[iDC] reflections on Personal Democracy Forum 2007

Joshua Levy joshualev at gmail.com
Tue May 29 00:19:03 EDT 2007

Although it took place a little over a week ago, my impressions of the
2007 Personal
Democracy Forum <http://www.personaldemocracy.com/conference> conference,
which I attended on May 18th and helped to organize, are fresh in my mind.

First, a disclaimer: I'm Associate Editor for the PdF website and for a
group blog called TechPresident, which both cover the way technology is
changing politics.  The former is an online companion to the conference and
a blog in its own right; the latter is a more-focused group blog covering
how the web is being used in the 2008 U.S. president campaign, both by
supporters and the candidates themselves.  Though it's an offshoot of the
PdF site, it's become arguably more popular and influential, landing
publisher Andrew Rasiej and editor Micah Sifry, and to a much lesser extent
me, in the media spotlight.

The conference and the sites are devoted to covering the way that online
technology -- blogs, video, social networking sites like Facebook and
MySpace, Twitter, mashups of all sorts, and so on -- are helping citizens
get more involved in the political process and self-organize outside of
traditional campaign structures.  For example, we're interested in the how
MySpace, despite the problems of proprietary ownership and immaterial labor
that Trebor and others of discussed here, also provides a platform for
citizens to organize around issues like the genocide in Darfur and to get
the word out to potentially hundreds of thousands of supporters, or how
politicians are using YouTube to connect to supporters and, ideally, inject
a new kind of transparency and authenticity into the electoral process.

I try not to be a utopian but I'm constantly impressed at how much potential
there is for activism in today's mainstream online culture -- witness
Facebook's new Platform that let's developers hook into their API and create
apps that could take advantage of the viral nature of Facebook and could get
a message out to thousands of friends in a single instant.  Consider the
fact that 80% of college students use Facebook; make it easy for them to get
political or social messages out to their friends and you could seed a
thousand campaigns.

This year's conference was the biggest in numbers since it began in
2004.  Almost 700 people showed up to hear Larry Lessig, Yochai Benkler, Tom
Friedman, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, danah boyd, and others (those are just a
few of the folks from the *morning *sessions) talk about the influence of
technology on politics.  The afternoon held more traditional panels, a
series of demos, and a roundtable with techies working on current
presidential campaigns.

While Lessig, Benkler, boyd, and others wowed the crowed (as Benkler spoke
you could almost hear the sound of a hundred people clasping their hands to
their heads in overloaded delight), less enthusiasm greeted a conversation
between Friedman and Schmidt; they contentedly spoke about how this new
Internet thing was really, really great and how it was bringing so much more
information to so many more people.

The words "China" or "Tiananmen Square" were conspicuously and
disappointingly absent (maybe they were censored by the Google higher-ups).

Then Friedman spoke for an hour, reading from an update to his book *The
World Is Flat *and giving his take on the wonders of the web.  It was a
conference attended by experienced politicos and technologists from both
sides of the aisle, and some attendees were upset that so much time was
given over to the CEO of one of the largest corporations in the world that
is open about wanting to own all information, everywhere, and a columnist
for the New York Times who is notorious for his support for the Iraq
war.  They wanted participation, provocation, etc -- the kind of openness
you'd find at a BarCamp -- and we gave it to them at an "unconference" the
next day, where the attendees were also presenters.  Those that came to the
unconference were generally happier with the structure, since if they had a
session in mind they simply had to propose it and it would happen.  You can
read everyone's reactions

So what did we actually talk about? Session titles ranged from "Embracing
Voter-Generated Content" to "Web 2.0: Cult of the Amateur?" (moderated by me
and featuring Andrew Keen, Clay Shirky, Craig Newmark, and Robert Scoble --
that was fun) "Political Money Online: Getting It and Spending It More
Effectively" and  "E-Lessons from Overseas: Europe, Latin America and

The discussion on this list tends toward the theoretical, but although we
never engaged in, say, a discussion of Habermas and the public sphere, we
did look at how notions of distributed creativity or Benkler's wealth of
networks actually affect politics on the ground.  Meeting Farouk Olu Aregbe,
the man who created the "One Million Strong for Barack" campaign on
Facebook, or meeting campaign staffers finding interesting ways to use
Twitter, was helped me see how people are using this idea of participatory
online culture for political purposes.  Although I tend to be uncomfortable
supporting mainstream political campaigns and ideas, there is a ton to learn
by watching how any groups are using social media and technology.  And it's
fun to be around politicos who, at heart, are geeks like me.

Was the conference a success?  From my vantage point it's hard to
tell.  Although there were complaints about Schmidt and Friedman, they also
helped to draw in the sponsorship that helped pay for the conference in the
first place, and to get more media attention.  It could also be argued that
bringing them into the fold spurred a necessary critique of their
corporate-utopianism and wide-eyed wonder of the web.

More than anything else, my experience co-organizing the unconference
reminded me of how fun and important the BarCamp-style conferences can
be.  Their very structure is an exercise in applying our love of the wiki to
something offline, and it largely works.

I know some of you on this list were at the conference and even spoke there;
I hope to see some of you next year too, and to hear your opinions about
taking this discussion to what some would consider the belly of the beast.

-Josh Levy

Joshua Levy
AIM: levjoy12

Joshua Levy
AIM: levjoy12
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