The lost opportunity of online politics, with Micah Sifry

“We didn’t anticipate how much capital could adapt.”

Micah Sifry (@mlsif) has been living at the intersections of technology and politics at least since he convinced the powers-that-be at The Nation, the liberal magazine where he served as an editor and writer from the mid-‘80s through the mid-‘90s, that if they got a CompuServe hookup in his office he could get The Hotline political tip sheet out to reporters out in the field more easily than having to fax it. He also has one of the most interesting minds of anyone I know. 

Sifry’s interest in tech, he tells me, goes back much further than his Nation days, to the computer his dad, a math teacher in the New York City public schools, brought home one summer: “We had, like, an Apple II in the house, and I fiddled around with it and learned BASIC.”

After trying and failing to convince The Nation to start a website for aggregating progressive news — an “info jockey,” he called it — in 1997 he joined Public Campaign, an advocacy group focused on money in politics. A small handful of years later came the era of September 11th, of war-blogging and bloggers taking down Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. He and others at Public Campaign launched The Daily DeLay, chronicling the complicated saga of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay would later resign.

There were other formative experiences. Sifry began attending — with his brother, who works in the tech industry — conferences centered around the open-source operating system Linux. The attendees, recalls Sifry, looked in their Birkenstocks and tie-dyed shirts like “a lost tribe from the 1960s,” and yet by working together they were “successfully competing with the most powerful corporation in the world” — Microsoft.

Then, 2003, there was the Dean moment. Future presidents were supposed to be picked by the Gang of 500. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, though, was making a plausible run for the Democratic nomination on the back of MeetUps.

Intrigued, Sifry started going to the conferences that were popping up on ‘digital democracy,’ on online politics. At one, he met Andrew Rasiej, a New York City entrepreneur who was starting an event called Personal Democracy Forum. They would join forces, and in 2007 launch techPresident, a group blog where campaign practitioners, writers, and politicians of all partisan persuasions would gather to discuss and debate how “technology is changing politics.”

“Since there are so many blogs about blogs, perhaps it is only natural that someone would start an online political site about online politics,” wrote the New York Times to mark techPresident’s debut. That’s where I would meet him. I joined as associate editor in 2008. 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Scola: I have been wanting to ask you this for years: techPresident’s tagline, “Technology is changing politics,” came from a place of optimism. We tried to be thoughtful and realistic, but we thought it would make things better. Were we kidding ourselves?

Sifry: I think that the optimism — what we meant by “technology is changing politics” — is that we thought it was opening it up to more voices, and that the impact of more people being empowered to personally participate would be better than what we were coming from. 

We did not anticipate the re-concentration of power that’s happened in the last decade or so. We did not anticipate the weaponization of the open Internet the way we've seen. I think that we could have been less starry-eyed and gotten less of an interesting crowd together. 

If you ask me, ‘what did we get wrong?’ — or more broadly, ‘what did the pro-democracy, pro-Internet crowd get wrong?’ — it’s that we never organized a base. 

Go back to the SOPA-PIPA fight; ten years ago, Congress nearly legislated a bunch of dumb laws that would have accidentally broken the open Internet. And a mix of grassroots and business together got something like 15 million people to burn down the phone lines, the fax lines, everyone on the Hill. And it was astonishing to see how the support for those bills completely melted away in, you know, days

And after that, the thing we didn’t do is that those 15 million people didn’t get organized. Nobody took it upon themselves to successfully convert that into an organized political base. 

We can discuss why that could be. It could be because the high point that that in fact represented was mostly because Google and other other big companies converted their homepages into massive organizing platforms. But the smaller groups never converted this into locally organized, visible advocacy for a certain kind of Internet.  

Scola: Is some part of that around 2011, 2012, those advocacy groups looked at Google or Wikipedia and said, “Okay, these companies are on our side”? This is the same time the Obama administration is saying those companies are the best thing since sliced bread. It’s almost like there was a backing off, an outsourcing… 

Sifry: Oh, I go further. I would say those companies bought the acquiescence of what could have been the grassroots space. They were doing a pretty good job keeping the advocate community focused on government overreach. 

What’s notable is that you can see the problem finally — in painful relief — when we start looking at surveillance capitalism, and ask, why wasn’t there a more organized response by the advocacy community, the ‘Internet freedom’ people, when Cambridge Analytica happened

And the answer is because for years, they’ve had their cannons trained on government: ‘The government’s going to screw things up, the government’s going to kill this thing [i.e., the Internet] by over-regulating, blah blah blah.’ 

Now, yes, of course, there’s discourse that’s very critical of the power these companies have amassed. But it’s really late in getting going. And they’re obviously not getting much funding from the Big Five to do that kind of work. So it isn’t just that the grassroots work was outsourced. It’s also that the funding incentives were skewed.


Scola: So maybe that’s why there’s not a base to be outraged by Cambridge Analytica. But what about a base for, like, getting a progressive president elected — you know, things we thought people would use the Internet for? 

Sifry: First of all, I would say, just to be clear, there is a base. It’s just not a big enough base to win. 

But to your point, the small donor base on the Democratic side is a creation of the Internet. I remember when [Dean campaign manager] Joe Trippi was saying in 2003, 2004, if we could just get, you know, a million or two million Americans to each give a hundred dollars, we could fund a viable candidate for president who would be completely unbeholden to ‘big money.’ 

Well, that candidate has appeared multiple times now. Certainly Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, on the Democratic side, are proof. That’s not a theory anymore. 

Now your typical human-rights organization in Africa has on average on its Facebook page the same number of followers as the average American. Not the average American advocacy group. The average American.

Scola: Right, but…

Sifry: Well, the tricky thing is that capital didn’t stop evolving and adapting either. So while there are a lot more people personally involved in democracy now, there’s also a lot more capital. And some of the things that we’ve learned that technology is good for are expensive to do. So it isn’t automatically clear that the open Web that we dreamt about is a net-plus for the little guy. 

This became clear to me when [years ago] I came across what must now be an eight or nine-year-old study on the effect of social media on the human-rights advocacy world globally. And the theory for the advocates of social media usage by nonprofit organizations was, now everybody has their own megaphone, right? You can go direct to your audience. You don’t have to hope the press will cover you, you can attract attention yourself. 

Organizations like Amnesty International or Save the Children down to tiny little ones that might focus on prison abuses in one country in Africa — they all now have access to Facebook and Twitter. 

But who benefited the most from the expansion of opportunities to be heard? The big organizations, because the big organizations have standing budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. They can afford to do the sort of well-produced, well-promoted content creation that tends to get attention, as measured by headlines in newspapers and coverage on television. 

And so if in the past these organizations were fighting to get the New York Times to pay attention to them, now your typical human-rights organization in Africa has, on average, on its Facebook page the same number of followers as the average American. Not the average American advocacy group. The average American.

Scola: Oh, wow.

Sifry: So suddenly you’re competing for attention in a world that has billions of people who are on the same level as you. It’s worse for little organizations now, in this competition for attention, and that’s an effect of opening the funnel that I think was not anticipated. 

The early movers, the Josh Marshalls [of Talking Points Memo] of the world — there are these examples of people who took advantage of the early opportunity, when the big players were still lumbering along saying, ‘Blogging is stupid. Why would we ever let people comment?’ But now, every newspaper, every traditional news organization is doing exactly the same thing. And most of the early independent bloggers are gone. 

We didn’t, I think, anticipate how much capital could adapt.

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We looooove to get into productivity tools here at Slow Build. Sifry shared his own:

“I wish I had a productivity tool because I'm terrible. I procrastinate, and half the time I’m sending myself emails as I browse. Literally, I'm cutting and pasting links and sending myself emails with just the same subject line, which is ‘fodder,’ so I can find them easily.

Otter is a nifty tool for transcriptions of conversations and interviews. It’s dangerous because it does make it easy to write really, really long things when sometimes shorter would be better. 

Oh, I should mention TheBrain. I’m not anywhere close to a power user of it, but the Brain is a mind-mapping tool that I’ve used for years, as a way to keep track of a few things. One is people. I go to an event, and I listen to interesting talks or meet interesting people, and I like to keep track of, ‘when did I first know this person, and what do they do?’ And then another part of it is I periodically will dump content around things that are just ongoing, lifelong topics of interest for me. 

The great user of TheBrain, who's always inspired me, is Jerry Michalski, who's been using TheBrain for more than 20 years and has more than a half million items in his Brain. It's accessible to other users. So there are times where, if I can't remember something, I'll look it up in Jerry's Brain, and it’s there.”