According to the web-comic he posted online , Sean Travis Tevis was fed up with his anti-abortion, censorship promoting, anti-gay marriage, pro-intelligent design state representative, Arlen Siegfreid. Sean decided to run against him. He only needed 151 signatures to get on the ballot, but needed to raise $26,000 to run a decent campaign. So, like so many established and aspiring politicians today before him, he turned to the Internet.
But this plea for donations was different. Sean did not tap the “netroots,” (the left-leaning political blogosphere). Instead, he posted a simple website containing a web-comic telling his story. Using an Internet meme archetype to illustrate his absurd hometown political reality, he hit a nerve. Self-consciously designed utilizing simple xkcd-style stick-figures, and making a few quasi-insider-but-not-too-elitist geek references, he managed to simultaneously solicit outrage, empathy, and, most importantly, lots of donations.
P.J. Huffstutter reported Sean’s story yesterday in the LA Times Huffstutter mentions Sean’s jokes about “down-modding” and “trolling.”, The story also identifies the stick-figure style as being based on the stick-figure illustrations found in xkcd, a popular web-comic by Randall Monroe (…an web-comic author who has somehow managed to earn a stylistic monopoly on stick figure drawings.) While Huffstutter describes the details accurately, I don’t think he realizes how significant these cultural touchstones are.
Sean is an insider of a growing internet sub-culture. By making quips about “down-modding” Arlen Siegfreid’s conservative ranting “below the thresh-hold” in the first frame of the comic, Sean is consciously proving himself to be an insider in a particular slice of a rich semantic web 2.0 / 3.0, social bookmaking, viral meme-generating online cultural space. Sean obviously lives in this space, as does his audience of donors. (Huffstutter’s style indicates that he is wading through at least somewhat unfamiliar territory in his LA Times article.) (Hang wrote this great post last week about masquerading as an insider not just by knowing a few facts, but by knowing the jokes and therefore demonstrating knowledge of the professional culture.)
This sub-culture is far larger and far more accessible than it ever was. The behaviors (and values?) of this space are going slightly more mainstream as a new generation of Digital Natives comes to occupy the space. Conversations and ideas that seem outlandish in suburbs across the nation have taken root online and drawn in new audiences through computer screens. These conversations have even leaked off the web into our newspapers, helping to make Al Gore a hero and Richard Dawkins culturally relevant.
By demonstrating that he is a cultural insider with this particular slice of internet-meme generating culture, Sean strikes a nerve that garners support on an emotional level. Sure, it helps that his politics agree with mine– but the cultural references in this comic signal more. Sean socializes the way I do, and derives pleasure from the things I derive pleasure from. Sean lives the way I do. The details of Sean’s politics aren’t important; Sean is -like me-, and therefore… of course Sean will fight for the things I would fight for.
This tactic, this emotional connection stemming from a feeling of likeness, has always been a powerful tool in politics. “That politician is a [religious group here], like me.” “That politician is a family man, like me.” “That politicians daddy was a coal-miner, and therefore worked as hard as my dad did.” “That politician speaks with a southern accent, like me.”
As a sub-culture becomes less insular and community grows, they realize that they actually have the power to create change.
Sean’s online culture has been testing the waters for a while now. In what has seemed like online mischief, they have used social networking sites to swarm news sites with precision timing to alter the results of online polls. In December, the whale adopted by Greenpeace was officially named Mr. Spashy Pants, the name that beat the runners up Humphrey, Aiko, Libertad, Mira, Kaimana, Aurora, Shanti, Amal and Manami with almost 80% of the vote. This particular community is also responsible for swarming countless MSNBC, ABC, and CNN online polls to express their support for Ron Paul, and swarming many other online polls to express a lack of religious belief. It was only a matter of time before the sub-culture graduated into real politics.
Perhaps Sean Travis embodies the next step in this sub-culture reaching for political power. By insinuating that anything is possible because “THIS IS THE INTERNET!” he is cracking open a new political reality. Unlike Jello Biafra, Sean might actually win.