Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Year That Was: 2005 - Part II (25-21)

[See the introduction in Part One (below)]

:: 25 ::

The Decemberists | “The Infanta” | Picaresque

When you hear the whale-sung introduction, you know Colin Meloy et al. has whipped up yet another batch of whimsically and infectiously ambitious indie-rock portraits. Picaresque isn’t just The Decemberists best to date, it’s also The Toaster’s pick for album of the year. If that weren’t enough, this song -- and the entire album for that matter -- has far and away been the best thing to happen to our vocabulary all year. The big question is: How the hell did I miss that operatic outro for the first six months I obsessed over the album?

Band site:
Buy Picaresque

:: 24 ::

The New Pornographers | “Sing Me Spanish Techno” | Twin Cinema

Who even knows what A.C. Newman is talking about? Who cares? This band has yet to make a bad record, and “Spanish Techno” is proof that the band has taken its quirky demeanor and pure pop sensibilities and given the whole shebang a posture tweak. The drums’ promotion to the front of the mix and the brash guitar attack-hooks make this track ripe for repetition.

Band site:
Buy Twin Cinema

:: 23 ::

Rogue Wave | “Salesman at the Day of the Parade” | Descended Like Vultures

Among its compatriots in the Top Thirty, this is the song newest to the Toaster library -- which typically means the Toaster will come to regret ranking it so highly. The staff was blindsided by how naturally this one catches the ear. Not to mention how simple the song feels despite its lush guitar layering and the intricate movement in the melody. Well played, Rogue Wave.

Band site:
Buy Descended Like Vultures

:: 22 ::

Kathleen Edwards | “What Are You Waiting For?” | Back to Me

Let’s be honest. When we filed Back to Me on the shelf back in July, we may have been a little disappointed in Kathleen Edwards’ follow-up to our beloved Failer. And we still may be, however unfairly. But, giving the disc a second try as we compiled the year-end list, and having finally put our expectations aside, this Canadienne reminded us just how she can devastate her listener and tear down her subject with one turn of phrase. Or how her voice can seem to sneer and soar at the same time. Still, we miss the intimacy sacrificed in bringing a full band aboard.

Band site:
Buy Back to Me

:: 21 ::

Iron and Wine | “Freedom Hangs Like Heaven” | Woman King

Aside from the annoying prolific Ryan Adams, Sam Beam may have been the busiest boy on the block this year. Two magnificent EPs (on one of which he partnered with Calexico) and a nine-minute track on the In Good Company soundtrack later, Iron and Wine is no longer just “that guy who sings the quiet version of ‘Such Great Heights.’” The Woman King EP crammed what sound like hundreds of instruments onto what would otherwise be mere sped-up folk songs -- an impressive effect that fills out the richness of Beam’s voice and builds a tangible momentum on the album. “Freedom Hangs Like Heaven” embodies this transition and at the same time refutes the Paul McCartney-inspired principle that any song with “Freedom” in the title should be chopped into little bits and fed to livestock.

“Ain’t nobody knows what a newborn holds, but his mama says he’ll walk on water to wander back home.”

Band site:
Buy Woman King

The Year That Was: 2005 - Part I (30-26)

Good night, shirttail! Break out the champagne and the shampoo! It's the end of the year...

This marks the 11th Consecutive Year in which The Toaster Talks editorial staff has compiled a Best of list in music. As one would expect, our taste in music has seen a slow, sinuous evolution through genres, dabbling in pop-punk, with a nibble out of the punkin pie itself; industrial rock -- we were young and impressionable; the vast realms of "alternative," which we all still refuse to define; and our musical bodies have since undegrad been immersed in the public swimming pool that is indie.

So get up on the high dive and plunge yourself headfirst into The Toaster Talks' best songs of 2005.

[Note: Due to limited space, the List will be uploaded in daily five-song spurts and will be available for two days only.]

:: 30 ::

The Cloud Room | "Hey Now Now" | The Cloud Room

Who knew that adding “now now” to the end of every line could be so catchy? And though I haven’t heard anything else on the album, this one’s good enough to kick us into the Top Thirty.

“If you ride the bus there, pay the bus fare.”

Band site:
Buy The Cloud Room

:: 29 ::

Kate Miller-Heidke | "Space They Cannot Touch" | Telegram

Kate Miller-Heidke is known in her native Australia as a classically trained and highly honored opera singer. And now she’s a burgeoning pop sensation with a voice that cripples us at the Toaster. Note how her voice hits on the angelic, the playful, the smoke-tinged, the sincere -- and then it rinses and repeats. Its beauty is understated, and that counts for a lot in a field of trying-too-hard-to-be-catchy songs.

Buy Telegram

:: 28 ::

Southeast Engine | "Coming to Terms With Gravity" |
Coming to Terms With Gravity

“Oh great, Toaster! Another band from Athens, Ohio…” I looked up “bias” in the dictionary, and while my history watching and working with this band from its infancy in Athens, Ohio, might qualify, Southeast Engine has earned its spot in 2005’s List. While the clever honesty in Adam Remnant’s vocal delivery and the haunting backing track in “Gravity” sets it apart, the remainder of the album is as solid as they come.

“It’s hard making any sense. But you swear that you will. You’re just trying to kill the gravity that always weighs you down.”

Band Site:
Buy Coming to Terms With Gravity

:: 27 ::

The Hold Steady | "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" | Separation Sunday

Being introduced to The Hold Steady may have been one of the happiest musical treasures of the year for the Toaster crew. While this track might be the most polished The Hold Steady has ever recorded (e.g., a woman, harmony, hooks everywhere), it perfectly captures why this band is good for you -- whether you’re happy, sad, drunk or pregnant. Hint: Turn this one into a sing-along!

Band site:
Separation Sunday

:: 26 ::

Sufjan Stevens | "Casimir Pulaski Day" | Illinois

The saddest song of the year to feature a banjo, a trumpet solo and overt religious references. Bravo.

“All the glory when He took our place, but He took my shoulders, and He shook my face, and He takes, and He takes, and He takes.”

Buy Illinois

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The End Is Nigh

We at The Toaster Talks hereby announce the intended conversion of The Toaster Talks from a required class blog based on readings and other political technology ruminations to the mp3 blog you've always wished it was.

Weekly posts will hope to enlighten, brighten and delighten (the first word coined on this blog, with hopes for many more) with featured songs of the week, including one throwback tune from happier times when pretention was a concept we couldn't even spell.

As The Toaster Talks' revised format is being born out of the death of the previous content, the first edition will feature the famed Best of list of 2005, marking the death of a year and the arrival 2006...assuming we decide to carry it to term.

We invite your submissions. You'll get credit when credit is due, and we'll even send someone on staff out to give you a hug (whenever they get back with the coffee -- our needs come first).

We'll see you Dec. 31. Until then, would you politely turn up the heat?

- The Toaster Talks Team

Monday, July 25, 2005

Free Mickey!

I'm not a radical.

Lessig's tone rubs me the wrong way, as does his narrow fundraising pitch at the close of his lecture. But Lessig gets it.

It's big versus small and power vs. powerless today, but the future has always been on the little guy's side. Modern technology breathes hope into this fight, streamlining creativity and bringing about a convergence of minds that should yield something worthy of being called a renaissance. The past has always fought the loss of its creations, but every past has been built on by the creative minds of today.

Think about it: Would there be a Locke without an Aristotle? Would there be a United States without a Locke?

He's right. As long as corporate interests prevent their creations from entering the public domain (or patents restrict the public use of a product, as in the case of the documentarian whose film was ruined because the Simpsons lawyer threatened legislation if the film didn't pay $25,000 for the rights to use a few seconds in the background of the film, barely recognizable to viewers), the creative forces of the future are hindered.

The terrible reality is that Lessig is not the only one who gets it. Disney gets it. Bill Gates gets it. They all reaped the benefits of a free society when their careers were budding, but it's in their best business interest to stifle competition.

I believe in artists' rights. I believe in reaping the benefits of what you created. But there needs to be a point at which we acknowledge that our culture needs to be ours -- all of ours. There needs to be a point that, just like Aristotle, Mickey Mouse will belong to all of us, as the cultural icon that he is.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Fate of the Commons

Don't get me wrong: I have the utmost respect for people's creations. Whether it's a song, a chair, a book, a logo, I understand that copyrights protect the artists' rights to get credit and earn a profit from their works.

But our society, as depicted by Lawrence Lessig in an excerpt from The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, has lost its mind on this issue. While protecting the rights of those who have freely created, we're making it harder to create freely. In safeguarding one artist's work, we're stifling creativity in another.

Ten years ago, Lessig writes, permission had to be granted and royalties paid to use a work (whether it be a song on the soundtrack or a Pepsi logo on a soda can in the background) if it could be "recognized by a common person." Now virtually everything, even the seemingly nondescript props in the background, must be accounted for.

Big farming corporations have even found a way to patent seeds -- life! -- and then proceeded to take over smaller farms by suing for copyright infringement when the seed naturally spreads.

If we continue down this path offline, what can be said of creative freedom online? Right now, many websites use copyrighted photos without paying or permission; people download music through Limewire, MP3 blogs and the like; even major campaigns, as our guest in class said today, use popular songs without permission in their online ads.

I think we can all agree that downright stealing is probably bad. But the line isn't always so clear. From what I've read so far (and I'm looking forward to reading more) of Lessig, he seems to be right on: We need to err on the side of freedom and artistic license and go easy on all the copyrighting.

* * *
Mister Toaster(TM) is a trademark of General Electric. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher and Steve Guttenberg, star of such films as "Three Men and a Baby," "Three Men and a Little Lady," "P.S. Your Cat Is Dead," and "Police Academy" I through IV.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Recurring Theme: Cell Phones Are Good for People

Now that cell phones and SMS might save Africa, save your life, take down Estrada and cost a fortune (thanks, Peter), I'm finding a theme:

There's a lot of power in that little pocket machine.

In the OpenNet Initiative's study on China's Internet filtering, we learn once again of China's overall scary censorship of the Internet. [Of course, the class blogged a lot on China's friendly government-registration policy for websites earlier this semester, so I won't pile on the hate.] The little detail that the government forgot to take a stab at: the cell phone and SMS.

When SARS broke out worse than new lines of Coke products, the ONI report says that the government tried to quell the panic by simply lying to its people: "Oh, that's not an epidemic...that's the weather changing!" Well, you know the saying: 1 billion can't be (collectively) stupid. SMS technology spread the truth and preserved a tiny bit of freedom for the Chinese people.

The (Chinese) Man might win most of those battles over freedom, but I -- for once -- am heartened by the hope that perhaps technology won't allow technology to stifle technology (and humanity).

Let's keep our figners crossed.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

OK: Let's Draw a Few Lines (with Erasable Pen)

Carol Darr made one thing very clear last night:

The line needs to be drawn. Or else.

Or else we can say goodbye to preventing corporate influence over our electoral system (well, not really -- more like, we'd be giving them more potential areas in which they can corrupt us all).

In my interpretation, here are the two conclusions I come to:

1) Political activism blogs deserve to exist freely. The First Amendment preserves our right to assemble freely, discuss whatever we choose, etc. The FEC steps in to say, "OK, if you're going to assemble and do political stuff, you can't advocate someone's election or defeat and spend more than $X." The problem is, the big blogs need to spend more than that to operate -- and "to operate" often means to advocate the election or defeat of the candidates they discuss, sometimes explicitly fundraising for candidates.

2) The big political blog aren't mainstream media entities and shouldn't be treated as such for one main reason: a lack of accountability. The New York Times can editorialize against Bush all year long, but in the end, they can't liberal fundraising links on their website and advocate you donate to them. The Nation, for one, is very explicitly liberal. But their journalistic integrity keeps them off the campaign payrolls. Daily Kos, on the other hand, is unabashedly liberal, advocates regularly the election or defeat of candidates, organizes political activism (including fundraising for candidates), and has been on candidate's payroll. In many ways, it is no different than a political action committee with people power.

3) The media exemption has been abused to a great extent, making the line that would keep blogs from receiving it very blurry.

In the end, I fall somewhere between what Carol Darr says and what Kos says. First things first: either make the media exemption mean something and keep people like Paul Begala from acting as both a paid campaign consultant and news commentator and corporate investors from influencing the editorial decision making (which would seem incredibly hard to do, much less enforce); or, just give up already and give it to the blogs, too. Perhaps you can ask blogs to register as PACs or PAC-lites if they're going to engage in spending money to influence elections. Perhaps you could just have the big ones disclose their funding.

Where Darr is right is that the real solution comes in the rewriting of campaign law to catch it up to speed with the times.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Preserving our Demographic Boundaries Online

Sometimes you have to read the comments.

I was clueless about the wordy, convoluted point Antigone was trying to make in the African American Blogging Thing until I read in a comment that this was apparently a pretty obvious satire of a similar post on another blog, called "The Woman Blogging Thing," which bemoans the lack of prominent women political bloggers and even attributes it to the "male"-style writing that dominates blogs and the top-down structure of the feminist movement.

What Antigone does is prove that, sometimes, you have to take a step back.

The Internet, as a candidate for savior of the world, has been given the burden of erasing racial lines and tearing down demographic boundaries that have characterized the offline world for centuries. When the apparent racial disparities persist online (such as the alleged lack of diversity among prominent bloggers), the believers have started to question this barrier-breaking premise and decry this lack of immediate social upheaval.

And then they get caught making sweeping generalizations as the "Woman Blogging Thing" author did. I'll try not to make that mistake.

Sure, the Internet has changed so much about life. It has created a form of human interaction that is faceless, nameless, raceless, gender-less, etc. Online, the spread of ideas need not necessarily be connected to the demographic boundaries that divide us offline. The hope should not be that there will be more women or black bloggers to balance out all the white men (One could say, "How do we know there aren't already many non-white males out there?"). Rather, the hope should be that these demographic factors never even enter the equation. That, after all, is within the realistic abilities of the Internet.

What posts like the "Woman Blogging Thing" do is perpetuate this mindset of breaking the online community into demographics, which might help us figure out where the need is in funding to bridge the digital divide, but help us little in assessing the debate going on in the blogosphere.

If it's online diversity we're after, the movement might have to begin offline.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A Bit Off-Topic: World Maps on the Internets

While Google has a new program, Google Earth, which proves once and for all that it has conquered the world by inviting you to "fly from space to your neighborhood," a competing view of the world has emerged at

Both are well worth your time and consideration. Trust me.

Friday, July 08, 2005

ReadThis Video

For a minute, I wondered if there was a way if I could turn those blasted captions off. I guess you could say the bread was in the slots, but the Toaster wasn't plugged in.

We've all learned from Jakob that web designers should think about usability before they think about nifty tricks and glitzy design. It takes watching these three interviews with students for whom navigating a website can be more than a challenge to really drive his point home.

Technology is intended to make lives easier. Tools like the Internet have the potential to bring ease to the lives of people with disabilities. While your website certainly doesn't need to embody the austerity that Jakob's usability bible has chosen, it needs to be designed in a way that shows you do things "on purpose."

There's a middle ground between Mr. Nielsen's world of white space and large-sized Verdana and that new supercool indie band's Flash-heavy homepage with the cartoon intro that leads to a bunch of un-navigable pages of graphic links. Some things I've learned:

1) Slick videos are great: Give them captions.
B) Innnovative design with neato links looks cool. Make sure your screen can be read by a screen-reader program.
4) Oh, and don't ever design a page that can't be navigated with a keyboard. (I know enough about mice problems to sympathize deeply with this one.)
ix) Don't use text that is indecipherable from the background of your page.
AND) Don't use fixed-size tiny fonts. (On another personal note: my father is hard of seeing, and he will beat you up if you do it.)

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Look! Jakob's Looking Out for Everyone

Well, you can't keep a man like Jakob Nielsen down, and he advocates you shouldn't keep Web users of lower literacy down either.

If you didn't have enough reason already to cut out the superfluous graphics, text blocks and design frills, Jakob gives you a really easy one: an estimated 30 percent of Web users can't handle it.

Campaign websites, just like those of our favorite pharmaceutical corporation, Pfizer, benefit from making text short, priortizing information and getting right to the point on their sites. What's fascinating, but not surprising, about the study Nielsen sites is that easier, more usable sites lead to happier, more successful users. And that means happier, more successful clients.

But, when everyone's happy and successful, nobody's happier or more successful than Jakob.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Pt. 2: The Bad, The Ugly

When it comes down to it, the Connaughton4LtGov site simply didn’t perform in the way it needed to in order to compete statewide.

Starting with main layout, the page is cluttered and clunky, which makes me, someone who is unnaturally obsessed with political campaign websites, want to navigate away fast. The in-site navigation links follow no logical arrangement whatsoever, instead leaving me with repetitive options such as "Biography," "Education" and "Military Service," all of which could have been compiled into one section. "Press Coverage," "Press Releases," "Newsletters" and "TV Ads" could have benefited from a similar organizational heading. Other links that read "Click for More" yield pages with nothing more to see, an obvious result of careless web design or lazy upkeep. Embarrassingly, the list of navigation links, which should remain consistent throughout the site, changes depending on which portion of the site you happened to be.

But the worst offense the Connaughton site commits is its lack of an e-mail sign-up and less-than-eye-catching "Voluntneer" and "Donate" buttons. Though I praised modesty above, there is absolutely no reason to be shy about letting your supporters support you. If that’s a problem for Connaughton, perhaps statewide politics aren’t his field. The site needed to adapt to the needs of prospective supporters and clearly lay out what that race was about. While we all know Sean Connaughton may be a nice, local guy, we unfortunately have no idea why he thinks he deserves to be Virginia’s lieutenant governor.

Connaughton4LtGov: An In-Depth Look Pt. 1

Now that Sean Connaughton'’s campaign for Virginia's lieutenant governor has come to an early end in a loss to State Senator Bill Bolling in the June 7 primary, hindsight becomes a campaign manager'’s best enemy. This analysis of his web campaign will attempt to point out one area in which Connaughton showed promise and another in which his weaknesses were fully exposed.
[Note: The Connaughton website was taken down the night of the primary, but the infrastructure of the site remains online. Please go to to navigate. Unfortunately, the home page is forever changed.]

>>The Good
What Connaughton needed to do was break away from Bolling'’s issues and define the race on his terms, perhaps on veterans affairs or job creation. The site's strengths were few and far between, heavily outweighed by its clunky, cluttered, disorganized, amateur negatives. The result is that I couldn'’t help but think that the campaign was doomed. If the website isn't competing properly, how can I expect any other aspect of the campaign to be doing so?

But there is silver lining in the Connaughton site. In wanting to portray himself as a down-to-earth, small-time local guy who gets the job done, the candidate established an excellent tone on his website. While it is hard to quantify the concept of tone, I feel that the tone of a campaign site can make it or break it for a lot of voters. If it strays too deeply into the negative or desperate, an undecided visitor can see that and will be turned off. If it sounds too good to be true, a voter’'s cynicism will be topping out the meters.

Connaughton opted out of the slick layout and graphics that his opponent used well, instead using a very rudimentary design that looks, feels and operates as if it'’s homemade. Without a doubt, this modesty is necessary for Connaughton'’s image. In essence, the site is politely saying, "Hey, our guy isn'’t a Richmond big-talker. He'’s a Prince William big-doer." Had the content of the site and the layout evoked a consistency with this tone, the sky could have been the limit for Connaughton, promoting and defending his record while serving primarily as a community tool by which Virginia Republicans can come and spread the word about Connaughton, make a public endorsement, and be persuaded to volunteer and donate.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Freedom Isn't Free

Finally free from the Brits!

This may or may not have been a piñata my freedom-fighting friends and I constructed last year to symbolize our independence. [Note: Blue is wearing a T-shirt with the Union Jack on it...we did not desecrate an actual flag. We may, however, have desecrated the history and mystique surrounding the American Revolution by reducing it to Tootsie Rolls inside a papier-mâché Nick, Jr. character.]

Friday, July 01, 2005

Fasten Your Seat Belts

If you don't think you've witnessed new media change politics yet, this is the time to start paying attention.

Within an hour of the announcement of Justice O'Connor's retirement, the blogs (namely, Daily Kos) were filled with speculation that -- all in all -- had the mainstream media beat in its depth. Keep in mind that the media have been preparing for this day for years -- note that all the slick graphics reading "A Change on the Supreme Court" were ready to go. And yet their analysis was still very easy, even weak (I'm saying this having witnessed CNN's coverage and perused the sites of some major newspapers). While the MSM seem to be a bit caught a bit off-guard by an O'Connor retirement (and not a Rehnquist retirement, as was expected by everyone including some prominent senators and the White House, according to Red State), the blogs were able to adapt quickly and with depth. See Kos or Red State.

And action on the blogs is the least of what we're about to see...

I know People for the American Way have a myriad of ways people can "act now" before there's even a nominee to fight (I'm all for preparedness, but doesn't this exacerbate the perception of Dems as obstructionists). Currently, they're using a $10 and 10 pitch, asking for $10 donations and the names of 10 friends. At the very least, they should be boosting their mailing list quite a bit during the impending battle.

More interestingly, though, they have set up a Mass Immediate Response system that will send breaking news and action alerts to your cell phone and e-mail. I'm sure the other side of the aisle has some similar programs. If you're passionate about this stuff, or if you're just interested in seeing what strategy these groups have developed, I'd recommend signing up.

On a related note, Bush has said there will be no nominee announcement before July 8. So, this has a lot of time to stew around in the blogs. This is sure to spark some fun conversation around the BBQ this weekend. There will be fireworks, indeed.

UPDATE: I tried to post this around 1 p.m., but Blogger was down for some reason...could it be an overload of people weighing in? Yeah, probably not. But wouldn't that have been an interesting piece of trivia.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Congress (is learning to) Heart E-mail

While the Congress Online reports online are a bit out of date (they want you to buy the new ones), I want to applaud TNHegemon for his post, allowing those among us who'd rather read something online than in their hands.

Having just finished a 5-month internship on the Hill, I understand the authors' frustration with both members' offices and constituents themselves. The unsubstantiated fear of manipulation of e-mail correspondence sent by a congressional office seems not just silly, but inefficient. To respond to e-mail with regular mail a) looks strange, b) takes a long time, and c) requires the use of more intern/LC time. Since 9/11 and the anthrax scare, however, congressional offices are learning to appreciate the hassle avoided by e-mail.

The authors stumble upon an important distinction between effective and ineffective e-mail. They write:

"The seemingly easy electronic access to Members of Congress has also fostered a public misperception that individual Members should be accountable to all citizens who write, regardless of where they are from. Advocacy groups and grassroots lobbyists have played a key role in creating these unreasonable public expectations. They have taken the lead in encouraging high-volume, mass communication because they assume that offices will tally incoming e-mail, even if it is not from constituents, and be influenced by high volumes of e-mail that reflect a particular viewpoint...Indeed, fueled by these "astroturf" lobbying practices, the majority of e-mail messages that congressional offices receive come from outside their districts or states. Offices have responded to these non-constituent e-mail messages as they do with non-constituent postal mail - by ignoring them."

It's likely that most of us have sent these messages through our favored advocacy groups on many occasions. If Congress mostly ignores them, why do organizations continue to hammer away at this tactic? I have an inkling that flooding congressional inboxes might not be as ignorable as Congress would like it. Chances are, you will get the attention of the office. Whether this attention -- stemming from annoyance -- is good or bad is another issue altogether.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Blog/FEC Drama Once More, with Feeling

Well, Kos is at it again.

Yep, he's ripping into the Professor Carol Darr, head of IPDI and "clueless embarrassment" to GW, again for her prepared testimony at the public hearings on blogging and FEC restrictions this week.

Last time, I thought Kos went too far, resorting to namecalling and overall missing Darr's point. This time, while still holding tightly to the namecalling rebuttal, Kos knocks a base hit for his cause, catching Darr in what appears to be a change of tune.

In her submitted remarks, Darr argued against blogs' inclusion in the media exemption to campaign finance law because they might damage the "privileged status" the press now enjoys. Now, Darr comes to the same conclusion out of a fear that it will allow corporations to evade campaign finance law by putting up a blog and funneling money into it.

Kos' response: so what? Just by putting up a blog, he argues, a corporation can't guarantee influence. And he's right. While the Toaster would love to be influencing public debate on a national level, it's not. Not because it doesn't have the resources that a corporation could pour into a Toaster-like blog, but because it doesn't have the earned reputation required for people to take what blogs say seriously.

But, on the lingo for "corporate blog"...I got dibs on "clog."

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Waking Ohio Up...

I thought I was done...

In the On Point radio broadcast "The Marketing of the President," New York Times correspondent Matt Bai describes the Bush campaigns pyramid scheme as both "visionary and disquieting."

We've spent enough time here at the Toaster talking about why the marketing of the president was visionary, but what's so disquieting about an efficient, powerful volunteer program that produces tangible results?

Bai points out the key ingredient left out of the Bush team's grassroots jambalaya: originality. In creating the much-touted grassroots scheme that beat John Kerry in Ohio and carried the presidency for Bush, Mehlman and Rove established the need for a uniformity of thought at all levels of the pyramid. Directives and talking points came from the top and flowed down to all points of the pyramid in the same way that Bush hypothesized his tax cuts would. People like Betty Kitchen, Bush's 66-year-old Clark County chairwoman who had been running local campaigns for years, were put in positions to tow the Bush/Cheney line and meet recruitment quotas in a strict, performance-oriented system. One of the main goals of the program, thus, was "keeping people very much within the program."

The result: The amazing thing about top-down mentality is that results can be quantified and progress can be charted. There's no question that this level of organization, which according to Bai had never before been attempted on such a scale, was instrumental in securing the 70,000 votes that carried the state for Bush.

While the Mary Kay-influenced pyramid scheme can certainly be touted for its ingenuity and effectiveness, Bai's right in reining in assessments of its self-promoted grassroots civic empowerment.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Putting Ohio to Bed

Now having read four (4) class readings concerning the miniature presidential campaigns in Ohio, which in the end decided the election for Bush, I wanted to conclude with a bulleted list of Bush's Ohio accomplishments (and Kerry's failings), as the selected authors see it:

1. The Mehlman/Rove machine used an Amway-style operation, creating volunteer pyramids that had timetables and color charts and goals. This tactic not only allowed Mehlman/Rove to be anal-retentive and indulge in weekly statistic updates, but it drove volunteers to success with incentives.

2. The Kerry campaign almost unknowingly relied too much on the legwork of outside sources, whether they be labor unions or voter-registration/mobilization organizations like Americans Coming Together. His campaign seemed to be driven by a desire to beat Bush, but as Verini attested, not by putting the troops on the ground ready to fight.

3. The Bushies were able to out-Democrat the Democrats. As Mehlman explained to Bai, the Democrats had reduced a 10-point Bush lead in Ohio in 2000 to a 4-point lead with their ground game alone. To wage a war with more than 50,000 volunteers in the state -- one for every 50 voters -- certainly kept the Ohio Democratic ground machine, which had seen better days, in check.

4. Bush built a team of believers. His incentives for volunteers to perform were effective because the volunteers wanted signed photos of the president. They believed in him and what he stood for, and most important of all, they fought for their side, not against the other's. Kerry's campaign seemed inspired by a dreamlike mentality, as Verini put it, "No one could imagine a Bush win. The prospect was unthinkable. How could America reelect him? It couldn't." Few were passionate about Kerry, which makes assembling a productive volunteer machine a bit difficult."

5. Bush engaged new technology not in a groundbreaking way, but in a ground-gaining way. No, this wasn't the Dean campaign, but Mehlman/Rove certainly did use some of Dean's Internet-plus-populism-equals-movement elements. Bush wasn't an Internet candidate; the Bush team was merely Internet-savvy. The end result: the kind of offline-online synergy that Dean only partly accomplished.

In the end, I still say that the lack of passion in the Kerry campaign was the killer. I'm not sure a Dean candidacy would have won the election, but I know Democrats wouldn't be sitting around bemoaning a lack of positive motivation or lambasting their lack of synergy that the Kerry campaign came to embody. All candidates aside, the Dean machine would have been a much more appropriate match for the Mehlman/Rove plan.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Round on the End, High in the Middle

Excuse me if I sound a bit perplexed.

Reading about the "narrowcasting" that went on in Ohio in 2004 (in an article by Steve Purpura, Jacob Karczewski and Annie Hanson), I'm not sure I agree with the authors' conclusions. If the concept of narrowcasting (i.e., the opposite of broadcasting, a message that has been tailored specifically to a small segment of the voting population based on what we know about those voters) is set to be the marketing of the future, why aren't Americans Coming Together's efforts in Ohio getting recognition for its impressive ground campaign? Instead, it's Rove and his "Amway-style" field operations (read: the antiquated approach) that's getting all the kudos for a job well done. The old fuddy-duddies beat the slick new technology here.

What the Bush clan did in 2004 could be called mobilization in a true grassroots design -- where neighbors organize and influence one another's votes. As an Ohio native who spent the 2004 election working on a statewide campaign in Ohio, it actually sounded as if ACT might actually have been perceived a bit negatively in certain areas of the state. Remember the trouble Howard Dean had with his "Perfect Storm" in Iowa? Instead of orange hats, the ACT ground team had something else that screams "outsider" -- PDAs that showed political videos.

Perhaps I'm not being entirely fair. PDAs didn't cost the election for Kerry. Neither did ACT. But we should look at what effect (and it's certainly not all good) interest groups have on these campaigns. After all, had it been a neighbor that came to my house saying, "You gotta check out this video," we might have a different story on our hands. While 527s certainly helped boost the Kerry turnout in Ohio, their mere existence confounded Democratic efforts in the state and led to a lot of grassroots overlap, which could have been avoided had there not been eleventy billion PACs, 527s, etc. pushing voter mobilization on the Democratic side -- or, if the state party or the Kerry campaign taken control from the get-go. Instead, the Kerry team was hoping to be "crawling all over each other," according to Karen Hicks, who ran Kerry's field operations but more notably was my boss in New Hampshire.

In the end, Bush won because he had organization. All Kerry had were organizations.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Now It's Iran's Turn to Restrict Freedom

Does it excite anyone else that a recent phenomenon of political text messaging in Iran is being described as "somewhat of a craze"?

Yahoo! News reports that people -- especially the young and cynical -- have been participating in loads of back-and-forth text messaging about the candidates in their upcoming presidential election, many of which have been "highly acerbic." Sounds like a sure sign that the country might actually be pulling off free and fair elections, right?

Not to Iran, it doesn't. One of the founding members of the rock ensemble Axis of Evil, the Persian nation has never really been considered a beacon of freedom and/or democracy. On this issue, it doesn't stray from expectations. Iranian officials have reportedly been tinkering with the idea of shutting down all SMS service over their messaging woes, and the nation's ultra-conservative judiciary has threatened to prosecute anyone who "denigrates" a candidate in their messages.

But, before we chalk this one up to another case of Iranian-Grade censorship, let's consider what is frightening the Iranian candidates. The text messages have picked particularly on the ultra-conservative mayor of Tehran, who will purportedly bring about apocalypse and the separation of men and women into different work days -- both accusations the candidate has denied (Yep, even the apocalypse one).

Herein lies one of the hidden features of SMS technology: easy smear campaigns. Imagine push polls made easier, faster and harder to track. We as political professionals need to be wary -- not necessarily of this technology, but of its possible Rovian misuse to spread lies about one's opponent. And while shutting down the system or prosecuting those who talk bad about a candidate might be just a tad over the top, what's there to prevent the "text-smearing" of the next rising political star?

Google to Take Over World

Per our class last week when we talked about, here's an interesting article that can fit in the "What will Google not do in its efforts to dominate our society?" category.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Where'd My NYTimes Go?

Amy Gahran couldn't be more right about the complementary nature of RSS feeds to e-mail newsletters. Her point hits especially close to home as I am currently waging a vicious battle with my spam filter -- and losing miserably.

Recently, I've found about half of the lists I've opted into in my Yahoo! "Bulk Mail" folder, which operates seemingly independently of me and my wishes. Still, it lets through "Great Deals on All Adobe Produts!!!" Seriously, anything with more than one exclamation point should automatically be blocked into the "Stop This Madman" folder. [A teacher of mine once told me: "Use exclamation points as if you only have a dozen to use in your entire lifetime. That's how rare they should be." Needless to say, more than one in a sentence is a bit superfluous.]

I have a feeling that most of the e-mail I get from politicians or political causes go straight to "Bulk" and are shipped away each night to the netherlands of the Internet without me ever bothering to sift through the junk. In the end, I feel like a guy without his daily newspaper. Instead of assuming my neighbor stole it off your doorstep, I'm starting to assume my Bulk Mail folder ate my New York Times.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Britney to Blame for Spreading Viruses

Britney Spears gets around. At least her name does.

CNN reports that the most common tactic of hackers trying to entice people into willingly downloading damaging viruses is by using the name "Britney Spears." Of course, these viruses are doubly sad because not only do they often cause lots of computer trouble, but they need to trick the emotionally fragile or technologically innocent saps who will actually think they have an e-mail from Mrs. Federline or some juicy scoop about her in their inbox.

Similarly, the Michael Jackson fanatics got a scare last week when a virus was circulating in inboxes claiming to show an alleged suicide note from the King of Pop.

But Jackson wasn't even close to coming in second in this celebrity-virus affair. The Virus Prom King to Britney's queen was Bill Gates. Eww, gross.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Seeking Your Advice

OK, so Sean Connaughton needed a lot of help to maximize the political power of the Internet. His homemade site screamed "I'm not ready for statewide!" and I have to assume it's one of the reasons his relatively moderate-minded campaign lost on Tuesday to the bastion of right-wing state senators, Bill Bolling.

I've been massaging some ideas about how to best take small-time Sean who has the heart of gold and the courage to fight for his country into a statewide success. My instinct told me to paint him as "everybody's neighbor." How about this idea?

The Connaughton site would host an online community meeting place where supporters can log in, sound off and organize outside the realms of the campaign. Ideally, these sites would encourage voters to tell their stories -- unedited, unscripted, unfiltered. These online meeting places would serve as the campaign’s service to the communities of Virginia as well as its opportunity to tie the physical campaign to the online campaign by posting events and volunteer opportunities. But, Susie Jones from Richmond could post an entry about her son's middle-school play; Jimmy Jackson could put up a good recipe for apple pie he found; and, Maria S., who just can't avoid being political, could post an announcement for an undecided voters' forum at a nearby coffeehouse. In essence, the campaign would play like a, but more personal and more preciously Virginian.

Not only would this bring in prospective voters who wouldn't already be coming to the site, but it would also allow supporters to feel "plugged in," give the campaign a much-needed feeling of motion and connectedness. Better yet, the candidate's scheduler can use the online events calendar to schedule surprise "drop-ins" from Sean or a friend of the campaign.

Is this too idealistic and hard to carry out for a lieutenant governor's race? Let's hear what you all got.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Selling My Roommate to Playboy

It's about time I spiced things up...

List selling and swapping has been a common practice in the private sector for decades. My roommate, who subscribes to Details among other magazines, recently received a postcard informing him that he had been

"...selected to enjoy PLAYBOY for just $1 an issue, our absolute lowest price! And get a FREE DVD!"
Now this is entertaining for numerous reasons I will not expand on in this post, but particularly because there are very few lists from which Playboy could have received his name. He owns a few credit cards, one of which is tied specifically to his superfluous expenditures at Express Men; he shops at Harris-Teeter and is a member of their "VIC" club; he subscribes to Details. And that's about it.

It's interesting that an organization that you provide not only with your name and contact information, but with your business, would just sell you out like that.

The above situation, however, is by no means limited to the cynic-ready corporate world. The liberal not-for-profits like The Sierra Club, ACLU, People for the American Way, etc., all seem to be operating from the same mailing lists, even though most people only sign up for one initially. As a member of the ACLU and having received a subscription to The Nation as a gift, I was suddenly inundated with material not only asking me for support or action, but money!

This is where the line crosses back once again from permission-based to interruption-based marketing, and it's more annoying than anything I've ever seen on TV. My relationship with the Sierra Club itself has generated so much paper waste that I'm betting we've already gone through at least one recycled forest by now.

In campaigns, the trend seems to be to respect their subscribers. Certainly, all who write on the subject recommend doing so. Dean refused to give up his half-a-million-plus e-mail addresses after the primary, but sent his endorsement of Kerry and repudiation of Nader -- among other campaign updates -- to the list himself and tranferred the list and his organization into an entirely new entity. It's only a matter of time, I fear, before one of my preferred candidates decides to sell me out for a few bucks after his or her political career has come to an end.

NOTE: If anyone has any information about the Playboy investigation above or if anyone is interested in the aforementioned offer, feel free to holla back.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Jakob Doesn't Mess Around

Having subscribed to John Kerry's (and numerous other Democratic candidates') e-mail subscription lists, I was pleased to see Jakob Nielsen bring his usability mantra to the realm of the presidential e-mail newsletters.

Nielsen makes a great point in noting that a vague subject line is a surefire way to get ignored by the recipient. How many times do I want to venture into an e-mail entitled "Don't Stop Now"? I mean, other than when you're engaging in e-mail relations?

The most glaring thing I remember about Kerry's e-mails is that I never really wanted to open them, because they he always seemed to be asking for money. Kerry successfully made me feel like one of two million sugar daddies, but I never could tell of what other value I could be to him and the campaign. Here we see Nielsen make the assessment that, in the last week of campaigning, Kerry was soliciting funds and Bush was turning out the vote. Consequently, Kerry ended up with extra cash and Bush ended up with more votes. I'm not sure one can blame these phenomena directly on the e-mail campaigns, but they do represent a nugget of truth about the two strategies being waged.

Here we find Jakob Nielsen Not Messing Around Posted by Hello

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Good Night, Young Sean. Good Night.

Sean Connaughton seemed like a really nice guy -- as far as I could tell from the pictures of him on the website and his seemingly middle-of-the-road appeal.

Last night, young Sean was dealt a political blow the size of his favorite home state, Virginia, losing to his right-wing opponent Bill Bolling by a 58-42 margin. But when fans, supporters, students, journalists, opponents' supporters and his opponent came a-knockin' on his web door looking to console the young chap or boast about his electoral humiliation, this is what they found:

Sean thanks all his supporters from the bottom of his heart. He wishes the winning Republican Team all the best in the November General Elections. He pledges his support to the Kilgore/Bolling/McDonnell Republican Ticket.

Apparently, Sean wasn't hanging around for the afterglow. The site, once overloaded (cluttered, if you will) with pictures and color, now stands devoid of all genuine emotion -- from the "bottom of his heart" cliché to the grudging endorsement of his opponent, which he did only in endorsing the entire ticket.

As Dcae, who covered the Bolling campaign, writes:

"He should have said that while he lost the nomination he would still fight for the issues that he believes in. I also think he should have shown more genuine support for the nominated Republican team."
Yeah, at the very least, keep your site up for the public to see. Incidentally, the frame of his site is still accessible if you know where you're going.

What's clear is that, regardless of its effect upon the turnout, Sean Connaughton lost the online battle big time to his opponent. For a lesser-known candidate with more of an uphill climb, he should chalk this one down as a missed opportunity.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Another Fundraising Tip: Plug Into Blogging Communities

Winning Campaigns Online talks a lot about offline publicity for the campaign site in order to beef up online fundraising. And while the authors suggest a certain degree of online publicity(in sending regular e-mail and in considering banner ads), the book predates the rise of the blog power.

In our class readings, however, Ireland and Nash point specifically to the fundraising power that Daily Kos proved to have during the Green Party's calls for a recount in Ohio. Ultimately because of the blog's fundraising power, the recount happened (alas, to no avail for Kos et al.).

The Dean clan first noticed Kos' prowess when the campaign started getting a flood of donations with an extra penny attached to the amount. The blogging community used this as their "signature" of sorts to demonstrate their ability to help out a candidate. Of course, Kos was an official Deaniac -- on payroll and everything.

What these examples confirm is that good blog relations can come through in the clutch, with big fundraising bucks to show for it.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Unrelated Once Again: A Word on MJV-Day

I'm just now admitting something to myself: I've been secretly rooting for Michael all along.

Of course, I wasn't rooting for this Michael or Dangerous-era Michael or scary-cat-eyed Michael or even "I'm bad, I'm bad, you know it" Michael. For me (at least deep down), I was rooting for the little Michael Jackson 45 record player I got when I was three. That little player - arguably one of my best memories of growing up - may have nothing to do with the real lives caught up in this fiasco, but in a very shallow sense for me, it was vindicated today.

The merits of the case aside, today's verdict was a victory for pop culture. Some might say that Michael's image has been forever marred regardless; I'm not disputing that. Had the jury gone the other way, however, all of those brilliant pop singles - Hell, even just his Thriller LP -- would have gone down in most of our memories with a big-ol' asterisk informing newcomers to his music that "Michael Jackson was later convicted of child molestation."

For example, we all know "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire," but we remember Jerry Lee Lewis best for marrying his 13-year-old cousin. We still jam to "Rock and Roll Part 2" at nearly every major sports event ("Hey!"), but the name Gary Glitter is gone forever into the portal of former rock-star perverts.

I'm not trying to justify anything Michael Jackson the Weirdo has ever done, but I think it'll be nice for me to remember Michael at his fictional best, when he was just the King of Pop who sold me a record player and soundtracked my life.

Rheingold Pt. 2: Owning a Piece of the Internet

As Rheingold says in his interview with Reason in 2003, "You don’t have to buy a license to own a piece of the Internet. Anyone can send bits on the Internet. No one owns the whole thing."

Unless I'm wrong, the television and radio air waves are also considered the "commons" -- owned by no one in particular. Rheingold compares the Internet to the highways, in that you don't need to own a highway to use it. But the government does get to regulate it -- the speed we go, the toll rates, etc. -- and maintain it. In reality, though, the Internet is like a circuit of roads that are maintained by private citizens and provided for public use, kind of like when the Jaycees sponsor a road and keep it litter-free.

Just thinking about all of the grey areas surrounding the Internet, ownership and government regulation makes me feel like I just got off the Tilt-a-Whirl. What does it take to "own" a piece of the Internet? I'm running this blog, but it's hosted on Blogger? And when I paid for the webspace on which I post my band's website, whom exactly did I pay? If "no one owns the whole thing," who owned the chunk that I registered before I did? Do I "own" this space now? Am I renting it? Or am I just the litter-free sponsor? Someone please explain.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Adopt a Blogging Grad Student

I have to give the Kucinich campaign a lot of credit, and not just because he's my hometown congressman. You hear a lot about John McCain and Howard Dean, but Dennis! (TM) deserves some kudos as well. Even though he never had a shot at actually winning anything, his campaign stayed alive much longer than the other wing-nuts greatly because of his campaign's creativity and straightforward way of asking for money.

His approach was reflected in his appeal for funds nearing the Iowa caucuses, in which he asked for about $100,000 to fund a 30-second ad that would reach the voters of Iowa.

I particuarly liked his "Adopt an Intern" efforts, as described in the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. Perhaps I'm a bit swayed by my experience as an intern, but I find this kind of humanizing tactic very persuasive. Putting a face on your donation has worked for starving children in Africa, so why wouldn't it work for starving (I use this term much more loosely) kids who have dropped everything to help the campaign. I wonder whether any of this money actually was paid out to the interns or whether it was "donated" back to the campaign by the interns in question.

As for this post's title, I'm taking applications...

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Testing the Web Savvy of Local Liberal Groups

Last week, I perused a D.C. liberal event at which about three dozen organizations geared on social change sought the names and e-mail addresses of all who showed happened by. As a test, I signed up to about a dozen, freely giving my real information away. I expected a barrage of e-mail this week, asking me to volunteer or give money or check out their website.

How many did I receive?

One. One e-mail all week.

For organizations that require people power to push change, how can they just sit on my information and not hit me up while their friendly faces and causes are still in my head. If 11 of 12 organizations failed to follow up with me in a timely fashion, does that reflect the web savvy of local grassroots organizations? God knows that Amnesty,, and the ACLU don't forget that I gave them my e-mail address.

I'm very disappointed.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Virals Just Sound Bad to Being With

I was first confronted with viral messaging on the campaign I worked on last year. The judge I worked for was running a statewide campaign with self-imposed contribution limits ($10 an individual...not kidding. He said, "Money and judges don't mix"). Our web consultant thought: OK, so there's this new tool people are using to spread the word about something. It's all done with e-mail. We film a video. They attach it to an e-mail and off it goes to infect the state full of Judge O'Neill lovin'.

Needless to say, we were super-excited about any idea that would convey the message to voters without having any money for TV. It excited us even more that we could take advantage of permission-based marketing and fuel the grassroots end of our campaign. So we dreamed our dream of an Ohio infected with Judge O'Neill. Sadly, we didn't even have the money to carry out the viral (the judge opted to pay his employees first, which is not how you win campaigns), but I wonder now whether it would have made much of a difference.

My intuition tells me that it couldn't have made up for all of the TV time our opponent had (we were outspent 30-to-1). At least not in 2004. And not in a supreme court race. But, then again, I guess that's the idea: You never know what will happen with a viral.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Unrelated Fun Pt. 1: Fashion à la Bob Jones

Oh my...

A morally errant friend of mine unearthed (i.e., saw on a blog somewhere) this wardrobe protocol for Bob Jones University students, which most notably bans the wearing, carrying or displaying of all articles of clothing that bear the logo of Abercrombie & Fitch or any of its subsidiaries "even if covered or masked in some way"!

I'm sure this will turn into quite the effective boycott, and it won't spur more A&F sales among our degenerate youth.

Rheingold Pt. 1: The Silence of Text Messaging

Until I read the April 2003 Reason interview with "cyberculture chronicler" Howard Rheingold, I must admit that the appeal of text messaging remained a mystery to me. The reason: If I can't enter the words in as fast as I think, I lose interest in the message. I always thought to myself, isn't this why we have keyboards? So we don't have to slow our brains down just to etch out a sentence? Combined with the rates Sprint wants to charge me per text message, the only reason I could imagine text messaging's appeal was if I was organizing the types of revolutionary protests and riots that would free me and my brethren from the likes of a tyrannical government.

Well, as it turns out, I'm a little off-base. Rheingold makes a simple, but important, observation: This kind of communication is not just fast, it's silent. "Your parents and teachers can't hear you," he explains.

No wonder my friends carry out conversations with me while their eyes glued to their cell-phone screens and their thumbs around the keypad like it was a Nintendo controller. It's sleek. It's silent. It's mobile. It's fast, like a phone call but less invasive and with a wider reach.

For this reason, the phone tree, which was the epitome of organized communication in my middle-school days, has quickly been replaced among the younger generations. Sorry, Mr. Phone Tree, you were just too darn slow and loud.

The only question remains: when can we replace phone banks?

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Intelligent Centralization

Jonah Sieger certainly made a lot of insightful points last night. Walking away, though, something bothered me about the Bloomberg "decentralization" plan. The way Sieger described it, the mayor's campaign has established an advanced peer-to-peer volunteer campaign in which people of the same neigborhood or ethnicity would be campaigning to one another. The Internet, of course, is the tie that binds here, as the tool that brings these volunteers to the campaign and, then, to the voters.

While I think this strategy makes for good campaigning, I'm not sure I agree with the term "decentralization." To me, this represents merely a step toward decentralization -- and not a very large one. After all, the campaign presumably still trains the volunteers, arms them with talking points and brochures. They just micromanage less. What is decentralized about it, we asked? Sieger pointed to "definitive compromises" made between the campaign and its grassroots volunteers, including the major decision of when to have the captain meetings.

Again, I think this is the kind of campaign innovation that wins elections. I'd even call it "intelligent centralization." But, don't call this decentralization. The reality is, campaigns don't want more decentralization (the theory itself is inherently risky), and the daring ones that actually try it to any large extent get called "utter failures" in the end.

Thanks, Damien, for getting the ball rolling here.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Woo! Go China!

Although I'm writing this under exile having been late getting auto-updates up and running, I want to call all of our attention to the wonderful government of China, which according to Yahoo! News is forcing all Chinese websites to register with the government. Seeing as how this governmet has already jailed 54 owners of sites already registered for "subversive content," I can't imagine why anyone would be hesitant to follow orders here.

In light of considerations of possible FEC regulation of the blogs, it's time to thank China for once again for tossing in a bit of perspective.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Enter the Blogging Congressman

Congressman Conyers may be the most unlikely hero one can imagine for the liberal blogs. Having been in Congress for 40 years, we should all be surprised this guy knows how to check his e-mail or even know what a blog is, much less write and operate his very own blog.

But, of late, Conyers has found the blogosphere the perfect place to vocalize his consistently progressive dissent. He took the fore on the Gannon/Guckert scandal, the Ohio election investigation, and most recently, the Downing Street Memo, which has his supporters talking about impeachment. Of course, Conyers knows impeachments better than anyone -- he's the only member of Congress ever to have served on two impeachment hearing panels. The Detroit congressman not only has fallen in love with the new media; he's virtually become the de facto representative of the liberal blogosphere.

It seems like the blogs are an amazing platform from which a politically marginalized officeholder can take root and rally the troops with the hope that blog-lightning will strike and something will catch fire. So far, nothing Conyers has talked about has been effective at doing major damage to President Bush -- even though a lot of fiery subjects have been discussed.

The larger question this raises is how seriously will America take calls for impeachment that are ignited by the blogs? Is it just a matter of pressuring the media into making it news?

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Buckley Makes Me Want to Curl Up in a Big Ball

Russell Buckley has successfully scared me to death.

No, it's not the heart attack-triggering scared like the time my little sister hid in my closet one night and proceeded to emerge once I was safely tucked into bed. It's more the throw-your-arms-up-in-helplessness scared.

As Buckley signals the "death knell of privacy," I start to think: why haven't I been worrying about this for years? And why does everyone else seem to be oblivious or less-than-mildly concerned? Sure, I'm that type of person: the worrier about how all this wonderful technology is going to end up ruining my life. After I took a class with a professor who was a resident expert on privacy issues, I decided I'd rather not have databases of information -- however innocuous -- about me floating around to propsective insurers, employers and friends. I'd rather not have someone be able to Google what I bought at Harris-Teeter last month and then decide they can't insure/employ/respect me because I may or may not be chemically dependent on Diet Dr Pepper.

I feel very alone on this one. I watch others in front of me happily swipe their VIC (is that Very Important Customer?) cards and get their well-earned discounts while a database somewhere fills up with how much sodium they're eating. The public seems oblivious and generally unperturbed by these Orwellian prospects.

So far, the heavily intrusive implementations of these technologies have yet to be used to any great extent -- at least, not publicly. Perhaps if employee-tracking became common in America, we'd see some uproar.

From an admittedly contradictory political perspective, however, the possibilities are endless. I'll submit to you a quick three that come to mind:
1) A campaign that is targeting young, single intellectuals might be able to hit everyone with a mobile device in a coffee house in its district.
2) GOTV efforts can be boosted by poll-tracking devices that know if a voter has yet visited the the polls. Furthermore, you can more easily reach the voters who haven't.
3) Campaigns should be able to pinpoint where visitors to their website are logging on (not to mention which parts of the site they're looking at), lending to a much tighter targeting ability in canvassing and direct mail messaging.

As Buckley says, the good uses for this technology require creativity and ingenuity, as we're seeing in the Wired story about saving lives in South Africa or the CNN story about war protesting with mobile technology. But the evil uses are easier. And we all like our jobs easier.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

OK, I think we're nearing a line

Peter C. makes a good point: We can't have just anyone evading the campaign finance restrictions simply because they're "bloggers." But I don't think the current law allows members of the media have the ability to spend money on or advocate candidates willy-nilly. If bloggers received the journalist exception, that alone wouldn't allow a George Soros-type to funnel millions into a campaign. Aren't we confusing 527s and blogs here? Aren't these two separate issues?

Admittedly, 527s seem like the ultimate loophole to campaign finance reform initiatives. After all, you can be George Soros and spend a ton of money on defeating a particular candidate through 527s. Some would say the problem exists in the loophole that provides for 527s.

But is this what the fight is really about? The campaign finance restrictions on bloggers and the like? To me, campaign finance is about transparency, and the current system provides transparency through the mandatory reporting that a campaign must follow. How would further regulation affect this? How would this affect blogging?

If the debate really isn't about campaign finance, then what is it about? Again, I need help.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Where is the Line?

So, Kos is freaking out. [2] [3]

I must admit, it was a little alarming to see GW's own Carol Darr listed as an "enemy" of Daily Kos and self-proclaimed "citizen journalists" of the world, in his scathing review of her comments to the FEC on behalf of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet. Relatively new to this argument, I have a few first impressions to share (thanks so much to Kathie's Politech for giving me a super starting point):

1) Some sort of federal regulation of online publications seems inevitable.

2) Kos seems unwilling to yield any ground toward any kind of blog regulation. I'd even call him unreasonable at times, even saying that Darr is an embarrassment to GW.

3) The Online Coalition seems a lot more reasonable in its approach, a somewhat middle ground between Kos and IPDI. Highlights: Blogs do not have to provide disclaimers for involvement on a candidate's campaign and the proposal of not regulating forms of communications (such as blogging), but the nature of the communication. These components free blogs up to communicate freely in a manner that would coincide with the intent of campaign finance law.

3) IPDI...yeah, well, I think its overall message makes a lot of sense, but I do agree with Kos that some of Darr's case aims to protect the mainstream media too much:

"For thirty years the campaign finance laws have made a fundamental distinction between political activists and the news media, in order to protect a free press while at the same time limiting the influence of big money on federal elections. Until recently, the distinction between the news media and rest of us was clear and uncontroversial. Bloggers blur that distinction. If anyone can publish a blog, and if bloggers are treated as journalists, then we can all become journalists."
My problem, and Kos seems to agree, is that so many members of the press are already blurring the line concerning partisan involvement in elections. But the solution, to agree with Darr and IPDI, is not to get rid of that line. Perhaps we should hold James Carville and Bill Press, two openly partisan recipients of the media exemption, to the same standard.

4) Bob Bauer makes a lot of sense, calling for a minimum of restrictions (but clearly delineated standards) on bloggers. After all, it's political speech, and it must be protected, right?

I need input on this one.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Evaluating Dean, 100 Days In

Well, the blogging candidate has been back for 100 days now, and his brash, unapologetic style has been heading the Democratic Party in what appears to be two different directions. Howard Dean may never escape the scream references or his unreasonably thick neck, but he does seem to be winning over a crowd of Washington insiders who thought his chairmanship might be the kick that would finally knock the Democratic Party into irrelevance.

With a little help from Tom Delay and Bill Frist, though, Dean has managed to construct a theme for the Democratic revival, tying in Terri Schiavo, the filibuster and the privatization of social security into one big ball of "intrusiveness." The message: Keep the Republican leadership out of the private lives of Americans.

As Ben Goodard of The Hill wrote last week:
"For nearly 70 years, the Democratic Party has been saddled with the image of big-government advocates. Most Republican victories...have made big-spending, big-program Democrats the central issue...They attacked the Democrats not just for their big-government, big-spending liberal addiction but for their corrupt values as well. Not only did Democrats want to tax you into poverty, they wanted to destroy your family values."

Goodard goes on to say:
"This is the language the Democrats can build on to recapture the centrist voters who put the Republicans in power. It is not radical; it is reasonable. It is not the language of traditional liberalism; it is the language spoken in states such as Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia and Tennessee -- all states where Democrats could become competitive again if they get the words right."

Needless to say, not all are so praising of the half-doctor, half-governator. Today, in Business Week, Lee Walczak writes that Dean has disappointed some of the big wallets in the Democratic Party. The fundraising numbers look abysmal. Why? Walczak says it's a combination of personality difficulties and the alienation of the business circle by Dean's presidential campaign and his criticism of big business:

"Dean is not a natural fit for the 'stroke and joke' style that traditional party chiefs use to extract cash from well-heeled contributors. 'It appears that the chairman has come to the conclusion that he doesn't need major donors," sniffs one fat cat. 'He hasn't made any effort to reach out.'"

Replacing Terry McAuliffe, whose best suit was fundraising, makes Dean look a little sub-par. I guess it depends on what you think the primary role of the chairman should be. And, with that, I leave it to you to decide.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Nielsen's Number Nine

Jakob Nielsen has got it going on. Let's not question that.

In fact, most of what he and Vincent Flanders have to say in their respective critiques of modern web design hit home for me, recalling memories of web frustrations past. (If you're looking for a good example of mystery-meat navigation, check out indie rocker Ben Kweller's site before the new site -- which is reportedly "coming soon" -- appears.)

But I still cannot figure out Nielsen's gripe with links that open new windows (No. 9 in his "Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design"). It appears that not everyone agrees on this point. I've noticed that readings from our class page all open new windows, and I know that I hate getting lost in navigation on the pages where a link replaces the current page. With every interesting link, I find myself losing train of thought.

But Nielsen groups these new-window links into the much-demonized pop-up category. Are people really frightened that pop-ups are taking over their computers when they click on a link and it opens a new window? Am I really, in Nielsen's words, emptying the users' ashtrays on their carpet to try to sell them a vacuum cleaner?

[Note: Ironically, I've just noticed that my links do not, in fact, open a new window...I'm going to leave this for comic effect and change the template at a future time -- unless, of course, someone can really get across why I shouldn't.]

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Deep Throat Reveled

In the midst of this design and usability discussion, I can't help but lump spelling and grammar into the growing list of "threats to our democracy." If the old media have anything on the new, a competent editor falls somewhere near the top of the list.

Example: In the course of twenty minutes, I found two major spelling mistakes in two highly reputable online publications. And I was skimming. A Slate writer told the world how he had started to "thihk" Deep Throat wasn't W. Mark Felt (whom I know as "D.T."*), while All Music let us all in on Smog's new album, A River Ain't To Much To Love, in its weekly newsletter.

Now I know that I'm setting the the Toaster up for heavy ribbing on my spelling, punctuation and grammar. The hypocrite in me will tell you that blogs are horses of a different color, but there's something to be said for being skeptical of how well a given fact was checked if its neighbor sentence hinges on a giant, ugly, gross-like-gum-on-the-bottom-of-your-shoe spelling error.

* Anyone else fascinated by this revelation? Why didn't anyone tell me we were looking for someone who resembled Hal Holbrook?

Monday, May 30, 2005

Talking Sunstein-Jenkins

Does anyone else find it intriguing that there is very little disagreement about how wrong Cass Sunstein's thesis is in "The Daily We"? For one, isn't that one of his points -- that groups get together online and agree?

Perhaps this is a testament to how much Sunstein misses the point of what the new media represent. Calling the Internet a "breeding ground for extremism" seems to be a little out of touch with, well, the Internet. Also, this argument stems from pure speculation about what could happen if people shut themselves off to reality. It doesn't actually seem to be happening; I've not yet found any data to defend the assertion that the extreme ends of our political spectrum have encountered recruitment bonanzas. (True, Lyndon LaRouche and his efforts at affixing "Beast-Man" to Dick Cheney's name never really seem to run out of funds or creepy young people for his movement...perhaps we should blame the Internet.) The crazies will be with us for the long haul, and I don't think I'd worry too much about new media disintegrating our public sanity.

Jenkins, on the other hand, successfully reminds us all how the Internet provides our democracy with a much larger public park. Sure, I can avoid an entire side of the debate if I want, but can't I just as easily avoid the political demonstrators? The potential that exists for improving our democracy in the new media overrides any of the worry about the proliferation of "daily me." It makes sense that the vast majority of the class disagree with Sunstein's basic argument and agree wholeheartedly with Jenkins.

Still, Sunstein does raise a crucial concern that I have trouble dismissing: an increased polarization of the political arena. And while I have trouble blaming the Internet, the new media -- even if solely because of the speed and ease of communication -- has sped up and antagonized the process. MoveOn subscribers get a near-daily reinforcement of their ideology; similarly, the RNC regularly prods the inboxes of their followers. There's a reason why political organizers salivate over the rapidly expanding capabilities they have at their fingertips because of new media.

The result is a meaner, more antagonistic marketplace of ideas. It's hard to respect the other side when your inbox tells you everyday how wrong that other side is. Compromise becomes less and less of an option. Did you see how mad Dr. Dobson was after the "Anti-Climactic Compromise of 2005" (term coined here!)

Of course, this didn't begin with the Internet. What Sunstein alludes to, albeit briefly and near the end, is the power that the Internet and new media have to help reduce polarization and self-isolation. It's for these reasons that I'm just not ready to conclude that Sunstein's concerns aren't valid, even if I find Jenkins' argument stronger.