Opinion

Daily Kos founder: How you can take on the system

In a digitally democratic era, fans, bloggers, and activists can bypass traditional gatekeepers and bring about real change.

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You can't change the world without conflict.

Whether you want to change Capitol Hill or Capitol Records, the corporate tower or the ivory tower, conflict must precede change, because in most of the big institutions of our society, we have too many entrenched elites who refuse to give up power without a fight.

Traditionally, these self-appointed and unaccountable gatekeepers have purported to operate in the public interest, but they are grossly out of touch with the public. Rather than empower people, they designed rules to keep the rabble out of the inner sanctums, where our ideas wouldn't infect their decisionmaking process. Whether it was record-label executives; Hollywood studio moguls; editors and producers in the media; or the clubby D.C. politicians, consultants, and lobbyists, many built walls to protect the sanctity of their turf.

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The results? A sick body politic and a homogenized culture; a disengaged citizenry, cynical and despondent over its inability to effect change; and a powerful elite unhampered and unchallenged in the dogged pursuit of its own interests over those of society at large.

But all that is changing. Technology has unlocked the doors and facilitated a genuine democratization of our culture. No longer content to sit on the sidelines as spectators, a new generation of participants is taking an active role in our culture and democracy.

The changing media landscape offers this generation new challenges but also new opportunities. Chief among them is the mother lode of modern activism – the ability to dislodge "conventional wisdom" on any given topic.

Conventional wisdom refers to ideas and explanations generally accepted as the truth by the public, the gatekeepers, and the decisionmakers. Effecting societal change often requires changing the conventional wisdom on issues, especially when the "wisdom" isn't so wise.

For instance, the conventional wisdom on the stock market says that Republican administrations are good for the market, while Democratic ones are not. Yet since 1948, Democratic administrations have delivered 15.25 percent gains in the market compared with 9.53 percent for Republican ones, according to Jeremy Siegel, a finance professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Clearly, the information has been accruing for more than half a century that Wall Street flourishes under Democratic administrations, yet so powerful is conventional wisdom once set that it often takes cultural or political upheaval to dislodge it. Thus, there is an inherent advantage in being the first to define the "truth," because whoever does so controls the terms of the debate.

Once the exclusive province of elite gatekeepers – media pundits, political party operatives, think tank denizens, lobbyists – shaping conventional wisdom is becoming a far more democratic affair, thanks to the networking nature of the Internet.

While activism was once predicated on influencing those gatekeepers, we can now create infrastructure that bypasses those gatekeepers, meaning that to stay relevant, they either have to be more responsive to the public, or risk losing their relevance.

Consider the British band Arctic Monkeys. Like most bands, they labored in obscurity, without a record label to promote their work. Yet they quickly built a passionate local fan base, which took on those promotional tasks for themselves. Without the band's involvement or permission, they set up a MySpace page, uploaded songs, and got the word out about their work. Word spread quickly. The buzz was so intense that record labels begged to sign the band. And when it finally signed with a small independent label, their first single debuted at No. 1 in Britain.

Record label executives no longer get to decide who succeeds and who fails. People are taking that job over for themselves. And as the Arctic Monkeys example shows, they could bypass not just the record labels, but even the band itself.

It's not just music. New empowering technologies are allowing "amateur" filmmakers to use inexpensive video and editing equipment to create content, then post it on sites such as YouTube free of charge and instant worldwide distribution. Bloggers can launch online publications for the cost of a domain name (about $10), building publications that rival their traditional media counterparts in the celebrity, political, and technology worlds. The media gatekeepers no longer get to decide who can participate in the conversation.

Nowhere has this impact been more noticeable than in politics. In the 2006 election cycle, Jon Tester of Montana and Jim Webb of Virginia were propelled to the US Senate by an energized online grass-roots network that fueled the two outsiders to victory – despite primary campaigns against well-funded and establishment-backed opponents, and difficult general election battles against entrenched, well-funded incumbents. In fact, Mr. Webb defeated Republican George Allen, who in addition to being a political legend in his state was also the then-front-runner for the GOP nomination for president.

The old gatekeepers in Hollywood, D.C., and New York can no longer determine who will lead us, what we can watch, what we can listen to, and what we can read. The age of seeking permission from authority figures is passing, and those who seize the opportunity offered by new technology to speak, act, create, and connect will be the men and women who change the world.

Markos Moulitsas Zúniga is the publisher and founder of Daily Kos (dailykos.com), one of America's leading online political communities. This essay was adapted from his latest book, "Taking on the System: Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Era." Copyright by Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, Inc., 2008. Printed by arrangement with Celebra, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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