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Untangling the Web

A new book helps conservatives make their move on the Internet.

By 10.27.08

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MoveOn.org turned ten last month and still no conservative equivalent has emerged. In the 2003-04 election cycle, MoveOn.org raised a massive $180 million to slander Republicans and praise Democrats. In 2006, their virtual phone banking effort yielded seven million calls, and they raised $25 million to defeat Republicans in swing districts.

Despite a $35 million cash infusion from billionaire conservative Sheldon Adelson, Freedom's Watch failed to create a similar potent online movement for conservatism. Though everyone from Tom DeLay to the founders of PayPal has tried, conservatives have embarrassingly failed to harness Web 2.0 to their advantage again and again. The left would claim that their Internet dominance proves liberals are more open to new ideas than conservatives.

The Webster's Dictionary: How To Use The Web To Transform The World by Ralph Benko, a former official in the Reagan administration, turns that notion on its head by supplying evidence that conservatives get the Internet, at last. Benko has written a how-to guide for conservative organizations setting up political websites just as powerful as DailyKos. It's a book akin to Real Estate for Dummies. And with blurbs from Steve Forbes, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and tech-savvy conservative thinker George Gilder, liberals dismiss this book at their peril.

Benko's tract is witty, an easy-to-read book that outlines the basics and the most complex of maneuvers in creating a politically-potent website. From the most mundane ("How to get a domain name"), to the more sophisticated ("the types of web development teams out there"), it is a book one could easily see the elite at the Competitive Enterprise Institute or the American Enterprise Institute buying, and then using its insights to dramatically re-create their websites into top-notch Web 2.0 entities that successfully draw in people, galvanize, and mobilize them for the Right.

Many conservative websites could use the advice. Benko hammers home that MoveOn.org and the DailyKos fundamentally understand that they exist as effective entities not because they "push an agenda" per say, but because they first and foremost are focused on nurturing an online community. He faults Freedom's Watch for pushing an agenda and then committing the double sin of trying to create an online community using a top-down model, instead of a bottom-up model.

The Webster's Dictionary primarily gets its insight and data from Benko's own meticulous research analyzing the left's websites. He is almost like a Republican version of a CIA Sovietologist, except Benko's the Sovietologist of the Left's Web 2.0 capabilities.

Through interviews with and careful study of Web 2.0 top dogs like Howard Dean's online man Joe Trippi, Ron Paul "moneybomb" maker Trevor Lyman, and DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, Benko's book is rich with insight from the enemy on what works (and more importantly, what doesn't work) in today's Internet age.

But one of the most appealing aspects about The Webster's Dictionary is Benko's passion. He understands the power of the web, and using the web to produce conservative victories is clearly his charge. Benko identifies himself in the book (especially, when outlining his "10 Laws") as "The Webster", and his passion for Internet-fueled, "grassroots conservative chic" is more than apparent and comes out in almost any page. He quotes Dante to Joseph Pulitzer to highlight his points (and does so successfully). I found myself quite unusually turning every page eagerly, learning all manner of interesting things and how they correspond to creating a successful, politically powerful website.

The Webster's Dictionary already has its own online presence where readers can acquire a free copy. The book became available in hardcopy form in mid-October. MoveOn beware, because conservative are-a-learnin'.

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About the Author

Thomas Cheplick is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist.