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What Obama's Victory Means for the Social Sector

By Tom Watson on November 7, 20082 Comments

[Cross-posted from onPhilanthropy.com]

In a victory that holds deep lessons for how nonprofit organizations and cause-driven ventures will organize volunteers and build support in the future, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States Tuesday in a near-landslide victory keyed by state-of-the-art social networking and online organizing.

The story of the Obama triumph is a political one to be sure; the campaign used all the traditional methods of organizing party politics, from endorsements and open-air rallies to television advertisements and neighborhood canvassing. It super-charged those traditional methods with the best online strategy ever employed in a national campaign, leveraging a digital toolset that kept supporters constantly in touch with the campaign superstructure. The Obama campaign carefully controlled the overall message and story – but it also made the key decision to free up content, unleash self-organized social networks, and encourage third-party innovations in software, web advocacy, and new media.

But it would be a mistake to view the Obama campaign solely as revolution within the political sphere.

Obama’s victory and the online army of volunteers and supporters that drove it should be viewed as both proof of the vast organizational possibilities of a mature wired network – and an impetus for further investment by nonprofits and social entrepreneurs in connecting people via the CauseWired Internet.

Obama’s online success combined two seemingly opposing core strategies: a tightly-controlled, and well-organized website with simple messaging and the slickest branding of any campaign in history and an architecture for distribution that basically told supporters, “here’s what we’ve got, now show us what you can do with it.” For all the money the Obama campaign spent on media in the 2008 cycle (perhaps the largest total media buy in history), it was that army of digital volunteers that made every dollar spent on branding and communications feel like two or three dollars in actual outreach to real voters. At the center of this effort was a clever platform designed to make even the slightest of supporters feel at home; My.BarackObama.com was a virtual organizing center that combined blogs, outreach groups, virtual volunteering, fundraising and a series of tools designed to give each Obama activist the media or the network needed to recruit other supporters.

From the start, the campaign was agnostic about platforms and the content and organizing tools available on My.BarackObama.com migrated almost anywhere a digital conversation could take place. You could easily take your support for Obama on the virtual road, to your own social networks at Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace, by sharing media Flickr and YouTube, by voting up top stories at Digg.com or by participating in social networks targeted toward various demographic groups, like Eons (Baby Boomers), BlackPlanet (African-Americans), Faithbase (church-goers), AsianAve.com (Asian-Americans), and MiGente.com (Latinos). And everywhere you went, the ubiquitous Obama brand followed, centered on hagiographic photos and a campaign insignia that was one part Tolkien’s “one true ring,” and another part Middle America margarine logo.

On My.BarackObama.com, you could sign up for an Obama campaign event, volunteer to travel to primary states and knock on doors, or make telephone calls with a handy database tool that provided both a script and a valid phone number for each bit of outreach. You could download widgets that broadcast news stories about the Obama campaign or scrolled his biography. You could get campaign text messages on your phone, or even download one of several approved “Obama ring tones.” And every now and then, you’d be asked for money. “We’ve tried to bring two principles to this campaign,” Joe Rospars, Obama’s new media director, told The Atlantic. “One is lowering the barriers to entry and making it as easy as possible for folks who come to our Web site. The other is raising the expectation of what it means to be a supporter. It’s not enough to have a bumper sticker. We want you to give five dollars, make some calls, host an event. If you look at the messages we send to people over time, there’s a presumption that they will organize.”

Joe Trippi, the tech-savvy media consultant who ran the Dean campaign’s online operation, summed up those early efforts: “We were the Wright brothers, we showed you could fly. We barely got off the ground but we got it done.” Scott Heiferman, founder of Meetup.com, put it differently: “The cat is out of the bag. The people have it in their brains that they can organize themselves.”

That thought is at the core of CauseWired political activism. As Republican blogger Alexander Brunk lamented as Obama sealed the Democratic nomination, “their side is full of activists, and ours is full of pundits.” Taking an action was at the core of Democrats’ success online as they evolved from the Dean campaign, to the break-through fundraising and organizing juggernaut of the 2006 Congressional elections, to Barack Obama’s historic campaign for President. The left rode a not-so-subtle shift in demographics and consciously empowered a new generation of supporters to take action, no matter what the platform. “I would venture to say that the reason for [Obama's] continued success,” said new media analyst Tristan Louis, “in the face of any existing model is also based on the realization that he, as a candidate, can make himself available in any media form.”

Yet, political campaigns remain staged demonstrations of media and messaging, massive set pieces with a singular goal: electing a candidate. At the national level, they masquerade as “movements” in this cynic’s view. They’re like Rolling Stones tours – a massive temporary corporation staffed from Keith Richards down to the lowliest laborer, set up to tour the nation and take its money for a set period of time, then breaking it down, packing it up, and moving off the stage for a few years. And while electing a candidate is an important cause in itself to some – especially partisans angry at the other side – the ultimate goal in politics (along with power) is changing policy. Watching the massive social media operations in 2008, with their unprecedented list-building and constituent relations, the obvious question becomes: “what happens now?”

“When one imagines how Obama’s political army, presumably intact, might be mobilized to lobby for major legislation with just a few keystrokes, it becomes possible, for a moment at least, to imagine that he might change the political culture of Washington simply by overwhelming it,” wrote political analyst Marc Ambinder in the Atlantic. “What Obama seems to promise is, at its outer limits, a participatory democracy in which the opportunities for participation have been radically expanded. He proposes creating a public, Google-like database of every federal dollar spent. He aims to post every piece of non-emergency legislation online for five days before he signs it so that Americans can comment. A White House blog—also with comments—would be a near certainty. Overseeing this new apparatus would be a chief technology officer.”

Mark Glaser, who writes the popular MediaShift blog for PBS (and who co-wrote the proto-blog Media Grok for the Industry Standard back in the 1990s with me and Jason Chervokas), developed a list of “open source” ideas for the next President to consider in bringing policy closer to the people. He proposes moderated wikis for major policy initiatives, live online chats to complement press briefings, a transparent schedule, and a Google map of political contributions. But I like his suggestion best: “Create an online community of trusted advisers. Why not tap the wisdom of crowds and invite people with knowledge of critical subjects (energy, Middle East history, religion, etc.) to join up into online communities? These people would have to pass a certain threshold to join and be accepted, but they could give more outside opinions to subjects that are often misunderstood by politicians and political operatives. While lobbyists and special interests might join up, at least the others that join will make it a more level playing field for advice.”

Government itself remains largely another matter, though there are signs of open source improvements. In Great Britain, a movement to open government itself parallels the netroots effort to influence it. My friend and blogging doppelganger Tom Watson, Member of Parliament for West Bromwich East (Birmingham), was appointed in the spring of 2008 by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to the Cabinet Office and given the task of coordinating the transformation of British government in the digital age. In a much-quoted speech in the House of Commons, Watson pointed out that one in ten British citizens have emailed 10 Downing Street. The next step, he said, “is to enable e-petitioners to connect with each other around particular issues and to link up with policy debates both on and off Government webspace.”

Watson neatly encapsulated the coming change in how government deals with information. “The challenge is for elected representatives to follow their customers and electors into this brave new world,” he said. “Five years ago, I set up a political blog. At the time, it was seen as a radical act. People couldn’t believe that I had opened myself up to such scrutiny and occasional daily abuse. But the blog broke down the walls between legislators and electors in a way that interested me. So I persevered. Today I’m no longer a pioneer. There are thousands of political bloggers. And politicians can no longer set to default broadcast mode. They have to engage. Some have said that the Power of Information agenda is a geek manifesto. It’s not. It’s about making people’s lives and their communities better.”

That is undoubtedly true. While there is a temptation among those who track causes and online fundraising to separate political organizing from philanthropy, I think that’s a mistake – it’s wishing for a division that the audience simply won’t tolerate going forward. It’s like hoping that a print classified operation will continue to grow during the age of Craigslist. Young people don’t separate their causes into neat little boxes labeled politics and charity. They simply respond to what moves them, what their friends recommend, what they believe might change the world. This article cannot possibly capture the massive changes in politics that information technology has wrought, but it’s important to include a sense of just how quickly the landscape is changing; it’s no accident that my nonprofit clients are asking about websites like Barack Obama’s. The order is rapidly fading.

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