Remember the famous headline of the 1948 presidential election? At the time, everybody was certain that Republican candidate Thomas Dewey would defeat Democrat Harry Truman, and they had good reason to. It wasn't just that Truman was the inheritor of 16 years of Democratic rule and susceptible to charges that his administration was tired; it wasn't just that the Second World War had ended and pundits anticipated a public desire for change sweeping out old administrations for new (as Labour had done to Churchill in 1946), they had polling data.
Opinion poll after opinion poll showed Dewey with a substantial lead, right up to the day before the election. So certain of the results that the managers of the strike-riddled Chicago Daily Tribune had the inexperienced print-setters set out the headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN and sent everybody home early, much to their later embarrassment because, of course, Truman defied all expectations and won handily.
It was a shock. The pollsters hadn't anticipated this at all, and they had all of the latest technology at their fingertips. They'd used the telephone, and America's burgeoning telephone network to reach thousands of Americans and gather their opinions. They could register the pulse of America as effectively, and in less time than it would take Americans to walk to the polls, so why didn't it work? Turns out, it was the technology that was the pollsters' downfall, because although many Americans had telephones, many Americans did not. Those that did not own phones tended to be poor, rural, and disproportionately open to Truman's New Deal message, which he continued to aggressively campaign on, state-to-state, town-to-town and person-to-person.
Flash forward fifty years and watch as eyebrows shoot up and bloggers react to the surprising results of the Iowa Caucus. Who'd have expected John Kerry to win? Who'd have expected John Edwards to place so strong in second place? Who'd have thought that Gephardt's campaign would self-destruct after its first state? And, most of all, who could have predicted that Howard Dean could perform so far under expectations? Nobody predicted this.
Bloggers, who sometimes think of themselves as the current Big Thing of the Internet, wondered how this could possibly be. After all, Dean was the buzz of the blogosphere. He had the organization (largely thanks to the Internet). He had the funds (largely thanks to the Internet), and he had the connection with young (and Internet savvy) voters. Even bloggers who strongly opposed him took him seriously, but most Iowa primary voters clearly did not, and the blogosphere is scratching its collective head and wondering what it means.
I think it means that we've just had a lesson on how small the Internet still is, and where the walls are that divide the closed blogging community with the rest of civilization that's still outside.
The number of blogs on the net has increased dramatically over the past four years. A community has developed that's remarkably cohesive, and remarkably closed. Just like the rise of the Internet just eight years before, many blog readers and blog writers from half the world away know each other more intimately than they know their neighbours across the street. And as with all closed and active communities, the opinions expressed within become highly amplified.
Howard Dean understood blogs and the internet better than any other presidential candidate and he grew tall off of that soil. By speaking directly to the portion of the blogging community which responded well and loudly, he created a buzz that echoed and reechoed across the blogosphere. By connecting personally with a lot of people early in the campaign, he gathered the attention, and the early funding, that gave him an early lead and momentum against the Democrats' nine other contenders. But then harsh reality set in.
The harsh reality is that, of the world's population, only one in ten are on the Internet. Of the population north of the Rio Grande, only 43.5% are online. This number is itself deceptive, as to get to bloggers, we divide it into smaller minorities: those who use the net just to e-mail, those who use it to e-mail and chat, those who e-mail, chat and surf, those who e-mail, chat, surf and read blogs, those who write blogs, and those who get most of their news and information from blogs. I think it's safe to say that, as a percentage of the world's population, the number of people within the active blogosphere rounds to zero.
This is difficult for most of us to contemplate. Consider: not a single person who doesn't have access to a computer is going to read this blog post -- that's 57% of the population of North America right there. And I guarantee you that 90% of the people who do read this post will be hard pressed to name more than three living individuals that they know who are permanently offline. Of those people you know who are permanently offline, how close to you keep in touch with them?
Humans can't picture how big the world is, and sometimes they think that if they're speaking to an active community of hundreds (which describes the blogosphere to a 'T'), they have the ear of the world, or at least the part of the world that matters. Sometimes, in that amplified setting, our discussions and our opinions get pulled off of what's seen as conventional wisdom in the offline world. And sometimes, when reality snaps back at us, we are shocked.
As the disappointment over Dean's results in the Iowa Caucus dissipates, the Internet can still take credit for building its first credible presidential candidate. The Internet can still take credit for making waves among the pundits and politicos who still see the meeting space as a haven for geeks and techies. Come 2008, the Internet's influence will only have grown, and any political candidate that truly harnesses its potential could well be unstoppable. The internet is becoming as much a part of civil society as the telephone.
But as the haven of geeks and techies becomes the place where political discourse carries the most weight in society, let us hope that we never come to think of those people separated from us by the Information divide as people who don't matter. That's what Gallup and those other pollsters back in 1948 were implicitly saying, that those who were too poor to afford a telephone didn't matter. They didn't exist, until they showed up to vote that November Tuesday.
The number of people joining the Internet is growing exponentially year by year, but the danger still exists of a class of have-nots, separated from the Internet, separated from what could more and more become the place that matters within society. We need to speak up for them, ensure their access to information; separated from us, we have just seen the temptation to forget their existence. That's bad for democracy. That's bad for civil society.
What If They Opened A Blog and Nobody Came?
I can't help but chuckle a little over this. I've never heard of her, but apparently the strident Ann Coulter gets under the fingernails of the moderates and liberals of the blogosphere because of her shrill commentary. That much I learned from the blogging community. Anyway, according to Truth Laid Bear, she has a weblog where she "speaks her mind"...
Apparently this is on her mind.
(If you're reading this post after they correct this small oversight, Ann's blog had all the trimmings, but its content, the part where Ann actually shared her thoughts, was blank. According to the archives, she's had nothing on her mind since last September.)
Criticize Paul Martin all you want for his lacklustre blog. At least he bothers to show up!