Mother Jones: Were you the first person to think of the term “open-source politics”?
Micah Sifry: I have no idea whether I was the first person to think of it—I doubt it. I’m not even sure if it’s the right term. It’s enough of a different kind of term that it makes people stop and ask, “that sounds different, what could it mean?”
MJ: What does it mean to you?
MS: It’s a lot of things. It isn’t necessarily about bottom-up use of technology. To my mind, it’s partly a way of saying there’s an old way of doing politics that is very closely held; it’s opaque, it’s not transparent, it’s top down, command and control, as opposed to power to the edges. It’s a closed system of authority where there’s very little accountability for mistakes. It’s competition for scarce resources as the working assumption instead of cooperation and thinking like a network.
We have these free and open spaces that have no gatekeepers. Or the gates are so low that it’s as if there are no gatekeepers. It’s one thing when the editors of a handful of op-ed pages and magazines can set the agenda. It’s another thing when 10,000 bloggers networking with each other boil up an agenda. And as you can see, the agenda in the latter case is much more open and responsive to a much wider range of viewpoints and it is much harder to get away with bullshit.
MJ: But there are concerns that the most popular and influential bloggers are just becoming the new power brokers.
MS: The so-called A-list of top bloggers is far more fluid and open than anything we had before. Firedoglake didn’t even exist two years ago and now it’s one of the top liberal political blogs. There’s much more room. Yes, it’s true that Josh Marshall and Markos Moulitsas are very influential, but they are constantly held accountable by their audience. If Markos makes a mistake, right there in the blog comments people are bashing him. He can’t stray that far from accountability, the way that editors of the old gatekeeping institutions—whether it was the New York Times or The Nation—were inherently insulated. It’s no coincidence that you see a flowering of new voices and people earning their status on merit rather than going to the right college. The new power-broker element of this is very different because these guys are effective because they are such useful filters, not because they are selective and favor their friends over their enemies. There’s very little evidence that they do that, and if they did try to do that, it would get exposed.
MJ: Yes, but what about big-name bloggers who become consultants or campaign advisors?
MS: That’s a real old chestnut. Yeah, so bloggers go work for campaigns. People get jobs. So? The fundamental difference is that we’re talking about a medium where the cost of entry has dropped to near zero. We used to have a vibrant partisan press in America, back when the cost of entry was $10,000 or $15,000 in today’s dollars. Then when the Industrial Age flowered, the cost of producing a newspaper zoomed to a million. We’ve now returned to an age where anybody with a little bit of effort, but not a lot of capital, can be heard by millions.