07/26/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Four Years Under The Influence: Netroots Nation Panel Examines The Growth Of The Political Internet

At today's Netroots Nation panel, "From Dean To Obama: Four Years In the Internet Revolution," Joe Trippi, late of the John Edwards campaign, had an anecdote at the ready that was well-worn but nonetheless compelling. Back when the Netroots were still getting planted, the Dean campaign found the web to be the ideal means to speed the dissemination of branded and consistent campaign signage for Dean supporters in all fifty states. They built their web app, and launched it, with a bit of a self-congratulatory air, seizing on the fact that theirs was the first campaign to ever do something like it.

A funny thing happened, however: the Dean campaign started getting messages from voters in Puerto Rico, feeling left out. The campaign moved quickly to rectify the mistake, but was next greeted with a note from Spain - seems they'd slept on Democrats Abroad as well.

Trippi pointed out that in past, what would have happened is that voters in Puerto Rico would have never heard that such campaign materials were even available, and that the campaign would have never learned that they had neglected to include Democrats from overseas.

"The people were a lot smarter than us," said Trippi.

And fast. The entire exchange described above went down mere minutes after the launch.

And in four years, things have only gotten faster and smarter. The sort of money it took campaigns four days to raise in 2004 is raised in mere hours now. The Obama campaign has moved significantly away from the sort of campaign that reflects, in Trippi's words, an "addiction" to top-down structure. And in 2006, it was a piece of user-generated web video that captured the now infamous "Macaca" moment that ended the career of Virginia Senator and one-time Presidential aspirant George Allen.

Now, those same forces are being brought to bear against the entrenched power of the mainstream media. Amanda Michel, repping our own Off The Bus project, spoke of a "radical flatness" that engaged grass-roots level story-seekers and investigators, created a broad network of citizen-journalists, and yet kept everyone involved closely connected to her central coordination. Karl Frisch, of Media Matters, said that his site's success has been the way it's given a thousand voices in the wilderness the chance to exploit an "echo-chamber" of their own, one that aggressively pushes out, and back.

But in a room filled with the precisely the sort of pioneers who have turned the internet into a powerful political tool, concerns remained. California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who proudly identified herself as a netroots-powered candidate, asked the panel if the speed and strength of the internet wasn't making campaigning more difficult. Knowing that any sort of misstep could get amplified by the web, what could an office-seeker do to avoid this, short of circumscribing their every remark?

Part of the prescription, according to Charles Chamberlain of Democracy For America, is to stay true to yourself. The internet, in his opinion, tends to amplify an authenticity against which missteps can be evaluated. When you're a politician who's used to faking it 24/7, the authenticity captured could reveal authentic repugnance, as it did with George Allen.

Nevertheless, Trippi did warn that this was a potential point of collapse for politicians still navigating between the netroots and the mainstream media, whose breadth and reach can still take a thirty-second soundbyte and subject it to all the distortions of the "fake medium." And, as Frisch put it, you can still "start every sentence with 'My friends,' and call yourself a maverick," and the media will give you a pass when you mess up.

[This artice has been corrected from the original.]