The Rise of Connected Democracy

This article appeared as my column for Connect Magazine in February 2004.

Three important laws characterize the nature of communications technology. Sarnoff's Law says that the value of a broadcast network is proportional to the number of potential receivers. Metcalf's Law states that the value of a point-to-point network, such as the phone system, is proportional to the square of the number of endpoints. The third law, Reed's Law, states that the value of group forming networks, or GFNs, is increases exponentially with the number of participants. eBay is such a network, allowing buyers and sellers to form groups around specific interests. We've seen eBay bring a new way to scale garage sales and flea markets using the connectedness of the Web.

Since the rise of television, political parties have increasingly used a four step process for running campaigns:

  1. Raise money
  2. Broadcast
  3. Vote
  4. Rinse and repeat

This formula leaves little room for you to be involved except as a consumer of broadcast ads. Yet, if the last 50 years can be called the era of broadcast democracy, fans of the Internet should rightly be asking "when will the era of connected democracy begin?" How does the eBay experience inform our views about democracy?

The Howard Dean campaign may be the first example of how the Web can be used to change the nature of politics. In stark contrast to the standard formula of the last 50 years, Dean's campaign has been using simple, Internet-based tools to mobilize volunteers for everything from letter writing to raising funds. Most campaigns don't want volunteers because they're difficult to manage, but the Dean campaign has figured out how to use principles of decentralization familiar to any open source developer to let volunteers act. This is a huge leap of faith because it requires letting go of the central command and control structures that are the hallmark of modern campaigns.

The Dean campaign uses the standard email and mailing lists technologies, but they also use weblogs and services like, an online service for organizing off-line meetings of volunteers. Dean's "Blog for America" project is run on a platform called DeanSpace, an open source blogging tool developed in PHP by over 180 volunteers for the Dean campaign. RSS is widely used for events and content change notification. A user registry keeps track of the volunteers who are writing, makes it easy to send email, and even let's users create buddy lists. In true Internet fashion, this isn't a single application running at headquarters, but is hosted at dozens of sites around the country by volunteers. This has the added advantage of making these blogs "unofficial" web sites.

The campaign also uses Blog for America as a fund raising tool, taking thousands of small donations from people all over the country, all collected online. In an unusual move, the campaign also posts the total on the homepage. Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager says, "The pundits still don't get it. They see your incredible fundraising numbers - and that's all they understand. But our campaign was not built just by money - it was built by the full participation of 'thousands' who believe that each of us has the power and the duty to participate in our democracy."

I think this is all just the beginning of a brand-new way for citizens to be involved in the electoral process. The goal of any campaign is to engender action. Broadcast-style campaigns have distilled that to its purest form: check writing and voting. Dean's version uses the tools of the Internet to engender other kinds of action, blogging, meeting, letter writing, and citizen to citizen advocacy. Dean has shown that these actions lead to check writing. The bet is that these actions will lead to the kind of action that matters most on election day.

Of course, there's no trade secret in what Dean's doing and indeed, to be effective, it would be hard to keep it a secret. Campaigns don't really work so much on secret information as much as they do on effective operations. The technologies for building connected campaigns are ideological neutral and open to all.


As you can see, I've been giving a lot of thought to the application of information technology to the political process. As I've looked around the Utah political landscape, I didn't see a place where Utah politics could be easily reported and discussed by regular folks. To that end, I created a weblog called

For to be successful, it needs not just readers, but writers as well. If you're interested in Utah politics, I hope you'll visit and contribute. Feel free to comment on what's there. If you see a Utah political story that interests you, write it up and submit it. Its just a start, but its something we, the Citizens of Utah can do now, for very little investment, that promises to have a big payback.

Phillip J. Windley, the former CIO of Utah, is an information technology writer, speaker, and consultant. Windley is writing a book on digital identity, writes a weblog on enterprise computing at, and publishes Contact him at

Last Modified: Friday, 31-Dec-2004 23:22:27 UTC