"Add a penny for the Internet!"
Almost a decade ago, at the dawn age of the liberal blogosphere, online activists were exploring new ways to make our voices heard. We weren't yet known as the "netroots," and the word "progressive" was only just starting to become a defining part of our vocabulary. We were years away from hosting a presidential debate—not that anyone who came up in that era ever even imagined such a thing. Even visits by candidates for elected office to our online communities would only come later.
But we did understand the power of money—and we wanted to serve as a counterweight to the corporate lobbyists and conservative oligarchs whose cash always seemed to be king. The question, however, was this: How could all of us—far-flung regular people, able to donate in small amounts—speak in one voice? How could Joe in Miami and Liz in Seattle and everyone else in between demonstrate that we were all part of the same movement? How, in essence, could we bundle our donations, the way big money movers do?
"Add a penny for the Internet!" I'm not sure anyone knows who first proposed this idea, but it was both brilliant and simple. If everyone who gave online (and in those days, if you were giving online, you were almost certainly of the activist stripe) would just add a penny to their donations, campaign finance directors reviewing their spreadsheets would realize that all these small contributions had something in common. If they were savvy and wanted to learn more, they'd visit our websites and learn what we stood for—and realize there was a benefit to reaching out to us.
The idea took hold most tightly with Howard Dean's campaign, whose online organizers reinforced our calls to "add a penny for the Internet." But it also spread to other campaigns, like Ben Chandler's successful drive to win a very difficult special election in a red Kentucky district in early 2004. Indeed, the concept became so popular that different websites each wanted their own special signifier in the cents column. One Chandler donation page suggested the following menu:
Calpundit add $.15
Daily Kos add $.01
EdCone.com add $.13
Eschaton add $.18
The Hamster add $.04
Instapundit add $.03
pandagon.net add $.07
Political Wire add $.09
Seeing the Forest add $.02
Talk Left add $.11
Talking Points Memo add $.22
Yellow Dog Blog add $.36
Of course, you'll see that Daily Kos readers were encouraged to add just $.01—the idea of "adding a penny for the Internet" was most closely associated with this site, so we Kossacks (though we weren't called Kossacks back then) retained the single cent as a badge of honor. Incidentally, Chandler's campaign credited online donations as giving them a major boost—and thanks to these markers, they knew exactly where the money came from. Helpfully, it also allowed campaigns to provide progress reports back to their blog supporters, as you can see in this post from Atrios, where Chandler's team toted up all the gifts ending in $.18.
So what happened to the penny for the Internet? In a word, ActBlue. The "online clearinghouse for Democratic action," founded in 2004, allowed users to create their own web pages with their own candidate slates. It became exceedingly easy for websites to track their users' donations, and for campaigns to know exactly which websites donations had come from. Once ActBlue became widely adopted, it was no longer necessary to identify contributions using the cents field, and thus an early netroots tradition quickly passed into memory.
But not for me. As an old-timer, I still like to "add a penny for the Internet" whenever I give to a political candidate, even if I'm pretty sure whoever's reviewing the campaign's donations on the other end probably has no idea why someone would include an extra cent. It's a bit of nostalgia for me, and hey, there's always a chance an old-school finance director will get a smile out of it.
So how about you?
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