A View from Henry Jenkins

Is Howard Dean a Dot Com?

Salon is asking the inevitable morning after questions about Howard Dean. His use of the internet has been one of the central stories of the campaign so far and many of us felt that this was going to be the…

  • January 21, 2004

Salon is asking the inevitable morning after questions about Howard Dean. His use of the internet has been one of the central stories of the campaign so far and many of us felt that this was going to be the decisive demonstration of the political power of online activism. Then, Dean came in a distant third.

Drawing on a string of “dot com” metaphors, writer Farhad Manjoo is asking the inevitable questions: “If Howard Dean were an Internet company, would he be the smash success of eBay, or the now-defunct Pets.com? The momentum Dean established over the summer and fall bore a striking resemblance to the straight-up curve of the dot-com boom. But, post-Iowa, that curve is pointing in a different direction, and now the question is, as was the case with so many of those dot-coms, was there ever really a good product beneath the hype? Or is Dean really just buzz, nothing more than a pet food-selling sock puppet who, buoyed by his campaign’s Internet savvy, momentarily came to seem like a really good idea?”

Manjoo concludes that Dean was what happened to Dean – that his personality imploded and that his collapse had little or nothing to do with cyberpolitics. The real question is whether his cyber-supporters abandon Dean or whether he is able to re-invent himself sufficiently to be the “come back kid” in New Hampshire next week.

In my column about cybercandidates a while back, I noted that so far, no cybercandidate had won a major party nomination. One reason is that candidates have to campaign in a hybrid media environment and right now, what plays well on the internet is almost exactly opposite from what plays well on television. Part of what happened to Dean was that complex ideas which could be developed through a post in his blog were reduced by his opponents into “sound bytes” which could be used against him on television, forcing him perpetually on the defensive. We can add to that the fact that he looks awkward in some televised contexts – most people seem to think he looked really awkward the other night in Iowa – and this adds to the perception that he has a “temprement” problem. Yet, that passion, the “heat” he generates, is what pulls his cyber-supporters to him and to some degree, his supporters read that awkwardness as a sign of authenticity.

The Democrats had better hope that Dean’s failure in Iowa is not a sign that their optomism about cyber-politics was premature. By all reports, this could be a very close election this fall – one which will be won by whichever party can get its core supporters to the voting booth. In that struggle, the GOP’s greatest resource will be conservative dominance of talk radio, while the Democrat’s greatest hope will be their greater mastery over cyberpolitics. The candidates will win undecided voters via television(a stronger push medium), but the Internet and radio will be key in getting out the vote. If they are smart, whatever candidate wins the Democratic nomination should hire Joe Trippi, the master mind of Dean’s cybercampaign, to help them in the Fall Campaign.

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