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When a book on the power of the Internet to "change political apathy into civic action" opens with the following anecdote, I shudder: a real estate agent, chatting with some friends on a mailing list, said, "If Al Gore wins, my wife and I have both pledged never to vote again. If Al Gore wins, we hang it up." This spoiled 60-something year old brat won't play the game if he doesn't win. And the authors of this book expect us to see in the discussion that engendered this comment, and others like it, that the Internet is going to empower democracy? The authors ask, "What makes this group's conversation politically meaningful?" Perhaps the real problem with American democracy is more the inflexible, highly-partisan attitude of not only the press but voters like the abovementioned real estate agent. How can the Internet make people grow up and accept their responsibility in this complex world? No mere technology will do that.
This book grew out of a research project begun by a group of writers, and their research began before the 2000 election, with a goal of proving how the Internet was changing democracy and affecting that presidential election. But their research falls flat for many reason. First, they talk about organizing groups to discuss political issues, and at one point "recruited one hundred everyday users from across the country for interviews; about one-third of them voluntarily joined a message group [sic]", though at a later point in the book they say that 25 users were in that group. Hence, their research was based on discussions among a mere 25 people, far too small a sample to be representative of any political community. Also, they spend too much time talking about failed companies, failed web sites, and the low percentage of people who visited non-partisan sites about the election.
This book, written by committee (in addition to the three authors with cover credit, two contributing authors and five researchers get acknowledged), should never have been published. The authors' hypothesis, that the Internet would affect the 2000 election, clearly proved false, as they point out in chapter 4. Since the dot-com bubble burst during this year, most web sites that covered the issue went belly-up. Their naiveté goes as far as saying, "During the campaign, we watched anxiously for what computer software people call the 'killer app', the hugely successful application that would capture everyone's imagination. It never happened." Not only did this not happen, but most of the web sites they examined, which were commercial in nature (with the exception of candidates' sites), clearly were not out to empower people, but to cash in on them. This cynical view of the Internet's power has little to do with democracy, and everything to do with money.
Yet they keep trying to prove that fragmented mailing lists, forums and other Internet groups will have an effect on democracy. Faced with the proof that this is not the case, or at least that it wasn't the case for the 2000 election, they spend too much time talking about some of the protagonists responsible for trying out web sites that couldn't attract enough advertising to survive.
Sometimes researchers need to admit that they are wrong, that their hypotheses cannot be proven and that they have made mistakes. When this happens, they should move on, not write a book narrating their research anyway. This book offers little positive real-life experience, little hope and even less serious research. It does, however, point out why democracy was not changed by the Internet, and should perhaps have focused more on what went wrong than trying to spin it to make it sound like something did work.