Part 3: Master/Slave and Peer-to-Peer

And now, I come full circle with finally answering the original question of Jock’s post – are we able to move from Master/Slave to Peer-to-Peer? Interestingly, the posts have gotten into a discussion of what the Kerry Campaign did or did not do, what the Dean Campaign did or did not do – but what is fundamentally missing is the basis of what a campaign truly is: a small organization that is strapped for cash – trying to marshall resources to engage an electorate that the majority gets involved in the last six weeks of the campaign.

The Problem: Creating Scale
Consider the challenges of any campaign:

  • Create awareness about the candidate
  • Create a team
  • Build relationships with validators
  • Create and manage buzz
  • Answer questions from interested parties
  • Build a platform for the issues
  • Build, develop and manage volunteers
  • Develop field team to get out the vote on election day
  • ….and many, many more

Consider all of these tasks, and the energy it takes to even consider running for public office. You take on incredible risks (your reputation, your home, your personal relationships) all for the potential of winning an election that could turn on a dime for some salacious piece of information attacks you and your reputation and strikes at your core.

How can one person do this alone? And constantly for a period of 18 months to three years before the election day? How can you hire a staff (and a qualified one) to handle all of these tasks? How can you expand your personal bandwidth to address the growing needs of your supporters and campaign? How do you build scale?

Risk Capital is like Voters to the Polls
One of my favorite thought exercises/analogies when describing my experiences in the campaigns is the pursuit of capital for a startup. When someone creates a company – they (potentially) have a number of channels to secure financing: personal credit (high priced debt), a bank loan (lower cost debt), venture capital (lower cost, migration of control) to friends-and-family (low priced debt, high emotional price). The investment risk profile of each of these groups varies based on their organizational structure:

  • credit cards assume some level of default, which determined their high rates
  • banks have to manage the risk of their capital, which is why they ask for assets to have the loan secured
  • venture capitalists take on more risk but also are willing to secure their capital against the asset of stock ownership and directorships, and
  • friends-and-family secure their investment against the relationship they have with the “investment” – which is usually the individual and their commitment to the task.

Apply this model to the political realm. You are a candidate risking your reputation, career, livelihood and potentially your home and marriage to get elected to a higher office. Are you the bank? The venture capitalist? The financially secure, independently wealthy individual? Or somewhere in between? What is the social proof that the distributed channel is going to get you elected on Election Day? And what is your concern? You want to deliver on your promise to your backers – especially your friends and family.

Next, focus on the political operatives. They make their livelihood on their success of getting their candidates elected. On the quality of their relationships. On making an investment in a candidate in the early days, to potentially benefit from the success in the later part of the campaign (e.g. points on the media buy). Are the social incentives in place to allow for a distributed effort to occur where the operative feels confident in the commitment and results from external supporters?

No Tyranny of the OR – Master/Slave AND Peer-to-Peer
One of my favorite business books is Jerry Porras and Jim Collin’s “Built to Last” – which describes how a number of successful companies can be distinguished by looking at processes and cultural attitudes within them. And granted, the difficulty in comparing long-standing businesses to 18 month campaigns is not necessarily on-par.

But, I believe that a combination of the two concepts (and a slight modification of one) can be effectively implemented to bring about success to campaigns – for all parties concerned. But it takes planning, effort and coordination – and an understanding of all parties of the chalenges they face.

Peer to Peer is based on Trust
Peer-to-Peer works most effectively when information is provided, transparency is available – in a trusted network. The incentive for peer-to-peer networks is based on the benefits that one gets. Look at these common peer-to-peer situations:

  • Napster, Gnutella, Kazaa
    Napster (and the other solutions) were so successful (when measuring network growth and distribution) because, even with their challenging interface – users could get music for FREE. Students who wanted to share music could easily do so by using their network, ripping their songs, and making the content available for their friends. Once the software was proven not to adversely damage computers – and other “mavens” validated the use, the software grew like wildfire.
    As the network began to grow, connections began to form – people would connect with each other via the chat application because of the music they had on their hard drives, and new relationships were formed. This act of transparency created a beneficial side-effect – self-expression and relationship building – which has been so successful in exploiting.
  • Skype
    One of the success stories of the last two years, Skype got started using the same principle they learned from building Kazaa – and making a service that benefitted people where it mattered – COST. There were a number of VOIP phone services before (Net2Phone is an example), but their interface, quality of call and price structure were deterrants to adoption.
    Skype addressed all of these concerns – and from their, the stories grew about companies, non-profits and families saving incredible amounts of money for distributing Skype to their personal network – reducing the cost of long-distance changes. And, once the process of making calls on the computer became a comfortable process – making calls off the Skype network was as easy as calling cards – and generates the bulk of Skype’s revenues. And, with a distributed, peer-to-peer network that has RELIABILITY and REDUNDANCY, Skype can save costs on routing and infrastructure, because the web of Skype clients is dense enough to handle the traffic – even with holes in the network.
  • SETI @home
    A terrific example of altruism and distributed computing – that allows individuals to help a project by offering their spare cycles for a common good. SETI @home is not necessarily peer-to-peer, but it is the use of distributed energies for a centralized good. And, the cost to the contributor – simply their spare computer cycles and the broadband connection.

It is all about Trust
In these examples, peer-to-peer is a technical implementation of a trust network. We have all sorts of trust networks that we use on a regular basis. My migration to Firefox from Internet Explorer was not because I was looking for a new browser – it was because a friend of mine told me about the browser and how it was successful in blocking pop-up ads and deterred spyware from being installed. Since I knew him (and his reputation), I checked out the software, installed it – and have been a happy Firefox user ever since. Napster had a slowdown in adoption during its growth period because of viruses being distributed in the network, posing as audiofiles or images that people would download and open. But once it released a patch that was endorsed by trusted members of the community, Napster’s growth began again.

In the political realm, how does the distributed network offer assurances to the candidate and the operatives that they can bring about the success metrics that both parties need?

One technique I am supportive of is the Democracy Cell Network designed to train individual supporters to create a network of grassroot supporters in the use of technology and communications tools to support Democratic candidates. Dick Bell and his wife created this group with the “troll-patrol” supporters on the Kerry blog – and have been working very hard on developing some success stories. I liken their effort to the old Underground Railroad – where disparate, but passionate individuals banded together to provide an infrastructure for a common cause. Trust is/was formed through actions and shared risk AND there is/was a centralized mechanism that leveraged the peer-to-peer infrastructure to accomplish the overall goal.

The Solution is building Trust and Results
Jock’s premise is that campaigns and the system is designed against the concept of peer-to-peer. And within the comments, technology is seen as the potential solution to overcoming the problems (i.e. complaints about not having enough technical resources). IMHO, I believe that targeted development efforts – like AdvoKit which addresses peer-to-peer voter outreach or vivaDemocracy which leverages group dynamics to accomplish volunteer tasks – is the way to build the tools that can leverage our trusted networks.

From my limited knowledge, NOI is working on some solutions for this – leveraging the skills of Josh Lerner and others who are building out tools for political campaigns to manage their online support network. The question that I have to ask: how can we build the trust and relationships between the different parties to ensure that successful experiences are generated AND create an effective engagement of the distributed support without negatively impacting other priorities of the campaign to drive to the success that all parties desire? If you have suggestions, I (and many others) are all ears.

Tags: Participatory Democracy, Kerry Campaign, online organizing, eCampaigning, Greater Democracy, Jock Gill, peer-to-peer, Master/Slave

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One Response to Part 3: Master/Slave and Peer-to-Peer

  1. karendc says:

    We tracked back to this discussion and wanted to address some of what Sanford says above.

    First of all, thanks for the kudos and link. Secondly, we have been thinking hard and long about all of the issues raised here, but the issue of scale has been especially challenging.

    On the one hand, Malcolm Gladwell wirtes about the limits of scaling in his book The Tipping Point, and his perspective makes a lot of sense–that there is an upper limit of the population of an effective community or organization; after that; successful communities split up into smaller groups and then re-grow. In that sense, the DCP has sustained a relatively far-flung but small community over the past year, and people have also split off and begun new, locally-focused groups, some of which are now larger than the DCP. We consider this success.

    We have also been discussing the learning environment of blogs and forums–the temporal nature of blogs vs. the spatial nature of forums, and what kinds of learning transactions take place in each.

    The notion of “learning transactions” comes from artificial intelligence research. Learning is fundamentally socially-driven and often happens in brief encounters between entities. It is highly web-like and completyely unpredictable in terms of *what* will be learned in any given transaction. The web-like nature of learning is both internal/private and external/social and both processes are happening simultaneously.

    If anyone is following me at this point, good for you. (Dick often rolls his eyes when I get going like this.) My point is that, I believe we are counting the wrong phenomena when we evaluate the success or failure of a blog. What technorati counts is pairs of eyeballs and posts. What I think is meaningful is numbers of transactions.

    A thread is less useful to the purpose of changing hearts and minds when it is full of comments such as “Go JK!” “Great post!” etc. than when there is thoughtful, perhaps even heated exchange of information. When the discussions go one for a while (in the temporal blog) or expand to include links and background material (spatial forums), those transactions are golden.

    I am a teacher, and I liken the online communications to those I value in the classroom. When working towards educational goals, evidence of progress is not in the numbers of responses but in the quality of the discussions.

    My two cents (and apologies if this has been discussed elsewhere–I am a novice in this world compared to all of you!)

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