What’s The Next Big Thing?

On the eve of the Politics Online Conference, and after some time thinking about the broader political and media landscape over the last few days, let’s ask a big question — what’s next? I.e., what’s the next major technological or social change that shakes up the internet political world?

Look at the major pieces of technology that campaigns use today. A website? Not exactly a new concept. Email + online fundraising? Email’s as old as digital dirt, and online credit card transactions have been around as long as online porn. Internet video? Happy Fifth Birthday, YouTube! Social networking? Neither Facebook nor MySpace counts as novel in 2010. Twitter? Relatively new on the scene, but getting old fast….

Actually, the progression from email to Facebook to Twitter illustrates a trend — from mass to niche. Email and websites are the core communications technologies of the online world, the tools that almost everyone uses. The next-generation social tools are popular and have almost 100% penetration into some groups, but Facebook is still far from universal even among people under 25. Twitter? A few million users in the U.S., but a far smaller number of people contribute most of the content. Foursquare? Again, we’re scaling DOWN — a system based on letting people know where you are is only interesting for folks who actually go places (for most people with jobs and kids, Foursquare would show precisely three locations — home, work and the liquor store). Mobile? It’s been the “next big thing” for years, and it still is….

I’d argue that the political world, like the broader communications universe, is still trying to absorb the most recent generation of technologies, and that for now we’re looking at incremental rather than revolutionary change, as people learn to use the tools effectively and in synchrony. Of course, as the Obama online campaign showed, incremental change done properly CAN have revolutionary results (his new media team did relatively little new, but many things right). For now, I get the feeling that we’re waiting for the next leap, in the way that a few years back, online video and data-intensive social tools were waiting for enough people to have broadband connections.

Maybe it’s a technological change that’s out there waiting to happen, or perhaps it’s a conceptual one (brother, can you paradigm?). But whatever it is, my crystal ball done broke and I can’t predict it. What do you think?


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • The revolution in politics that’s coming will be a revolution in information – particularly at the state and local levels of politics. Projects like Imagine Election, The Voter Guide, and eVoter are already working to bring online, nonpartisan voter guides reaching all the way down the ballot to every American.

    There are a couple of likely outcomes from this. First, better informed voters will more often have the confidence to choose the challenger over the incumbent. Extremely high incumbency rates in state races – 93% in 2008 according to Money in State Politics – may diminish as voters turf out ineffective or scandal-drenched pols a little more often. That would probably be a good thing.

    Second, a revolution in information might – finally – lead to a decrease in cost. Astronomical sums are spent in political campaigns – often to the detriment of voters, who find taxpayer dollars being used to repay campaign donors. The problem is just as acute at the state and local level as at the national level. In 2008, $1.6 billion was spent on state and local races, again according to Money in State Politics. Yet many young voters still don’t know who they are. Right now, a well-funded campaign is essential to raise name recognition to the point where voters know a candidate.

    But what if name recognition cost almost nothing? What if every voter could easily, and automatically, find every candidate that would appear on their ballot online? It might make it possible for lower-budget campaigns to succeed against their better-funded compatriots. It might help turn state and local politics will be a contest of qualifications and ideas instead of a war about money. That would definitely be a good thing.

    We’re just at the early stages of how technology will change politics. The changes to come will harness the power of technology to provide better information, more cheaply. They will be deeper and more meaningful than many candidates realize. And they’ll change politics for the better.

  • The big change is the rise in smart phones. As more people have iphones and Android phones, campaigns will increase their use of apps, micro-fundraising tools, etc. If touch-screen tablets really take off (like the ipad), then this may also have a big impact (although I doubt it).