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Political Web 2.0 in 2006

Maybe you remember the cartoon baseball bat on Howard Dean's Web site from 2004?

The bat popped up on the site and in Dean e-mails whenever the campaign needed to inspire supporters to contribute money.

And sure enough, small Internet contribution by small Internet contribution, the picture of the bat, resembling a thermometer, filled like mercury rising, signifying the campaign's fundraising earnings to that point.

Dean's bat, e-mails and Web site energized a grassroots campaign that only a red face and a series of maniacal gestures could undo. But his campaign did mark the cutting edge of how politics can mix with the Internet to make an impact.

What was big then pales in the face of what is possible today. As the 2006 mid-term elections draw near, candidates are buying sponsored links on Google AdWords, making friends on Facebook and uploading videos to YouTube.

It's Political Web 2.0, and it's supposed to be doing all of us a huge favor by transforming politics into a conversation, very much unlike politics has really ever been before.

But are we actually witnessing the death of the cable news sound bite and the top-down political messaging it typifies, or are we simply watching it evolve into something even more pervasive?

Web 2.0 meets politics

There is evidence that Web 2.0's big three trends -- broadband adoption, search marketing and social networks -- have altered how campaigns use the Internet.

Broadband adoption grew by 40 percent from March 2005 to March 2006, according to a Pew Internet & American Life Project report published in May.

This growth in broadband has made on-demand video sites possible and helped them become popular.

"Most campaigns know that YouTube is totally necessary," Tim Tagaris, Internet communications director for Ned Lamont's U.S. Senate campaign, told internetnews.com.

Many campaigns, such as those for Senator Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania and Congresswoman Katherine Harris in Florida, feel the same way about another Web 2.0 staple -- Google AdWords.

David Fischer, director of online sales and operations for AdWords, told internetnews.com he's seen a "dramatic increase" in political advertising on Google's search marketing product.

Facebook spokeswoman Brandee Barker said her company, a popular social network among high school and college students, made a concerted effort to accelerate campaign activity on the site.

At the start of the election season, Facebook created 1,400 profiles in candidates' names and offered them up in case any of them wanted to use the site to push their platforms. Barker said around 300 are actively managed.

She noted Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana as a politician who understands how to use Facebook. He makes friends, then posts comments on their profiles and sends birthday messages, Barker said.

Methods to 2.0 madness

Aren't politicians using these new media technologies in the same top-down, one-to-the-many way they used older media?

Two political consultants from the opposite sides of the partisan divide say that, for now, the answer is yes.

Former director of online organizing and communications for John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign Zack Exley said successful candidates aren't using the Internet to converse with the many this year, but to tell them when and where to meet for the rally.

"The Internet is just not a great medium for reaching undecided voters. The Internet is not even a good mechanism for doing direct voter turnout. The Internet is a grassroots organizing medium right now," Exley told internetnews.com.

The Internet is a medium for organizing the faithful, not hashing out the articles of faith.

"You tap the energy of your supporters. You give them a place to show up where they will be trained and given the tools they need to knock on doors or pick up the phone and call targeted voters," Exley said.

Republican National Committee spokesman Josh Holmes disagrees. He told internetnews.com that the Internet actually can be used for voter persuasion.

Not because Political Web 2.0 changes the way campaigns interact with voters into a conversation, however, but because new sites such as YouTube drastically speed the delivery of video featuring the type of top-down, campaign-to-the-people messaging once reserved for broadcast advertisements.

"If there's something that's particularly meaningful to the campaign, now you can just take it and get it on the Internet and direct people to it," Holmes said. Whereas before you'd have to take a video and make it into a format that's available for television and you'd have to try to pitch it to a television outlet, he added.

But Both Holmes and Exley said that campaign participation on social networks through peer-to-peer communications has not yet shown itself to be a viable way to help win an election.

Campaigns are not using Political Web 2.0 to get involved in conversations with constituents.

But if you were hoping they would, you might have missed the point of Web 2.0 and its political counterpart.

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