"In fact as much as the Net is changing our ideas of God, it may be changing us even more," Time swooned in its Dec. 16 issue. "For many signing on to the Internet is a transformative act. In their eyes the Web is more than just a global tapestry of PCs and fiber-optic cable. It is a vast cathedral of the mind, a place where ideas about God and religion can resonate, where faith can be shaped and defined by a collective spirit. Such a faith relies not on great external forces to change the world, but on what ordinary people, working as one, can create on the World Wide Web that binds all of us, Christian and Jew, Muslim and Buddhist, together. Interconnected, we may begin to find God in places we never imagined."
Fancy that. And here we were all set to rant about hyperventilation among the Web worshipers who have been proclaiming that it's politics (America's other religion) that is being reborn in cyberspace. About 75 of them, along with assorted new media writers, civic organizers, and political junkies, gathered earlier this month in the dingy nether world of the South San Francisco Conference Center to assess the role of the Web in the 1996 presidential campaign and to chart the on-line future of the political process.
Clearly, the prospects for a more engaging Dan Lungren Website in 1998 or the implications of bulk-deleting political e-mail pale in the face of Time's version of the Second Coming. But the Politics On-Line Conference did offer a glimpse of how the Internet and Web-related technology might be used by campaigns -- to target voters, communicate with volunteers, or spin members of the press.
"I don't think e-mail is going to replace targeted direct mail or precinct-walking, but it is a much more efficient way of informing the media about your campaign or mobilizing people who are already part of the campaign," said Peter Grunwald, a veteran public affairs and telecommunications consultant who worked with HotWired to produce Campaign Dispatch for the 1996 presidential election.
Look for campaigns to do more of what universities and businesses have been doing for some time -- using e-mail instead of faxing and phoning. Awesome. Simply awesome.
And Web users who grow weary of searching for God in unimagined places will at least be able to find politicians. Look for more plentiful and sophisticated candidate Websites in 1998. Most major campaigns made some use of the Net in 1996, particularly through candidate home pages. But as Grunwald observed, little innovation distinguished any of them. "Basically, we've reached the point where a campaign stands out if it doesn't have a Website. The ones that got attention were absent, late, or incompetent," he said.
Dan Schnur, former press secretary for Gov. Pete Wilson and now director of an independent political and media consulting firm, said Web inadequacy was "a minor problem" for image-conscious campaigns in 1996 but that it will become a larger one as more people take to the Net. "You can put together an outstanding Website and update it throughout the campaign for the cost of a commercial on Fresno cable television," he said. "It's worth the investment." Apart from being relatively cheap, candidate sites reach a growing audience and one that is disproportionately interested in politics, Schnur added. "But more important," he said, "a candidate who's perceived to be technology-friendly is going to reap broader public relations benefits. Voters like candidates who think about the future."
That much established, the conference served mostly as an eerie reminder of the chasm between political pros like Grunwald and Schnur and the painfully earnest Webbies, who persist in envisioning the Web as something that will transform the broader political process. Nobody mentioned "vast cathedrals of the mind," but a certain missionary quality tinged some of the panel titles: "Politics of Participation: Can Civic Involvement Be Revived On-Line?" and "Wireroots Strategies: Which On-Line Tools Best Organize and Mobilize?" (In a state where the only grass-roots that matter are bought and paid for, they shouldn't consider the "wireroots" name any protection against the same thing happening in cyberspace.)
Jessica Tully, an enthusiastic twentysomething who serves as on-line communications director for Rock the Vote, talked about "mobilizing" the 18- to 25-year-old set through voter registration and Get Out the Vote efforts at rock concerts and on college campuses. She was especially proud of how effective the on-line outreach had been in securing campus volunteers to work against Proposition 209, the ballot measure that scraps state affirmative action programs, including those for college admissions. Schnur, trying not to be too disagreeable, pointed out that given the proclivities of college students, a few handbills on telephone poles would likely have accomplished the same result. (Although exit poll results show that Prop. 209 lost among younger voters, their turnout was not sufficient to defeat the measure, which Californians approved by a 54 percent to 46 percent vote. Nationally, 18- to 24-year-olds account for about 15 percent of the voting-age population, but according to LA Times exit polling, they accounted for only 9 percent of the votes cast in 1996, compared to 11 percent of votes cast in 1992.)
After all the hype about an explosion of Web use during the campaign season, there are still no reliable measurements of who was doing what with whose data. A newly released post-election poll of on-line users conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that roughly 10 percent of on-line users cruised the Net for political information, a number dwarfed by the more than 40 percent who said they went on-line in search of news about technology or health and science. While some on-line researchers have attempted to go further and actually break down the characteristics of political users, the numbers are so small and fragmentary that the results are nearly meaningless.
"The explosion in 1996 was the producer side -- very little happened on the user side," said Christopher Arterton, Dean of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.
Grunwald, who counsels advertisers on how to parse stats on Net demographics, such as they are, said the consensus measurement seems to be about 30 million Net users, 23 million of whom can log onto the Net from home. That's a long way from a mass market. "The point is that the numbers are increasing, a doubling of usage in the past 18 months," he said. "And more important, as the usage increases, the profile of a Net user looks more and more like the population as a whole."
But if that's true, what earthly reason would there be to think that politics (as opposed to, say, Jesus, or sex chat rooms) will be a particular draw on the Net? Or as Schnur put it to a somewhat dismayed conference audience, "You're not going to involve a lot more people in the political process simply because you're on-line. The same voter who'd rather watch Entertainment Tonight than The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is not going to spend a lot of time looking at candidates' home pages."
Grunwald's more interesting statistics, based largely on proprietary data he was able to share only in part with conference participants, suggest that political Web use is linked to the propensity to consume. The tiny universe of on-line political information-seekers, already dubbed "cybervoters" by one ambitious California political consulting firm, is what campaign strategists (and advertisers) regard as an opinion-leader constituency.
"Essentially, what you're talking about is the tip of the demographic any politician would want," said Grunwald. "Incomes in the $50,000 to $60,000 range, white, male, although the number of women are increasing, well-educated, and professional."
So, perhaps the more important constituency for on-line political information in 1996 was journalists. In addition to an unfortunate predilection for using the Net as an electronic everyman to "sample" public opinion, the press took advantage of instant access to assorted voter guides, candidate questionnaires, and issues briefs provided by nonpartisan groups such as Project Vote Smart, the League of Women Voters, and the California Voter Foundation.
It will be several more months before the first wave of national media surveys indicates whether campaign stories were any broader, deeper, or more plentiful as a result. But it's probably a safe bet that an embarrassing amount of coverage will have been devoted to the wondrous world of on-line politics.
"There was a cat-chasing-its-tail quality to the coverage early on," Grunwald agreed. "It was a kind of conceit that a presidential campaign, which was really like a slow-motion car crash, was going to somehow be more interesting because it was on-line. I think we'll know the Net has really arrived when people stop writing about it."
Susan Rasky can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.