Monday, November 24, 2008

Mr. Obama Goes to Washington

A while back, TechCrunch ran an intriguing article on Obama's use of social media and its possible implications for what could be a game-changing presidency:
Is Obama Ready To Be a Two-Way President?
The article poses a what-if question: what if Obama, rather than simply using services like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to broadcast to voters, actually allowed people like you and me to communicate with him by the same means?
"If Obama dedicates a team aside from the outbound crew that "pushes" content through social channels in order to strategically reach, listen to, and embrace the 46% who voted against him, he might be able to run a truly democratic term. It could also curtail the necessity to campaign as much while in office in order to focus on the issues we elected him to fix."
The author (Brian Solis) proposes that Obama should use sites like to really open up the communications between President and constituent, going so far as to solicit policy suggestions from individual visitors and allow the community to vote these ideas up and down.

It's a powerful idea. Anyone who has lived through more than one presidential election is familiar with the process of candidates struggling to appear like men (or women) of the people while on campaign, only then to disappear behind closed doors in Washington once the election is won. The idea that Obama would set a new trend in which high elected representatives would remain in touch with the man on the street is a powerful evocation of the American political myth, as if it were a scene from an updated version of "Mister Smith Goes to Washington." The manager in me can't resist pointing out some parts of the idea that seem unrealistic -- does a sitting president really have the time to regularly record podcasts and engage in live exchanges with voters via the Web? Does the mystique of the presidency allow for candid, behind-the-scenes webcasts? -- but I can't deny the basic appeal of the idea.

I'd like to believe it can happen, too, but then I also read Newsweek's issue on the campaign. The "How He Did It" series of articles is an excellent account of the candidates and their campaign staffs, and I came away disappointed in how little I heard of Obama's social-networking efforts. They were mentioned -- Obama's digital team gets about three-fourths of a page in one of the articles -- but those mentions did not convey a sense that the Web was viewed as particularly important by the people running the campaign. Having read those articles, I now know more about David Axelrod's taste in soft drinks than I do about the campaigns' core digital strategy. Of course, there's a chance that old-school reporters simply don't understand what is happening right in front of them, but you have to ask: if social media were really that important to the Obama campaign, if the campaign's managers valued their digital strategy all that highly, would that not have eventually become apparent to the people who followed that campaign for months at a time?

I don't doubt that the Internet changed American politics for good this time out. If there's one thing politicians understand, it's money, and Obama outspent his opponent three-to-one on the basis of small contributions from individual donors. That's a game-changer right there, and every serious presidential candidate in the next campaign will reach out to web properties in an attempt to duplicate Obama's success. Crowd-sourcing the American government, though, is a much more radical step, one which raises very serious questions about practicality and proper implementation. It is also one which we have as of yet no reason to think that Obama will embrace.

I appreciate the passion of the TechCrunch piece -- and "passion" is a word I'd like to apply to TechCrunch more often -- but it describes a dream, not a reality. I look forward to seeing that dream represented in the updated "Mr. Smith" -- starring Wil Smith, no doubt, and coming soon to a theater near you.