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Seven Things about Online Politics We Can Learn from Barack Obama and the 2008 Primary Season

BY Colin Delany | Sunday, June 22 2008

Cross-posted on e.politics

The primaries are dead; long live the primaries! Before we plunge into the inevitable frenzy of the Fall campaign season, let's take a few minutes to draw some conclusions about the world of online politics from the candidates' experiences in the race so far.

1. We're in a social media world, whether you like it or not.

Before we crown Barack Obama the King of internet Politics, let's ask him how he feels about all those Reverend Wright YouTube clips scattered at the base of his throne. Sure, the Democratic nominee-to-be benefited from the 'net in significant and almost certainly decisive ways, but he also got kicked around plenty online. Just about every candidate suffered similarly, from the anti-Hillary "1984" ad and the John Edwards haircut video to that great footage of Rudy Giuliani in a dress. By feeding true believers a steady diet of similar red meat, blogs and online discussion sites helped to spread these and other less-than-flattering tidbits far and wide, with the most "successful" ending up in endless rotation on cable news. Of course, for every "1984" video, someone created a "Yes We Can" — the double-edged sword of social media.

The message is that candidates don't control the discussion and neither do traditional media gatekeepers — both are competing with an army of amateurs. And with tens of millions of monkeys banging away on keyboards, it doesn't take long for some true gems to float to the surface of the resulting sea of schlock. The trick for campaigns is to make it as easy as possible for online supporters to make a candidate or cause's case in whatever online (and real-world) channels they use, while realizing that there's always a chance that a candidate can be blindsided by a citizen creation (or inopportune supporter comment) and thrown off-message for days.

2. Video may be killer, but behind-the-scenes email is poison.

At least, if you're Barack Obama and if that email is accusing you of being a muslim manchurian candidate. Video may have emerged as a powerfully persuasive online communications channel (not surprising considering the effectiveness of television), but don't overlook the staying power of certain first-generation online tools, namely email. Email has helped candidates engage supporters and raise tons of money, and it's been absolutely key in the process of mobilizing volunteers and voters. But it's also sometimes been a river filled with boatloads of lies and distortion. Fighting the viral emails and the whisper campaigns has taken more time and resources than Obama would like, and it's still unclear how many votes they'll sway in the end.

3. Guess what: the internet can be a massive cash machine.

If there's one thing that political professionals have paid attention to in 2008, it's online fundraising. Money is a language these guys know how to speak, and when you start raising $60 million in a month, they start to notice. The really critical factor is how replicable online fundraising success seems to be. I.e., it's not just Obama, since Hillary Clinton also raised sizable amounts online this season, as did Ron Paul. And once he sealed the Republican nomination, even John McCain started bringing in sums that in any other year would be more than respectable. Easy fundraising sites like ActBlue and Slatecard promise to extend online donations to candidates up and down the ladder, a phenomenon already common in the world of online advocacy — nonprofits of all sizes maintain email lists and social networking presences in order to raise money online.

4. Speaking of, online social networks are potent tools, but "walled gardens" are a more risky proposition.

Facebook and MySpace have been critical tools this political season, particularly for campus and other local organizers and as an email replacement. Interestingly, social media sites so far don't seem to have been as effective as mass communications tools as some predicted — they generally seem to work best one-to-one or one-to-a-few. Once again, the onus is on campaigns to arm their supporters with the tools they need to persuade and motivate in the public social networking space, though campaigns can also create their own networks, so-called "walled garden" social sites.

Some analyses have pointed to the MyBarackObama feature as playing a role in Obama's success, and it's certainly true that hundreds of thousands of his supporters have created profiles in his campaign-centered network. I'd be curious to see how much more likely MyBarackObama members were to donate or to volunteer, particularly compared to email list members, numbers that should creep out eventually. But don't forget that this season we've also seen evidence that custom social networks aren't guaranteed to succeed: witness the quick implosion of John McCain's original edition early in 2007 (critical mass is critical indeed!).

5. In any case, how you keep in touch is less important than THAT you keep in touch.

Email vs. social networks as an organizing tool? Who cares! Use whatever works in a given situation — just stay in touch. Email, Facebook, MySpace, RSS widgets, Twitter, blogs, text messages and YouTube all have their places, along with plenty of others I can't remember right now. What matters is that campaigns and organizations actively stay in touch with their supporters to build relationships over time.

Once you're communicating, the next mission is to get people motivated to act, either in the real world or online. As of now, Obama-style integrated communications/volunteer-management is relatively rare, but some CRM (customer/constituent/contact-relations management) systems are beginning to incorporate multiple-channel features, and these should become increasingly common over the next election cycle or two.

6. As for the results, can you say, cult of personali-tay?

Okay, bad joke but serious idea. One thing that's absolutely fascinated me over the past year or so has been the internet's role in the growth of standalone political followings. From Ron Paul to MoveOn to DailyKos, certain people and certain groups are using the 'net to draw supporters together and keep them mobilized and active, often long after the campaign they originally joined to help is over. These movements have broadcast-world counterparts — Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Jon Stewart, Lou Dobbs — but the 'net allows both consumers both action AND absorption, since a follower can DO something to help MoveOn or their candidate of choice rather than just listen and watch. Interaction builds loyalty — and staying power.

Still, most online followings will fade over time, just as any email activist list gradually dies off without an influx of new activists, but some (like MoveOn) will settle into being semi-permanent parts of the landscape. For an example of the longer-term effects, let's say that Obama wins the presidency and serves a term or two. After that, will his personal fan base (maintained and solidified online) lend him a disproportionate voice in the politics of the following decades? "Like Mussolini, and Kennedy/I'm the cult of personality."

What's really fun is when one online cult leader runs head-on into another, as when Obama went around the top-level bloggers to pick off their readers directly this season. Disintermediating the would-be disintermediators!

7. The final lesson: the internet CAN really matter, but it doesn't ALWAYS really matter — yet.

I agree with Mike Cornfield and Sarah Lai Stirland that without the internet, it's very unlikely Barack Obama would be the Democratic nominee. But it's also true that without the internet, John McCain almost certainly would be the Republican nominee — if the internet so overpowered other political considerations, Ron Paul ought to be standing in his place. The 'net IS key to modern politics, if only because it's so often the primary way of moving news and opinion these days. But it still isn't the ONLY key, and it may never be — at least, not until we all have wifi chips implanted in our brains and join the hive-mind. Which at this rate should be just in time for the 2020 primary season...scheduled to begin early in 2016.

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