Saturday, May 12, 2007

"Netroots Renewed"

Joe Rospars, a Howard Dean Web strategist, was at Vermont HQ when he got the bad news. The calls came from co-workers who'd flown out to Iowa, a week before the 2004 caucuses, to help. Sure, they said, Dean's Net team lured 8,000 supporters to the Hawkeye State. But once those volunteers descended, things got painfully low-tech. They highlighted voter lists, cut them into pieces and glued like-colored strips on new sheets of paper. Using these scraps to walk the precincts, they wound up knocking on the same doors over and over. Iowans were irritated—and so was Rospars.
Three years later, Rospars has emerged as one of a core group of Dean Internet staffers using the lessons of '04 to help '08 contenders do better. The hope: that smart Web 2.0 tools, stronger candidates and a more-wired electorate will enable their new clients to succeed where Dean failed—in winning the White House. As Barack Obama's new-media director, Rospars is one of three Dean alums involved in the senator's online ops; three others work for John Edwards, including, as of April 19, Dean campaign guru Joe Trippi. "This year, there are no excuses," he says. "The Web will affect this election more than any other medium."

Obama and Edwards have already unveiled '08's most advanced sites, according to a Hotline poll of Dem Internet insiders. Next up: testing whether all that Web 2.0 tech can win votes. Obama's goal is internalization. After Dean lost, Rospars founded tech consultancy Blue State Digital, which made a social-networking tool called Party Builder for the DNC. He's repurposed it as By corralling supporters within the walls of the campaign, it overcomes a major Dean struggle: organizing activists scattered across external sites like The site, run by Facebook founder Chris Hughes, lets Obama fans create profiles, plan parties, blog and (of course) raise money. But under the hood, it helps the campaign monitor events, spot local leaders and connect would-be activists.

Dean alums Mathew Gross and Ben Brandzel are focused less on harnessing energy for Edwards than generating it. In March '03, Gross launched Dean's campaign blog—a first. Now senior adviser to Edwards's e-team, he strives for a similar sense of openness. Edwards's site boasts a community blog and links to 23 external social networks, while the in-house social network, One Corps, emphasizes activism over elections. The appearance, says Brandzel, is of a "movement" with supporters as "agents of change." "We have to rely on the people to get good at spreading the word," he says.

Both approaches have their pitfalls. In February, two Edwards bloggers provoked controversy after posting inflammatory entries on their personal blogs. (Both resigned.) Two weeks ago, Rospars, seeking more control over Obama's MySpace presence, commandeered an unofficial, 160,000-member Obama profile run by a supporter. The move generated bad buzz. Such are the risks of navigating this frontier—not that Dean alums are discouraged. Trippi is focused on YouTube; his first video, which debuted May 2, strings together uploaded clips of supporters opposing the Iraq War. Obama's new MyPolicy program asks voters to submit issue proposals, which Rospars says will be incorporated into Obama's platform. "Open source" policy is a nifty idea, but will it help on the ground? Rospars doesn't know.
"Beware of anyone who tells you this isn't all experimentation," he says. "They're definitely lying."

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