The Narrative, A Proposal, and an Apology
There’s an old story that in the middle ages, the youngest conversant child in a community would be brought to witness major land contracts, which were done by the shake of a hand – and beaten severely enough to ensure that they would be able to remember the contract for at least another 40 or 50 years.
I remember April 2003 as one of the best months of my life -- the month we saw the magic come of out the Meetup community in full, extraordinary, bottom up glory-- but also in part because Joe Trippi is not a quiet screamer. He makes Dean’s Scream sound like Mary Had a Little Lamb.
“Zephyr!!!!!!!!!” would come tearing out, long before I actually saw his face poke into the small closet the web team at the time called “the cave.” (With a nice poster of “Trogolodytes for Dean”) on the wall).
“MAAAAATTT” was for Matt Gross.
Joe was roiling with visions at the time, and he couldn't waste time explaining himself to us -- very new, very naive. When Joe screamed, we were slow, insane, and "just didn’t get it."
I remember the first day of his complete anger, because it also coincides with the time he got obsessed with “getting Kos.”
April 1, 2003, was the first enormous nationwide Meetup, and it had gone fabulously. We’d raised $83,000 online in a single day the day before, breaking all expectations and records. We’d stayed for a few drinks after the Meetup, and then went back to the office.
Some time around 10 PM, the scream came. Kos had put up an online poll, comparing the candidates, and Dean was not winning. I think Kerry was, but I’m sure its all on record.
"WHAT THE HELL" he came screaming into the cave.
“Look at Daily Kos” he said.
"How long as that poll been up. How could you miss that poll."
“He’s trying to fuck us.”
“He’s doing his poll right while everyone’s at Meetup. He’s trying to fuck us.”
During the next day, we went to every listserv and contacts we had and asked them to get on that poll.
If you walked by his office the next day, he wouldn’t talk to you, but he’d sit there, with his back to the door (you could see the computer screen from the door), hitting refresh on the Daily Kos poll. You could hear him seething that it wasn't moving.
Matt thought he was testing us. He wanted to see how much muscle we could force into this poll.
After that, he would come tearing into the office every time Kos said something negative about Dean or positive about Clark or another candidate. “Why I am always the first one to catch it?” he said, until Matt was checking Kos (no feed at the time) every 15 minutes or so.
It was sometime in the next few weeks that we got the contract for Armstrong/Zuniga.
Jerome wanted to come work for Dean at the office, and I think Joe wanted him to.
So Joe asked Matt to figure out which blog was more important to get for influence in the blogosphere: MyDD or DailyKos. Matt decided DailyKos was more important. I don’t remember the reasoning, but the blogosphere was all entirely new to me – I never read blogs before the campaign – and everything I learned about the heirarchy was new, and mostly from Matt.
Okay then, Joe said, its okay if Jerome came to work for us and stopped blogging, we’d still have DailyKos.
“Get Kos on the phone!” Trippi would scream. “Where’s Jerome! He’s not calling me back! Are they going to fuck us?”
Trippi asked us to look over the consulting contract that Markos/Zuniga proposed and tell him what we thought. We thought it was good, but had a lot of the ideas we’d heard elsewhere (at the time we were getting pitched by a handful of internet consulting firms), and they didn’t provide any unique technical service that we wouldn’t want to hire in house. I told Joe that if he didn’t want them for other reasons, the consulting contract wasn’t worth it. He said we needed Kos for Dean, and, more importantly, not to go work for someone else.
I think there was also some indications that Armstrong/Zuniga was actively talking to another campaign (Kerry’s?) as consultants, and Joe thought that would be death, but I remember that less clearly.
Joe liked Jerome personally, and trusted him – later that year I would hear Joe call Jerome for political and blog advice, and he respected him a lot. Jerome had access to Joe that most consultants never had. I also heard him, though less frequently, talk to Kos and ask his advice over the year.
Furthermore, I think its right to note that MyDD and Jerome had the most powerful impact on the campaign by introducing Meetup to the campaign, months before any of this came up – and Meetup changed everything.
There were a few days where I think Kos started putting up a Draft Clark effort that Joe went into absolute panic, and we were beaten with screams about talking to Kos, talking to Jerome, getting that contract through. “We NEED Kos” Joe kept screaming.
Needless to say, the contract went through.
“How on earth,” Might you say, “can you say this isn’t unethical?” “You were part of a group that was trying to pay prominent bloggers so that they would keep saying nice things about Dean, and so that they would NOT go support Clark. That’s nuts!”
You may think it’s a technical answer, but I think its an important one, and its one on which Trippi and I completely agree: its silly to talk about ethics and blogging in those days, it was all new! We were doing outreach to prominent voices online – applying the habits of politicians for ages to bloggers. Joe was a real visionary in this way – he wanted to canvass the important online voices and get them over to Dean – and whether or not this should happen in the future (I think it shouldn’t, but it definitely will), the revelation that you could take old politics (how to get the village elder in Iowa on your side) and apply it to online politics was absolutely brilliant.
Ethics, to my mind, is where you violate a broadly accepted norm, and there were no broadly accepted norms. There were no norms at all.
The reason I raised this was because I want there to be broadly accepted norms in the future, and I wanted people to think, in VERY Concrete terms, about the pressures inside a campaign to “get bloggers” who have a following. Of course this is going to happen again, its going to happen times ten. Trippi often said I was very naïve, and it may be a fair criticism – but now I’m a citizen, and not working for anyone, I want to use that naivete – my reckless willingness to believe things can be different in politics -- to try to change things.
I, as a reader, as a citizen, want to make sure that during the next election, I can read prominent bloggers and trust that they are not subtly influenced by candidates they are working for, talking to, and paid by. I heard yesterday that Coca-Cola is spending only a third of its advertising money on television advertisements, and the biggest growth is “peer to peer” advertising. That's smart, but its also spooky. I want to believe that people who read far more than I do, and filter that information, will filter it because of their own judgment.
A few people have asked me to propose a positive proposal for the future, a working one, where we can try to build that trust. What I’m thinking right now is that the best pressure points, for the future, are candidates, not bloggers themselves. Its more efficient, and its more likely to be effective. I’m not inclined to think (especially after being called all kinds of lovely things during this debacle), that communities are wont to police themselves.
Therefore, I think one thing we should do is engage citizen watchdog groups in finding out what bloggers are tied to what consulting companies, and prominently publish any contracts – and ask candidates not to hire any of the truly prominent bloggers unless they, like Jerome did, agree not post while consulting.
People have asked me to apologize, and my first reaction is “hell, no! I’m telling the truth!” but, upon reflection, I do want to make one apology. I think that I did not adequately praise Jerome’s completely scrupulous behavior with shutting down MyDD while consulting – he’s a model for what people should do in the future. Jerome was right when he said that I made it sound like he could be bought and sold, and I don’t think he can. I'm sorry, Jerome.