An International Conference
October 8-10, 1999
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Democracy and New Media

Citizenship and the Internet
Speaker: Elaine Kamarck


The concept of the "informed citizen" has been the cornerstone of most discussions of democracy, a notion that assumes that democracy rests on the quality of information that circulates among its citizens. Would you agree with this claim? How have shifts in the nature and flow of information had an impact on democracy? What aspects of the new digital media can be said to foster a more participatory form of government? Are there aspects of digital media that would seem to pose challenges for the creation of a more democratic society?

The World Wide Web has already established itself as a significant venue for American political candidates and election campaigns. In your judgment has the Web improved electoral discourse? What are the chief virtues, real or potential, of the Web as a space for politics and campaigning? What are its perils?

[The following is an edited summary, not a complete transcript.]

Elaine Kamarck: As part of a project at the Kennedy School for looking at the future of governance, we spent last year looking at the effects of the information revolution on governance. I gathered together a group of students and asked them to look at all the Websites of the candidates for the 1998 elections: everybody running for Senate, everybody running for House, and everybody running for governor. I was curious about how candidates were using the Web in 1998, and I wanted to measure several things that they were doing to establish a baseline. We can already see that there is even more use of the Web in 2000. So let me tell you a couple of the things that I found and then address the question of how it might be effecting our citizenship and our democracy.

First of all, which of the major party candidates had Websites in '98:

  • 95% of the gubernatorial
  • 72% of the Senate
  • 35% of the House

The low House percentage is probably not a result of lack of sophistication or money. In the context of any of these campaigns, the cost of putting up a site is not very big. It is probably because many, many House of Representative races are non-competitive races. So not only did they not have Websites, but they were probably not running television ads or radio ads either. So it is not necessarily associated with the House and its use or non use of the Internet. Obviously the numbers were similarly high for challengers -- particularly challengers in close races tended to be on the Web.

Let me turn to the question of independent and minor party candidates. I think there was a lot of hype in the early days of the Internet about how it was going to create radical politics of one sort or the other. So, who had Websites mong the independent candidates in '98:

  • 44% of the gubernatorial
  • 33% of Senate
  • 34% of House
So in other words, in 1998, the major party candidates were on the Web and the minor party and independent candidates were not using it nearly as much.

What did they do on the Web? I would characterize most of the Websites in 1998 as electronic brochures. They were not very different from the literature people use to drop off at your door. Most candidates in 1998 really weren't very creative on the Internet. They told you basic facts about the candidate and the candidate's family. They put some speeches up, they had a bulleted list of issues and they might give you some ways of contacting the campaign. But interestingly enough, they weren't interactive. Another interesting phenomenon was that very few of the campaigns in '98 used negative campaigning on their Internet sites. I thought this was interesting since so many of the campaigns do. There is a lot about how we hate negative campaigning, and on radio and television there certainly is a lot of negative campaigning, but only 22% of the Websites had any critical information about their opponents. So for some reason that I can't quite understand, the candidates seemed to have been better behaved on the Web than they were in the other media.

As I mentioned before very, very few people made use of the interactive potential of the Internet. I found this to be the most surprising and probably the place where there is the most room for growth in the future. 27% of the sites were totally passive; you could not talk to them at all. 72% were partially interactive which meant that you could send them an email or respond to a questionnaire. But there was absolutely no promise of a response of any kind. In fact there was one woman Republican candidate running in California for a House seat, whose site specifically said, "Please send us your email and don't expect to hear back from us," which I thought was fairly unwelcoming and certainly not making use of the potential of the Web for communication. Only two candidates that I found really engaged the interactive capacity of the Internet. They would hold real time town meetings -- they would sit at a keyboard and respond to questions and that was quite fascinating because you saw other communications media operating at the same time. In one of these exchanges online, a person wrote in about something that the candidate had said on the radio: "I heard you said this on the radio, did you mean that?" and the candidate then wrote back two paragraphs explaining. It was a pretty interesting example of some real meaningful democracy.

There were two other interesting things that I saw. One of the things we coded for was whether the site solicited campaign donations and 42% solicited campaign donations, but requested the contribution be sent through the mail. Only 11% allowed people to make campaign contributions by using a credit card, and they tended to be the bigger, more sophisticated Senate or gubernatorial campaigns. 47% did not even solicit contributions, which surprised me. My prediction is that in 2000, everyone who is on the Web will solicit campaign contributions through their Website and most of them will probably allow credit card contributions. But here is the interesting thing about the ability to solicit contributions on the Web: one of the reasons that we have had such problems with big money in campaigns for so long in this country is that, ironically, it is very expensive to raise small money. In other words, raising small donations costs a lot of money, raising big donations is actually cheaper. The rubber chicken dinner is cheaper than the direct mail list, which is very expensive to buy and has very low return. I think that the Internet offers the potential for opening up the process for small donations because it does not have the huge investment costs of direct mail. I put that out as an optimistic note.

The second thing we noted was whether the Website solicited volunteers. 50% did. But did it solicit cyber-volunteers? In other words, 50% solicited volunteers by means of this medium but they were asking them to come into an office and stuff envelopes and answer telephones. 5% did solicit cyber-volunteers. They allowed you to send your friends, via email , bumper stickers that they could put up on their own sites and various and sundry electronic volunteering. We call that cyber-volunteering. My guess is that in the 2000 races we will see lots more of that. 44% did not solicit volunteers at all .

Some of the sites did link to other sites -- political party sites and other interest groups that the candidate felt were like-minded sites. 89% gave no voter registration information at all which I thought was odd since you would assume that if somebody were going to your site maybe they might want to vote for you and maybe you'd want to make sure that they could.

What does this do to democracy? What does this do to campaigns? The short answer is we don't know yet but I will give you a couple of thoughts. One is that the cost of communicating with your supporters has gone down dramatically. And I think that you will see in 2000, people building connections with and keeping in touch with many, many more people at the same time. It is akin to the networks built by the old grass roots activism. However, as far as we know, the political part of the Internet is still about people preaching to the converted -- those who will make an effort to go to your site, while television commercials come into your home uninvited. A couple of people in '98 tried to buy email lists and just shoot their political messages through email. Those candidate got in trouble for spamming and ended up apologizing.

One of the questions for the future of campaigning on the Internet is, if that bit of Internet culture does not change, then there are going to be real limits to campaigning because every campaign needs to get beyond the people who come to them naturally, they need to get to their 51% . If that culture changes then you will see people coming in through your email just as you see them sending you junk mail or calling you at dinner time. So that is one of the interesting pieces of this and I think it is actually a piece that speaks to the future of campaigning on the Internet.

Bottom line for the bigger picture is: there is a lot more information out there, I think it has to be good for democracy. The fact is that people could now quite easily read every campaign speech and every issues paper they wanted to read. Some of these '98 sites had so much stuff on them that even a professor at the Kennedy School couldn't read all the stuff on these sites. There is a huge amount of information that is unmediated by the media so you don't have to rely on the interpretation of a Boston Globe reporter, it is there for people to see. If you believe in information there is certainly more of it and hopefully it will bring some improvements to the political process.

Abelson: Elaine, you talked about the Internet as a broadcast medium versus an interactive medium, and you mentioned that there were only two campaign Websites that were interactive. But we are becoming aware that there is a difference between an interactive medium and a participatory medium. An example of a participatory medium is something like "Third Voice," which is a thing that allows people to effectively attach yellow stickies to other Websites and put up comments that are not under the control of the people who are running the site. That is not merely a two party interaction. So my question for you is "would you be willing to work with MIT in transforming the Gore Website into something that has third party capability?"

Kamarck: I would be. I don't think I have the authority to make that decision. I think it's pretty interesting. I can't promise you that I would have permission, but I will ask the campaign for you.

Audience Member: I am presuming that you are all speaking of a future in which everyone in the United States has Internet access. We are talking about a quarter of the population right now, perhaps not even a quarter, so this is a fantasy, at this point, right?

Kamarck: Right.

Audience Member: Another thing is that the Internet is described as the end of the road almost like an ontological destination. Whereas it is probably a very transitory medium towards digital interactive television -- that's where all the money is flowing from the Telcos, the broadcasters, that is really the brunt of the 1996 Telecom Act and the give-away of the spectrum and nobody as far as I know is addressing that point. Whereas we know that once medias converge or come together and a certain maturity is reached, it works very differently than it had in the past. We had that with film, with radio, would anybody have any thoughts on that?

Agre: It is true that a great deal of money is going into interactive television -- that is because there are a great many psychotic people in the telephone companies and cable companies.

Kamarck: I wouldn't presume to follow that one up.

Agre: The promise of the Internet is not that it is another platform for doing the media that we already know how to do. The Internet is a much more complicated way of doing the things that we already know how to do. Administering an Internet site is dramatically more expensive and complicated than administering a telephone site. If the Internet is competing with the Telephone, then the Internet will lose; it is such an expensive and complex thing to run that requires software that usually doesn't work right. A large number of complimentary technologies are involved. Likewise with television, people like their televisions just fine. George Gilder predicted, actually some people here at MIT who will remain nameless predicted that there would be no more televisions as of 1993. They were a little bit off. I watched the season opener of Buffy on someone's PC, however, so there is that.

The idea that there is a distinct thing called "interactive television" is just odd. It is not even clear what it means. There is video on demand which is replacing Blockbuster and they did the calculations on that over and over and it is going to be some time before replacing Blockbuster is a paying proposition, given the infrastructure and the build out that will be required to get the necessary bandwidth out to the people's homes. The build-out that is required to replace Blockbuster with digital video on demand from big databases in Bell Atlantic is just not there, and those economics are not getting any better. They are standing still while all sorts of other economics are changing. Futhermore, the television market is brutally competitive. Television has high production costs which are coming down somewhat but that is because of a shift in genres, World Series and Car-crashes are cheap to produce, but ER is extremely expensive to produce. This is a competitive low overhead business, companies lose money doing it. Interactive television, if by that we mean, video with which users can interact, is more expensive to produce than the television shows that we have now. And it is competing with those shows for the same advertisers and doing so with a much smaller potential audience because only a much smaller audience will have the equipment and the bandwidth that is capable of handling that interactive material.

Remember the thing I said before about the competitive dynamics of industries that exhibit economies of scale? Television programs exhibit massive economies of scale. Once you produce the show and it's in the can, your syndication is free. Distribution wins; whoever has the most distribution can send it out to a larger number of people. So let's do the math. It is so ridiculous. This is why I use words like "psychotic." Let's say that you have NBC that has a potential audience in the hundreds of millions of people who have routine access to a television set. They pay a million dollars for an episode of a popular program. Now we have XBC that pays three million dollars for a single episode of an interactive program that is capable of going out to maybe 20 million people, one-tenth as many. So the amount of revenue per eyeball that XBC needs to get back from advertisers or from subscription is 40 times as much as NBC needs to get back. This is only going to happen with extremely targeted content. This is why the only broadband market that is viable in the short term are very niche things: certain kinds of sports for affluent male fans and corporate training. There just aren't a lot of other niche markets that have the economics that you need for this sort of thing to work.

Now if by "interactive television" we mean more trivial things, the regular TV show is going on and people are giving "chat" at the same time, fine. That is the kind of thing that the Internet is about: combining different media. Having something that is a full text search retrieval engine and a party line telephone at the same time, having trucker talk radio, this sort of thing -- new kinds of hybrid media that combines the pieces in different combinations -- that's where the business models are. But interactive television at least in that strong sense is disconnected from reality.

Abelson: Phil is that an offer to this audience that you'd be willing to buy an unlimited number of puts from them on various interactive TV start-ups?

Agre: As the questioner pointed out, this is not start-up action. This is large corporate players who are primarily doing this. Those players can succeed in spite of themselves by the part of their strategy that is not psychotic, which is a bundling strategy of delivering quite a few different services to homes at the same time, betting that that is going to be quite an attractive proposition to consumers. I think that is a far more rational strategy. That is the announced reason behind some of the more recent mergers. In particular, it is quite feasible in the next couple of years to sell someone Internet service and throw in X number of voice minutes for free. Because the cost of billing voice minutes is actually very high (some people claim it is the majority of the cost of the call) if the billing goes away and you are simply told that you used 300 minutes this month, bundling that with cable and Internet service is the sort of thing that could be viable in the medium term according to the people who know and the numbers I have seen.

Audience Member: I feel we are being much too "MIT-ish" tonight and not nearly thoughtful enough about what democracy means. Could we get away from statistics and just have people tell us what they think? Obviously ,we don't know what is going to happen in 2000 -- let alone 10 years from now. Instead of focusing so much on very niched matters, can we get into a more speculative discussion? I 'd really love to hear what the other panelists have to say about the fact that there is very little of this kind of language in the constitution -- let alone in most of the documents that motivate our democracy. I would really like to hear some more general thinking about what is happening to our democratic process right now. I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I feel the time is limited.

Kamarck: Can I do a little history about that? One of the things that I find interesting about this is that I went back and I said, "What's the essence of one of the big pieces of our democracy which is how do we elect people?" When I was looking at the Internet as a new medium, I went back and realized that throughout American history, the process has always been the same -- even though the delivery systems were different. You have heard the term, "Stumpspeech"? The phrase came from the fact that in the early days of the republic, people would gather to hear the politicians speak. The politicians would stand on a tree stump and everyone would gather around while they would make their speeches. It is fascinating to me that the term "stump speech" stayed with us even though very few people stand on stumps anymore.

Throughout American history, every time there was a new medium introduced like daily newspapers, radio, television and now the Internet, the politicians would try to figure out how to communicate on using the new medium, and yet nobody ever left the other mediums behind. So you still have this process today, where politicians are on the Internet but as it was mentioned, to only have a campaign on the Internet would be pretty ridiculous since you would be missing out on a lot of voters who are not on the Internet.

So what seems to happen in politics is that when a new medium comes along, you try it out and maybe adapt how you talk to voters because of the parameters of the new medium, but you keep using all the other old ones. Nobody in 2000 is going to give up their radio or television buys or even their mailings and door to door volunteers because of the Internet. They will add the Internet on top, because you never quite know what it takes to get you to the number you need. So since there is no science to that, candidates do whatever they can. I am sure that the Founding Fathers could not have imagined the Internet, but they would certainly recognize political speech designed to get citizens to join with them rather than the other party. So to me there was actually a great deal of continuity rather than some kind of dramatic change when I looked at Internet campaigning.

Audience Member: I have a question about the research you did on political Websites. Who actual put them together? Was it a third party, a consultant or somebody in the office? And if you took note of that, did you come to any conclusions about how politics was being mediated by third parties between the candidate and the people on the Web? Was there something different about that? It occurs to me that it is probably more mediated than other types of communication.

Kamarck: We found that 16% of the sites were done by a professional consultant and 7% were done by individuals unaffiliated with a company. There was no information on the other 78%. I can tell you anecdotally that some of the better Websites were put together by the candidates' children. You know Roy Barnes, the new democratic governor in Georgia, who won in a very competitive race? His son actually came to a conference we had at the Kennedy School and he had put together the Website and continued on as the Webmaster. One of the most effective Websites in 1998 was Jesse Ventura's. That Webmaster was a full time organizer of the Reform Party who had cut his teeth as labor organizer in Minnesota. So he was an organizer first and an Internet fan second. One of things that was striking about the Ventura campaign was how adeptly they used the Internet to create an organization that political parties have in their files from election to election. I didn't get the impression that there was a booming business out there. I got the impression that there were 100 different stories. In 2000 it might be different.

Audience Member: Did you get the impression that the candidate that came across on the Internet was different than the candidates that came across on TV or in person?

Kamarck: No, I did not get that at all. That would have been a high risk thing to do. I don't know how we would have measured that. It is an interesting question. I am sure that what you are thinking is how television added a new dimension, but we didn't measure it, and I am not sure that we could have.

Abelson: I would like to close by addressing the gentleman's question about moving away from statistics towards different visions of how things could work. There is more to the issue of democracy on the Internet than just saying we could be more efficient at getting people to vote. There are other images of democracy. One such image is what happens on a jury where you have a small number of people who think about things and deliberate over them. Those of you who have been on a successful jury know that that is a tremendous experience. It is great to experience the power of the common sense and judgment of the ordinary citizens that you work with on a jury. There is a political technique/movement called "deliberative polling" which says, "When you want to decide something, skip the politicians." Instead, through some communications medium, select a small random sample of ordinary citizens, give them all the information, let them sit on it, and trust our democratic process to come out with a fair and w ise decision. So there are other things you can do with the Internet than just making small changes to the current system that effectively end up cementing the current power bases.

Democracy and New Media
Phil Agre, Growing a Democratic Culture
Adam Powell, Adam Powell, Global Perspectives
Paul Starr, Internet Democracy: American Prospects
media in transition    agenda    speakers    summaries    papers    dialogue