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The FISA Protest and myBO: Can We Talk? Can They Listen?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, July 3 2008

The online mini-rising to protest Barack Obama's support for the Congressional compromise to renew the FISA legislation has been getting a lot of attention, with much being made (by us and plenty of others, including Ari Melber in the Nation, The New York Times, et al) that activists are using Obama's own social networking platform, my.BarackObama.com, to organize and channel their efforts to get him to alter his stand. Indeed, as of today the Senator Obama - Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity - Get FISA Right group has swelled to more than 14,000 members, which makes it the single largest self-organized group on the whole platform, which reportedly has close to a million registered members.

This is certainly a good example of what thinkers like Clay Shirky and Mark Pesce have been talking about, when it comes to "ridiculously easy group formation" (qua Shirky) and how "Hyperconnectivity begets hypermimesis begets hyperempowerment" (qua Pesce). But right now the main reason this development is important is NOT because the group itself is that powerful; it's because attention-amplifiers in the blogosphere and the MSM are covering the story and thus threatening some of Obama's hard-won image as a change agent, which could conceivably weaken his vaunted fundraising and organizing machine. So while the Obama campaign is keeping a poker face about the importance of some of its members using the master's tools to challenge his position, it is no doubt paying attention, too.

The fact is, we're all entering completely new territory here. There have always been efforts to influence political candidates to take or change positions during a campaign (or afterward), but we've never before had a national campaign create an open platform for mobilizing supporters AND THEN seen a salient chunk of those supporters openly use that platform to challenge the candidate on a policy position. Indeed, while the net is inherently a two-way, many-to-many medium, no politician has yet used it to listen to his supporters as a group. Yes, the Obama campaign has asked its supporters to share their stories about their health care woes, and some of those anecdotes have made it into the campaign's blog or policy papers. But we have no norms for a collective, public discussion--even though we now have the capacity for one.

Zephyr Teachout has made the point here at techPresident that none of the campaigns have used the web, yet, to share power with their supporters--the most they've been willing to do is share tasks (like phonebanking or door-knocking). This FISA protest raises the question of power head-on: What were the arguments inside Senator Obama's policy circle over accepting or rejecting the congressional compromise bill? Who gets the candidate's ear? How did they get that access? The FISA fight also should force net-activists to ponder some questions too. How would you like to have input on the policy-making process? If you want a candidate to listen to you, what measure of standing should make your voice(s) relevant? Sheer numbers? Total donations? Your ability to make a lot of noise?

The hubbub over the FISA protest also raises another issue worth discussing as we ponder the future. Is myBO really such an amazing organizing platform? Yes, anyone can join and instantly get the ability to create their own blog, start or join groups, start or sign up for events, create your own fundraising effort, and connect with friends. The site also awards users points for all kinds of activities, creating a bit of a virtuous competition to do more with it. The "My Neighborhood" button is a nifty way to see people and events in your immediate vicinity. And the Obama campaign clearly has its eye on the most important things it needs to win in November: getting supporters to focus their energies on things like raising money, bringing in more supporters, phone-banking, door-knocking, and getting out the vote--as its "grassroots action guide" makes crystal clear.

But while myBO does make it easy to start a group online, it doesn't make it easy to grow it. You can't launch a group by inputting a bunch of email addresses into it, the way you can with a Google group, for example, which will automatically treat those people as members whether they like it or not. (One reason the campaign may have chosen this restriction is to insure that its email list, which includes everyone who joins myBO, is fully opt-in and thus doesn't get blacklisted by spam-blockers.) You can reach out and try to "friend" other people on the site, but you can't message someone directly unless you already have their email address. First they have to accept you as a friend.

Unlike Facebook, when you join a group or post something to your blog, on myBO your friends don't get an update unless they decide to visit your home page, another drag on the spread of messages internally. In reverse, this means that if you're the organizer of a group on myBO, you don't get a notification every time someone new joins. You can join a group and message everyone on the group's list-serve, but we all know how clunky list-serves can be for managing large group conversations. (Indeed, I just got on the FISA protest group two days ago and this morning I received a digest from it containing 464 messages, all from the last 24 hours!)

Limitations like these have led Obama activists to go elsewhere to do some of their organizing, or to build hybrid efforts that live partially on myBO and partially elsewhere online. For example, the FISA protest group on myBO has also created a Facebook group, in part because the newsfeed feature on Facebook is very good at spreading information across the social graph quickly. Or, as they say in their FAQ on their outside wiki site: "Facebook groups can grow very quickly, and it can be a great 'feeder' to the group on myBO.") Likewise, several hundred Obama supporters who are fans of Al Giordano's blog The Field have set up shop on the meta-social-network site Ning, rather than nesting on myBO.

I asked a couple of people for their opinion of myBO's tool set and got some interesting responses back. Mike Stark, one of the two administrators of the FISA group all in the news at the moment, said:
"My personal opinion is that the MYBO tools are pretty archaic. So far as I know, as moderator of the group, I've got no way of setting messaging defaults for new members, the blog is bare-bones, there's no IM capability, most people don't complete profiles (which is a debatable benefit - by not requiring a lengthy registration process, more people sign up for the site), and networking does seem to be 'a process'."

Another person who is a web developer and organizer said: "The lateral tools on myBO stink." In particular, this person added, the friend-finder tool is "definitely a generation or two behind compared to what LinkedIn or Facebook are offering." Also, this person noted, "Since the system doesn't handle multiple friend requests very elegantly, people may have had issues getting swamped with requests. And it doesn't seem to have any concept of a friend-activity aggregating feed, which maybe isn't so surprising since that's a decent chunk of engineering and really Facebook's key innovation."

Why dwell in such detail on the structure and functionalities of myBO? Well, as Lawrence Lessig wrote, "code is law." The structure of the conversation and organizing enabled on myBO could well be the prototype for whatever successor platform a President Obama uses to help him govern. By default, myBO is the place where millions of Obama supporters are most likely to cross paths online (you can go elsewhere online, of course, but this is the place with the most self-selected Obama supporters, by definition). There's a lot of power to be tapped here. How it is used, who gets to do what, and who listens to whom, are questions that will matter a great deal going forward.