Review: “The Myth of Digital Democracy”. Does anyone remember Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential run?

Posted: 15/03/2010 in Uncategorized

Hindman, Matthew. The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton, N.J.; Oxford: Princeton University Press, c2009

Sometimes history remembers those who first succeeded, not those who took the first chance, the first risks. Barack Obama’s now legendary political come-from-behind story will be remembered as the first successful attempt at utilizing social media to engage with voters, but in reality there is a noteworthy precedent. Howard Dean‘s 2004 Democratic primary run was truly revolutionary: not only did he burst into the American national scene and challenged favorite candidates like John Kerry, but used the Internet to support his fund-raising efforts and set the foundations to what would later become Obama’s online apparatus, in particular, and the Democratic Party’s, in general. His campaign also serves as a case study to scientifically foresee the limitations and potential of online politics.

In the recent The Myth of Digital Democracy (2009) a captivating read that challenges optimistic voices that celebrate the web as a pinnacle of democracy, Matthew Hindman recalls Dean’s effort, and gives him his due recognition. When analysing Howard Dean’s primary campaign in 2004, a precursor to Obama’s in method and form, Hindman notes that “surveys suggests that liberals visit political Web sites much more than do moderates or conservatives”. And he adds: “Obama’s ability to replicate and ultimately surpass Dean’s fund-raising makes the task of understanding the Dean phenomenon even more urgent”. (p.37) That is: the online effervescence of the 2008 presidential elections should not be taken as proof of the participatory democratization of the medium, but rather as a victorious attempt to engage with those who were already prone to consume, analyze and produce political content. Hindman recalls: “Most of those who visit campaign Web sites are partisans (Bimber and Davis 2003; Howard 2005; Foot and Schneider 2006). The most successful campaign sites have acknowledged this fact, using their online presence to solicit funds and volunteers, not to sway undecided voters”.

In par, he also reflects upon the existence of a hierarchical system in online politics which contravenes the notion of the web as a free, horizontal medium. In his study, Hindman found “powerful hierarchies shaping a medium that continues to be celebrated for its openness” (p.17) and that “the link topology of the Web suggests that the online public sphere is less open than many have hoped or feared” (p.41). The use of the Internet in political campaigns is a relatively fresh field of study: to approach it too naively and think, a priori, that the network of networks is per se a channel in which all voices are heard, would be a blatant mistake. Hidman’s text is a useful reality check for technocrats, twiterrati and policy makers alike.

  1. Josué says:

    Democratic or not, there’s also the issue of the blurry line between personal and professional relationships on social networks… LinkedIn and Facebook among others. An interesting post about honesty:

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