Michael Silberman and friend in Kandy. Via him
Michael Silberman is the thirty-something grandfather of Obama’s online campaign. You could say. He ran MeetUps for the Howard Dean campaign in 2004, which laid the groundwork for the successful online organizing to come. He was speaking at the American Center in Colombo and I went to see.
He’s a smart guy and there shoulda been more tweeps and bloogs and feebs there. He said some interesting stuff, including that you shouldn’t consider online and ‘reality’ separate and, what else, OK, I need to digress here.
They call it the American Center, but it’s not very central. There is no parking and they take your phone and any electronics at the door. Personally, I would rather be strip searched than give up my phone. At least, I’d have to think about it. There is no Internet for presenters, as far as I can tell. You can’t Tweet, you can’t take photos, the presenter couldn’t even show a YouTube video. So, if you want disappear from the grid completely, you can go to the American Center. I don’t, so I only go if there’s something extra cool.
Anyways. Silberman. The Howard Dean campaign was actually huge, though few people seem to remember who he was. It was shocking when Silberman noted that this was before Facebook left Harvard, in 2004. Dean’s was the first grass roots political campaign to really leverage the Internet, specifically MeetUp, a system initially built to help Lord Of The Rings fans get sunlight. This is something Silberman mentioned, I didn’t know that.
Silberman was a really young guy who the Dean campaign tasked with figuring out what these Internet hobbitses were doing. In time, however, that community became a fundraising machine and the center of Dean’s campaign. Two stories he told were where the candidate called Joe Trippi to tell him that the counter on the website was broken, because they were raising too much money. It wasn’t broken, they were just raising that much money. Another was that Dean got out of the car at a meeting and started talking to the people outside, thinking that was the crowd. It turns out that was just the people waiting to get in.
Technology And Politics
Silberman then talked about how the Internet is relevant in that in contributes to the messaging, money and, whatsit, mobilizing efforts of a campaign. That is, it raises money for spending on actual stuff and mobilizing actual people on the ground, which is why no modern politician now ignores it. Because it’s deeply connected to reality and the ‘offline’ world.
Overall I think he has a very holistic view of Internet organizing which comes from experience, but it remains hard to communicate that to people (clients) who want to shelve the Internet as something over there, or for young people, or not directly relevant. Hard for me at least.
As a note, because PayPal doesn’t operate here and online banking is so immature, the web hasn’t really changed the money part of Sri Lankan politics, and thus hasn’t really gotten politicians that interested.
Going Where The People Are
Another insight I got was from what he said was a mistake. Since MeetUp only allowed for monthly meetings, they built their own separate system. It didn’t work. The lesson for me there is to go with existing systems and existing user bases as much as possible. As an example, for Milinda’s campaign we did a website and a Facebook page. While the website grows slowly and organically, the Facebook page has just taken off (juiced by ads). Cause that’s where the people are.
Anyways, he’s a cool guy and I’m glad he came to Sri Lanka. I wish I could consult my or InduNan‘s tweets, but the American Center insists on discussing social media in a bomb shelter.
Wait, I remembered something, and I don’t want to end on that note. That’s for the American Center for bringing him down. He, like people I met from Tahrir, also emphasized the organizing part of online organizing. The sending mail, talking to people, physically meeting. That is important to remember. Online organizing isn’t a force, it’s a force multiplier. You can’t just throw money or code at it and expect it to work. You need to connect it to the candidate, the voters, the media, volunteers, donors – the whole ecosystem. That’s what really adds value. Methinks.