New-Media King: Barack Obama’s website enjoys more hits than the competition’s, but his real dominance is on social networks like Facebook and MySpace. He’s also a leading microblogger on Twitter.
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.”