Running Lame : Most presidential candidates stumble online

                 By Hal Plotkin

                 The Internet has the potential to transform national
                 politics. Unfortunately, that probably won't happen
                 this year thanks to the way most presidential
                 candidates are using it (with the possible exception
                 of former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley).

                 Rather than using the Internet to inspire, involve and
                 organize masses of voters, most of the presidential
                 candidates mistakenly see the 'Net primarily as just
                 one more venue to solicit campaign contributions.

                 Once upon a time, of course, political leadership
                 was all about defining problems, building teams,
                 articulating a vision and inspiring others, not just
                 raising money. It will take a savvy candidate to
                 recognize the Internet's potential to bring these
                 qualities back into the political arena.

                 Ironically, the Republican presidential candidates
                 who often say they favor decentralization, returning
                 power to individuals and relying on volunteerism,
                 aren't using the Internet to campaign that way.

                 Instead, pleas to send money to headquarters are
                 the central feature on nearly every Republican
                 presidential campaign website.

                 Take, for example, the page where former
                 Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander tells people
                 surfing his site how they can build momentum for
                 his campaign. They can, Alexander says, send him
                 a check. Now there's a stunner!

                 Some candidates do a slightly better job of
                 camouflaging their panhandling than others through
                 better use of technology. In almost every instance,
                 however, their web magic is wasted on
                 self-aggrandizing strutting that has no real message.

                 Texas Governor George W. Bush's site, for
                 example, features a streaming real video link that
                 lets visitors watch the nearly one hour long
                 announcement of his candidacy. Even if you watch
                 the whole thing, though, you don't get much of a
                 sense about what he would do if elected.

                 To be sure, Bush does a better job online than his
                 Dad's running mate, former Vice President Dan
                 Quayle. Apparently no one has yet told Quayle
                 about streaming video. Quayle's site features a far
                 less robust Quicktime format that consumes about
                 a half hour, at average download speeds, to convey
                 three sentences from a recent speech. How
                 self-absorbed does a candidate have to be to think
                 people would wait half an hour to hear three
                 sentences? Or that they wouldn't be disappointed
                 when they finally learn the sentences hardly say

                 Although there are some other breathtakingly
                 egomaniacal diversions on candidate websites
                 (check out, for example, conservative activist Gary
                 Bauer's modest little homepage), in general tin cups
                 are the guts of nearly every one of these sites.

                 It seems shortsighted to use the Internet to try to
                 raise money to fund an old-fashioned, top-down
                 political campaign without ever once stopping to
                 consider how the Internet itself could make that
                 kind of a campaign obsolete.

                 Companies like, and AOL
                 pull in so many customers that their servers
                 sometimes crash. A candidate who used the
                 Internet to convey real ideas about stuff that
                 matters could do the same thing. The Internet's
                 greatest power is its ability to bring communities of
                 like-minded individuals together in common
                 purpose. That is what one day will make the
                 biggest difference to a political campaign.

                 I'm not talking about using the Internet to sign up
                 campaign volunteers, something all the candidate
                 websites already do. The problem with those
                 ubiquitous online volunteer sign up sheets is they
                 are rooted in a pre-Internet understanding of how
                 groups are formed and led.

                 In that old style, campaign managers pass around
                 clipboards, and people sign up. Then, if the
                 campaign has enough money and administrative
                 prowess, the volunteers are eventually contacted
                 and maybe even given something to do. It's all very
                 hierarchical, representing a boss-subordinate,
                 working-at-IBM-in-the-1950's kind of world view.

                 The Internet, however, is about creating an entirely
                 different world where groups come together and,
                 all by themselves, create new realities.

                 How successful would Linux-namesake Linus
                 Torvolds have been if, rather than create an
                 opportunity for collaboration among equals, he had
                 merely asked people to send him money so he
                 could develop a new computer operating system?

                 Our technophilic vice president, Al Gore, wisely
                 tips his hat to the open source community on his
                 website. Gore deserves credit for making the
                 source code for his site available and inviting
                 programmers to contribute site-enhancing code
                 modifications. The 100 or so programmers who've
                 taken him up so far have already left the Veep with
                 a sleeker, more technically up-to-date web
                 presence. If you have the right Comet cursor
                 (, for
                 example, your cursor will morph into a cool little
                 Gore 2000 icon while you cruise the site.

                 What Gore is missing, though, is that open source
                 software, and the movement it represents, is about
                 much more than software.

                 It's about the human instinct to help one another.

                 Programmers are not the only people who have this
                 instinct, although they have been among the first
                 groups on the web to give it expression. There are
                 undoubtedly lots of other Americans who are as
                 likely, probably even more so, to roll-up their
                 sleeves in the service of some higher ideal. That is if
                 that higher purpose is expressed with some
                 measure of clarity, conviction and credibility.

                 You get a glimpse of what is possible at the Bill
                 Bradley for President website.

                 Bradley's site offers visitors a chance to download
                 a Community Involvement Kit (to find it, click the
                 Get Involved icon on the homepage). Whoever put
                 the kit together understands that people who use
                 the Internet, in words immortalized in "The
                 Treasure Of The Sierra Madre," don't need "no
                 stinking badges."

                 Instead, Bradley's Community Involvement Kit
                 encourages volunteers to take his campaign into
                 their own hands. No registering with headquarters
                 to get permission first. No waiting for some
                 high-priced campaign consultant to give you a call.
                 Instead, people downloading the kit get instructions
                 on how to create their own local Bradley for
                 President headquarters.

                 The only thing the Bradley campaign asks is that, if
                 they want to do so, people creating new local
                 support organizations let the national Bradley
                 campaign know what they are up to from time to
                 time so the Bradley web site can provide
                 information about their location and activities.

                 Some of the other candidates come close to
                 Bradley's superior use of the Internet. Gore's site,
                 for example, invites people to submit videos and
                 multimedia presentations for review. Some of those
                 that pass muster will eventually be uploaded to the
                 site. Combined with his "Town Hall" -- where Gore
                 answers a few e-mailed questions -- it's a
                 welcome, although sadly feeble, stab at making
                 online communication more of a two-way street.

                 Likewise, Steve Forbes' over-produced website
                 offers a multilevel marketing, pyramid incentive
                 scheme (figures, right?) where volunteers win points
                 and prizes based on how many people they recruit
                 online. Recruit 5000 cyber-volunteers who register
                 with headquarters, and you are an "e-member" of
                 Forbes' National Committee. A similar
                 performance for Gore could earn you the title of
                 "statewide online director."

                 It's a good try. But it is all so disembodied. Internet
                 users aren't e-people. They are people. They live in
                 communities. And they have much more to offer a
                 political campaign than just their checkbooks.

                 Sooner or later, some candidate is going to come
                 along and do for politics what Torvalds did for
                 software. While a lot of Americans aren't online
                 yet, it's a safe bet that most of those who are, vote.
                 They are ready, we are ready, for a presidential
                 candidate willing to go over the heads of the
                 conventional media and able to lead us in the
                 proven, decentralized group processes the Internet
                 now makes possible.

                 Bill Bradley's website offers a ray of hope that
                 online politics might be moving toward that more
                 personal, human-centered, less money-grubbing
                 direction. If he succeeds in bringing more people
                 into the process, Bradley could even help elevate
                 individuals, ideas and objectives over money.

                 But if we really do want to see the Internet create a
                 politics where people matter as much as cash, we'll
                 undoubtedly have to take on that job ourselves. .