Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Contradicting the Web and Politics

This post over at Crooked Timber about the possibility of Obama’s internet crowd turning against him articulates quite nicely one of the major issues I have with people who talk about the success of web communities (like Obama’s) as this amazing democratic victory.

“This goes to the heart of the contradictions that the Obama people successfully managed to straddle during the campaign, but are (I think) going to have increasing difficulty in dealing with going forward. The Obama people combined very tight top-down message control and campaign coordination with a fair degree of openness at the bottom to independent initiatives by volunteers. As long as everyone agreed on the same underlying goal (beating the Republicans), this worked. But as that overwhelming imperative recedes, people are going to start pursuing their own objectives – and the ‘open’ architecture that the Obama people have constructed provides them with plenty of opportunities to do this.”

As usual, the answer is neither top down nor bottom up: It’s somewhere in the middle. The reality of the situation is that both sides will likely push back on each other creating what hopefully will be a better result (assuming everyone is willing to compromise a bit).

Writing about this also got me thinking about a piece by David Brooks from earlier in the week about Obama’s confidence in his approach to public projects which include (nearly) immediately attacking the economy, “broadband projects, special education programs, a new power grid, new scientific research, teacher training projects and new libraries” as well as social security and medicare.

All of this seems like quite a bit and Brooks is worried: “The problem is overload. Four months ago, no one knew how to put together a stimulus package. Now Obama wants to use it to rush through instant special-ed programs and pre-Ks. Repairing the power grid means clearing complex regulatory hurdles. How is he going to do that in time to employ workers in May?”

That’s a fair question, though I couldn’t help but think about something I just read in Duncan Watts’ Six Degrees. In discussing a student group called OTPOR, which helped in the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, Watts writes:

A traditional social network analysis of the student movement would look at some of the principal players in OTPOR and trace their involvement with each other, their followers, and also outside organizations, and attempt to identify the mechanisms by which they established themselves as central organizing elements. But as we will see … when it comes to large-scale coordinated social action, hindsight is not 20-20 — in fact, it can by actively misleading. Rather than leaders determining the events, quite the reverse might have been true, with the particular sequence of events and the peculiarities of their timing determining who it was that emerged as leaders.”

Put simply: History tends to write itself in a much more clean and linear narrative than it actually plays out. Let me explain (or at least try to explain) how I see these being connected:

  1. Obama tries a whole bunch of different stuff.
  2. People predict and examine it all, trying to figure out what will succeed and what will fail.
  3. Some stuff succeeds and some stuff fails.
  4. Obama pays more attention (and money) to the succeeding stuff, letting the failing stuff fall to the wayside (hopefully only for the moment).
  5. The stuff that’s succeeding succeeds more, the stuff that’s failing is forgotten.
  6. We remember that which succeeds and lots of people look back and explain why they knew all along that would work.

Obviously this is a super simplified version, but as I’ve said in the past: There are way worse strategies than trying a whole bunch of small things, seeing what works and then focusing on that. Now whether or not Obama has the whole small initiatives thing down is yet to be seen, but I generally think trying lots of stuff works better than just trying one thing.

January 11, 2009