How Howard Dean's 'Whiz Kids' Gave Birth To Online Campaigning

Typical of the group’s innovation was the experience of Nicco Mele, who, at 35, is now an adjunct professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In early 2003, he was bored in a job managing a site for an AIDS advocacy group in New York when he heard about a nearby Dean appearance. Mele couldn’t get in — the bar was at capacity — and he had trouble finding the campaign website when he later searched on Google. As a silent donation, he bought a few Google ads so that when people searched for “Howard Dean” or other similar terms, they’d at least see a link to the site.

A month later, Mele received a huge bill from Google because thousands had clicked on the ad. He called the campaign and reached a harried director of online organizing, Zephyr Teachout.

“She said, ‘Oh, I wondered who was doing that’ and I said, ‘Well, I can’t afford it anymore, but you could probably raise a lot of money this way,’” Mele recalled. “She said, ‘Nobody here knows how to do that. Come do it.’ And she hung up.”

He became the Dean campaign’s webmaster and among the first practitioners in politics of the dark art of SEO — search engine optimization. After the campaign cratered, he co-founded the digital firm EchoDitto, a multimillion-dollar business that now advises the likes of the Clinton Global Initiative and AARP, and ran the online operation for Obama’s 2004 Illinois Senate bid.

Mele’s forthcoming book, “The End of Big: The Consequences of Radical Interconnectivity,” argues that the major political parties will soon be crushed by the weight of bottom-up Web activism. “I owe my career absolutely to the Dean campaign,” Mele said. “I was the right person, in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills, and I was very lucky.”