Are mass e-mail political campaigns worthless?

Clay Shirky and Danny O'Brien discuss e-mail's power in politics.

By Farhad Manjoo
March 11, 2008 3:29PM (UTC)
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In my interview last week with Clay Shirky, author of "Here Comes Everybody," we discussed's political effectiveness, particularly the group's use of e-mail to convince politicians to take up certain issues. Shirky told me that politicians give greater weight to snail mail than e-mail. A lawmaker will consider a piece of paper mail as representative of 2,000 or so votes in his district, Shirky said. But he cited Danny O'Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation to argue that an e-mail was an effectively meaningless signal to lawmakers.

After I posted the interview, O'Brien e-mailed me to clarify his thoughts on e-mail's role in politics. Then Shirky responded to O'Brien's e-mail. Because it's an interesting discussion, I'm posting both notes here.


First, Danny O'Brien:

I loved Clay's book, but I should probably say that the summary of my views is misleading here (and it's certainly not a direct quote, as Salon's punctuation would imply). As someone who uses email campaigns as a tool of activism, and in the UK built the tools that allowed citizens to contact their MPs in this way, I would never say that the value of email campaigns was zero.

When I spoke to Clay's class last year, I did stress that the traditional comparison of email campaigns with old-fashioned letter-writing campaigns is inaccurate in describing their results. But that's not to say they don't have a positive effect. Congress no longer maps single communications to a certain number of votes, it's true -- but email campaigns have a different kind of effect. They draw attention to issues that might not have been considered (to give an example, EFF members emailing about the WIPO Broadcast Treaty took it from a non-issue in D.C. to a hot topic: and MoveOn has many successes in pushing issues to the forefront of the national debate in this way); they highlight sentiment en masse (a million emails isn't a million man march, but it says something); and they also provide a simple action that leads many people to other, more involved activism.

To borrow Clay's language, co-ordinated email actions like this are below the "Coasian floor": actions that would have impossible to co-ordinate before the Internet. They're not the *same* as pre-Internet gestures, but that doesn't mean they're ignorable or don't count, as so many of the examples in "Here Comes Everybody" amply demonstrate. The answer to the question "How many votes in an election does an email count for?" isn't "zero," it's "that question generally doesn't apply any more."

And now, Clay Shirky:

I misquoted Danny O'Brien of EFF about email campaigns, so let me first apologize to Danny. In addition, I was imprecise in what I was trying to say, so let me take another, non-colloquial stab at the same idea.

Danny came to address my spring seminar at NYU in 2006, in which we talked about the difference between paper and email campaigns, which is when I first began pursuing this idea. Back when writing a congressperson was even moderately hard (find paper and pen, compose thoughts, find address, find stamp), a single letter was predictive of some significant amount of voter sentiment.

Email reduces the cost of sending a message, but it also reduces the predictive value of the message for the recipient, and in the case of Congress, that means a reduced read on voter sentiment.

After Danny introduced me to this problem, I followed up on the mailing the Open House Project, and received mail from people on the Hill complaining of being under siege. As one of them put it (who asked to be quoted only as "a Congressional staffer"):

My Congressman recently did a lot of work on an international human rights issue, and over the last few weeks our email system has been deluged by angry emails from abroad, where people just paste our district office zip code into the constituent validation system we've got set up. We were already having difficulty responding to the massive amounts of automated correspondence sent by advocacy organizations on behalf of constituents, but this just makes the task more unmanageable.

More and more, individually written emails from our constituents are being drowned out by the noise. I can certainly empathize with Members who are simply shutting off their public email account."

Another said that the current predictive value of an individual email, in terms of voter sentiment, was zero, meaning that no voter sentiment was ascribed to individual emails, unlike other, more expensive means of communication (letter, phone, fax, telegram).

Danny comes close to this same conclusion when he answers his own question: "How many votes in an election does an email count for?" with "that question generally doesn't apply any more." This does not mean that email campaigns are worthless, it just means they are worth less. The same arms-race logic of spam has taken hold in political messaging, and the ability of individuals to send meaningful emails is suffering in this arena, just as in other spam-ridden areas.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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