Dean, Romney, and Drupal: Values and Technological Adoption

In writing an earlier post about the Romney campaign’s new media operations,  I was struck by the fact that the campaign is using Drupal given its history in the United States.  As David Cohn argued, the Dean campaign became the point of diffusion for Drupal in the United States.  Cohn suggests that there was an ideological valuation of the platform that shaped both its uptake by Dean and diffusion in the years after the primaries.  (For an excellent study of Drupal, see Fenwick McKelvey’s “A Programmable Platform.”)

Dean’s volunteers and staffers’ original choice to adopt the open source content management system was indeed guided, in part, by the values of the free and open source software movement.  Soon after discovering the Dean campaign in 2003, a young, technically-skilled college student named Zack Rosen launched a mailing list called “Hack4Dean” to coordinate the programming efforts happening outside the campaign by volunteers. Working independently from the campaign, the members of the Hack4Dean LISTSERV decided to build a tool for the supporter groups active around Dean’s candidacy. They noticed that a number of independent mailing lists and other sites existed for Dean, such as Hack4Dean and Doctors for Dean. They were not linked together, however, and relied on promotion on the official Dean website for their growth. To help supporters better coordinate their efforts, the Hack4Dean group wanted to build a platform that linked the numerous websites and groups that supporters had set up independently.

A couple of members of Hack4Dean drew up a list of things that these groups needed in terms of functionality for organizing. The list included basic website and content management applications and tools for supporters to send e-mail updates to their memberships. With these basic needs in mind, the Hack4Dean group then turned to trying to figure out how to build a platform that included this functionality. The group made the decision to use open source technologies early on for a mix of practical and cultural reasons. Participants in Hack4Dean cite how open source technology fit their own mode of collaborative work. Even as it accorded with their programming practices, these volunteers believed that this technical decision would enable the group of developers working on the project to expand as the campaign went on and the Hack4Dean membership grew and changed.

On a cultural level, using open source technologies reflected what these volunteers saw as the openness of the campaign. Indeed, even though other campaigns could adopt what they decided to call “DeanSpace” given the underlying public source code, these volunteers believed that the campaigns of Dean’s rivals did not have the same open culture and therefore would be unable to take full advantage of this organizing tool. As volunteer developer Aldon Hynes, a member of Hack4Dean, explains:

“It was important that it [DeanSpace] reflect the openness of the campaign. We argued that the Bush campaign could not use what we were working on because their culture could not produce the openness. Unlike Dean, Bush was not willing to be open to other people. It’s all about the openness, the underlying deep structure to the technology.”

After evaluating a number of potential approaches, the Hack4Dean group decided to build their tool using Drupal. Rosen believed that Drupal was well suited to their needs. As a platform, it had flexibility in that it that could sustain a variety of applications.  By July, Rosen had dropped out of college and, with the help his fellow hackers, was working on the prototype of DeanSpace. The platform provided the means for supporters to launch sites and mailing lists for Dean, to find other groups, and to share news and information. In the months following the launch of DeanSpace, more than 100 activist sites bloomed, including “Music for America,” “Seniors for Dean,” and “Catholics for Dean.” For example, Hynes used DeanSpace to create a Connecticut supporters site. DeanSpace also enabled these sites to easily share and replicate content. Supporter sites could also incorporate Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds from headquarters, which staffers used to disseminate news and calls to action. At the back-end, staffers at the Burlington headquarters had access to usage data on supporters and content.

While Dean’s bid came up short, Rosen and fellow alumni of the Dean campaign helped foster the adoption of the platform in the United States.  Rosen co-founded CivicSpace Labs in May 2004 soon after Dean’s withdrawal from the race.  After moving back to California when Dean left the race, Rosen pitched a funder about supporting an organization that would adopt DeanSpace for nonprofit use as a downloadable piece of software.  Rosen and Neil Drumm, who was also involved in Hack4Dean and the development of DeanSpace, ran CivicSpace, offering nonprofits the content management system for free or a nominal free.  The organization ended up providing hosting services for a number of nonprofit organizations.  In the process, CivicSpace hired over forty developers, a significant contribution to the community around the open source platform.

CivicSpace, in turn, became the key site for the dissemination of Drupal in the United States.  Until that point, there were few organizations devoted to developing the Drupal platform; firms and developers mostly pulled parts of the code for their own use and developed it for custom projects.  As such, the developer community was small, with under 200 contributors.  Taken together, the Dean campaign’s use of Drupal in DeanSpace and CivicSpace’s subsequent work as a U.S.-based training organization and evangelist for the platform, along with a number of other high profile adopters, helped diffuse the platform and create and foster a robust developer community.  A year after campaign, for instance, Rosen no longer knew all the developers working on the platform.  In 2008, Rosen founded Chapter Three, a firm that provides Drupal-based design to a number of nonprofit and corporate clients.

In the political space, Democratic new media firms such as EchoDitto and Advomatic (both founded by the alumni of the Dean campaign soon after the primaries) built much of their businesses around the Drupal platform – which they argued provided much needed robustness and flexibility, in contrast to firms such as Convio and Kintera that provided proprietary out-of-the-box content management systems (including for the Dean and Clark campaigns, respectively, during the 2004 cycle.)   Even more, for many former Dean staffers Drupal was the analogue of the participatory democratic practices they sought to create through their technical work for Democratic campaigns and advocacy organizations.  For these individuals, ‘free software,’ where anyone could see and modify the source code provided they made it available for all others to use, was the technical embodiment of the participatory values of Dean campaign.

As such, the structure of the technology reflected back upon the political values of the campaign and these new organizations and Democratic consultancies.  Interestingly, Blue State Digital (the firm founded by four alumni of the Dean campaign which provided the platform for the 2008 Obama campaign) took a different approach in developing a proprietary platform that I argue they managed as a partisan “club good,” where only Democratic-affiliated clients could use it.

Which brings me to 2008.  In addition to the Romney campaign Drupal has been enlisted in all sorts of non-ideologically affiliated projects, including a host of news organizations including NPR and the Economist.

What does the history here suggest?  For one, that cultural values can drive the uptake and development of technology.  The Dean campaign’s staffers’ decision to embrace the efforts of their hacker volunteers (and even more, staffers’ embrace of an ethos of participation around the campaign) was, at least for some, driven by particular understandings of open source as a movement and valuations of participatory democracy.  Even more, these developers’ decision to build DeanSpace on Drupal was, in part, driven by their own ideological embrace of the open source platform – and their belief that it reflected back on the values of the campaign.  As McKelvey argues, “cultures not only understand the Internet, they also write software to re-produce their understandings.”  The emergence of a developer community after 2004 and new media consultancies’ embrace of the platform should also be seen in similar terms.

And yet, even as values shaped innovation and the initial uptake of the platform during the campaign and the years immediately following, over time once a technology is stabilized it can be enrolled in other projects for other purposes – even those radically ideologically opposed to the initial conditions of its adoption.