A bubble is a bubble is a bubble

A bubble is a bubble is a bubble.
The collapse of the Presidential campaign of Howard Dean (rather, the campaign itself) is one of the more amazing political events in my lifetime. That’s why I’m enjoying the exasperated punditry of late. We’re all trying to figure this thing out, because, well, we suspect it’s going to happen again. And if we’ve learned anything in the last couple of decades it’s that the fear of something new disappears if we beat it to death long enough.

So it is with the Howard Dean bubble. Jay Rosen does the world a favor by offering a running summarization of various writings, “Voices at the Crash Site.” If you’re really interested, don’t miss Clay Shirky’s analysis or Katy Butler’s wonderful piece in Salon.

The Dean bubble carried with it a dynamic identical to the Internet bubble of the late 90s, and it bears consideration in the wake of the political events of January 2004. Because the truth is the energy that creates a Postmodern bubble is real, whether the results can be viewed as “real” from a Modernist perspective or not.

I ran an Internet start-up during the bubble years. Given my background in television and my knowledge of people (the start-up was a personality assessment company), I felt strongly that Internet users would only support content that was free and, therefore, advertiser supported. I was passionate about this and raised a lot of money from investors off the energy. When everything fell apart — meaning advertisers didn’t behave as I wanted them to behave — I was perplexed in addition to being broke.

But now advertisers are flocking to the Web, and not just other Internet companies. The trades are filled with stories of Madison Avenue finally “getting it” when it comes to one of Doc Searls’ wonderful axioms, “Television is the best medium ever for advertising, but the Internet is the best for sales.” Wisdom is justified of its children, and I was right back then. So what happened?

There have been many entire books written on that question, and I’m not going to try and rewrite them here. But from where I sit these days, it sure looks a lot like a failure of Modernist reach/frequency, mass marketing.

And, I think, the same thing can be said for the bursting of Howard Dean’s campaign bubble. The Internet is a Postmodern communications medium, something entirely new in my lifetime. It defies understanding from a Modernist mindset. As FCC Chairman, Michael Powell, noted recently, it’s now possible to run a communications business, like a phone company, by “riding existing infrastructure.” The same can be said of a political campaign.

If, in fact, the premise here is that a bottom-up campaign can elect a President, then it follows that the bubble will grow again. It did with advertising. It will with politics. But in order to succeed, I think two things will need to happen. One, it’ll require a candidate who can ride the existing infrastructure. Dean was unable to do that, the proof being every time he opened his mouth. Secondly, I think the future will reveal that you don’t have to buy TV to win, but you’ll have to be able to ride it. That’ll mean creative uses of contributions, which will further the bottom-up campaign.

You simply can’t force a Postmodern anything back into a Modernist mold, and this, I believe, was the ultimate failure of the Dean campaign.

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