Unspun

Virtually Sacred, Virtually Profane
Guess what? God's not dead. Those trend-spotting scribes at Time magazine have discovered him alive and well on-line. And in a cover story so breathless that it borders on self-parody, Time has proclaimed that the Internet is now "shaping our views of faith and religion."

"In fact as much as the Net is changing our ideas of God, it may be changing us even more," Time swooned in its Dec. 16 issue. "For many signing on to the Internet is a transformative act. In their eyes the Web is more than just a global tapestry of PCs and fiber-optic cable. It is a vast cathedral of the mind, a place where ideas about God and religion can resonate, where faith can be shaped and defined by a collective spirit. Such a faith relies not on great external forces to change the world, but on what ordinary people, working as one, can create on the World Wide Web that binds all of us, Christian and Jew, Muslim and Buddhist, together. Interconnected, we may begin to find God in places we never imagined."

Fancy that. And here we were all set to rant about hyperventilation among the Web worshipers who have been proclaiming that it's politics (America's other religion) that is being reborn in cyberspace. About 75 of them, along with assorted new media writers, civic organizers, and political junkies, gathered earlier this month in the dingy nether world of the South San Francisco Conference Center to assess the role of the Web in the 1996 presidential campaign and to chart the on-line future of the political process.

Clearly, the prospects for a more engaging Dan Lungren Website in 1998 or the implications of bulk-deleting political e-mail pale in the face of Time's version of the Second Coming. But the Politics On-Line Conference did offer a glimpse of how the Internet and Web-related technology might be used by campaigns -- to target voters, communicate with volunteers, or spin members of the press.

"I don't think e-mail is going to replace targeted direct mail or precinct-walking, but it is a much more efficient way of informing the media about your campaign or mobilizing people who are already part of the campaign," said Peter Grunwald, a veteran public affairs and telecommunications consultant who worked with HotWired to produce Campaign Dispatch for the 1996 presidential election.

Look for campaigns to do more of what universities and businesses have been doing for some time -- using e-mail instead of faxing and phoning. Awesome. Simply awesome.

And Web users who grow weary of searching for God in unimagined places will at least be able to find politicians. Look for more plentiful and sophisticated candidate Websites in 1998. Most major campaigns made some use of the Net in 1996, particularly through candidate home pages. But as Grunwald observed, little innovation distinguished any of them. "Basically, we've reached the point where a campaign stands out if it doesn't have a Website. The ones that got attention were absent, late, or incompetent," he said.

Dan Schnur, former press secretary for Gov. Pete Wilson and now director of an independent political and media consulting firm, said Web inadequacy was "a minor problem" for image-conscious campaigns in 1996 but that it will become a larger one as more people take to the Net. "You can put together an outstanding Website and update it throughout the campaign for the cost of a commercial on Fresno cable television," he said. "It's worth the investment." Apart from being relatively cheap, candidate sites reach a growing audience and one that is disproportionately interested in politics, Schnur added. "But more important," he said, "a candidate who's perceived to be technology-friendly is going to reap broader public relations benefits. Voters like candidates who think about the future."

That much established, the conference served mostly as an eerie reminder of the chasm between political pros like Grunwald and Schnur and the painfully earnest Webbies, who persist in envisioning the Web as something that will transform the broader political process. Nobody mentioned "vast cathedrals of the mind," but a certain missionary quality tinged some of the panel titles: "Politics of Participation: Can Civic Involvement Be Revived On-Line?" and "Wireroots Strategies: Which On-Line Tools Best Organize and Mobilize?" (In a state where the only grass-roots that matter are bought and paid for, they shouldn't consider the "wireroots" name any protection against the same thing happening in cyberspace.)

Jessica Tully, an enthusiastic twentysomething who serves as on-line communications director for Rock the Vote, talked about "mobilizing" the 18- to 25-year-old set through voter registration and Get Out the Vote efforts at rock concerts and on college campuses. She was especially proud of how effective the on-line outreach had been in securing campus volunteers to work against Proposition 209, the ballot measure that scraps state affirmative action programs, including those for college admissions. Schnur, trying not to be too disagreeable, pointed out that given the proclivities of college students, a few handbills on telephone poles would likely have accomplished the same result. (Although exit poll results show that Prop. 209 lost among younger voters, their turnout was not sufficient to defeat the measure, which Californians approved by a 54 percent to 46 percent vote. Nationally, 18- to 24-year-olds account for about 15 percent of the voting-age population, but according to LA Times exit polling, they accounted for only 9 percent of the votes cast in 1996, compared to 11 percent of votes cast in 1992.)

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