07/18/2011 04:44 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2011

Grassroots vs Grassrootsy: How to Parse Technology's Role in Politics

Ever since John McCain's upset win of the New Hampshire presidential primary in February 2000, when during his live televised victory speech he mentioned his website, unleashing a flood of online donations -- more than $1 million in 48 hours and more than $2 million in one week -- political campaigns and the journalists who cover them have been entranced by the relationship between the Internet and grassroots politics. This made sense in McCain's case: nearly one half of the people who donated to him in that dizzying week were first-time donors to the campaign, and according to Becky Donatelli, one of McCain's strategists, their gifts averaged under $100. "The deluge was so large that our servers could not handle the load and no one in the campaign was allowed to 'run reports' for days because it added stress to the servers!!" she told me a few years ago.* Even if some of the money that poured in to McCain post-NH was actually a result of a simultaneous direct mail push, the press amplified the story and the legend of online fundraising was born.

According to that legend, money given online is somehow more grassroots, more organic, than money given in response to a direct mail piece or a personal invitation. A further extension in our present age of social media is that participation exhibited online is itself more organic and genuine. This is a seductive claim, after all, online activity is often a barometer of interests that people pursue on their own, rather than something they do because of marketing. The web makes it easy for people to find what they're looking for, and a donate or "share" button makes it easy to give or spread something on an impulse. No need to find your checkbook, lick an envelope or dig up a stamp and go to a mail box. (Sure, these appear to be "weaker" ties, Malcolm Gladwell, but the numbers add up impressively and self-organized acts of political expression, even the small ones, often lead up a ladder of engagement to bigger and bigger commitments.)

In addition, the history of online politics in America is peppered with examples of grassroots surges for candidates that were, for the most part, bottom up: Howard Dean's Meetups in early 2003, Barack Obama on MySpace and Facebook in early 2007, Ron Paul with his fall 2007 "money bombs," Scott Brown's fast-paced rise in the Massachusetts Senate race in January 2010. So, for good reason, those of us who are interested in which way the political winds are blowing pay close attention to online trends and make special note of the ones that appear to involve large numbers of people, reasoning that it is harder to get a mass of people to move online unless they genuinely want to.

But for a whole bunch of reasons, we should be on guard against claims that money given online, as well as tallies of small donations versus large donors, or other newer metrics of public participation like Twitter retweets or YouTube views, prove definitively that a campaign is more "grassroots" or "owned by ordinary people" etc. Such signs offer hints, nothing more. If anything, campaigns often want to encourage the appearance of being "grassroots" while obscuring where the real money and power resides. The political media needs to be skeptical have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach; too often what is said to be "grassroots" would be better described as "grassrootsiness."

What then should we do with the deluge of data coming out of the emerging 2012 presidential race? We need a journalism that parses the grassroots from the grassrootsiness. For starters, let me offer this simple chart as a reminder that big numbers of participants doesn't equal grassroots. In my humble opinion, the more a campaign is led from the top, the more grassrootsy it is--regardless of how many participants it claims. Likewise, the more it is led from below, the more grassroots. Let's use the terms to help distinguish.

Here's what the media is missing as it goes about its coverage of internet-driven politics:
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