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May 05, 2012

Seven Questions for... Nicco Mele, Howard Dean's Web Guru

Nicco Mele was 25 years old when he helped revolutionize the way American presidential campaigns are conducted. Looking back at his breakthrough work as webmaster of Howard Dean's 2003-04 race for the White House, Mele sees the internet as having wrought dramatic changes in U.S. politics while simulatneously leaving the status quo undisturbed.

He'll be speaking about those dynamics and about general tech issues at two events in Burlington next week: a May 7 (6 p.m.) forum at Maglianero Cafe on "How Social Media Is Redefining Politics" (also featuring Seven Days deputy web editor Tyler Machado) and an all-day conference May 8 at Champlain College on Vermont's Digital Future.

Mele, now 34, teaches courses on social media and politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and runs an internet strategy consulting firm called EchoDitto. Seven Days asked him seven questions about his life and work.

Seven Days: How did you come to be such an internet maven?

Nicco Mele: My parents were in the U.S. Foreign Service and I was born in Ghana and went to high school in Malaysia. I badly wanted to know major league baseball scores when I was living in Malaysia in the early '90s, so I had a choice of either waiting a week for the New York Times to arrive or to get involved in the new-fangled thing called the internet where I could get the scores in real time.

During college, at William & Mary in Virginia, I got tech jobs because they paid a lot better than waiting tables. One was at Common Cause, which offered me the opportunity to build and manage their online activist network.

SD: And how did you come to work for Howard Dean?

NM: I was in New York City in March 2003 working for the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative when a woman in the cubicle next to mine said, "You really should read this New York Magazine profile of this guy Howard Dean." I did and she then said, "I'm going to a meetup for Dean at a bar. Do you want to come?"

I arrived fashionably late and the place was so crowded I couldn't get inside. I'd been around politics in Washington enough to know that if a governor from Vermont could fill up a pretty big place in Manhattan, then something important was happening.

A little later I quit my job in New York and moved to Burlington and went to work on Dean's internet operation.

SD: That must have been a burnout experience. Would you do it again?

NM: I'll paraphrase [Arizona Republican Senator] John McCain who said "presidential ambition is a disease best cured by embalming fluid." I think that applies to presidential campaign staffers too. But I've got two little boys now and a business of my own, and I'm putting a lot of my energy into thinking, writing and teaching about issues technology raises in regard to power.

So if I do go back into [campaign work], it'll be some time in the future.

SD: You mentioned McCain. You got a lot of flak from people on the left for saying in 2006 that you would support him. Did you actually work for McCain? Did you vote for him in '08?

NM: I did not. I said I was inclined to support him because of his work on campaign finance reform. The whole thing just blew up. I voted for Barack Obama.

SD: Dean's internet operations had a huge impact. Would you say that tech — and social media in particular — is now the dominant force in political campaigns?

NM: Broadly speaking, tech does challenge the existing establishment. It's a good tool for insurgents. Just look at how Obama came out of nowhere to beat Hillary Clinton. And in 2010, eight Tea Party insurgents defeated Republican incumbents in Congress. It's fair to say the internet is disruptive of the establishment.

SD: Some students at St. Michael's College recently took part in a week-long "tech fast" whereby they agreed not to use screens. It was really hard — impossible, actually — for some of them. Do you think the internet plays too big a role in the lives of young people — at the expense of traditional social interactions?

NM: The short answer is no, which is not to say there aren't risks. I used to have a photocopy of all the negative things that were said about TV when it first came out and comic books as well. You can see an analogy.

Also, people today overwhelmingly use the internet to meet up with one another offline.

SD: Obama took what you did for Dean another step forward, wouldn't you say? Do you think tech will be the decisive element in the 2012 election?

NM: Sort of. Look, there are five main elements that go into a presidential campaign.

The first is fundraising, and the internet's role in that is now well understood. It was pioneered by Howard Dean and taken up a notch by Obama. The second element is field work, which Dean used to experiment with. I don't know in retrospect how well that worked out. It's fair to say that field work hasn't dramatically changed over the years.

Then there's press coverage. Blogs were really important in earlier cycles, then came YouTube and now it's Twitter. The internet's been big here.

Polling is the fourth element, and the internet doesn't really come into play with it.

The big one is the effort to persuade undecided voters to support you. The vast majority of that effort is done through TV and radio advertising. Obama raised about half a billion dollars through the internet and spent almost every dime of it on TV and radio. That piece clearly hasn't changed.

Why not? Why hasn't there been a migration to advertising online? We don't really have good answers for that.

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