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.