“Disintermediation.” It’s a big word. Kinda wonky. One of those jargony terms sometimes used to make one feel smarter or better informed than one really is. Borrowed from the world of finance, the word more broadly describes the act of removing the middleman, or intermediary.
I just plain love the word. Especially when talking about the Internet and how it is changing the way people consume news and other information.
The other day I used the word “disintermediation” to kvell about Darcy Burner’s new Trail Mix videos, an online video diary the candidate is currently producing and editing herself. I wrote:
First the Internet enabled politicians to connect directly with voters, disintermediating the legacy press out of the equation. Now tech savvy politicians like Darcy Burner are attempting to use the Internet to connect directly with voters, disintermediating political advertising out of the equation… and the high-priced, professional media consultants who create it.
To which the Seattle Times’ David Postman responded:
We’ll see about that. The spots are refreshing and obviously something very different and much more personal than what we see in a campaign. But at this point they’re just sidelights. Burner worked closely in ‘06 with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and her campaign showed plenty of signs of being shaped by “high-priced, professional media consultants.”
Self-produced YouTube ads in the spring before the election year are one thing. There are plenty of examples of creative use of the Internet in campaigning. But I’ve yet to see a major candidate commit to Goldstein’s “disintermediation” once they become serious contenders.
Hmm. I suppose I allowed my enthusiasm to get the best of my rhetoric, for I want to be clear that I am not for a moment suggesting that Darcy can or should entirely disintermediate the consultancy class any more than she can entirely disintermediate professional journalists. Postman is right that it is still quite early, and as we head into the heat of the contest Darcy’s campaign will surely take on a more traditional and “professional” look and feel.
So I am not advocating that Darcy entirely “commit” to disintermediation. I’m merely suggesting that she should not abandon it.
It is hard to be disappointed in Darcy’s amazing, come-from-nowhere, 2006 campaign… I mean, apart from the obvious fact that she didn’t win. But I share Postman’s take that her “personality was largely lost in some of the ads.” Her paid media may have been well produced, and the strategy entirely defensible in light of her number one perceived weakness — her youthful appearance and her supposed inexperience — but the end result is that few voters got to know the candidate as the smart, funny, wonky, passionate, personable, hard working, and occasionally quirky Darcy who us bloggers grew to know and love.
At the start of the campaign it was all about beating Reichert. By the end of the campaign I couldn’t imagine another person who I would rather have representing me in Congress.
That admittedly emotional attachment to a political candidate is not something one can create through a traditional campaign. The medium of 30-second TV spots won’t allow it, and the stodgy, solemn gatekeepers of the legacy press simply won’t permit it. Yet for all the usual complaints about our elections — the venal, nasty tone of the campaigns and the shallowness of our political dialogue — it is this failure to establish an emotional connection between the candidate and the voter, this lack of trust and affinity, that is the largest obstacle to conducting a real public debate.
For if you do not trust the candidate, if you cannot establish an emotional connection, then you can dismiss everything and anything they say as just another cynical, disingenuous, political sound bite. That in fact was the strategy of the Reichert campaign and the Times’ viciously dishonest editorial. And to some extent, it worked.
And that is why disintermediation is such an important tool, because it is the best means for candidates in large districts to directly reach a larger number of voters, and the only opportunity for some voters to truly get to know their candidates outside the reality distortion field generated by paid and earned media filters. What could be more honest than a campaign video filmed and edited by the candidate herself? Given the choice between that, and Frank Blethen’s opinion or an adman’s pitch, why would any voter want to choose one of the latter?
No, the vast majority of voters this cycle will not follow the election on YouTube, and so yes, Postman is somewhat right in describing these videos as a sort of sidelight to the real campaign. But in doing so I think he underestimates the collateral benefits of efforts such as these. Disintermediation does not replace traditional campaigning, it augments it, and in so doing, helps shape the way the traditional media shapes the public perception of the campaign itself.
In writing about Darcy’s homemade videos, Postman, arguably the most influential and widely read political writer in the state, is introducing these clips to a much broader audience than they might otherwise garner, and perhaps more importantly, finds himself covering Darcy within a context she chooses to define. Likewise, he is engaging HA — one of the WA progressive community’s premier tools of political disintermediation — in a dialogue about the notion of disintermediation itself.
I know… very meta. But it illustrates the point that disintermediation is not simply about removing the media middleman, it is about forcing the remaining middlemen to acknowledge the role they play, and to adjust their coverage accordingly.
The more people who get to know Darcy for who she truly is, the harder it becomes for a Kate Riley or a D.C. media consultant to caricature her one way or the other. And that’s good for both Darcy and the voters.