If you’re anything like us, when you get an invitation to attend a day-long event that promises to bring bloggers, Internet activists, journalists, and political activists together under one roof, you think hard about it. But in the end, you go. So it was that I found myself at Pace University in lower Manhattan last Friday for the “Personal Democracy Forum”—a series of panel discussions and presentations on politics and the Internet that was a wildly mixed bag, as these things typically are.
First up was a conversation between New York Times columnist Tom Friedman and Google CEO Eric Schmidt. The exchange, which hardly promised to break news, nevertheless disappointed even my modest expectations, degenerating into little more than an hour-long PR pitch for Google with multiple references to Friedman’s “The World is Flat” theory. For an example of the white-hot rhetoric on display, at one point Schmidt admitted that, “I expect technology will have a significant effect on the ‘08 election.”
On the plus side, there were other aspects of the conference that delivered more. Lee Rainey from the Pew Internet Project delivered a great ten-minute presentation on how the public has used the Internet for political news in the last few election cycles. Rainey said that Pew estimates that 54 million people used the Internet for news or politics in 2006, while in 1996 the number was a mere 7 million. That’s the good news. The bad news, which Rainey didn’t present as such, is that the while the median age of Internet users who logged on for political news in 1996 was thirty-three, it rose to thirty-nine in 2006, even while the number of minorities and women logging on has grown.
This age gap is potentially worrisome. The story, as we’ve seen it presented time and again, is that the younger you are, the more comfortable you are online, and the more you rely on the Web for news. So does the fact that readers of political news online are getting older mean that younger people just aren’t using the Internet for news in the way that everyone thinks they are? Or does it mean that there are simply more older folks going online for their political news? No one suggested an answer at the conference. Either way, the increase in the average age was surprising, and is something we should all start to pay a little more attention to in the future.
While panelists, attendees, and reporters loitered in the “Google Lounge” between talks, munching on complimentary candy (the Swedish Fish were fantastic), most of the action in the Lounge took place along the walls, where everyone scrambled for electrical outlet space to charge their laptops and handheld devices, and where business cards were being passed back and forth with a frenzy that would make a Washington lobbyist weep.
But the panels were what these schmoozers really came for. I think. The panel that looked the most promising to me was “Embracing Voter-Generated Content: Risks and Benefits,” with MySpace’s Jeff Berman, Talkingpointsmemo’s Josh Marshall, MoveOn’s Eli Pariser, and Utah Congressman Steve Urquhart.
Alas, the event’s hour-long time slot was largely eaten up by Berman and Pariser’s sniping about the evils and glories of MySpace, with Pariser saying that, “There ought to be a way for us to own our own community rather than have the decision come down from Rupert Murdoch”—conveniently ignoring the fact that MySpace is indeed a private company.
That’s not to say that Pariser didn’t have something to say. He made an excellent point in talking about the tone of contemporary political debate, both online and off, arguing that for “people-power politics” to realize its potential, the media and the public must move beyond “gotcha” politics, since such attacks make campaigns timid out of a fear that some out-of-context quote will land on YouTube.