Outsourced identity

I’m a big fan of The Cluetrain Manifesto, and I still count David Weinberger and Doc Searls as some of the best thinkers I’ve met. The big message of the Cluetrain Manifesto was, of course, that markets are conversations. There’s a short but well-crafted piece in the New York Times about the conversational marketing of political candidates, which started with Howard Dean but has been continued in style by Ron Paul.

The author, Matt Bai, observes that the current crop of political candidates have been reluctant to accept this fact although companies are beginning to do it more. I definitely agree that candidates need to meet more with their supporters, online and offline, and build platforms and messages based on what they learn from those meetings (presently political messages are coldly crafted by campaign specialists and pollsters). However, I foresee trouble afoot and it might go some way to explain why politicans are slow to embrace this crowdsourcing of their campaigns.

The key difference is between a politician and a product. A product can be anything you want it to be, and the power of markets is their ability to convey information from consumers to producers about exactly what the consumers want. A politician, however, is not infinitely malleable. You can take a silver-spooned religious buffoon and dress him up in the trappings of “compassionate conservatism” and “small government”, and surround him with powerful experienced advisers, but at the end of the day he’s still a cut-taxes-and-spend faith-based moron to the manor born, albeit one surrounded by a coterie of evil. Similar statements, of course, can be made about economically-inexperienced welfare-suckled liberals whose solution to every economic problem is spending, even when the problem is too much spending.

A candidate comes with beliefs. A candidate comes with experience. I think these are intrinsic and unchanging, based on my observations of politicians. The risk of outsourcing your campaign is that you’ll be turned into something you’re not. Because ultimately the product is you: your identity. The same risk exists when candidates give themselves over to campaign specialists for branding and positioning, but the difference is that politicians can fire their advisors. They can’t fire their supporters.

I know that I’ve heard far more about one of the minor Republican candidates because of the huge online activity generated by his supporters. It’s difficult to read Reddit or Digg without finding stories about him. I’m not naming him, because that would reward the behaviour of gaming social news sites and I’m opposed to that (not least because it makes them less useful to me). If you want to find out who it is then read the NYTimes article (or Reddit or Digg).

I wonder how much of the impression of policies, attitudes, and experience that I’ve received from the candidate’s supporters is truly reflective of the candidate. As with specialist-manufactured identities (such as those of the other candidates), it’s impossible to tell. But that’s my point—crowd-sourcing your identity and messaging is no more a guarantee of authenticity than hiring professionals. We’re still not at the stage where the candidate interacts genuinely and personally in online media (most candidates have staffers writing their blogs, with the exception of Fred Thompson).

When a candidate interacts meaningfully, taking the time to answer questions and thoughtfully tackling new topics, we can see how they think and feel. You’d hope to see this on television, but the debates fail to inform or entertain. The Internet is really our last hope for this.