I’m getting the same cognitive dissonance listening to political handicappers explain Dean’s dismal showing in Iowa that I used to get listening to financial analysts try to explain dot com mania with things like P/E ratios and EBITDA. A stock’s value is not set by those things; it is set by buyer and seller agreeing on price. In ordinary markets, buyers and sellers use financial details to get to that price, but sometimes, as with dot com stocks, the way prices get agreed on has nothing to do with finance.

In the same way, talking about Dean’s third-place showing in terms of ‘momentum’ and ‘character’, the P/E and EBITDA of campaigns, may miss the point. Dean did poorly because not enough people voted for him, and the usual explanations – potential voters changed their minds because of his character or whatever – seem inadequate to explain the Iowa results. What I wonder is whether Dean has accidentally created a movement (where what counts is believing) instead of a campaign (where what counts is voting.)

And (if that’s true) I wonder if his use of social software helped create that problem.

We know well from past attempts to use social software to organize groups for political change that it is hard, very hard, because participation in online communities often provides a sense of satisfaction that actually dampens a willingness to interact with the real world. When you’re communing with like-minded souls, you feel like you’re accomplishing something by arguing out the smallest details of your perfect future world, while the imperfect and actual world takes no notice, as is its custom.

There are many reasons for this, but the main one seems to be that the pleasures of life online are precisely the way they provide a respite from the vagaries of the real world. Both the way the online environment flattens interaction and the way everything gets arranged for the convenience of the user makes the threshold between talking about changing the world and changing the world even steeper than usual.

We also know from usability testing that the difference between “would you” and “will you” is enormous — when “would you use this product?” changes to “will you use it?”, user behavior frequently changes dramatically. Apple’s eWorld imploded after the beta testers all dropped the service once it started charging, despite enthusiastically declaring that they would pay for such a service.

“Would you vote for Howard Dean?” and “Will you vote for Howard Dean?” are two different questions, and it may be that a lot of people who “would” vote for Dean, in some hypothetical world where you could vote in the same way you can make a political donation on Amazon, didn’t actually vote for him when it meant skipping dinner with friends to drive downtown in the freezing cold and venture into some church basement with people who might prefer some other candidate to Dean.

The Dean campaign has brilliantly conveyed a message to its supporters, particularly its young ones, that their energy and enthusiasm can change the world. Some of this was by design, but much of it was a function of people looking for something, finding it in Dean, and then using tools like MeetUp and weblogs to organize themselves. The story of the bottom-up and edge-in style adopted by Dean’s staff has been told a thousand times, and it’s a good one.

But what if this style has also created a sense of entitlement or even inevitability about the change? What if communing with fellow believers has created the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes from participation in a shared effort, but hasn’t created a sense of urgency or threat? What if Dean supporters believe that believing is enough, and what if the Dean campaign’s brilliant use of tools to gather the like-minded both online and off has fed that feeling?

Voting, the heart of the matter, is both dull and depressing. Standing around an elementary school cafeteria is not a great place to feel like your energy and excitement is going to change the world, and unlike getting together with like-minded Deaniacs, where affirmation can be the order of the day, the math of the voting booth undermines any sense of inevitability – everyone in line not voting for Dean cancels your vote.

When the Clinton campaign used an MIT-furnished e-mail list in the 1992 campaign, they didn’t use it socially, they used it as a fast cheap fax, and they used it to help them manage the traditional news cycle. Many of us assumed that this was the crack in the dam, and that online tools would become critical to organizing the voters themselves, first in 1996, and then in 2000, and we were surprised when they didn’t.

Finally, when Dean (and Trippi and Teachout and Rosen) came along, we thought “This is it – these are the people finally making it happen!” And in a way they are, by providing the model –- all top 3 finishers in Iowa use MeetUp, and they all have weblogs. But the Dean campaign used those things organically, while everyone else is playing catch up. And many of us (self very much included) thought that the inorganic adoption of social tools by Kerry, Clark, et al left them at a disadvantage.

Now, though, I’m not so sure. Maybe the adoption of those tools by a traditional campaign is a better way to fuse of 21st century organizing and 20th century “Get out the Vote” efforts. This would be especially true if these tools, used on their own, risk creating a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that doesn’t translate to driving down to the polls in freezing weather.

When I was 19, I remember seeing a bunch of guys in a parking lot in New Jersey absolutely rocking out to Twisted Sister at top volume, “Oh we’re not gonna take it, No, we ain’t gonna take it, Oh we’re not gonna take it anymo-o-o-o-ore” and I remember thinking the song was using up the energy that would otherwise go into rebellion.

Just rocking out to Twisted Sister so hard, and feeling so good about it, made those guys feel like they’d already stood up to The Man, making it less likely that they would actually do so in the real world, when the time came. And I’m wondering if the Dean campaign has been singing a version of that song, or, rather, I’m wondering if the bottom-up tools they’ve been using have been helping their supporters sing that song to each other.

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