The Brave New World Of Cybertribes

NEWT GINGRICH GETS LOTS OF ATTENtion for owning a laptop. But next Monday, Lamar Alexander is planning to make history with one. On the eve of launching his presidential candidacy--just after he finishes "Larry King Live"--Alexander will sit down at his Power book in his east Tennessee boyhood home. He'll log on. He'll enter an America Online "forum." Then he'll type his way onto the digital campaign trail-the first presidential candidate ever to do so. No bunting, no pretzels, no beer. just a meet-and-greet with any soul who happens in. "It's Virtual Lamar," says his media adviser, Mike Murphy. "We're cyber-announcing."

Real-world announcements begin this week, after the 1996 candidates gather in the usual location, New Hampshire. Meanwhile, they are checking out another place where voters are knowledgeable, prickly and independent. It's cyberspace: the etherworld of computers, modems and networks to which 39 million adult Americans have access, and which 25 million have visited. Cyberspace doesn't have New Hampshire's clout--yet. But the Net already has the self-important feel of a digital coffee klatsch-and offers a telling glimpse of Third Wave politics.

The Lamar Alexander campaign--obsessed with the use of satellite uplinks, CD-ROM and the Internet--typifies a new type of political organization created in and by cyberspace. Call them cybertribes: bands of like-minded citizens "threaded" together instantaneously, specifically, globally, sometimes obsessively--eager not just to find and reinforce each other, but to influence real events. From gun owners to pacifists, from Baptists to Satanists, from Limbaugh lovers to Limbaugh loathers, they dwell in precincts that are no less real for being "virtual." "Forget geography," says polltaker Mike McKeon. "Forget race, gender. In cyberspace, you are what you care about." These are the microworlds politicians will play to, defining citizens by what they choose to access. Leaders and followers will know each other more intimately than ever--and yet not at all.

Despite the phosphorescent hype in the trade magazines, cyberspace still has a rather empty feel. A NEWSWEEK Poll shows why. Only 13 percent of adult Americans say they've ever gone "online." A mere 4 percent say they've ever perused the World Wide Web, the fastest-growing segment of the Net. Just 2 percent say they log on to a network at least an hour a day. But even these numbers are powerful: they match the viewership of many cable networks. Ownership of modems has doubled since May. A new rush into the Net is expected when Microsoft starts an online service-and begins distributing a Windows upgrade that makes "browsing" easy.

The cybertribes aren't waiting around for the "Seinfeld"--size numbers. Indeed, the whole point is that organizers on the Net don't need vast hordes to be effective. One of the first potent tribes was gathered, appropriately, by a software developer from Washington state. Browsing political newsgroups on the Internet (where anyone can listen in or talk back-on a selected topic,), Richard Hartman last summer found an instant--and national--fellowship that shared his dislike for his congressman, the then Speaker Tom Foley. Within weeks a "De-Foley-ate Congress" campaign had used the Net and commercial online services to find supporters and donors. Foley might have lost anyway, but news of Hartman's effort helped spread the notion of the Speaker's vulnerability-and brought help from national Republicans.

Ironically, cyberspace will be a throwback to the pre-TV era. Candidates will need to know and work its precincts the way they did in the old days: on foot, so to speak, only without kissing babies and eating ethnic food. It seems natural, somehow, that a Kennedy was among the first to diligently work the precincts of digital democracy. The mixture of money, fresh media techniques and old-fashioned sweat is a family hallmark.

Ted Kennedy took his cue from Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, the first to systematically "post" its position papers and speeches on the Internet. When the new Clinton White House made a show of going online, Kennedy asked his aides why he couldn't do the same. His computer adviser, Chris Casey, got busy, seeking help from the same place the Clintonites used, MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab.

By last fall's campaign, CyberTed was up and running, with MIT's client-server. He was the first senator with a World Wide Web "home page," a graphically inviting, user-friendly place from which Net-surfers start their explorations. Kennedy's home page was stuffed with the senator's speeches and news about political goings-on in Massachusetts--and provided a smooth gateway into the Net.

Kennedy himself has yet to cruise the Net or wander into a chat room. But his presence online was a godsend, his aides say. It helped counter his image as an out-of-touch baron who reeked of Old Politics. And it impressed the world of computer jocks, thousands of whom work in the important Boston branch of the industry. "It was a genuine strategic advantage," says press secretary Pam Hughes. Computer nerd Casey has since become a cult figure on the Hill, advising other congressional offices on how to be at "home" on the Net. By next year, he says, scores of members will be there.

But cyberspace can also be a dangerous place for candidates. It will give new power to "oppo," campaign insiders' lingo for candidate-destroying "opposition research." With databanks and search "engines" ubiquitously online, any citizen--and any rival campaign--can cheaply and quickly assemble a detailed portrait of his least favorite candidate. "Everything will be out there, spread on the record , says Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College. "It'll pop up fast. Nobody can hide." Indeed, the controversial career of surgeon general nominee Henry Foster has been ferociously picked apart--pro and con--in the abortion newsgroups.

Most online groups have no direct connection to elections. Some of their talk is merely the chattering of the obsessed--angry global static. But there also is an exhilarating, do-it-yourself feel to serious causes on the Net. Environmentalists, among the first activists in cyberspace, mine rich veins of research. Other potent cybertribes include those on all sides of the abortion debate, and groups fighting to protect cheap and free access to the Internet. To some, this presages James Madison's nightmare: government paralyzed by rabid "factions." But most of the Net's conversations--and information--are available to anyone. The "enemy" can usually read over your shoulder--and butt in. "You have to be very aware that the whole world can listen in to what you are saying," says lobbyist Jim Deutsch.

Hard core: inevitably, the Net is attracting the lobbyists and bigtime "issue groups." The Christian Coalition has set up a "web site." So has the National Rifle Association. The NRA also runs a "listserv," an electronic mailing list for detailed talk and political intelligence. Listservs, increasingly important on the Net, tend to be for the hard core. Open to those willing to "subscribe," they generally offer more depth than can be found in the realtime chatter in a chat room or in the transcribed, answer-any-time tit-for-tat of newsgroups.

But the listservs aren't necessarily the preserve of enlighted Athenian debate. The NRA's listserv, for example, these days is dedicated to keeping track of the blizzard of gun bills in the 50 states. A legislative maneuver in one state can instantly be flagged and followed nationwide. More than 8,000 NRA members stand sentry through the association's listserv, says chief lobbyist Tanya Metaksa. "Things move so fast in the state legislatures," she says. "We'd have a hard time keeping track without the Net."

Cyberspace may be everywhere in America, but it's not yet representative of it. The NEWSWEEK Poll found the inhabitants younger, more educated and more affluent than the country's general population. There is a greater proportion of white men. Nationally, party identification is fading and evenly divided: 33 percent Republican, 31 percent Democrat, 36 percent "independent or other." But cyberspace, at least for now, is trending Republican. Among those online, 48 percent identify with the GOP, only 24 percent with the Democrats. No wonder Newt and Lamar are at their laptops.

Drop by the digitized equivalent of a coffee shop--a few newsgroups on the Internet-and a different picture emerges. It's not so congenial a place for traditional party politicians. Netheads may be Republicans, but they aren't conservative in a traditional sense, say visitors in several newsgroups NEWSWEEK queried online. Cyberspace inhabitants are more devoted to "libertarianinsm" than conservatism or the GOP, says one respondent. All politicians are suspect. "The Net Will be abused" by candidates searching for a cheap way to show they're "hip," he says.

Indeed, the Net is mostly talk, and talk is cheap. Residents who aren't too busy tending to their own interests--or obsessions--doubt that cyberspace will repair our fraying civic culture. Much of the talk on the Net, simultaneously intimate and eerily distant, doesn't reach the dignity and depth of talk io, wrote another respondent to a newsgroup. "Right now the debate has gone to the lowest common denominator. The signal-to-noise ratio is too high to be value."

National leadership won't be easy in this brave new world. When the single-minded can find each other with the speed of light, a sense of the common good, and even nationhood itself, can seem irrelevant. In de Tocqueville's America, members of "voluntary associations met face to face" and talked of other things before the meeting was called to order. There was a sense of the whole community outside the hall. "In cyberspace you only "meet' to talk about one specific thing," says Claremont McKenna's Pitney.

Each new communications medium in America elevated leaders who could use it. FDR was radio itself. JFK and Reagan thrived on television. But these were unifying mediums, at least when there were only three networks. The nation assembled, literally, in front of them to hear and see real-time theater. But who could possibly lead a nation of cybertribes in a time-shifting world with no center stage? It's an urgent question. The precincts in cyberspace may be virtual, but the problems in America remain very real.