Obama transforms Web-based politics

President-elect Barack Obama showed other politicians how to harness the power of the Web in 2008, bringing political campaigns kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Obama went beyond the somewhat static Web pages of most past campaigns, by tapping the power of Web 2.0 tools including Facebook, YouTube, blogs and discussion boards, to create a conversation with potential voters. Republican opponent John McCain used some of the same strategies, but many Internet experts saw the Obama campaign as the ultimate example of a politician embracing the Web.

"Obama's campaign created the textbook of how to do online campaigning," said Alexis Rice, creator of CampaignsOnline.org and a fellow at the Center for the Study of American Government at Johns Hopkins University. "Every campaign, from now on -- Republican, Democrat, independent, local level, national level, state level, will look to the Obama campaign as a model of how to do it right."

Some dissenters say that McCain and fellow Republicans made use of many of the same social-networking tools, but Obama may have gotten more credit because young voters attracted to him were predisposed to using Web 2.0 applications.

Others suggested that Obama's use of Web tools during the campaign may have been groundbreaking for politics, but his campaign made use of Internet tools that have largely been around for years.

"I am actually rather annoyed with the rosy press that the Obama campaign's technology use has gotten so far, because it is vastly underselling the full potential of Web technology for the federal government," Chris Townsend, an innovation management analyst at Forrester Research, said in an e-mail.

"Thus far, Obama's superb use of social technologies has been limited to marketing uses. But to really make an impact as a leader (rather than a campaigner), it is absolutely critical that Obama extends his use of the Web into operations."

Obama has talked more about innovation policy than creating an innovative government, Townsend added.

Still, the Obama campaign used a variety of Web tools to interact with potential voters. The campaign sent out announcements and alerts through Twitter and text messages. Blogs on the campaign's Web site encouraged debate. Obama's people posted dozens of videos on YouTube, with viewers able to comment on them.

Then there was the online fundraising. Obama raised close to US$750 million during his campaign, with more than $500 million raised online. Obama's campaign sent e-mail messages asking for donations as small as $5, and the average online donation was around $80, according to news reports.

The next step, as Townsend and others said, is for Obama to use Web 2.0 tools to transform government, not just campaigns. That's a more difficult proposition, several Web experts said.

Many U.S. agencies don't have the resources or the ambition to open up a two-way conversation with constituents, said Maura Corbett, a partner in Qorvis Communications, a Washington, D.C., public relations agency with several tech clients. The Obama administration "can't empower citizens to participate if their own agencies don't," she said. "That's the harder job. You can have the best plan for open government and communication, but most federal agencies don't have the tools to do it."

In addition, campaigns are exciting, but day-to-day government can be tedious, Corbett noted.

"In a campaign, Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and that kind of stuff is really fun and exciting," she said. "Doing it for the process of government is incredibly boring. You're going to use all these 21st-century, cutting edge, social-networking tools to watch sausage being made.

"It's very hard to make tax policy Twitter-able."

Many early attempts at crowd-sourcing -- using large groups of people to drive ideas forward -- saw crowds disappear quickly, said Forrester's Townsend. "You get these huge waves of participation, but it's not sticky," he said. "Attrition is a huge problem."

Participants at a Google event on Web 2.0 and e-government in mid-December pointed to several potential challenges with moving Obama's Web philosophy into government. The group of people participating in any online discussions will be self-selected and may not represent the public at large, one audience member said. Another questioned whether President Obama would use the Web as anything more than a one-way marketing tool.

Several critics have voiced questions about how Obama's team will sift through what could potentially be a flood of comments and ideas from people posting online. Government adopt of participatory Web tools could create a lot of "white noise," said Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology, a tech trade group.

Obama will have to transform the way he communicates on the Web, Corbett acknowledged. "Every communication from a president is a press release," she said. "It's not going to be, 'Hey, how are you? What'd you do this weekend.' And some people are going to expect that. There's a formality, and a necessary formality, in that office. Social networking makes everything so causal."

But Corbett and Johns Hopkins' Rice both suggested there are many potential benefits to creating a more participatory democracy. Voters could better learn how government works, and they could give the Obama administration good ideas, they said. Obama could use social-networking tools to advocate outside the government, such as calling for people to give money to relief organizations after a natural disaster, Rice said.

"I think the opportunities are endless, and it'll be very interesting to look at this a year from now to see how Obama has changed e-advocacy and e-communications," Rice said. "I think there's going to be much more, 'We want to know what you think.'"

Members of the Obama transition team have largely been silent about their plans for using Web 2.0 tools in government. Two members of the Obama team declined to be interviewed, and several e-mail messages to the Obama organization went unanswered.

Still, the Obama team has already given clues about how it will use Web tools during his time in office. The team has talked about universal broadband availability as a way to create "universal community."

The transition team has used e-mail to recruit participants in "change is coming" house meetings in mid-December. Tom Daschle, Obama's nominee for secretary of health and human services, has recruiting participants for health-care forums through Obama's Change.gov and My.BarackObama.com.

Obama has put weekly speeches on YouTube, and his campaign is using Google's Moderator tool to bubble up the most popular questions on a section of the Change.gov site called Open for Questions.

Obama could continue to use his supporters to push for change in government, said David Erickson, director of e-strategy at Tunheim Partners, a Minneapolis public relations firm. Obama could motivate supporters to push Congress to pass legislation, for example.

"It is clear that the Obama campaign is setting the table for grassroots support for his administration's agenda and legislation," Erickson said. "By opening up the transition process and giving any American a serious chance to share their thoughts on policy and make recommendations through Change.gov, Obama is investing those people with his agenda."

The Obama campaign collected millions of e-mail addresses from supporters, added Rice, from Johns Hopkins University. "You usually hear advocacy groups saying, 'Call your senator, call your congressman,'" she said. "Now you have a president with the power of advocacy. Obama's agenda has an activist base to it, which is something a president really hasn't had."

The Obama campaign has also continued to update supporters through social-networking sites, Erickson said. The Obama team has continued to communicate to supporters in informal, conversational tones, instead of broadcast tones, he said.

"I would not be surprised if he pushed for Congress to require that all legislation be published to a wiki where any American could comment: open source legislation," Erickson added. "Imagine that, crowd-sourcing our laws."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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