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True Networking: Pressing the Flesh in the Virtual World

November 3, 1994

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ After a tough day of work and campaigning, Colleen Burkett holds a town meeting to tell voters why they should elect her to the Pennsylvania Legislature.

No one minds if she kicks off her shoes, puts up her feet or even grabs a little dinner. Actually, no one even sees her relax.

Burkett uses a local computer bulletin board called ″Cyberia″ to create a virtual forum for her campaign. At 6 p.m. each Monday, she plugs in, logs on and takes all comers from the central Pennsylvania district she hopes to represent.

Before the information superhighway, there was the campaign trail. Now both roads are merging, and politics may never be the same.

″It’s better than the 30-second sound bites people see or hear,″ said Burkett, a Democrat. ″They can help formulate a plan for you. And that’s what government’s all about - people making decisions. I think this is a new way of empowering people.″

Though there were hints of it in 1992 with Ross Perot’s idea of an ″electronic town hall,″ experts say the 1994 campaign marks the first time computers have become part of the campaigning process - helping candidates and voters connect without the media as go-between.

It’s embryonic, most say, but inevitable.

″Politically, we’re talking about a revolution the likes of which we’ve never seen. But not just yet,″ said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University.

Electronic mail, around for years, is the simplest approach, and many candidates have made e-mail addresses available to voters with access to the Internet or online services.

But it goes beyond that.

On the Internet, message boards allow voters to post views and discuss candidates. CompuServe, a popular online service, offers political areas and a forum run by a congressional candidate.

The America Online service created an entire area called ″Capital Connection″ where candidates can send press releases, position papers and other information.

Among the items available on Capital Connection on Tuesday were a digitized campaign poster for Virginia Senate candidate Oliver North, House GOP Whip Newt Gingrich’s e-mail address and a black-and-white image of Nicholas J. Costello, a Democrat seeking a Massachusetts congressional seat.

″This may be one of the things that finally throws out the old and brings in the new,″ said Ben Brink, a GOP congressional candidate in California’s Silicon Valley.

Brink, an investor and former Atari employee, has made computer campaigning a priority.

Seven of his staffers spend their time trolling the world of connected computers known as ″cyberspace,″ distributing position statements and researching innovative ways of campaigning.

Brink, who is host on a CompuServe forum, predicts his efforts will net up to 5,000 votes he might not otherwise receive. And he is not spending a lot of money to do it.

″I love the fact that we can ask questions quickly and easily online,″ said Rachel Mattern, who used her computer to ″attend″ Burkett’s town meeting and to discuss education.

She and nearly a dozen other users logged on during the hour Monday night to watch as Burkett responded to one- or two-line messages about local and state issues that scrolled onto the screen as participants typed them.

There are limitations: There’s no way of verifying that the candidate is actually the person on the other end, and the equal-time doctrine applied to radio and television does not exist.

In addition, there’s the cost of computers. Cyberspace typically draws users who are younger, more literate and wealthier than the average voter.

″You have a very select group that’s interested in the first phases of the information highway,″ said Tom Mattei, who heads the computer campaign to make Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Rick Santorum a senator. ″It’s not become a populist tool yet.″

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