Become Its Public Face

When you open your mouth in public to promote a political action or opinion, even if it's just in a message distributed to a handful of friends or family, your behavior reflects on what you're promoting. When you make that video, write that Facebook Wall post or forward that email, how your audience perceives your credibility is going to influence how they judge the candidate or issue you're talking about.

I'm not arguing here in favor of rigid self-censorship, but just remember that the camera is always recording and that Google never forgets. So stay cool and don't be a jerk needlessly.

The Closer to Home You Work, The More Influence You're Likely to Have

In general, the better we know people, the more likely we are to listen to them (unless we think they're not a trusted source and are in fact a loser). A pretty simple idea, but one we often overlook in a society that elevates a few celebrity voices above all others. You don't have to have a big audience to make a difference, and in fact the audience you'll probably make the most difference with is the one you know best, your family and friends. So if you're looking for a place to start, try home first and move outward from there.

The same rule applies to public as well as private spaces: look for local blogs and local media websites to contribute to or comment on, since your voice is likely to carry more weight in your close community.

Start with the Tools You Already Use

Twitter! Blog! Delicious! What? A handful of relatively specialized online tools get a ton of attention in the media, but most people wouldn't even know where to begin with them. If you're reading this, though, I bet you have email and maybe a Facebook or MySpace account or participate in an online community.

When you're starting out in online politics, begin with the tools you already use -- email if you're an emailer, Facebook messaging if you're a social networker, online video if you're a YouTube enthusiast, Second Life if you lack a first one (just kidding). From there, you can experiment at will. Maybe someday you'll even Twitter the night away, but in that case I recommend intervention.

Your Voice May Be Louder Than You Think

Here's the thing about politics -- far fewer people are active than you might realize. Sure Obama and McCain have raised hundreds of millions of dollars online, but really only around 1% of the country has donated money to either. And much of the online debate on blogs and discussion sites is driven by a handful of loud voices. Once you enter the ring, you may find more people than you realize listening to what you have to say.

That crazy uncle who forwards anti-whatever lying emails to a big cc: list? Why not write back politely to the same list with a link to a credible article debunking the claim? Or, nutcases dominating comments on the local newspaper website? Offer an alternative! More people may be waiting to hear your point of view than you realize.

Don't Be Afraid to Think Big

Don't be afraid to start small and local, but don't be afraid to think big, either. Your brilliant video is likely to get viewed by you, your mom and your cat if you don't promote it widely (and probably even then), but you never know when something you create is going to take off and gain a life of its own. My friend nerdette27 didn't expect her video response to Sarah Palin's convention speech to be viewed tens of thousands of times and to generate over 550 YouTube comments in a week, but it did -- and she might just end up an online cult figure before we're done. Dozens of blog posts, emails, videos, websites, animations, songs and other pieces of citizen expression have already influenced the 2008 elections in some way large or small, and yours might just be the next.

After 2008

Remember, politics doesn't stop when the votes are counted -- next comes the REAL work. And if you think relatively few people pay attention to elections, try getting them to stay awake during a discussion of urban planning policy. The same tools and tactics you use to spread the word about a candidate can work in the policy realm year round, and I bet you'll sound even louder with fewer voices in the room. If you do anything really interesting, let me know!

This article is based on a presentation I delivered at the Maryland Association of Realtors Conference on September 9, 2008.

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