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Humane microtargeting is here

At an amazing dinner last night — amazing because of the dozen people there, although the food was good, too — the conversation turned to shared cynicism about the lessons the 2012 presidential campaigns learned about the use of the Internet. Both sides seem to have taken away the idea that victory depends upon evermore tightly targeted ads. Once the campaign can figure out that you are a 37 year old woman, who is a lapsed Catholic who owns a hunting rifle but favors rigorous background checks, who has a daughter with a chronic medical condition, whose sister married a woman from Colombia, and who once ate a panda and secretly liked it, the campaign can target you with marketing material that will press all your buttons and only your buttons.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the campaigns used this micro-specific information to appeal to our reason and judgment. But the campaigns are marketing machines that aim at getting us to make a one-time “purchase decision” and if they can do so by appealing to our lizard brains, they will.

I share much of this cynicism, and all the more acutely because my rose-colored glasses were polished by the 2004 Dean campaign. It used the Net to raise unheard of amounts of money via email campaigns, but it also tried to scale intra-supporter conversations by having supporters connect laterally. The Dean campaign was really focused on winning the nomination [SPOILER: It didn’t], but it was also genuine in its belief that the Net would enable a new type of connectedness that could subvert (at least to some extent) the hierarchical nature of campaigns and of governments. (Source: Joe Trippi‘s book. Also, I got to watch up-close.) That makes it all the more disappointing to me that the campaigns are focused on the Net as a medium for personalized marketing, rather than as tools of connection. (We’ll see what Organizing for America becomes.)

Nevertheless, I am not as cynical as most of my dinner companions, perhaps because I’m old and remember politics before the Internet, or because I’m old and foolish, or, most likely both.

So, we can and should bemoan the failure of the two major parties’ campaigns to more fully embrace the Net as more than a cheap way to broadcast messages. We should be cynical about the top-down, one-way, manipulative, non-conversational “messaging” that has become the main way campaigns communicate. But we should also remember that we have a powerful example of microtargeting being used for building multiway, lateral conversations: The Web.

I mean something obvious. In the days before the Internet, our news came from a handful of TV and radio channels and newspapers. If you wanted to know a candidate’s position, you went down to his (yes, almost always his) headquarters and picked up the handful of position papers they kept there. You of course argued with your friends and co-workers, but those conversations and the ideas they generated stayed very local.

All of that has been changed by the Web. We can get endless amounts of information and can engage in endless conversations. Of course much of that information is bad and many of the conversations are stupid-making. Still I would not trade our current vibrant democracy of conversation for the prior media regime that delivered the news in a rolled up bundle of pages once a day.

But you already know that. The question last night was whether we’ll ever see micro-targeting that is lateral, conversational, and not, well, evil. And my answer is: yes, it exists appropriately transformed on the Web. Blog posts, for example, are globally available, but are not exactly broadcast. Rather, a self-selected group comes to read them, and sometimes some people in that group recommend a post to one of their own networks. Likewise, tweets go to followers, and to the followers of those who re-tweet them. Likewise, on mailing lists people circulate links that are “targeted” to the interests that hold those lists together. The Web is what conversational, lateral microtargeting looks like.

Granted we tend not to think about the Web that way because the term “targeting” is so obnoxious. But take the war out of targeting and you have the idea that appropriate content is put in front of appropriate people, which is how the Web — wildly imperfectly wildly imperfectly wildly imperfectly — works.

But there’s more than language at stake here. If we are feeling cynical and depressed about our political processes because the political parties are using the Internet as a medium for aiming messages straight at the reptilian brains of the citizenry, then, yes, we should despair. But if we look outside of the campaigns at the general political ecosystem, we are indeed seeing the sort of lateral, conversational engagement that the Web promised us. The problems with this Web ecosystem — legion and serious — are due primarily to how the affordances of the Web engage fallible humans (i.e., humans). So, we may still feel depressed and cynical, but not because the political system seems to have structural reasons why it cannot reform itself. Reform is possible outside of that system.

We should therefore feel depressed and cynical for better reasons.

3 Responses to “Humane microtargeting is here”

  1. I’m also wearing the rose-colored glasses about the Dean campaign. The last Democratic campaign worker to actually come to our door was in early 2004. ([‘m in the Bay Area so Republicans don’t matter). He was an early Millennial canvassing on behalf of Howard Dean. His sincerity and enthusiasm plus the Emerging Democratic Majority book around that time, renewed my faith. Nothing on the Internet since has meant as much, although of course Nate Silver did help to reduce last year’s anxiety.

    Thanks again to that guy who actually rang the bell back in 2004.

  2. I watched the Dean Campaign from afar (and through the prism of your blog). It might, in retrospect, appear to gleam with a certain zest and honesty to what now seems more ‘hard-nosed’ optimisations of so called micro-targetting. I think the contrast is not so stark and it is important to see what the new qualitative leap was that occurred in the 2012 campaign (again, maybe the leaps are more visible from afar!).

    The key to the micro-targetting was not simply knowing that voter ‘prospect’ X was part of a sub-set of potential with attributes (a,b,c,d). Marketing does that (pre-Cluetrain!). In the Obama campaign prospect X meant the campaign could align ‘advocate’ Y on the basis of *similar* attributes. This meant that instead of streets allocated to door-knockers, each street – depending on the kinds of prospects would get *several* advocates. So a Latino might approach known Latinos; veterans door knock veterans etc. This is “market is conversation”. (Ie straight out of your song-book David!).

    The impact of this is not only to create conversations (ie contrast the vastness and diversity of all the conversations at-the-door or at meetings to the dull narrow, strident blasts of TV ads!). Because the conversations were ideally matched, the advocates could deepened their commitment – since the ‘semantic/political distance’ was less, so exhaustion of campaigning set in later (and Dean style ‘zeal’ was less necessary). So the Obama campaign cultivated new advocates, not just more voters!.

    Now the truly stunning difference is not between Dean and Obama campaigns but between Obama and Romney (and project ORCA – wherein old fashioned ‘marketing’ strategies in the digital age slid into a moras of inept deployments. OCRA led to the active erosion of the commitment of over 30,000 genuine Republicans volunteers who found they couldn’t do that ‘get-out-the-vote’ work as ORCA seized up.

    Dean (and with help from others like DW) unleashed something special which, still grows.

    The next step will be to have the cultivation of ‘advocates’ and the engagement with voters to expand horizontally as it were, beyond just ‘voting’ and into mobilised local civic transformations to show off how seriously people take the issue (ie doing stuff, even before voting). The Obama campaign systems can scale up and ‘fan out’ into new areas. This means the localisation of campaigns will make elections ever more ‘miscellaneous’ (sic) – so I hope you, DW, will be there to comment on that too! EG: climate change as a national/global ‘issue’ can be engaged through a myriad of miscellaneous interventions at even domestic levels.

  3. Thanks, Robert. Your comment is both revitalizing and a little depressing.

    And, Richard, thanks so much for the hopeful insight.

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