This summer's party conventions set the tone for the US presidential campaign, but even in a country where half the population uses the net, convention web sites attract few visitors. Why do so few people follow politics on the internet? Simply because national politics is not interactive.
Most Americans are happy enough; their lives won't change dramatically, no matter who is president. A webcast that is as passive as a TV broadcast isn't going to persuade them otherwise. But that doesn't mean the net isn't a good medium for participating in national politics or local government or for civic involvement. Let's look at how it should happen. A parent hears about the condition of the bathrooms in the school from her child.
She sends an e-mail to the mailing list she keeps for her daughter's swimming team. Together, they volunteer to come in the next Saturday with brushes and soap. But the taps are rusting and the porcelain is cracked; this needs more than a group of volunteer parents. They write a nice letter to the school administrator. No answer. They post it on the local newspaper's web site and provoke a rash of commentary, most of it not as polite as the original letter. Now the administrator answers.
Or take another, less cheerful, example. A hotel advertises for workers outside its own location. Several people living in a poor neighbourhood apply, but there is no bus service. They write to the local bus company.
No answer. Then one entrepreneurial would-be worker organises a car pool, using the local community web site to post pick-up times. There are two possible outcomes. One, the car pool evolves into a successful service supplying needs well beyond the initial group. Or two, the local bus company shuts the car pool down because it lacks a licence, the workers get angry and use the internet to lobby the relevant politicians.
The point of both is that politics and government do not have to happen only through official channels. The net - via chat groups, e-mail, web sites and the like - can help you find people who share your concerns and collaborate with them. That experience of feeling empowered will change people's attitude to interacting with government. How will government respond? Remember that many people in government are also new-generation, kids who grew up with e-mail and instant chat. In the past, government was inherently inflexible. Now, with computers, government policies can be made more flexible.
Which brings me to the differences between business and government. Business fosters 'one-to-one marketing', where customers likely to spend more are treated better, but government is not supposed to treat people on the basis of their ability to pay. All individuals are presumed to be equal, although they may have different needs and preferences. The challenge is for governments to move from simply counting votes to actually listening to citizens.
What will politics on the web look like in a few years, when the next presidential campaign takes place in the US, or Brazil, or even Russia?
I hope it will look like local politics grown broader in scope, rather than a web-ised version of sponsored US political conventions.
Esther Dyson will be chairing the UK Internet Summit 2000, supported by WPP, the New Statesman and Management Today, on Wednesday 11 October. For details contact Hugo Tagholm: firstname.lastname@example.org.