TCS Daily

The Technorati Candidate

By Dominic Basulto - September 23, 2005 12:00 AM

In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore found out that it was possible to win the popular vote, and still lose the electoral vote. In last week's Democratic primary for New York City Public Advocate, Andrew Rasiej found out that it was possible to win the blogger vote, and still lose the popular vote.

For the two months leading up to the primary election on September 13, Rasiej captured the hearts and minds of bloggers like no other candidate since Howard Dean with a technology-centric campaign that included a plan for citywide wireless Internet access, a video blog (in addition to a regular blog), and a plan for making 911 calls from the NYC subway. On the day preceding the election, in fact, "Rasiej" ranked as one of the ten most popular search terms on the blog search engine Technorati. Anyone convinced of the power of the blogosphere to determine the fate of political careers (Trent Lott, anyone?) would surely have guessed that Mr. Rasiej was on the cusp of sweeping into office with a broad new mandate to revolutionize politics.

Alas, it was not to be. The tally of the election was disappointing, with Mr. Rasiej finishing fourth in a field of six challengers with a scant 5.17% of the popular vote. The Technorati candidate, seemingly buoyed by the unstoppable force of the tech-savvy blogosphere, was somehow denied political office. Instead, the reigning incumbent, promising nothing more than the status quo and nothing close to the vision of "connectivity" promised by Mr. Rasiej, surged to victory with 48% of the popular vote.

This, despite the fact that Mr. Rasiej attracted the attention, if not the unofficial endorsement, of a glittering A-list of bloggers and tech pundits: Esther Dyson, Doc Searls, David Weinberger, Instapundit, Craig Newmark, Jason Calacanis, Mary Hodder and a number of other prominent voices. In an August 3 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Thomas Friedman had lionized Rasiej and his vision of "connectivity." Only a week earlier, in Fortune magazine, David Kirkpatrick called Rasiej "a genuine apostle of the Internet."

If the blogosphere is to take heart from the unsuccessful political ambitions of Mr. Rasiej, it is that ideas like "Politics 2.0" and "Emergent Democracy" and "Digital Democracy" are slowly taking hold. At the grassroots level, Americans are being offered new ways of getting involved in politics, and they are responding. As Mr. Rasiej pointed out numerous times in his campaign speeches, connectivity matters. His plans for citywide wireless Internet access may have been derided by critics who attempted to marginalize him as the "Wi-Fi Candidate," but the notion of connecting ordinary citizens to a vast network and then empowering them to solve their own problems can not be ignored.

One thing is certain: the Internet can be a powerful mobilizing force for an electorate disinterested in politics. In a city of eight million people in which Democrats outnumber Republicans 5:1, fewer than 400,000 people voted in the Democratic primary election for New York City Public Advocate. That's a staggeringly low turnout. Since traditional, low-tech ground campaigns lack the ability to mobilize voters, the Internet is increasing in importance as a useful tool to engage voters. If the last-minute surge by Rasiej on Technorati is any indication, then the Internet can surely be given some credit for increasing voter interest in issues that matter to everyday citizens.

In his concession speech, Mr. Rasiej spoke of the "victory of ideas" and how his campaign changed the whole notion of what the Public Advocate's office could be. (Before the election, quite frankly, most New Yorkers had no idea what the Public Advocate actually did). In describing how he would run an office that has only a $3 million annual budget, Rasiej supported bold thinking of how technology could bring transparency to New York City government and improve government efficiency in responding to the needs of everyday New Yorkers. Instead of attempting to solve the problems of all eight million New Yorkers, Rasiej implored eight million New Yorkers to solve the problems of one city.

Thus, Technorati candidates like Mr. Rasiej are not just technocrats who have embraced the Internet -- they are candidates who understand the power of bottoms-up, grassroots-inspired campaigns and who are willing and able to become a "hub of connectivity" for other citizens connected to each other.

Viewed in this context, the defeat of Mr. Rasiej in the race for New York City Public Advocate was not a profound defeat for Internet idealists or a staggering blow to the blogosphere, as some of have suggested. Instead, the Andrew Rasiej campaign could be a harbinger of what is to come in the political future: candidates championing technology, using the blogosphere to seed those ideas among a broader electorate and possibly, tilting the balance of political power. If the examples of Howard Dean and Andrew Rasiej are any indication, maybe one day it will be possible for the blogosphere to elect one of its own.

Dominic Basulto is the editor of the popular blog Corante New York, which covers technology and business in New York. He writes about business, technology, and the financial markets for TCS.


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