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The Medium is the Text Message

BY Andrew Rasiej | Wednesday, August 27 2008

Just like 3 million other Americans, I signed up for the Barack Obama campaign's now famous VP announcement text message. But once I received it, albeit at 3AM, what caught my attention was not the Senator's selection of Joe Biden but rather a confirmation that the worlds of technology, media, and politics were merging even faster than I had previously thought. At the end of the short 160 character message was an invitation to watch the Democratic candidates first joint appearance together, “Watch the first Obama-Biden rally live at 3PM ET” not on CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, or C-Span but “on www.BarackObama.com”

Those who have been following the Obama campaign's use of technology in detail, already know that their adoption of YouTube, blogs, and social networks like Facebook and MySpace, not to mention even micro-blogging sites like Twitter, has allowed the campaign to not only mine the culture of the internet to raise large sums of money in small donations, but to also build what will be the largest political base of supporters ever.

However, with almost 50 percent of American's now getting their political news online and with over 60 percent of American homes connected to broadband, the Obama campaign is shrewdly using this new infrastructure to literally leapfrog the main stream media and deliver their message to their supporters and potential supporters directly. And with each opportunity to connect, comes yet another opportunity to raise money, engage the audience in the process, and build up that base even further. By not being constrained by the main stream media's need to fit sound bites into their limited and scarce publication and broadcast models, the Obama campaign is also able to take advantage of the limitless and abundant model of using the Internet to get their message out in its complete form.

Let me explain why this is represents a revolutionary shift in our country's political media ecology. A significant way political opinion is formed is by people talking to each other and sharing their insights, preferences, and yes even their prejudices about the candidates, the parties, and their policies. These conversations happen over the back fence, around dining tables in homes and restaurants, water coolers at the office, over counters in coffee shops and bars, in VFW halls, supermarkets, and playgrounds. In this respect 2008 is no different than any other election year. However, in 2008 the Internet, with its growing ubiquity, and the many tools it provides to ordinary citizens, has in effect put many of those analog political conversations on digital steroids.

My 81 year old Dad, a self taught computer user, who barely knows how to enter more than one e mail address at a time, is e mailing his closest 50 friends and acquaintances links to Barack Obama videos on You Tube with a personal recommendation to "Watch this". In previous elections it might have taken my Dad over a year to have contact with those same 50 friends, with no guarantee that a political discussions would even come up. We may not know if any of my Dad's 50 friends were influenced enough by his note to support the candidate, but we do know that they are certainly watching the video.

A little know fact about YouTube is that video doesn't get counted as a "view" unless its been watched all the way through. Barack Obama's 37 minute speech on the subject of race has been seen over 5 million times on YouTube alone, not to mention all the other places one might find it online. There are a great many people more adept than my Dad using email, blogs, and social networks reaching their friends spreading this media and other media produced by Obama. What makes this even more remarkable is that it costs the Obama campaign virtually nothing to take advantage of this dynamic. The Obama organization is many ways as much a 21st Century media operation as it is a political campaign.

To understand how much the political news ecosystem has really changed, one doesn't need to look much further than compare how media will be used differently at the upcoming Democratic Party Convention. In 1992, to see the documentary "The Man from Hope" which glowingly tried to introduce Bill Clinton to the American public in advance of the general election, you either had to attend the convention, or see it on one of the network broadcasts that showed it live as it was playing in Madison Square Garden. Otherwise, like most people, you read a synopsis of it in the newspaper, or saw clips of it on network news programs. This year, a documentary about Barack Obama made by Davis Guggenheim, the director of "The Inconvenient Truth", will also be shown at the Democratic convention, but thanks to the Internet will likely be seem by far more people than those in the hall or watching on TV and therefore may have a much larger impact on the election. Soon after its debut, tens of thousands or more of Obama supporters will e mail, Twitter, blog, and text messages links to the video on BarackObama.com to their friends and acquaintances extolling them to "watch it" and to spread it even further. The Internet has become the TIVO of our time.

Barack Obama may or may not win the election because of his use of technology, but his campaign's impact on the way elections will be organized and run will be felt for decades to come. With every click of the mouse, the use of the Internet in its various forms of online videos, blogs, e mails, social networks, and now text messaging, are redefining political power, upending the role of the traditional press, and changing the very nature of democracy itself.