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Com Obama ho ha fet: la estrategia de xarxes socials que ha portat a un desconegut senador a la casa blanca (Technology Review)

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Technology Review
September/October 2008
How Obama Really Did It
The social-networking strategy that took an obscure senator to the doors of the White House.
By David Talbot

Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign manager and
Internet impresario, describes Super Tuesday II–the March 4 primaries
in Texas, Ohio, Vermont, and Rhode Island–as the moment Barack Obama
used social tech­nology to decisive effect. The day’s largest hoard of
dele­gates would be contested in Texas, where a strong showing would
require exceptional discipline and voter-education efforts. In Texas,
Democrats vote first at the polls and then, if they choose, again at
caucuses after the polls close. The caucuses award one-third of the
Democratic delegates.

Hillary Clinton’s camp had about 20,000 volunteers at work in Texas.
But in an e-mail, Trippi learned that 104,000 Texans had joined
Obama’s social-­networking site, http://www.my.barackobama.com, known as
MyBO. MyBO and the main Obama site had already logged their share of
achievements, particularly in helping rake in cash. The month before,
the freshman senator from Illinois had set a record in American
politics by garnering $55 million in donations in a single month. In
Texas, MyBO also gave the Obama team the instant capacity to wage
fully networked campaign warfare. After seeing the volunteer numbers,
Trippi says, “I remember saying, ‘Game, match–it’s over.'”

The Obama campaign could get marching orders to the Texans registered
with MyBO with minimal effort. The MyBO databases could slice and dice
lists of volunteers by geographic micro­region and pair people with
appropriate tasks, including prepping nearby voters on caucus
procedure. “You could go online and download the names, addresses, and
phone numbers of 100 people in your neighborhood to get out and
vote–or the 40 people on your block who were undecided,” Trippi says.
“‘Here is the leaflet: print it out and get it to them.’ It was you,
at your computer, in your house, printing and downloading. They did it
all very well.” Clinton won the Texas primary vote 51 to 47 percent.
But Obama’s ­people, following their MyBO playbook, so overwhelmed the
chaotic, crowded caucuses that he scored an overall victory in the
Texas delegate count, 99 to 94. His showing nearly canceled out
­Clinton’s win that day in Ohio. Clinton lost her last major
opportunity to stop the Obama juggernaut. “In 1992, Carville said,
‘It’s the economy, stupid,'” Trippi says, recalling the exhortation of
Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, James Carville. “This year, it was
the network, stupid!”

Throughout the political season, the Obama campaign has domi­nated new
media, capitalizing on a confluence of trends. Americans are more able
to access media-rich content online; 55 percent have broadband
Internet connections at home, double the figure for spring 2004.
Social-networking technologies have matured, and more Americans are
comfortable with them. Although the 2004 Dean campaign broke ground
with its online meeting technologies and blogging, “people didn’t
quite have the facility,” says ­Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law
professor who has given the Obama campaign Internet policy advice
(Lessig wrote The People Own Ideas! in our May/June 2005 issue). “The
world has now caught up with the technology.” The Obama campaign, he
adds, recognized this early: “The key networking advance in the Obama
field operation was really deploying community­-building tools in a
smart way from the very beginning.”

Of course, many of the 2008 candidates had websites, click-to-donate
tools, and social-networking features–even John McCain, who does not
personally use e-mail. But the Obama team put such technologies at the
center of its campaign–among other things, recruiting 24-year-old
Chris Hughes, cofounder of Facebook, to help develop them. And it
managed those tools well. Supporters had considerable discretion to
use MyBO to organize on their own; the campaign did not micromanage
but struck a balance between top-down control and anarchy. In short,
Obama, the former Chicago community organizer, created the ultimate
online political machine.

The Obama campaign did not provide access or interviews for this
story; it only confirmed some details of our reporting and offered
written comments. This story is based on interviews with third parties
involved in developing Obama’s social-networking strategy or who were
familiar with it, and on public records.

An Online Nervous System
A row of elegant, renovated 19th-century industrial buildings lines
Boston’s Congress Street east of Fort Point Channel. On any given day,
behind a plain wooden door on the third floor of 374 Congress, 15 to
20 casually clad programmers tap away at computers. On the day I
visited, the strains of Creedence Clearwater Revival filled the room;
a Ping-Pong table dominated the small kitchen. This is the technology
center for Blue State Digital, which means that it is also the nervous
system for its two largest clients, the Barack Obama campaign and the
Democratic National Committee. Founded by alumni of the Dean campaign,
Blue State Digital added interactive elements to Obama’s
website–including MyBO–and now tends to its daily care and feeding.
The site’s servers hum away in a Boston suburb and are backed up in
the Chicago area.

Jascha Franklin-Hodge, 29, greeted me with a friendly handshake and a
gap-toothed grin. He has a deep voice and a hearty laugh; his face is
ringed by a narrow beard. Franklin-Hodge dropped out of MIT after his
freshman year and spent a few years in online music startups before
running the Internet infrastructure for the Dean campaign, which
received a then-­unprecedented $27 million in online donations. “When
the campaign ended, we thought, ‘Howard Dean was not destined to be
president, but what we are doing online–this is too big to let go
away,'” he says. He and three others cofounded Blue State Digital,
where he is chief technology officer. (Another cofounder, Joe Rospars,
is now on leave with the Obama campaign as its new-media director.)

The MyBO tools are, in essence, rebuilt and consolidated versions of
those created for the Dean campaign. Dean’s website allowed supporters
to donate money, organize meetings, and distribute media, says Zephyr
Teachout, who was Dean’s Internet director and is now a visiting law
professor at Duke University. “We developed all the tools the Obama
campaign is using: SMS [text messaging], phone tools, Web capacity,”
Teachout recalls. “They [Blue State Digital] did a lot of nice work in
taking this crude set of unrelated applications and making a complete
suite.”

Blue State Digital had nine days to add its tools to Obama’s site
before the senator announced his candidacy on February 10, 2007, in
Springfield, IL. Among other preparations, the team braced for heavy
traffic. “We made some projections of traffic levels, contribution
amounts, and e-mail levels based on estimates from folks who worked
with [John] Kerry and Dean in 2004,” recalls Franklin­-Hodge. As
Obama’s Springfield speech progressed, “we were watching the traffic
go up and up, surpassing all our previous records.” (He would not
provide specific numbers.) It was clear that early assumptions were
low. “We blew through all of those [estimates] in February,” he says.
“So we had to do a lot of work to make sure we kept up with the demand
his online success had placed on the system.” By July 2008, the
campaign had raised more than $200 million from more than a million
online donors (Obama had raised $340 million from all sources by the
end of June), and MyBO had logged more than a million user accounts
and facilitated 75,000 local events, according to Blue State Digital.

MyBO and the main campaign site made it easy to give money–the fuel
for any campaign, because it pays for advertising and staff. Visitors
could use credit cards to make one-time donations or to sign up for
recurring monthly contributions. MyBO also made giving money a social
event: supporters could set personal targets, run their own
fund-raising efforts, and watch personal fund-­raising thermometers
rise. To bring people to the site in the first place, the campaign
sought to make Obama a ubiquitous presence on as many new-media
platforms as possible.

The viral Internet offered myriad ways to propagate unfiltered Obama
messages. The campaign posted the candidate’s speeches and linked to
multimedia material generated by supporters. A music video set to an
Obama speech–“Yes We Can,” by the hip-hop artist Will.i.am–has been
posted repeatedly on YouTube, but the top two postings alone have been
viewed 10 million times. A single YouTube posting of Obama’s March 18
speech on race has been viewed more than four million times.
Similarly, the campaign regularly sent out text messages (at Obama
rallies, speakers frequently asked attendees to text their contact
information to his campaign) and made sure that Obama was prominent on
other social-networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace (see
“New-Media King” chart above). The campaign even used the
micro­blogging service Twitter, garnering about 50,000 Obama
“followers” who track his short posts. “The campaign, consciously or
unconsciously, became much more of a media operation than simply a
presidential campaign, because they recognized that by putting their
message out onto these various platforms, their supporters would
spread it for them,” says Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal
Democracy Forum, a website covering the intersection of politics and
technology (and another Dean alumnus). “We are going from the era of
the sound bite to the sound blast.”

Money flowed in, augmenting the haul from big-ticket fund-raisers. By
the time of the Iowa caucuses on January 3, 2008, the Obama campaign
had more than $35 million on hand and was able to use MyBO to organize
and instruct caucus-goers. “They have done a great job in being
precise in the use of the tools,” Teachout says. “In Iowa it was house
parties, looking for a highly committed local network. In South
Carolina, it was a massive get-out-the-vote effort.” MyBO was critical
both in the early caucus states, where campaign staff was in place,
and in later-­voting states like Texas, Colorado, and Wisconsin, where
“we provided the tools, remote training, and opportunity for
supporters to build the campaign on their own,” the Obama campaign
told Technology Review in a written statement. “When the campaign
eventually did deploy staff to these states, they supplemented an
already-built infrastructure and volunteer network.”

Using the Web, the Obama camp turbocharged age-old campaign tools.
Take phone banks: through MyBO, the campaign chopped up the task of
making calls into thousands of chunks small enough for a supporter to
handle in an hour or two. “Millions of phone calls were made to early
primary states by people who used the website to reach out and connect
with them,” Franklin-Hodge says. “On every metric, this campaign has
operated on a scale that has exceeded what has been done before. We
facilitate actions of every sort: sending e-mails out to millions and
millions of people, organizing tens of thousands of events.” The key,
he says, is tightly integrating online activity with tasks people can
perform in the real world. “Yes, there are blogs and Listservs,”
Franklin-Hodge says. “But the point of the campaign is to get someone
to donate money, make calls, write letters, organize a house party.
The core of the software is having those links to taking action–to
doing something.”

Pork Invaders
If the other major candidates had many of the same Web tools, their
experiences show that having them isn’t enough: you must make them
central to the campaign and properly manage the networks of supporters
they help organize. Observers say that ­Clinton’s campaign deployed
good tools but that online social networks and new media weren’t as
big a part of its strategy; at least in its early months, it relied
more on conventional tactics like big fund-raisers. After all, Clinton
was at the top of the party establishment. “They [the Obama
supporters] are chanting ‘Yes we can,’ and she’s saying ‘I don’t need
you,'” Trippi says. “That is what the top of that campaign said by
celebrating Terry McAuliffe [the veteran political operative and
former Democratic National Committee chairman] and how many millions
he could put together with big, big checks. She doesn’t need my $25!”
The two campaigns’ fund-raising statistics support Trippi’s argument:
48 percent of Obama’s funds came from donations of less than $200,
compared with 33 percent of Clinton’s, according to the Center for
Responsive Politics.

Clinton’s Internet director, Peter Daou, credits the Obama campaign
with doing an “amazing job” with its online social network. “If there
is a difference in how the two campaigns approached [a Web strategy],
a lot of those differences were based on our constituencies,” Daou
says. “We were reaching a different demographic of supporters and used
our tools accordingly.” For example, he says, the Clinton campaign
established a presence on the baby-boomer social-networking site
Eons.com, and Clinton herself often urged listeners to visit
http://www.hillaryclinton.com. But Andrew Rasiej says that the conventional
political wisdom questioned the value of the Internet. “As far as
major political circles were concerned,” he says, “Howard Dean failed,
and therefore the Internet didn’t work.”

While it’s hard to tease out how much Clinton’s loss was due to her
Web strategy–and how much to factors such as her Iraq War vote and
the half-generation difference between her and Obama’s ages–it seems
clear that her campaign deëmphasized Web strategy early on, Trippi
says. Even if you “have all the smartest bottom-up, tech-savvy people
working for you,” he says, “if the candidate and the top of the
campaign want to run a top-down campaign, there is nothing you can do.
It will sit there and nothing will happen. That’s kind of what
happened with the Clinton campaign.”

Republican Ron Paul had a different problem: Internet anarchy. Where
the Obama campaign built one central network and managed it
effectively, the Paul campaign decided early on that it would
essentially be a hub for whatever networks the organizers were setting
up. The results were mixed. On the one hand, volunteers organized
successful “money bombs”–one-day online fund-raising frenzies (the
one on November 5, 2007, netted Paul $4.3 million). But sometimes the
volunteers’ energy–and money–was wasted, says Justine Lam, the Paul
campaign’s Internet director, who is now the online marketing director
at Politicker.com. Consider the supporter-driven effort to hire a
blimp emblazoned with “Who is Ron Paul? Google Ron Paul” to cruise up
and down the East Coast last winter. “We saw all this money funding a
blimp, and thought, ‘We really need this money for commercials,'” Lam
says.

Then there is McCain, who–somewhat ironically–was the big Internet
story of 2000. That year, after his New Hampshire primary victory over
George W. Bush, he quickly raised $1 million online. And at times last
year, he made effective use of the Internet. His staff made
videos–such as “Man in the Arena,” celebrating his wartime
service–that gained popularity on YouTube. But the McCain site is
ineffectual for social networking. In late June, when I tried to sign
up on McCainSpace–the analogue to MyBO–I got error messages. When I
tried again, I was informed that I would soon get a new password in my
in-box. It never arrived. “His social-networking site was poorly done,
and people found there was nothing to do on it,” says Lam. “It was
very insular, a walled garden. You don’t want to keep people inside
your walled garden; you want them to spread the message to new
people.”

McCain’s organization is playing to an older base of supporters. But
it seems not to have grasped the breadth of recent shifts in
communications technology, says David All, a Republican new-media
consultant. “You have an entire generation of folks under age 25 no
longer using e-mails, not even using Facebook; a majority are using
text messaging,” All says. “I get Obama’s text messages, and every one
is exactly what it should be. It is never pointless, it is always
worth reading, and it has an action for you to take. You can have
hundreds of recipients on a text message. You have hundreds of people
trying to change the world in 160 characters or less. What’s the SMS
strategy for John McCain? None.”

The generational differences between the Obama and McCain campaigns
may be best symbolized by the distinctly retro “Pork Invaders,” a game
on the McCain site (it’s also a Facebook application) styled after
Space Invaders, the arcade game of the late 1970s. Pork Invaders
allows you to fire bullets that say “veto” at slow-moving flying pigs
and barrels.

But it’s not that the campaign isn’t trying to speak to the youth of
today, as opposed to the youth of decades ago. Lately McCain has been
having his daughter Meghan and two friends write a “bloggette” from
the campaign trail. The bloggette site features a silhouette of a
fetching woman in red high-heeled shoes. “It gives a hipper, younger
perspective on the campaign and makes both of her parents seem hipper
and younger,” says Julie ­Germany, director of the nonpartisan
Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet at George
Washington University. The McCain campaign did not reply to several
interview requests, but Germany predicts that the campaign will
exploit social networking in time to make a difference in November.
“What we will see is that the McCain online campaign is using the
Internet just as effectively to meet its goals as the Obama campaign,”
she says. Over the summer, the McCain campaign refreshed its website.
But Rasiej, for one, doubts that McCain has enough time to make up
lost ground.

A Networked White House?
The obvious next step for MyBO is to serve as a get-out-the-vote
engine in November. All campaigns scrutinize public records showing
who is registered to vote and whether they have voted in past
elections. The Obama campaign will be able to merge this data with
MyBO data. All MyBO members’ activity will have been chronicled: every
house party they attended, each online connection, the date and amount
of each donation. Rasiej sees how it might play out: the reliable
voters who signed up on MyBO but did little else may be left alone.
The most active ones will be deployed to get the unreliable
voters–whether MyBO members or not–to the polls. And personalized
pitches can be dished up, thanks to the MyBO database. “The more
contextual information they can provide the field operation, the
better turnout they will have,” he says.

If Obama is elected, his Web-oriented campaign strategy could carry
over into his presidency. He could encourage his supporters to deluge
members of Congress with calls and e-mails, or use the Web to organize
collective research on policy questions. The campaign said in one of
its prepared statements that “it’s certain that the relationships that
have been built between Barack Obama and his supporters, and between
supporters themselves, will not end on Election Day.” But whether or
not a President Obama takes MyBO into the West Wing, it’s clear that
the phenomenon will forever transform campaigning. “We’re scratching
the surface,” Trippi says. “We’re all excited because he’s got one
million people signed up–but we are 300 million people in this
country. We are still at the infancy stages of what social-­networking
technologies are going to do, not just in our politics but in
everything. There won’t be any campaign in 2012 that doesn’t try to
build a social network around it.”

Lessig warns that if Obama wins but doesn’t govern according to
principles of openness and change, as promised, supporters may not be
so interested in serving as MyBO foot soldiers in 2012. “The thing
they [the Obama camp] don’t quite recognize is how much of their
enormous support comes from the perception that this is someone
different,” Lessig says. “If they behave like everyone else, how much
will that stanch the passion of his support?”

But for now, it’s party time. At the end of June, after ­Clinton
suspended her campaign, MyBO put out a call for the faithful to
organize house parties under a “Unite for Change” theme. More than
4,000 parties were organized nationwide on June 28; I logged in and
picked three parties from about a dozen in the Boston area.

My first stop was a house party in the tony suburb of ­Winchester,
where several couples dutifully watched an Obama-supplied campaign
video. Host Mary Hart, an art professor in her 50s, said that Obama
and his website made her “open my house to strangers and really get
something going.” She added, “I’m e-mailing people I haven’t seen in
20 years. We have this tremendous ability to use this technology to
network with people. Why don’t we use it?”

Next stop was a lawn party in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury,
whose organizer, Sachielle Samedi, 34, wore a button that said “Hot
Chicks Dig Obama.” She said that support for the Obama candidacy drew
neighbors together. At the party, Wayne Dudley, a retired history
professor, met a kindred spirit: Brian Murdoch, a 54-year-old
Episcopal priest. The two men buttonholed me for several minutes;
Dudley predicted that Obama would bring about “a new world order
centered on people of integrity.” Murdoch nodded vigorously. It was a
fine MyBO moment.

My evening ended at a packed post-collegiate party in a Somerville
walk-up apartment. Host Rebecca Herst, a 23-year-old program assistant
with the Jewish Organizing Initiative, said that MyBO–unlike
Facebook–allowed her to quickly upload her entire Gmail address book,
grafting her network onto Obama’s. “It will be interesting to see what
develops after this party, because now I’m connected to all these
people,” she shouted over the growing din. Two beery young men,
heading for the exits, handed her two checks for $20. Herst tucked the
checks into her back pocket.

David Talbot is Technology Review’s chief correspondent.

Copyright Technology Review 2008.

Filed under: MyWeb2.0, Networks, xarxes socials online, , ,

One Response

  1. Més sobre Obama i les TICS, i el paper que aquestes tindran en la relació entre ell i el seu electorat:

    “”Por qué Obama no podrá gobernar como otros presidentes”” ( a Soitu.es / Vida Digital / Juan Varela). URL:

    [http://www.soitu.es/soitu/2008/11/05/sociedadcableada/1225910332_236446.html]

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