The cyberbrains behind Howard Dean

C|NET today features an interview with Zephyr Teachout, Dean’s director of Internet organizing, about the phenomenal success they’ve achieved by leveraging online social networking.

The interviewer points out that candidates have been using the internet as far back as 1992 to raise funds and organize. The difference, Zephyr says, is in using the internet to help people connect face-to-face:

This is sort of a radical change. What we are doing is using the Internet to encourage people to organize offline–the great power is allowing people ways to find each other and have meetings offline. The energy that comes out from these offline meetings will be driving our campaign, so every month there are about 4,000 meetings organized online through both Meetup.com and Get Local, our online event creation service. The Internet allows these people to find each other, but ultimately the campaign is happening offline. That is the big difference. We are taking up the next step and encouraging people to use the online (world) as well as organizing offline and that is why this is so extraordinary.

He goes on to talk about Dean’s populist approach—appealing to people who can’t afford $2,000 checks, which is who he says other politicians have traditionally targeted.

But I think a point he misses, that only has peripherally to do with the internet, is that the Dean campaign has turned political activism into a social activity. Rather than feeling like “campaign rallies” and “fund-raisers”, the events feel like “get-togethers”. By putting the social aspect first, they have been able to attract people who would otherwise be uninterested in working on a campaign. Being social, it doesn’t feel like work, and that, I believe, is the real secret of the campaign’s success.