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The First Internet President


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Barack Obama's Web site

Barack Obama's Web site enabled his presidential campaign to communicate directly with supporters, launch canvassing and get-out-the-vote campaigns, and raise millions of dollars.

Image by Rick Klau

When Barak Obama stepped on stage in Chicago's Grant Park to deliver his victory speech last November 4, it represented a defining moment in American history. Although the news media and the public couldn't help but recognize the historic fact that Obama had become the nation's first black president, it was no less significant that the 47-year-old community activist and politician had also become America's first Internet president.

Throughout a two-year campaign, Obama's political teamincluding campaign manager David Plouffe and senior adviser David Axelrodtapped into information technology to redefine the election process and interact with people in new and different ways. The campaign team mined email addresses and used them to build a database of more than 13 million people, they turned to social networking sites such as Facebook to amass followers and disperse information, and they posted videos on the campaign Web site Barack-Obama.com as well as on YouTube.

It was a winning strategy. However, the ripple effects are likely to extend far beyond future elections and into the White House and government itself. Political observers say that politics has reached a critical threshold and there's no turning back. "The ability to connect via the Internet to groups, segments, and individuals changes everything. It flattens the process and creates a bottom-up approach to participation," says Joe Trippi, who pioneered the use of the Internet in Howard Dean's 2004 presidential bid and has worked on the presidential campaigns of Edward Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Gary Hart, Dick Gephardt, and John Edwards.

"This was a watershed election," adds Mitch Kapor, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and now a principal at Kapor Enterprises. "It has set a tone for the country. There's a growing recognition that information technology is here to stay. It has moved into the mainstream of American politics."

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Amassing Media

Throughout history, political candidates have searched for every advantage in the quest to get elected. Town hall meetings, radio addresses, and television appearances have all served as valuable tools to capture hearts, minds, and votes. However, as these tools have evolved, one thing has become perfectly clear: traditional mass mediadespite its long reach and powerful influencehas unmistakable limitations. It cannot be targeted to specific segments and demographic groups as it offers a one-size-fits-all message.

Of course, since the mid-1990s, candidates have constructed Web sites and used them to promote their agenda. But in the Web 1.0 world, these sites served as little more than e-brochures, allowing candidates to post news, information, and positions on various issues. They made it easier to disperse information, but did nothing to target groups of voters more effectively. Then in 2004, Howard Dean began soliciting contributions via the Webthough the focus was still squarely on what Trippi describes as "big donor money and broadcast media." To be sure, the Internet offered enormous upside, but campaigns still spun a tight orbit around old world politics.

Fast forward to 2008 and the emergence of Web 2.0. "This was the first mass-participation election in the nation's history," observes Micah L. Sifry, co-founder and executive editor of the Personal Democracy Forum, a news site that examines how technology is changing politics. "Today's technologies are becoming as commonplace and mainstream as the telephone was to past generations," he explains. "It is fundamentally changing how candidates and the public interact." Blogs, wikis, social networking sites, and more sophisticated analytics tools have made it possible to mobilize support and money in ways that were unimaginable only a few years ago.

Sifry believes that Web 2.0 tools have already empowered citizens and armed them with a powerful force for affecting change in campaigns and government. More than 200 video-sharing sites exist, and independent groups on Facebook and MySpace now back or attack candidates without the support of the campaigns themselves. The largest independent group in the 2008 election cycle was a Facebook group, Stop Hillary Clinton: (One Million Strong AGAINST Hillary Clinton), and many smaller groups sprung up, including those focused on independent fundraisers and house parties.

Turning opportunity into action required more than just sophisticated servers and advanced databases, however. From the beginning, the Obama team understood the power of the technology and how it could be harnessed for political gain, says Deniece Peterson, principal analyst at INPUT, a Reston, VA, government-focused market research and consulting firm. "They knew how to use the technology to operate at a more grassroots level and engage in a more individual and personal outreach," she notes.

The campaign used Facebook to communicate online (it had 1.7 million supporters at the site), and tapped into microblogging site Twitter to deliver a constant stream of news as well as volunteer opportunities. For example, on election day, the Obama campaign used Twitter to post toll-free numbers and texting strings for finding polling locations, connecting to volunteer opportunities, and making contributions.


With a private database of millions of people, President Obama's staff could conduct polls, solicit ideas and opinions, and hold online town hall meetings.


Other social networking sites also entered the picture, including My-Space, YouTube, Flickr, Digg, Eventful, LinkedIn, BlackPlanet, FaithBase, Eons, GLEE, MiGente, My Batanga, AsianAve and DNC PartyBuilder. Meanwhile, Barack-Obama.com amassed more than two million registered users. In the end, the 13-million-person database represented about 10% of the total number of voters in the presidential election. Moreover, "these are people who also have a lot of impact offline," Trippi points out.

In the end, Obama received donations from more than four million personsnearly triple the number that George W. Bush tallied in 2004. In fact, the final financial tally exceeded $750 million, with the average donation being less than $100. A steady stream of email solicitations made contributing as easy as buying a book on Amazon. com. "This approach is putting PACs [political action committees] and lobbies on notice that we've entered a new and far more democratic era," Trippi observes. "It's no longer only about the fat cats running the campaign and contributing to it. It's all about the average person."

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Beyond the Bully Pulpit

It should come as no surprise that databases, social networking tools, and IT systems are likely to play a central role in the Obama administration. While new media has enormous power to help a candidate get elected, it also wields influence as a tool for operating a more efficient and transparent governmentand advancing a political agenda. Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, made it clear that the Internet and technology will play a prominent role in government when he recently stated, "We'll continue to have a conversation with [the public]."

In fact, by converting the existing campaign database into a private database, the president would have a powerful link to his constituency. Some, like Trippi, believe that President Obama could eventually cultivate 20 to 30 million people and make the database a central tool for communicating with the public. His staff could conduct polls, solicit ideas and opinions, and hold online town hall meetings.

The upshot? Instead of addressing the public on the radio for only a few minutes every Saturday, a two-way discourse could ensue. At press conferences, "questions could come directly from citizens," Trippi says. What's more, online groups could discuss key issues and policies and provide immediate feedback. "The president will have the ability to bypass Congress and appeal directly to citizens in a way that has never before been possible," Sifry explains. At the same time, however, citizens will have the ability to make their voices heard and petition for change.

Transparency will likely emerge as a key issue as well. Already, the Obama administration is exploring the possibility of putting lobbyist and campaign filings online, creating public/private communities to help streamline environmental reviews, and providing an opportunity for citizens to comment online about pending legislation. The administration's Change.gov site has already invited the American public to offer suggestions and comments on healthcare reform. More than 3,000 people had reportedly contributed ideas during the first month the site was live.

Make no mistake, the full power of the technology is becoming apparent. By creating persistent identities for online usersa single real identity that a person uses onlineit is possible to take government to a new level. "You begin building the foundation for a robust community where there is participation; you begin to tap into the power of social networking," Sifry explains. "Once you have a system like this in place and someone enters a comment, it's possible to notify that individual the next time a healthcare bill or education bill comes up. It's also possible to poll the person and ask for additional information and ideas. It creates a whole new world of interaction."

Yet, it's clear that a new era is unfolding. As campaigns and government become more familiar with digital tools and the technology advances, the face of politics will continue to change. Kapor believes that sophisticated analytics will help guide decisions and provide tools for more advanced clickstream and data analysis. At the same time, new tools will emerge. "Most social networking tools, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, either didn't exist or weren't a factor four years ago," he says. "It's impossible to imagine what will be available by the next election cycle."

The way Sifry sees it, there's no turning back. "We're going to see the Internet and information technology play a far more prominent role in politics and government moving forward," he concludes. "Political parties, advocacy groups, and others are looking at the technology and understanding that they have to use it to make an impact. It is now a major force in politics."

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Author

Samuel Greengard is an author and freelance writer based in West Linn, OR.

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Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1461928.1461935

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Figures

UF1Figure. Barak Obama's Web site enabled his presidential campaign to communicate directly with supporters, launch canvassing and get-out-the-vote campaigns, and raise millions of dollars.

UF2Figure. With this iPhone application, Obama supporters could organize and prioritize their contacts by key battleground states.

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