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Web Campaigning

Author: Kirsten A. Foot, Steven M. Schneider
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: December 2007

 REVIEW 1: Scott Dunn
 REVIEW 2: Gerhard Fuchs
 REVIEW 3: Lydia Perovic
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Kirsten Foot & Steven Schneider

Between 1999 and 2004, U.S. political campaigning discovered the internet. From the early Web 1.0 candidates' sites serving as bio billboards and offering PDF sign-up sheets, to the 2004 onset of Web 2.0 through meetups and moveons, both the usage of the Web by the campaign offices and the ways it was being done increased significantly. Research led by Kirsten Foot and Steven Schneider set out to detect regularities in this growing web cacophony and to create a classificatory system that would withstand time. After the nomenclature come the correlations, and Foot and Schneider also look into variables that influence the shape of web practices. As is expected with proper social science, predictions of future developments are carefully presented in the concluding chapter.

The four types of web campaigning practices they identify -- informing, involving, connecting and mobilizing -- always take place through a set of techniques. Many of the techniques are shared across the practices for different outcomes, and some techniques are unique to a particular practice type. For instance, the technique of documenting is mostly used for the sake of informing whereas the technique of convergence (unifying off-line materials and actions with on-line content) can be used for the purposes of informing, involving, connecting and mobilizing. The book itself is organized along the lines of the four types of practices, but the digital supplement for the book, which is available online, contains one crucial extra, the Webscapes archive of the samples of web pages that illustrate all the techniques analyzed. Although the Digital Supplement itself is somewhat dodgy to navigate -- let's say its technique of linking does not do for the practice of informing what it could have -- the Webscapes section is not to be missed. The richness and classificatory slipperiness of the web production techniques are fully made visible here.

It is the tensions within the practices that the authors describe that are particularly interesting. Having to decide, for instance, how specific or broad to make the candidate's policy statements on the website when both may carry electoral pitfalls and advantages, is an example of a tension in informing. There is, however, a universal kind of tension that will remain central for internet campaigning observers and Foot and Schneider demonstrate that it emerges in each of the practices. This is the dynamic between the controllable (on-the-message) and the uncontrollable (messier and more democratic) elements of web campaigning. Adding features that enhance citizen participation -- forums, listservs, and blogs, for instance -- creates entry points for a variety of factors capable of derailing the campaign's communications plan. The free-for-all web environments can become a field for the anti-candidate propaganda and even candidate's own supporters can take the agenda in directions that the campaign strategists would rather avoid. One of the campaign managers interviewed in the book, Lynn Reed (Bill Bradley 2000), adamantly argues against the opening up of campaign web communications but also contends that the spirit of the time favours the opposite development. In ten or twenty years, she predicts, the interactivity won't be a matter of choice.

Now, in the latter part of 2007 and the early days of the 2008 primaries, we have yet to see an increase of real participatory content in campaigns and web campaigns. The multiple-choice surveys that political sites offer are still carefully phrased to get a PR point across; online voting is used for deciding such important matters as the campaign song; the interactive calendars and Upcoming are used to inform visitors about campaign events; the "votographies" and videos posted on campaigns' Flickr and YouTube accounts are all "on the message" as are candidate or campaign blogs. Indeed, "News" or "Learn" features on campaign sites contain either positive press coverage of the candidate or campaign's own press releases. Very few campaign sites are moving towards the portal model, which would include extensive outlinking and content that does not focus exclusively on the candidate. The Dean 2004 case was probably an exception rather than a harbinger: campaign sites still generally stick to being campaign sites rather than the convergence point of a movement.

Foot and Schneider show that citizen empowerment (which they place among the techniques of mobilization) can happen in the course of political campaigning out of sheer necessity. What begins due to shortage of staff can evolve into larger scale citizen mobilizing. McCain 2000 campaign manager Max Fose describes in one of the interviews how their state-tailored web pages and databases ended up being completely decentralized and run by local campaign activists who then proceeded to engage in a lot of creative competition, all to the benefit of the general campaign. We need many more examples of the reigns of campaign decision-making being given to campaign outsiders to talk of a trend. In the concluding chapters Foot and Schneider predict that interactive features in web campaigning will continue to grow, but only for the confirmed supporters. Sign-up pages will become more comprehensive and the campaign sites will have to be personalized to be used. We are witnessing this already with the websites of the current presidential hopefuls, which all have my.candidatesname.com editions.

What the authors are not addressing in their research -- and they are explicit about it on several occasions -- is political behavior. We find no information on how the analyzed practices were made sense of and what political effects they had on web users. None of the examples introduced comes with the information on candidate's subsequent electoral success or failure. There is no data on whether certain campaigning practices managed to involve more people who would otherwise stay out of the political process. We also cannot gauge what role web campaigning had in the overall campaign strategy in the cases analyzed. There is always a possibility that due to idiosyncrasies of an electoral district the online part of campaigning had little or no influence on the outcome. None of these questions are addressed - however, raising them would make for a much different and probably impossibly comprehensive book.

Which also means that Foot and Schneider did not try to address the unofficial, moonlighting type of web campaigning that is gaining so much ground -- namely the sphere of blogs and live journals owned by supporters and detractors. Today, just about every campaign will have its unofficial freelance wing doing the opposition research and vying for attention from the media.

Web Campaigning is an attempt to put classificatory order upon a subject that has been changing at a pace quicker than the customary pace of academic research and publishing. Some categories we will find overlapping, the differentia specifica for some others will remain unclear: the borders of the practices of involving and mobilizing will on occasions be porous, as will the ones between the techniques of co-production and convergence. Web Campaigning employs procedures like longitudinal observation, documentation, classification, correlation between variables, careful predictions -- all accompanied by highly detailed justifications of methodological decisions -- in order to explain some political propaganda's workings online.

Books of social scientific research of the internet that are being published this year usually relate to studies that had been concluded two or more years prior. Some of Foot and Schneider's ethnographies will inevitably gain an aura of quaintness -- among the examples observed are a campaign website that consists of nothing but a home page and the first political site ever to contain the candidate's blog. The often repeated explanations of what linking is, as well as that there are such things as external and internal linking, might jar readers with any sort of basic level of internet literacy. The research for Web Campaigning was completed just as Web 2.0 features were making major inroads in political campaigning, so these latest developments are not the focus of the book.

The key issue with regards to the "web socializing" style of campaigning is whether it is expanding the public sphere (in the Habermasian sense: as a space where we come together, ideally as equals, to discuss matters of the state) or shrinking it; whether it is equipping those who were previously on the sidelines with the know-how of citizenship, or having no effect on engagement. The answer will likely have to be sought on a case by case basis. Blogs like PressThink or Canadian discussion board Babble have the capacity to expand the public sphere and to cultivate informed and critically thinking citizenry. The conversations taking place on a great number on candidates' and supporters' Facebook and MySpace accounts, however, are still nothing more than the campaign promotion by other means. We will see whether the presidential debates on YouTube or MySpace will perform the kind of public service that the traditional media sometimes fail to. Chalk me in for the skeptics column.

Read as an ethnography of internet practices from 1999 to 2004, Web Campaigning will continue to be of interest. More importantly, its classificatory system will remain valuable even as the examples analyzed get out of date. The practices and the techniques that Web Campaigning identifies will remain a useful toolset for making sense of what exactly political campaigns are doing online, and the tensions that Foot and Schneider wrote about will continue to be felt and monitored. Although we will have to look elsewhere for questions of public sphere and political behavior, it is always good to start off with well honed elementary equipment.

Lydia Perovic:
Lydia Perovic is a Toronto-based writer. She's worked for the now-incumbent in a Toronto by-election last year, and she's written on web campaigning in the recent general Ontario election for intergovworld.com.  <lydia_perovic@yahoo.com>

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