Dec 12

Nat Torkington

Nat Torkington

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.

tags: sunday sermons  | comments: 5   | Sphere It

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Comments: 5

  tmillerick [12.12.07 04:54 AM]

You really didn't have to state the name, there is one candidate who stands head and shoulders above the rest. And it's for exactly the reasons you mentioned. He's real, not some 'image' that has been created for this election cycle. Look back at what he stood for 20 years ago when first elected to public office and you'll see that he still stands for the same principles. Less government, balanced budgets, fiscal responsibility. Vote RP 08.

  michelle [12.12.07 08:23 AM]

Another difference between products and (American) politicians that prevents politicians from being more influenced by people than products can be, is: majority representation vs. proportional representation.

In economic terms, there can be no Long Tail in a majority representational systems. 20% of the vote gets you 0% of a post. It is more zero-sum than a commercial marketplace. Politicians have to be "the big hit," and roll the dice on a lowest-common-denominator existence. This doesn't exactly cultivate an adherence to a specific vision, instead it creates a politician that's a moving target, prey to focus groups and trendy appeals.
(I do realize that many European houses function with proportional representation, resulting in more specialized parties and agendas and extreme personalities... a Long Tail of political specialties, both the good and bad.)
I know I'm not really addressing Nat's excellent main point, but I think the aspect of majority representation can't be ignored when considering why American candidates have such similar veneers

  Loyd [12.12.07 09:04 AM]

I don't believe the candidate in question "outsourced/crowdsourced" his identity. He has passionate supporters who are engaged in the political process. Are you honestly saying that it's a bad thing to have supporters (since they can't be fired)? I know that the received wisdom is that this individuals supporters are creating noise (and monetary contributions) that are out of proportion to their numbers. I don't know if this is true and neither do you - however, we'll all find out in the next few months. But I did enjoy the use of Fred Thompson as an example of an emerging "genuineness." Fred Thompson the blogger sounds as authentic as Fred Thompson the "country as corn" good-old-boy campaigning around the state in his red pickup truck (not really his - rented for the occasion). Without conclusive proof, I decline to believe that this individual, who generally has not appeared well informed on a number of issues and who has a reputation for laziness, is actually writing anything himself. As for the unnamed candidate, I might think some of his ideas are odd to say the least, but his consistent views on a constitutionally limited government I like very much.

  Nat Torkington [12.12.07 10:34 AM]

@michelle - You're absolutely right. One of the things that struck me when I moved back to New Zealand is the way we have so many more diversity in politicians down under. Heck, the Prime Minister is a woman, there's a power-broking Māori party, the journalist who gets tech the most is a Rastafarian, and for a while there we had a transvestite member of parliament. We've had MMP since 1996.

  Henry [12.18.07 12:38 PM]

I was dissappointed that what started out as a promising article degenerated into name-calling. Anything intelligent you might have been trying to say was, unfortunately, completely overshadowed by your highly unprofessional tone. The O'Reily Radar would, IMO, be better served by leaving political ranting to the sites that specialize in it.

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