Monday, November 10, 2008

Politics 2.0

There was an interesting article in the NYT this weekend on how Obama used social networking in his drive to the White House:
How Obama Tapped Into Social Networks’ Power
It's not a new story; a number of articles have already appeared about and how it helped foster and sustain the grassroots movement that propelled Obama to victory. For me, the most interesting aspect was the angle on what this victory means going forward. Some people see this as a transformative moment in American politics, when power exited the smoke-filled rooms and returned to the streets.

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.


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.

That's the second edge of this sword: if your campaign is based on citizen empowerment, you can't reasonably expect those citizens to sit back and do as they're told for the next four years. Obama's supporters feel (with some justification) that they are responsible for his victory, and their rage -- should he prove to be just another politician -- will be something to behold. Do you think that liberal Democrats turned on Clinton? That's nothing compared to what Obama can expect if he appears to sell out the ideas that energized his campaign.

In short, the Internet is a communications medium, not a broadcast medium. Any political campaign that relies extensively on the 'Net will need to treat the resulting representative-voter relationship as a conversation that runs both ways. Anything else will be seen as a hypocritical betrayal of the ideal.

Some go farther still, venturing on to a rather utopian viewpoint:

“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."

To me this smacks of irrational exuberance -- similar in a way to the pronouncements we heard during the first Internet bubble, when the old rules of business were allegedly being swept away for good. I'd expect the same goes for politics. Sure, Obama used social networking to bypass the campaign front runners. There is no doubt that his strength in primary caucuses (as opposed to the other primaries, where Hillary Clinton ran quite successfully) was related directly to the grassroots organization that Obama accomplished in part through Facebook and other social media platforms. Still, it is naive to think of this as the death of party politics; for every one person who voted for Obama because of something s/he saw on YouTube, there were probably ten -- maybe a hundred -- who voted for him because he was the Democratic nominee. Want proof? Ron Paul is another candidate who did a pretty good job of using the Internet to organize supporters, and look how well that campaign turned out.

Things have changed with Obama, but not dramatically. No candidate will ever ignore the Internet again, and hopefully none will (like McCain) casually admit that they don't even use email. Social networking will be an important grassroots organizational tool, but it will take its place alongside other grassroots organizational tools, such as telephones and direct mail. And just as Obama used an intensive (and expensive) television campaign to promote his candidacy, future candidates will use social networking as just one of the weapons in their campaign arsenal.

So I wouldn't be so quick to sound the death-knell of the party system, but this is still a good day for those of us who work with online communities. Our industry has taken a big step towards the media mainstream.