THE INTERNET AND HOWARD DEAN….The LA Times has a story today about the Howard Dean internet phenomenon, whose failure is prompting “painful self-examination” among supporters who were convinced that the internet was going to change everything.

Well, we’ve been down that road before, haven’t we? But even so, I have to say that the breast beating is impressive:

  • John Perry Barlow: “We may have been too glued to our monitors to remember that while elections get won by money…they are also won by people on the ground.”

  • Dave Winer: “Barlow is right about the echo chamber. There were a lot of people who thought it was about dating.”

  • Clay Shirky: “The volume of interest that came from rallying the faithful looked, to us, like a surface sign of 10 times the interest underneath. This bubble of belief was staggering.”

  • Doc Searls, co-author of dotcom bestseller The Cluetrain Manifesto: “We need to make a careful assessment of what we’ve learned so far. What’s going on here is more like tectonics and geology: It’s great shifts taking place underneath everything.”

Now, although I’m obviously a technophile, I’ve been in the high tech world my entire life and was an early skeptic of the messianic tone adopted by so many of the mid-90s dotcom folks. I thought The Cluetrain Manifesto was remarkably naive and shallow, that selling cat food via the internet was just dumb, and that market valuations should be based on projections of future earnings no matter what anyone else says.

But here’s the funny thing: this time I think the internet enthusiasts are being too hard on themselves. It’s a given in my business that the best marketing in the world can’t sell a product that people don’t want, and in the end I think that’s all that happened here. After all, look at what the internet accomplished for Howard Dean: it raised a ton of money and generated loads of activist enthusiasm, which in turn bought a huge ground staff, encouraged endorsements from two of the biggest unions around, allowed the campaign to saturate the airwaves with advertising, boosted him to #1 in the polls, and helped fund a 50-state organization that was the envy of every other candidate.

In other words, the internet was instrumental in helping build all the traditional mechanisms that elect a candidate. The fact that it still didn’t work just means that the candidate wasn’t good enough. After all, Phil Gramm raised a boatload of money in 1996 and then disappeared without a trace. It happens.

Politics is a funny business and it’s hard to know why some people succeed and others don’t. But whatever the reason for Dean not succeeding, I don’t think the blame can be laid on his internet operation. Without that, he wouldn’t have gotten even as far as he did.

POSTSCRIPT: Having said all this, I should add that the basic echo chamber critique is valid, although it’s worth keeping in mind that all campaigns suffer from it whether they depend on the internet or not. After all, what else kept a guy like Joe Lieberman in the race so long?

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