The Virtual-Reality-Based Community

The RNC’s open-source quest for an online strategy.

“To our friends on the ‘Net, what’s up!” Michael Steele is waving at a tiny video camera at the National Republican Club on Capitol Hill. It’s the Republican Party’s first-ever Tech Summit—a gathering of party leaders, wonks, and tech gurus—and the idea of a simulcast must feel rather exciting.

When the mugging is over, the RNC chairman outlines the Steele Doctrine: “If we haven’t done it, let’s do it. If we haven’t thought of it, think about it. … Don’t just think outside the box—I hate that phrase anyway—take it someplace the box hasn’t even reached yet.”

All of which might sound like hollow rhetoric, if it weren’t for the box-busting nature of the event itself: The summit might be the most un-Republican thing the Republican Party has ever done.

Just imagine what a Republican Tech Summit would have looked like circa 2003. Invitations printed on stationery, sealed with wax, and sent to select party members. Highly paid experts invited to talk about Web 2.0. Catered, obviously. And planned so far in advance that by the time it rolls around, the technology in question is obsolete.

The scene on Friday couldn’t have been more different. To call it hastily arranged would be an understatement. The RNC only announced it on Monday, giving participants two days to RSVP and four to prepare presentations. At the same time, organizers made the uncharacteristic decision to open it to the public: Anyone could show up and speak. And while some party leaders might be embarrassed by how badly Republicans lag in the Web race, Steele is broadcasting it to the world. “It’s more transparent than the stimulus package,” says Cyrus Krohn, the RNC’s eCampaign director (and a former Slate publisher).

“There are two things that will get you kicked off the team,” Steele says. (No idle threat—fired RNC staffers spent the day clearing out their offices.) “One is to say, We’ve always done it this way.” The other is to reject an idea because it’s never been done before. In either case, he says, “I don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

Ask and ye shall receive. The summit proceeds much like a Quaker meeting, but nerdier. “If anyone wants to speak, please get in line,” says RNC transition co-chair Saul Anuzis. A few dozen people make presentations throughout the day. But most—about 250 people, plus another 800 watching online—are there to listen.

Many ideas focus on a new technology or gadget or software. A woman named Carrie Pickett says Republicans should get hip to Snapstream, a program that lets you flag and record anything that appears on TV, like Google news alerts for video. So anytime a candidate is mentioned, they automatically have the footage.

Other presenters recommend new ways to organize information. A man from Virginia who appears to have walked out of a Civil War painting proposes a site that would collect and consolidate state party platforms. Another guy has an idea for an iPhone app that shows you how your local congressman is voting, with his or her contact info.

Others contribute cutting-edge metaphors. Consultant Justin Hart, reading from a sheet of paper with red ink like a top-secret Hollywood script, suggests that “the Republican Party needs what Tom Cruise needed” in the Mission: Impossible films: A “dossier” of experts, a “suite of technology services,” and a political SWAT team that can “swoop in” when a campaign is in distress.

The fusillade keeps coming. John Friesch of Madison, Wis., proposes a video game like the Nintendo classic Paper Boy, only now it’s Obama on a bike tossing wads of money. “It’s not inherently political,” he says, but it makes a point. Steele describes an “intranet” that links state parties to the national party. “I want to invite them to dinner,” he says. “I want there to be something on the plate, not that they’ll get indigestion from but [something they will] gobble up and have more of.” Rep. John Colberson, best known for ambushing fellow members of Congress with his video camera, steals the show with an extended spiel about how new media will be part of our lives “whether Nancy Pelosi likes it or not. She can no more stop this than she can stop the wind.” (“One of my greatest passions is nanotechnology,” he adds.)

For all the excitement, one theme keeps coming up: Technology can’t do everything. “You need people to build a house. You can’t just brag about how good your tools are,” says Leesburg Town Council member Ken Reid. Or, as another presenter puts it: “You can have Microsoft, but if no one likes Bill Gates, to hell with it.” Friesch compares technology without a message to “empty bottles of Coke.”

Newt Gingrich touches on this during his (surprise!) appearance. (Apparently he had just learned about the summit online.) “Every generation has to use the technology of their generation,” he says. Thomas Paine saw the power of the pamphlet. Abraham Lincoln understood the rotary press. FDR got radio, JFK got TV, and Obama gets the Web. But “what really matters is not how you communicate but what you communicate.”

The GOP’s new open-door policy seems like a good start. “This is not about outreach,” Gingrich says. “This is about inclusion.” It’s a key distinction. One means dictating. The other means asking the audience what you should be doing.

During lunch break, Saul Anuzis is holding court near the entrance. “Why do revolutionaries use Kalashnikovs?” he asks. “Because they won’t jam. It’s not the best gun, but you can throw it in the mud, pick it up, and it still works. This is a revolution.” Michael Mayernick, a young Web developer who lives in D.C., wanders over. He mentions a program the District used to drive innovation: It gave prize money to whoever developed the best applications using municipal data. The contest generated an estimated $2 million in development activity.

Anuzis likes this. It reminds him of how Yahoo and Google organize weekends in “Silicone Valley” where they give prizes to whoever develops the best program. What if the GOP held the same kind of contest? “You may be the smartest guy or the dumbest guy, you can still come up with a great idea,” he muses. “And we’ll pay you for the app.” It even fits the conservative handbook. “We’re Republicans,” he says. “We incentivize people!”

Later, Anuzis leans into an aide’s ear. “I think that’s a brilliant idea. That kid, whoever that guy was.” The aide tracks Mayernick down and gives him his card. They’ll be in touch.