debate.jpgBack around the time of the 2000 election, there were high hopes for political sites built to inform, educate and encourage people to vote., which held a public offering, was a much-feted company that bought several promising startups. Netivation sought to educate voters. Today, it’s dead and almost forgotten, as are and Others from the dotcom era that still exist, like and, look barely updated, and barely visited.

It’s Nov. 2007, less than three months away from Presidential primaries. Yet despite all the new web cool “Web 2.0” web sites sprouting up in other ares, from entertainment video (YouTube) to social networking (Facebook), politics Web sites remain moribund.

What happened? Voters, it turns out, aren’t interested in participating in mock polls or reading about campaign platforms. Education is boring. That’s been borne out to the present day. Traffic to the official sites of the 2008 candidates is stagnant for the Democrats, nonexistent for the Republicans.

A host of Web 2.0 sites are also failing to make an impression:, which we reported on in May, has traffic too low for analytics firms to track. Essembly, a “fiercely non-partisan” social network, never captured more than a handful of users. Anyone remember Rock the Vote, a website that received heavy marketing from MTV and others in the 2004 election? Fallen off the radar (although it may pop back up, if the marketing dollars come back).

People who care about politics swarm to opinionated news outlets, and they generally stick with well-known sources. CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post all see their traffic surge in election season, although independent has also done well. Popular blogs like DailyKos, the Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo tend to do well even during non-election seasons. And that’s almost the end of the story.


Opinions count, even outside the opinion column
A few non-news sites stand out as shining successes, though, and they may provide a few lessons on how other political startups could succeed.

Take the example of, which doubles as a campaign and donation platform for liberals. In many ways, it was MoveOn’s cleverly pointed commercials that made its name, some of which ran on national television, with the bill footed by the user base.

The truth is, might be better described as rabidly liberal. And that’s what makes it work. Like the popular blogs, its opinions are often slanted far more strongly than those any elected politician can put forth. It aims to shock, and it’s that shock value that brings people back (and encourages them to donate money).

Politicians have platforms, and so should you
Another highly successful company is Project Agape (our coverage). While Project Agape hasn’t launched its own stand-alone site yet, it launched a Facebook application called Causes. Causes has almost 500,000 active users — one of the social networking site’s most popular. The secret, like’s videos, is the viral component.

Causes allows users to create their own groups based around specific ideas, like electing a particular politician or addressing immigration issues. The application itself is essentially a platform for the impassioned; it may never lose popularity, even as the issues it pushes drift in and out of the public consciousness.

But the reason Causes really works is because it’s just part of civic life on Facebook. There’s a small group of people who are motivated enough to use it in the first place; in turn, those people reach out to a broader group, who are willing to spend a small portion of their daily time on Facebook paying attention to politics.

We mentioned the failed social network, Essembly. A social network around politics will probably never work, because politics is just a facet of daily life, even for those who follow it closely. Communities that work tend to be comment sections of blogs, where people can duke it out in a public forum. This is similar to the minority group that creates Causes on Facebook. Joe Green founder both Essembly and Project Agape (see our post on Agape for more), has a vision of creating a site akin to the townhall of the Internet, a democratic ideal where people’s voices are hard, but his move to create Agape/Causes is a concession that focus is needed: Causes revolves around fundraising, and on profile pages of individuals. It doesn’t offer a “townhall” yet.

Having a polarizing leader helps
However, there’s also value in being short-lived. Take the example of, a fund raising site started to support the Libertarian / Republican Ron Paul, whose contrarian views on nearly every political issue strike a chord with the self-proclaimed internet intelligentsia.

ronpaul.JPGBy focusing attention on a single moment in time — a day for a specific politician’s constituency to rally — the site managed to raise more than $4 million in a single day. As with Causes, a small group of impassioned users can spread the word across other sites, including Digg, Facebook and YouTube.

Ron Paul’s popularity on the internet has surprised everyone. Despite his low (or nonexistent) position in national polls, his name is everywhere online. His supporters also periodically flood Reddit, a news-ranking site like Digg, with Ron Paul news. It demonstrates the power (good and potentially bad) of an impassioned audience. One fed-up Reddit user was even moved to write a script to filter out all Ron Paul mentions.

Barack Obama has also received some strong interest; a user-created group on Facebook called One Million Strong for Barack Obama is creeping toward half a million members. Importantly, Obama is popular with Valley techies. See our recent post on him for more on his policies.

Most people laugh politics off (that’s a good thing)
There’s one last place where political sites have seen a great deal of success, and at first, it seems like the polar opposite of the deadly seriousness of hardcore politicos.

obamagirl.JPGBarely Political is the home of Obama Girl, a take-off on both R&B music and politics. A single video of the attractive girl singing about Barack Obama has been viewed more than four million times on YouTube (and it’s just one of her videos). Giving people something to laugh at (or just stare at) has driven plenty of traffic to Barely Political, and convinced Next New Networks, a venture-backed TV video company, to acquire it.

There’s also Indecision 2008, a satirical site spun off from the Comedy Channel’s Daily Show, which was in turn the inspiration for Barely Political. There are several other satirical sites, as well as a Comedy Central tie-in with Facebook, where a group supporting comedian Stephen Colbert for presidency accumulated 750,000 members in just a week (until then, the Obama group seemed impressive).

Satire in the tradition of the Onion is great, but it isn’t the end of the story for political entertainment sites. We’ve heard some talk, for instance, about Fantasy Congress, a site where people can play at being Senators and Congressmen. There may be some promise for sites that add a gaming element to politics, but there just aren’t many sites doing it yet.

We’ve figured out five potential lessons for political entrepreneurs:
1. Lead with opinion and partisanship
2. Rely on outside platforms (YouTube, Facebook and others)
3. Zero in on a hot issue (like Ron Paul)
4. Let the really engaged portion of your userbase spread the word
5. Amuse your audience

There’s more to the story. For instance, we nearly ignored a niche group of informational sites like Capital Eye, Follow the Money and PoliticalBase that are still trying to prove their long-term viability.

What’s clear is that politics hasn’t yet surfaced in Web 2.0. There’s a minority audience of impassioned politicos, distinct from a much larger group of average voters. Where’s the interactive townhall, the user generated content, the community features, the AJAX-powered interfaces? If our Democratic society spurred innovations like Digg’s voting structure, why is it so hard for the web to contribute anything back?

To us, even the few projects that are doing well now look shaky. We can’t help but wonder if Next New Networks will get burned by its Barely Political acquisition, if the site can’t come up with content as popular as Obama Girl (more on its plans at NewTeeVee). And while Causes is doing well, Project Agape probably has bigger plans, that may or may not pan out.

We’ll keep looking out for innovative sites as we get closer to the 2008 Presidential election; drop us a line if you see any. In the meantime, if you’re interested in the issues, there are only 79 days left until California’s primaries.

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