The Democrats Finally Get the Web

This week the Democratic National Committee is rolling out a Web 2.0-like service that may grow into a MySpace for the party faithful.
The Democratic National Committee is rolling out this week a Web 2.0-like service that may grow into something akin to MySpace for the party faithful.

PartyBuilder is the name of the Democrats' new tool. With party organizers waxing optimistic about their chances of reclaiming the U.S. House of Representatives this fall, the online networking service is appearing just in time to make a difference in some close races -- or so the Democrats hope.

Roll Your Own Political Network

Like a lot of other "social networking" sites, the strength of PartyBuilder lies in the enthusiasm of the users it attracts. Unlike MySpace and Facebook, which skew toward school-age participants, PartyBuilder is designed to attract Democratic political activists.

Plenty of political candidates, of course, have been using the Web effectively for years. Sen. John McCain broke new ground (for a politician) when he raised millions of dollars through his Web site during his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. In the 2004 race for the White House, Howard Dean and the Democrats' eventual nominee, John Kerry, both tapped into the networking potential of Meetup, a meeting-planning service.

PartyBuilder takes these steps by individual politicians to the next level. Some of the features that are built into PartyBuilder are:

MyFriends. Perhaps the essential core of any networking site, MyFriends is the Democrats' name for the list of people you've invited into your circle. PartyBuilder has three levels of relationships: your friends, friends of friends, and unrelated users. People can allow messaging from individuals in any of these categories or restrict any category so that only a notification is received whenever an attempt at contact has been made.

Find People. Once a user is registered with PartyBuilder, he or she can find other active Democrats in a particular geographic area via a ZIP code search. Each participant can opt out of such searches by selecting a check box on the profiles page, but the party is encouraging people to be findable.

Groups and Events. PartyBuilder users can easily form groups. Once in a group, it's a simple matter to notify everyone of events being organized locally. The host of an event can directly message everyone who's signed up to attend.

Personal Fundraising. Perhaps most important in terms of its potential political impact, fundraising is built into PartyBuilder. Users can invite others to contribute to a campaign or cause. If multiple efforts are running simultaneously, fundraisers can track them via a unified reporting tool. The system automatically reminds recipients to send a thank-you message as soon as a contribution has been received.

Letters to the Editor. To keep those crucial op-ed pages hopping, PartyBuilder includes a letter-writing function. A user simply enters a ZIP code and a list of area newspapers that print letters to the editor is generated. Any or all of the media outlets in the list can be selected to receive the letter the member writes.

Blogging. Last but certainly not least, PartyBuilder is a complete blogging system in its own right. The user clicks "Write a Post" and the now-familiar blog interface allows one's stream of consciousness to be immediately posted online. The system is complete with "tags," key terms that help others find similar posts. While a participant is wriring a blog entry, PartyBuilder suggests tags that similar posts have used. If bloggers adopt the suggested tags, it could conceivably make posts on the same topic easier for other people to find.

To be sure, none of this technology is particularly new or revolutionary. But considering that many politicians have no Web savvy at all, most local candidates could never create the suite of features that PartyBuilder has conveniently integrated for them. Just add motivated volunteers.

Getting an Edge on the Net

In a telephone interview, the DNC's Internet director, Josh McConaha (rhymes with "hay") overflowed with confidence that PartyBuilder will make a difference in the U.S. elections this fall.

"By making easier the work that activists have always done," McConaha said, "it will make them more efficient at reaching out to voters."

PartyBuilder quietly went live on Sept. 1, with a "soft launch" (mainly an e-mail to party insiders) on Sept. 5. No serious public relations effort has been directed toward major media, prior to a formal announcement that's expected to be issued today.

Despite its low-key introduction, the service attracted almost 10,000 registered users in its first week alone, according to McConaha. That number is expected to grow geometrically -- and PartyBuilder's users are already forming groups as fast as bunnies multiply. "I think we have 500 groups now," McConaha estimates. That's one for every 20 users.

Isn't the Republican Party's "MyGOP" service a lot like PartyBuilder? "No, not at all," McConaha says. Unlike PartyBuilder, which is almost entirely self-directed, the Republican site requires central approval for any major activity, he explains. "Everything's very top-down and Soviet with them."

Next week in this space, I'll describe MyGOP and how the two competing Web services may make or break this year's midterm elections and the 2008 contest for the White House.

For more information on PartyBuilder, visit the DNC site. For details on MyGOP, see its page at the Republican National Committee.

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