A President for the Digital Age

This post is part of a series for the Youth Media Blog-a-Thon on the topic of “regime change.”


How can one man move the majority of the country to vote for him? One man can’t, but his network can.

On November 4, 2008 Barack Obama won what will be called a historical election not just because he’s the first African-American president elected in the United States, but also because he’s the first presidential candidate to win the election in the era of digital communications.

Digital communications broadly describes most of the technology you use to get in touch with your friends and family–mobile phones, the internet, social networks such as Facebook or MySpace, YouTube, blogs, text message, email, Twitter–basically any information you share on your phone or online.

Think about it: The last time you got together with friends, how did you organize yourselves? Did you send a text message? Did you email each other? Call? Send a message on Facebook or MySpace? Tweet?
During the 2008 presidential primary and race, the Obama campaign did all of the above.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has cataloged a steady increase in the number of Americans using the Internet for political news, information, and activity.  In 1996, about 4% of the population, “got political news and information about that election online.” In 2004, that figure rose to 29% of the population. By June 2008, Pew reported that “46% of Americans have used the internet to get political news and share their views, and mobilize others.” That number indicates that more Americans went online for political information by June 2008 than the total number of Americans who went online for information in 2004.

All of these people going online for political information were met with a bevy of online tools they could use to engage with Obama’s campaign and its supporters. The campaign used online tools to encourage, organize, and implement “get out the vote” activities among its supporters while building an online community that empowered them.
The campaign did so with the creation of MyBarakObama.com, and profile pages in the major online network communities including: Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, BlackPlanet, Flikr, Digg, Twitter, Eventful, LinkedIn, Faithbase, DNC Partybuilder, AsianAve, MyBatanga, Glee, MyGente, and Eons (www.barakobama.com).
The campaign tapped Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes to work on Obama’s new media campaign. By early July 2008, “the campaign’s new-media strategy…ha[d] revolutionized the use of the Web as a political tool, helping the candidate raise more than two million donations of less than $200 each and swiftly mobilze[d] hundreds of thousands of supporters.” Hughes told The New York Times, “If we did not have online organizing tools, it would be much harder to be where we are now,” and Obama declared, “there’s no more powerful tool for grass-roots organizing than the Internet.”
The internet tools Obama and Hughes refer to are not just the Web sites that the campaign created or became a part of, but the automated actions users could take on the sites: join local groups, create events, sign up for updates, set up personal fund-raising pages, email a friend, make a donation, volunteer for a phone bank, or find a polling site. These actions enabled Obama’s supporter networks to bridge and collaborate with other networks that effectively grew the campaign’s supporters, volunteers, donations, and voters.

By giving supporters easy online access to these tools, the Obama campaign created the grassroots results they desired. By October 30, 2008, supporters had used MyBarackObama.com to create 200,000 events in support of the campaign and created more than 27,000 groups. On Election Day, November 4, 2008, Obama supporters reportedly made 1,053,791 calls to get out the vote for Obama; in the weekend before the campaign, supporters made “one million calls using the [Obama Web site’s] online calling tool, and another three million calls at Last Call for Change phone banks across the country.”
The fundamental strategy of the campaign was to recruit a large number of supporters, not just a large number of fundraising dollars. By emphasizing the individual’s role as not just a donor, but an activist who could use online tools, the Obama campaign made it possible for their supporters to engage their personal networks by forwarding videos, emails, speeches, or volunteer or fundraising opportunities.
Three days after the election, Obama’s new media strategist Chris Hughes reflected, “What has made My.BarackObama unique hasn’t been the technology itself, but the people who used the online tools to coordinate offline action.  My.BarackObama has always been focused on using online tools to make real-world connections between people who are hungry to change our politics in this country [emphasis added].”

Hughes’s statement embodies the goal, strategy, and success of the Obama internet strategy. The campaign made effective connections with its volunteers via online networks and empowered them to organize their own networks to help elect Obama.
Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaign is just one example of how we can all use online social tools to bridge our networks to achieve a goal. Think of the possibilities. The ability to connect on a local and global scale is here, within the screen you’re reading right now. How will you use it?

Guest blogger Alice Manning is a Washington, D.C., based freelance writer/editor who is currently pursuing a  degree in Communications with a concentration in Digital Technology at John Hopkins University. Her master’s thesis is titled: “Redefining Civic Engagement: Digitial Communication in the 2008 Presidential Election.”

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