About David Karpf, Ph.D.: David Karpf is an Associate Professor in the School of Media & Public Affairs at The George Washington University. His research focus is strategic political communication and advocacy, and how it has evolved through technological advancements in media.
Dr. Karpf’s research has appeared in acclaimed journals in the field and he is the author of two books, The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy, which received a Best Book Award from the American Political Science Association, and Analytic Activism: Digital Listening and the New Political Strategy. In addition to his academic publications, Dr. Karpf is committed to public-facing scholarship. He has written for publications like Wired, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic, and was recognized with the Best Public-Facing Scholarship Award from the Information Technology and Politics section of the American Political Science Association.
Previously, Dr. Karpf was an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in Politics from Oberlin College, and his Master of Arts and Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Can you provide us with a brief overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested social movements and political organizations and begin researching their relationship to digital media?
[Dr. Karpf] I started out as a political practitioner. I got involved in political activism starting in high school through the Sierra Club and the Sierra Student Coalition. I took a year off from college to serve as National Director of the Sierra Student Coalition back in 1999. Because of my work in the Sierra Club, I ended up running for the Sierra Club’s national Board of Directors during my first year in graduate school.
There was an attempted takeover of the board by anti-immigration activists. We beat them back. Then they sued us, so I was a graduate student who had to go into the department office and had to fax things to our lawyer because it was going through the California courts. It was a weird graduate student experience but what that ultimately led to was being on the board of the Sierra Club while a graduate student in the mid-aughts.
There, I was sort of doubly positioned to see how the internet was starting to matter for political associations in ways that it hadn’t in the 1990s. During the year where I was director of the Sierra Student Coalition in 1999, we would sometimes hear from people who were at the cutting edge of tech and politics and they would talk to us about how, now, with their wonderful technology, we could take our petitions and digitally fax them to members of Congress. And we thought, “Yeah, how much are you charging for that service that doesn’t matter to us at all? We could just deliver them. This seems kind of like a shiny object that doesn’t matter yet.” And probably in 1999 it didn’t matter yet.
But in 2003, 2004, the Iraq War Mobilization, the aftermath of the Howard Dean years, it was starting to become clear that the internet was starting to matter for offline participation because the boundaries between online and offline were blurring. During those years in graduate school, I was seeing emerging literature that was already feeling dated because the internet of 2004 is different than the internet of 1999. Also, while serving on the Sierra Club’s national board, I noticed how it was really beginning to matter to my organization that what groups like MoveOn call a member is different than what groups like the Sierra Club call a member.
With MoveOn, if you’re on their mass email list they call you a member and they ask you for a little money for a project. To be a member of the Sierra club back then–and we’re a California nonprofit so it’s embedded in the nonprofit code, or it’s embedded in our bylaws–to be a member of the Sierra Club means paying dues. I was seeing on a practical level as a board member and on a theoretical level as an emerging academic how those different definitions matter for organization structures. That emerges as the dissertation puzzle and the puzzle I’ve studied for most of my career: trying to figure out what the internet ends up meaning for forms of political association.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your research exists at the boundaries of political science, political communication, media studies and movement studies. For those who may be unfamiliar with these disciplines, how would you describe some of the salient distinctions and similarities between these different research areas? Is there advice you might give to current and prospective graduate students on the benefits and challenges of conducting interdisciplinary research of this kind?
[Dr. Karpf] There’s a couple of answers there. A few years ago, I gave a presentation for an American Sociological Association meeting and then we all did journal write-ups about it. I did a piece [“Symposium on Political Communication and Social Movements – the Campfire and the Tent: What Social Movement Studies and Political Communication can Learn from One Another”] that was comparing social movement studies to communication, in which I noted that social movement studies is more of a campfire because it’s focused around a defined research canon, while political communication is more of a big tent because it’s more inclusive.
What I mean by that is, in social movement studies (or traditional political science), we have a clear canonical literature and very clear subfields that you get trained in. That provides an anchor point that can also be limiting. What I’ve found as someone who was not trained in communication but has exclusively worked in communication departments, is that communication has been much more open and fluid because there’s a big tent of research questions we are invited to study in various rigorous ways. It’s social science, it’s rigorous, but there isn’t the same set of canonical texts we could point towards. The piece also discusses social movement studies as something that definitely has a canon in a way that communication does not, but political science does. That’s one of the first differences amongst them: how oriented are you toward a canon versus interesting questions?
As someone who started from canonical texts and moved more toward interesting questions, what I would say is that the bigger tent approach that is not as anchored in a specific canon invites you to go more places. It allows you to go for the most interesting stuff for you. It then also creates the practical challenge on the other end; when you’re trying to find employment, political science professorships are mostly going to political scientists and professorships in communication, or American studies, or political communication will go to people trained in comm and people trained in political science and history and sociology. So there’s a sense in which it is probably easier to start from the canonical training and then move toward the interesting questions, whereas when you go on the job market it’s a little bit harder.
When you’re on the job market, I do believe the things that get you jobs are a combination of publication – having a lot of publications – and doing research that the departments that are interviewing you find fascinating. That’s the freeing thing about starting with interesting questions, is that you’re able to gravitate toward and start with this thing that feels cutting edge and fascinating. But there’s always that difficult middle and I think that’s where the differences show up.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What has your scholarship driven you to see as some of the key transformations that digital media has engendered in social movements and other political associations?
[Dr. Karpf] The key changes discussed in my first book [The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy] were membership and fundraising tactics. The type of political organizations that you get are a combination of a response to the political opportunity structure of the moment and also based on what resources are available. So, the interest group explosion that happens in the 1970s is connected to political opportunities in the ’70s and also the rise of foundation funding.
After that, you get membership-based fundraising, or direct mail fundraising, which provides the seed money that you need to have a bunch of offices and a bunch of staff. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we see the popularization of small-dollar, very timely fundraising that works very well with the internet but works less well through direct mail because direct mail is slower and has a marginal cost. That then gives rise to the types of organizations that are more common now, which have less overhead and tend to surf with whatever is happening in the news today. They tend to capitalize on that and provide movement moments more effectively than the types of organizations that preceded them.
That’s the main insight of the first book. The main insight of my second book, [Analytic Activism: Digital Listening and the New Political Strategy], which is in many ways its intellectual sequel, was about how the digital signals that the new generation of groups are using, analytics, can inform strategies and tactics. I say “can inform” because, empirically, it’s not necessarily that all groups are doing this, or doing it well. But I did notice, and then I wanted to study, how groups like MoveOn were analyzing the signals they were getting from who opens what issue appeals, what they are willing to do, and what tactics they are willing to engage in. MoveOn is engaging in AB testing and experimentation in a way that the older organizations aren’t because of how they’re defining their membership and then interpreting those signals. That helps them move effectively.
Now, I would note, that book came out in December 2016, which meant there was this cataclysmic shift in American politics during which the book was at press. I did not write that book thinking Donald Trump would become President. I have a whole chapter in that book about digital petitions and there was a huge debate in the literature that I was participating in about when and where digital petitions are effective. That was a really relevant question in 2015 and was less relevant in the politics of 2017. The part that I think was theoretically most relevant is what I called “media theory of movement power.”
That theory looks back as far as the American Civil Rights Movement and notes that, whereas in strategic political communication we have often focused on the activist resources and the weaknesses and strengths of their opponents – so you have a dyad of your activists and people in power and how they interact – theoretically, there’s actually a third part of that tripod, which is the affordances of the media system. Part of what was strategically insightful among the Civil Rights activists was not just recognizing this racist sheriff will overreact to us — as Saul Alinsky says, “The action is in the reaction” — but also recognizing that, with broadcast media, the sheriff overreacting in front of cameras amplifies that into a powerful moment that would not exist without the cameras present.
These were sort of settled insights for the 1980s and 1990s when the media system wasn’t changing. But in the hybrid media system that is constantly and still changing in the 2000s, what that means is that strategic insight and power for activists is largely going to come from, not just recognizing their resources and their opponent’s vulnerabilities, but also thinking about what gets amplified and what doesn’t get amplified in this media system today.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Overall, would you say your experiences researching digital media technologies have left you optimistic, pessimistic, or ambivalent about their political potential?
[Dr. Karpf] This is a half-dodge to the question. The half-dodge is: autobiographically, I moved from activism into research in a way that was sort of an act of pessimism. I deeply want my research to be of practical use to those who are trying to make the world a better place, but my perspective is also tinted by my time in the environmental and climate movement. There was a set of years in the early ‘00s where my fellow activists and I thought that we needed to make real progress and if we don’t do it in the next decade-window then things would start to get really bad. Empirically, I’m not sure we were wrong. Which does not mean it’s time to give up now, but it does mean that there is a pessimism of the intellect that comes from looking at the way I thought the world was and not being convinced that our timing or our estimates back then were off. The time for aggressive climate action was a decade or two ago.
I moved into academia in sort of an act of pessimism in the sense that I want to more deeply understand and offer something of value to people who have more hope than I do because they’re still out fighting. I want to provide something of use to them because I have less faith than I did before. That said, if you started from a place of pessimism in 2009, and then you observe the past 13 years and somehow you arrived at optimism, that would be an interesting and odd course that I would want to know more about. I have certainly started at pessimism and stayed pessimistic.
The practical thing that I’ve tried to do in my research is to lean into places where I might be wrong. Part of the backstory of The MoveOn Effect is, when I was National Director of Sierra Student Coalition in 1999, I actually met the guy who was executive director of MoveOn. He was a former staffer of ours. We met at a conference. He told me about this group he was directing, and, when he walked away, I turned to a buddy of mine and said, “Yeah that’s never going to work.” The same thing happened with the early Dean campaign. A friend of mine called me up and said, “I put this announcement on the internet. People are going to show up to a meeting. You’re good at running meetings. Give me advice.” Then I got off the phone, and I thought, “How do I tell Aaron people won’t show up to meeting just because you put an announcement on the internet?”
Part of why I studied that as the dissertation was the sense that there’s something here I don’t understand and, if my pessimism of the intellect is right then we’re in deep trouble, why don’t I study the things I’m wrong about. With Analytic Activism, I noticed these digital activists in the new generation of organizations talking about some tactical decisions in ways I had never heard before. They were using data to make their decisions in ways that I didn’t understand, so I wanted to study it.
The latest project I’ve been doing for the last few years is reading the full back catalogue of Wired Magazine to try to get a bigger sense of what we have contemporaneously thought the digital future looks like and explore the systematic biases that make us always wrong in kind of the same way.
So, overall, I would say I’m a pessimist who wants to be practical rather than giving up hope. What we can do is lean into the times that we’re wrong and try to bring an earnest humility to figuring out what we don’t understand in the world and try to understand it a little bit better. That animates all my research.
[MastersinCommunications.com] One of your recent publications is “Something I No Longer Believe In: Is Internet Time Slowing Down?,” where you extend and amend your previous research on the temporality of digital media. Can you briefly explain what you mean by “Internet Time” and how your understanding of the temporality of digital technology shifted? How does one go about researching time, methodologically speaking? As you mentioned, in your case, this involved reading every issue of Wired magazine.
[Dr. Karpf] That paper is part of a larger project that will be my next book – I wrote a methods piece that was published in 2012 that was called “Social Science Research Methods in Internet Time.” This piece made an argument about the ways we need to adopt kludginess [the use of hacks and workarounds] and transparency in a moment when ceteris paribus [the assumption that other factors remain fixed or constant when we study a particular issue] are frequently being violated because the internet of 2012 is fundamentally different than the internet of 2007, or 2002, and back and back and back across earlier eras.
That matters for everyone, but particularly for academics because our publication timelines are so slow. You cannot make assumptions about how a publication you release in 2012 will be received if it is based on data from 2008. Even if you were robust in your methodology, your conclusions are now suspect because ceteris is not equal to paribus. All is no longer equal. The internet has changed.
That seemed like a deep problem when I predicted it in 2012, and I had no reason to expect it to change. The internet of 2020 did not seem likely to be like the internet of 2012. It was a surprise in 2018 when I got to do this Wired magazine project. Wired was celebrating its 25th anniversary. I was talking with an editor there and mentioned that I had always wanted to do this archival project and he then came back to me and said, “You know, if you want to do that and write about it for our 25th anniversary, I’d love to publish it.” That was a great excuse to finally do the first cut of the project.
In doing this research, the thing that struck me was that you can really see, in the 1990s and the 2000s, the pace of internet time that I was reflecting on in my article from 2012: the ways that the internet is just fundamentally changing every few years. Then, probably after 2010, around the time the iPad comes out, everyone is talking about how tablet computing is once again going to change everything. I remember reading that in the archives and I actually said to my wife, “They think it’s going to change everything back then.” Her reply was, “Isn’t it just a bigger screen for an iPhone?” I said, “Yeah, that’s basically what it turns out to be.”
The 2010s ends up being a decade of acquisitions by the big tech firms and big sparkly tech that at the very least hasn’t worked out as projected yet. Bitcoin and cryptocurrency were the cutting edge of 2009. In 2015 or so, we’ve got the rise of 3D printing that is going to change everything, we’ve got wearables like Google Glass that are going to change everything, we’ve got the Apple Watch that is going to change everything. We still have the drumbeat of predictions that this new thing is going to be the next wave, the next generation of the internet.
In reading that, what becomes noteworthy — it’s not that there were no missed predictions before then — but it’s more that all of those technologies still today look like the technology of the future, just given a few more years. VR is another great example of this. I wrote about this over the summer for Wired actually. VR was the cutting edge in 2014 and they’re saying, you know, “The Oculus is about to change the way you experience the Internet.” In 2022, they’re still saying that the Oculus is about to change how we experience the internet.
That doesn’t mean it won’t work, but what it clearly means is that the pace of internet time is slowing down because 2014-2022 is eight years. That’s a huge swath of time. 1993-2001 goes from Mosaic web browser being introduced — really the start of the web — through the end of the dot-com boom. The big tech of 2012, when I was writing that piece, is Facebook. It’s Google. It’s Twitter. We’re accessing stuff through Chrome and through iPhones. That’s still the case today.
That struck me and became a thing for me to think about because I thought Moore’s law [which stipulates that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles about every two years] meant that we would still be moving very fast, and that would matter for us methodologically, that would matter for us theoretically, that would matter for us practically. If internet time is actually slowing down and, at the very least, people like me aren’t noticing it, and it seems like writers at Wired and Silicon Valley technologists aren’t noticing it, that seems like a big deal.
[MastersinCommunications.com] I am also interested in how you see the relationship between this research on time and your research in political communication. How do you view the relationship between the temporality of technological development and changing dynamics in political communication?
[Dr. Karpf] The through line is really leaning into where you’re wrong. Besides that, I literally ask myself once a week, “Dave, as a political scientist how did you end up trying to be a tech historian without proper tech-history training?” I’ve spent the past year reading, oh, sixty or seventy books that I should have read in a graduate program in a different field. Which is a fun thing to do post-tenure but also leads to bouts of madness. There are moments of, “Why didn’t you just stay anchored in the thing that you know how to do well?” The through line is, very much, wanting more deeply to lean into the things that we’re wrong about, because that’s the place to find hope if you start from pessimism.
That’s a lot of what orients the research. Related to that, when I was presenting about Analytic Activism to nonprofits and activist groups in 2017, I was talking to them about the media theory of movement power and saying that new opportunities for leverage and power probably lie in being on the front edge of figuring out changes to the media system and what leverage points that gets you. Which then naturally leads to observations that this media system is one in which you live by the algorithm and die by the algorithm and the algorithm is controlled by a handful of powerful players. Then, we get interested in studying the players and also how we got those players.
There’s definitely a sense in which the current project is a deeper cut into what I was doing before. At the same time, when I talk to activists and they say, “What’s the latest with these groups you study?,” the answer is, “I haven’t been studying those groups for years; I’ve been reading old issues of Wired magazine.” Then there’s a very long explanation for how you go from one end to the other.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Digital politics has become an especially popular field of research in communication and beyond over recent years. When you assess the state of the field, are there key issues or concerns that you think current scholarship tends to overlook or most urgently need further exploration? Is there a particular problem or area you are most invested in exploring in your own future research?
[Dr. Karpf] I don’t have the same critiques of the field that I had a couple of years ago. Largely because I think the bulk of the field has caught up and moved past the critiques that I had. The critique that I had circa 2016 regarding analytic activism was that we were overwhelmingly studying Twitter back then because Twitter was where you could get data. People knew that, but they were mostly acknowledging it in the bar or at the conference panel or in a couple of sentences.
That has changed. Certainly among scholars at your university [UNC Chapel Hill], Shannon McGregor and Daniel Kreiss are awesome about studying Facebook. When Facebook doesn’t give you data, you find other, better ways to study them rather than just going with the data you can get. That’s a trend in the literature that I’m really happy to see. There’s the existential problem of the most sophisticated work that we would like to do requires data we’re not going to get access to because we also live and die by the algorithm. And there’s a handful of companies that control that and their lawyer is not going to give away anything that makes them look bad, and, given the way they’ve been behaving, most things make them look bad. That is a dynamic tension in the field that young scholars need to grapple with.
The techniques you might learn for computationally analyzing the really good data out there — you’re not going to get that data without selling your soul. That either means embracing more qualitative methods or mixed method approaches that allow us to study what’s interesting and what’s accessible, or signing your soul away a little bit. That’s still going to be present but I’m glad to see we’re at least paying attention to it.
The other thing that’s going on here, though, is beyond the contours of this. It sticks out to me that, along with the pace of internet time slowing down, politics has become much more unstable. If I was having a conversation with myself in 2012 and I told myself back then, “Well, you know, it’s still Facebook, it’s still Google, a lot of the same players, basically the same internet you have now,” and if I told that same person, “Oh, Donald Trump will be President for four years and at the end of it his supporters will ransack the capital and try to stop free and fair elections because he lost. There will be an actual attack on the capital by supporters of the outgoing regime in Washington DC,” I think that’s the point where 2012 me would say, “You’re fake. That’s not real.”
There’s a sense in which the ceteris paribus assumptions that undergird traditional politics are all coming unmoored. We will probably have free and fair elections after 2024, and when I say probably meaning that it’s greater than 50-50 that we will. It’s not greater than 90-10. While our assumptions about the internet are getting more settled with internet time slowing down, our assumptions about politics and society are getting a lot spikier.
That’s the thing I think, as civic beings, we’re aware of, and as academics it runs against all of our training to keep in mind. If you run a study, you’re going to study the literature going back thirty, forty years and not say, “Oh, everything is different now.” Saying everything is different now is a great way to be a pundit instead of a scholar. But actually, plenty of things are suddenly different, or least the undercurrents that were producing a lot of tensions in the country are now producing ruptures instead of undercurrents. That is new and different in a way that, again, I think we’re aware of, but I don’t think we really know how to incorporate it into our research, or it’s very difficult to do so.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have any advice you might give to students who are interested in digital politics who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication studies?
[Dr. Karpf] I’d say communication studies is inviting you to follow the big, interesting questions rather than anchoring you in a literature and making you focus on the literature before you can get to that. I’d encourage students to take that as the strength it can be. Start with the thing that fascinates you, read the literature to figure out what we know and what don’t know, and also to look for the spots in the literature that produce some friction for you, because it seems like the world as they’re describing it isn’t the world we are in, and then lean into that with your work. Focus on the questions first, let the methods follow.
Thank you, Dr. Karpf, for your excellent insight into how the evolution of the internet and communication technologies has impacted political communication and advocacy!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.