Text and Twitter your way to victory

By Dave Kopel

Rocky Mountain News. August 27, 2008

Barack Obama's Democratic nomination triumph reprises one of the oldest stories in American politics: that victory so often goes to the candidates who best understand and exploit novel mediums of communication.

A close parallel to Barack H. Obama 2008 is William Henry Harrison 1840. Rolling a giant ball from town to town, people sang a campaign song that began, "O, what has cause this great commotion, -motion, -motion, Our country through? It is the ball that's rolling on for Tippecanoe and Tyler too." As ardent Whigs rolled the ball through town, other men might join in the fun--and in the process, self-identify as Harrison voters. Today, we would call that "social networking."

You might think that a giant ball of straw and tar is just a toy for big boys, and MySpace is just a place for 14-year-old girl gossip. Yet both of them are also political communications media.

Barack Obama did a lot of things right in his election campaign, but he had not done social networking so vastly better than his competitors, he would not have won the huge caucus victories that gave him his delegate lead over Senator Clinton. Facebook, MySpace, and, most of all, My.BarackObama.com were the social networking computer media that mobilized powerful real-world militias of volunteers. If the general election race remains close, Obama's power in the newest media will, I believe, carry him to victory.

Professional political commentators tend of think of political "media" in a traditional sense: television, radio, newspapers, and the advertisements that candidates buy in those media. In the traditional media, John McCain has been doing great. His anti-celebrity ads have turned an Obama strength into a weakness, and apparently helped make many people more hesitant about committing to vote for Obama.

But "media," properly understood, include the full spectrum of the means of communication. Right from the start of the campaign, in early 2007, the Obama strategy recognized that the media environment had changed drastically since 2004.

Yesterday Obama's "Director of Online Organizing," 24-year-old Chris Hughes, met with the press and with activists. He explained that the Obama team knew that they needed a very strong grass-roots organization, because of the "formidable foes" in they would face in the primary. (Hughes was being impressively polite by pluralizing "foes.")

So the Obama campaign pushed hard and early to establish a strong presence on the social networking Web sites Facebook and MySpace. Most of all, they worked to make the campaign's Web site, My.BarackObama.com, into much more than an outlet for position papers and press releases.

Every online initiative, he explained, had to answer the question, "How does this help our supporters do their job more easily?" The objective was not to make MyBO (as they call the Obama campaign site) a place for supporters to enjoy an online chat. Rather, MyBO (as well as the Obama pages on Facebook and MySpace) were run as "tools to do organizing, like local events."

The point was to get Obama enthusiasts connected online so that they could get together in real life, and produce real-world results. MyBO tells visitors how to meet with local Obama groups, and provides schedules for local events. Tonight, the campaign says it expects 10,000 Obama speech viewing parties around the nation, most of them organized via MyBO. Party hosts have been provided with a pro-Obama DVD, and with fliers to distribute to the guests.

The TV parties will be launching pads to get the viewers into their communities for voter registration drives over the long Labor Day weekend.

The online social networking media has been backed up by staffers who come into town, and give the people "Camp Obama" training in phone banking, canvassing, and so on. Campaign staffers conduct conference calls with the social networkers.

Hughes say that there is misconception that people who use the Internet for political activism are only the young. While most Facebook and MySpace users are in their teens and twenties, the most active users of MyBO are in their forties, fifties, or sixties.

Significantly, the campaign's official media sites have spawned hundreds of unofficial ones. An Obama enthusiast at a high school might set up her own Facebook page as an Obama campaign site just for fellow students at the school; even if only 20 people sign up, those people are good number for manning get-out-the-vote phone bank on election day.

Again and again, Hughes emphasizes that social networking media are not ends in themselves: the Obama campaign's software developers often face a choice in how to allocate their time: Should they make MyBO more attractive, with a more customizable experience for the Web surfer? Or should they put the development time into adding another "clunky tool" to the site which will take the online experience into the offline world? The choice is almost always for the real-world tool.

Over the course of the primary campaign, the Hillary Clinton campaign got a lot better at on-line organizing, Hughes says. Likewise, the JohnMcCain.com Web site now includes many social networking tools.

But my guess is that Obama retains a huge lead in social networking media. He fully exploited the media sooner, and so has been building the lists and groups for longer. On Facebook, there are 371 members of "University of Michigan students for Obama," and only a tenth that many in the U. of M.'s McCain group.

Moreover, Obama is the perfect candidate for social networking media. In the 2007-08 election cycle, only Barack Obama and Ron Paul attracted masses of volunteers participating in a campaign for the first time. The Paul volunteers were especially impressive, in that they used social networking media to self-organize, and raise prodigious sums of money, with very little direction or assistance from the official campaign. The same was true for Howard Dean in 2004, for whom volunteers spontaneously assembled via Meetup, a then-popular social networking Web site.

But the Paul campaign ran into the insurmountable problem that no matter how many volunteers you can put in the field, and how much money you can raise, the campaign can't win if the vast majority of voters reject either the candidate or his message.

Obama's career as a community organizer might be considered a failure, in light of how little change resulted from so much hard work by such a talented man. But evidently, he took away from it a vision of the importance of grass-roots organizing, and an understanding that success would not come only from the top down, but by empowering vast numbers of people to act together. For McCain and Clinton, social networking has been a new tool bolted on to the existing campaign structure. For Obama, it was at the core of his political vision.

Throughout American history, many of the transformational political leaders, and leaders of political causes, have found a way to use new media--or an old medium in a new way--to build popular support. Franklin Roosevelt used his radio "fireside chats" to bring his eloquent, magisterial, reassuring voice into homes all over America, establishing a personal relationship with American families. Ronald Reagan did the same in his television addresses to the American people, as he became the first president (and, so far, only) president to make the most of the intimacy of the small screen.

William Jennings Bryan did not win the presidency, but he did transform the Democratic party into a party of active, populist government. Massively outspent by William McKinley in the 1896 election, Bryan decided to become the first presidential candidate to campaign actively. He traveled the country by train and gave over five hundred speech where he magnificent, booming voice attracted huge crowds.

The National Rifle Association was one of the very first groups to use direct mail on a large scale energize activists, bypassing the hostile mainstream media; later gun rights groups were leaders in the use of computer bulletin boards, fax alerts, later, in the World Wide Web.

A few weeks ago, the House of Representatives had adjourned for five weeks, blocking Republican efforts to allow a vote on expanding oil drilling. With the lights off and the mainstream media gone, some House Republicans stuck around and launched a weekend protest, which they publicized with Twitter--a micro version of instant messaging. Twittering for drilling was a great success, and played an important role in promoting a public outcry against the suppression of American oil resources. It was only a few days later that the political balance in the country had changed so decisively that even Rep. Mark Udall was explaining that he considering oil drilling to be part of our national energy solution.

Like facsimile machines, Twitter was not invented for political communication. Twitter was a tool for people to send short, frequent updates about themselves to their friends: "I'm on the light rail. Sunset looks great tonight." "Having dinner at South of the Border. Fajitas were excellent. Margarita was weak." MySpace was originally a place best known as a forum for adolescent girls to share their daily social thoughts: "OMG, can you believe that she said she would go to the dance with him if he convinces Jacob to ask Melissa out?!????!!"

Neither the Rocky Mountain News, nor any other mainstream media, told its media critics "Start following MySpace and Twitter."

Yet the fact is, Barack Obama essentially tied in the popular vote with the formidable Hillary Clinton, and he won the delegate race only because he out-organized and out-grassrooted her. He could not have done so if he had not realized the immense political potential of social networking media.

On substantive policy issues, there is little more than a dime's worth of difference between the official platform that Barack Obama is running on and the platform that Hillary Clinton might have run on. Yet for Barack Obama, now the community organizer for a national community, the medium is the message; using the new media to turn huge numbers of people into citizen activists is, in itself, very meaningful change.

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