Barack Obama and the social web

November 7, 2008 | Leave a comment

Barack Obama is the next President of the United States, and received the largest share of the vote by any Democratic candidate in 44 years. That’s an impressive statistic, and one that Wired put down in part to his Internet strategy:

[...] Obama’s rise to the presidency will be studied for years to come as the textbook example of a new kind of electioneering driven by people and technology, says Ralph Benko, a principal of the political consulting firm Capital City Partners, in Washington, D.C.

“It was a peer-to-peer, bottom-up, open-source kind of ethos that infused this campaign,” says Benko. “Clearly, there was a vision to this.”

Certainly, Obama was the first candidate to have really “got” the Internet, but there was something different about this campaign: the Internet got Barack Obama. Sure, he released video statements on the web, had a Twitter account, engaged ordinary people through personal publishing and raised a phenomenal amount of money by asking for individual donations. These things alone are historic. But it’s what ordinary people and unrelated organizations went and did next that may have tipped the election.

Social media is viral by nature. You share something with your friends, who (if they enjoy it or find it of use) pass it along to their friends, and so on, creating an exponential network effect. Great content spreads quickly, but with the added benefit that it always comes via a source you trust, so you’re probably more likely to pay attention to it. That’s why it’s so attractive to marketers, and why the Obama campaign chose to harness it.

However, there’s another side to the coin. You lose control of your message; all you can do is set the ball rolling in the right direction, keep putting out your own content, and hope for the best. The campaign did this intelligently; the photo to the top right of this post is one of 50,435 and counting made available under a Creative Commons license from the Barack Obama Flickr account. The Creative Commons license allows anyone to share or adapt the photos as long as attribution is listed and the work isn’t for commercial gain.

In this case, due to a combination of factors (not least the fact that George W Bush is the least popular President since Nixon after Watergate), it snowballed. Obama didn’t campaign negatively, but there was plenty of negative press about the incumbent, John McCain and Sarah Palin flying around, in large part due to the efforts of bloggers and political organizations who put their materials out on the web.

One of the most effective videos was this one, which took the characters and actual cast of Budweiser’s Wassup ads and updated them for the Bush era. It’s unrelated to the Obama campaign, but has been viewed almost 4.5 million times at the time of writing:

In effect, Obama could take the high ground, knowing that information about the Republican administration and the candidates would surface. That’s one of the most powerful aspects of the web, the network effect ensuring that important information found its way into the hands of voters. (Not to mention allowing me to see the US TV coverage, and therefore make a more informed decision as an absentee voter.) As time goes on, the web becomes more ubiquitous and social functionality finds its way into all kinds of software, it’s going to be much harder for information to be suppressed. That’s one of the things that keeps me passionate about this field; I can see the very real benefits for real people.

And the meme continues. My favourite post-election site so far is Ze Frank’s from 52 to 48 with love, which echoes the Obama campaign’s unity theme.

Photo by Barack Obama, under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic CC license.

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