This morning, Pew released summary findings from their ongoing study of the Internet and the 2008 election. Alan Rosenblatt’s written them up for techPresident. In the context of Obama’s recent victory in the 2008 primary, I thought I might revisit some of my previous thinking on Obama and the internet.
There seems to be consensus that Obama is the internet’s candidate. Pew’s findings confirm this, as do countless anecdotes about Obama’s internet prowess. When thinking about technology and campaigns, we have to think about directionality. The common assumption is that technology generates awareness; i.e. campaigns should create technologies to market a candidate. This internet-centric view affirms the value of the internet as a game-changer, in which a candidate can win because of the internet.
The opposing view casts the internet as a harness; rather than generating interest online, interest is generated in many spaces, and internet technologies exist to harness the interest. Instead of looking as a technology as an end, technology becomes one of thousands of means through which interest, communication and money is funneled. I’ll argue that this model, as opposed to the game-changing model, is the model of Obama 2008 and successful future candidacies.
Candidates are brands. This was never more clear to me than the years between 2000 and 2006, where “W” and Bush/Cheney bumper stickers proliferated. Affixing that bumper sticker was a signal of class, status and ideological affiliation – that one could “afford” to support Bush, and all that Bush’s brand embodies. With all due respect to the other candidates, Obama has emerged as the brand of 2008. His message, youth and pan-cultural appeal have created a perfect storm, and now he’s bigger than Apple, Google, Nike and Vitamin Water all put together.
So lets get back to technology and directionality. In January I wrote a piece for TP called Social Networks and Youth Voter Activation. Rejecting the game-changer model, I argued that social networks act as harnesses for activated interest. If you’ve got a population that is activated by a brand, they’ll turn to the information tools at hand to further that interest – through information seeking, friend-finding, volunteering, donating, etc. Therefore, the first part of Obama’s success wasn’t the tools he developed, but rather the tools that were at hand, that we all knew how to use – Facebook, YouTube, etc.
Tools are only part of the equation – they only provide a venue for communication. In The Social Filter, we see how communicative norms have changed around the technology, to allow all of us to become “personal marketers” to one another. Yes, I hate the idea of personal marketing, but the fact is when you send a YouTube link, invite someone to a Facebook group, broadcast a Twitter of support – you’re marketing to your networks. This is very low level, contextually-appropriate marketing (and if you’re like the 95% of the homophile us, your friends share your interests), but it is marketing nonetheless. Such marketing builds a cycle of activation, one that drives interest back into toolsets, marketing to personal networks, and so on.
This is not to say that Obama hasn’t developed cool tools. I’m sure he has. But I’ve used his creaky social network, and I can guarantee you that Obama’s success online has nothing to do with the tools he’s developed, and everything to do with the tools we already use. These tools of social interaction provide spaces for communication, spaces into which we share our messages, contest our beliefs, and negotiate our candidate of choice. That Obama’s demographic is very clearly the users of these tools, that he has creative types working for him, that he isn’t fighting peer-production only makes this cycle more successful.
Obama’s is the model of successful internet campaigning. Supporters must be activated, they must use the tools they know and understand, and the campaign has to take its hands off. This formula has created a cycle of activation, one that will continue to grow through the general election and thereafter.