How Obama Tapped Into Social Networks’ Power (New York Times)
In February 2007, a friend called Marc Andreessen, a founder of Netscape and a board member of Facebook, and asked if he wanted to meet with a man with an idea that sounded preposterous on its face.
Always game for something new, Mr. Andreessen headed to the San Francisco airport late one night to hear the guy out. A junior member of a large and powerful organization with a thin, but impressive, résumé, he was about to take on far more powerful forces in a battle for leadership.
He wondered if social networking, with its tremendous communication capabilities and aggressive database development, might help him beat the overwhelming odds facing him.
“It was like a guy in a garage who was thinking of taking on the biggest names in the business,” Mr. Andreessen recalled. “What he was doing shouldn’t have been possible, but we see a lot of that out here and then something clicks. He was clearly supersmart and very entrepreneurial, a person who saw the world and the status quo as malleable.”
And as it turned out, President-elect Barack Obama was right.
Like a lot of Web innovators, the Obama campaign did not invent anything completely new. Instead, by bolting together social networking applications under the banner of a movement, they created an unforeseen force to raise money, organize locally, fight smear campaigns and get out the vote that helped them topple the Clinton machine and then John McCain and the Republicans.
As a result, when he arrives at 1600 Pennsylvania, Mr. Obama will have not just a political base, but a database, millions of names of supporters who can be engaged almost instantly. And there’s every reason to believe that he will use the network not just to campaign, but to govern. His e-mail message to supporters on Tuesday night included the line, “We have a lot of work to do to get our country back on track, and I’ll be in touch soon about what comes next.” The incoming administration is already open for business on the Web at Change.gov, a digital gateway for the transition.
The Bush campaign arrived at the White House with a conviction that it would continue a conservative revolution with the help of Karl Rove’s voter lists, phone banks and direct mail. But those tools were crude and expensive compared with what the Obama camp is bringing to the Oval Office.
“I think it is very significant that he was the first post-boomer candidate for president,” Mr. Andreessen said. “Other politicians I have met with are always impressed by the Web and surprised by what it could do, but their interest sort of ended in how much money you could raise. He was the first politician I dealt with who understood that the technology was a given and that it could be used in new ways.”
The juxtaposition of a networked, open-source campaign and a historically imperial office will have profound implications and raise significant questions. Special-interest groups and lobbyists will now contend with an environment of transparency and a president who owes them nothing. The news media will now contend with an administration that can take its case directly to its base without even booking time on the networks.
More profoundly, while many people think that President-elect Obama is a gift to the Democratic Party, he could actually hasten its demise. Political parties supply brand, ground troops, money and relationships, all things that Mr. Obama already owns.
And his relationships are not the just traditional ties of Democrats — teachers’ unions, party faithful and Hollywood moneybags — but a network of supporters who used a distributed model of phone banking to organize and get out the vote, helped raise a record-breaking $600 million, and created all manner of media clips that were viewed millions of times. It was an online movement that begot offline behavior, including producing youth voter turnout that may have supplied the margin of victory.
“Thomas Jefferson used newspapers to win the presidency, F.D.R. used radio to change the way he governed, J.F.K. was the first president to understand television, and Howard Dean saw the value of the Web for raising money,” said Ranjit Mathoda, a lawyer and money manager who blogs at Mathoda.com. “But Senator Barack Obama understood that you could use the Web to lower the cost of building a political brand, create a sense of connection and engagement, and dispense with the command and control method of governing to allow people to self-organize to do the work.”
All of the Obama supporters who traded their personal information for a ticket to a rally or an e-mail alert about the vice presidential choice, or opted in on Facebook or MyBarackObama can now be mass e-mailed at a cost of close to zero. And instead of the constant polling that has been a motor of presidential governance, an Obama White House can use the Web to measure voter attitudes.
“When you think about it, a campaign is a start-up business,” Mr. Mathoda said. “Other than his speech in 2004 at the convention and his two books, Mr. Obama had very little in terms of brand to begin with, and he was up against Senator Clinton, who had all the traditional sources of power, and then Senator McCain. But he had the right people and the right idea to take them on. When you think about it, it was like he was going up against Google and Yahoo. And he won.”
There is tremendous power in opening citizen access to government — think of how much good will and support Mayor Michael Bloomberg garnered by coming up with 311, a one-stop phone number for New Yorkers who had a problem.
But now Senator Obama’s 20-month conversation with the electorate enters a new phase. There is sense of ownership, a kind of possessive entitlement, on the part of the people who worked to elect him. The shorthand for his organizing Web site, “MyBO,” says it all.
“People will continue to expect a conversation, a two-way relationship that is a give and take,” said Thomas Gensemer, managing partner of Blue State Digital, which helped conceive and put into effect Obama’s digital outreach. “People who were part of the campaign will opt in to political or governing tracks and those relationships will continue in some form.”
The founders of America wanted a government that reflected its citizens, but would be at remove from the baser impulses of the mob. The mob, flush with victory, is at hand, but instead of pitchforks and lanterns, they have broadband and YouTube. Like every other presidency, the Obama administration will have its battles with the media, but that may seem like patty-cake if it runs afoul of the self-publishing, self-organizing democracy it helped create — say, by delaying health care legislation or breaking a promise on taxes.
That’s the thing about pipes today: they run both ways.
“It’s clear there has been a dramatic shift,” said Andrew Rasiej, the founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference about the intersection of politics and technology. “Any politician who fails to recognize that we are in a post-party era with a new political ecology in which connecting like minds and forming a movement is so much easier will not be around long.
“Yes, we have met Big Brother, the one who is always watching. And Big Brother is us.”