Clay Exits Deanspace: When Smartmobs Mesmerize Themselves

Clay Exits Deanspace: When Smartmobs Mesmerize Themselves.

Clay Shirky's brilliant and brutally honest post-mortem on the Dean phenomenon has a lot to say about the apparently delusional side-effects of the technologies that helped propel the Howard Dean campaign to prominence. Among other direct hits, Shirky put his finger on a shadow side of social capital: self-reinforcing delusion among cliques. (Another example of this shadow is cronyism).

Above all, Shirky focused on the right question: When technology-assisted collective action fails, can anyone learn enough from their failure to succeed in the future? Or are the blogs, online moneyraising, and meetups simply inadequate in the face of political reality? I don't think we're close to having an answer to these questions, but I'm very glad Shirky set the discussion on this footing.

Getting people together in the real world is hard – the coordination cost of any gathering runs into the inertia of modern life at every turn. (Robert Putnam in one sentence.) For many of us, the first time Dean appeared on our radar was when 300 people showed up for a Howard Dean MeetUp in New York City in early 2003. This was unprecedented, and Dean himself took note of it, coming down from Vermont to speak to his supporters.

We were right to be excited about this MeetUp, but wrong about the reason, because MeetUp was founded to lower the coordination costs of real world gatherings.

The size of the MeetUp in NYC was as much a testament to MeetUp as to Dean — it’s a wonderful tool for turning interest into attendance, but it created a false sense of broad enthusiasm. Prior to MeetUp, getting 300 people to turn out would have meant a huge and latent population of Dean supporters, but because MeetUp makes it easier to gather the faithful, it confused us into thinking that we were seeing an increase in Dean support, rather than a decrease in the hassle of organizing groups. [Smart Mobs]

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