In the back of a Barack Obama staff vehicle— one of several in a caravan of American made SUVs and vans leaving a rowdy, wet outdoor rally in Fredericksburg, Virginia— a video−editing team works feverishly to splice together multiple camera angles and audio from the event. By the morning, their remarkably glossy video of Obama’s stump speech from the night before has been posted on barackobama.com and youtube.com, to be further disseminated on countless blogs and websites over the course of the next few days.
Having just joined the Campaign for Change team in Northern Virginia as a full−time volunteer two weeks ago, I’ve become increasingly aware of how the internet is rapidly changing and reshaping the way campaigns are run. Picking up where Howard Dean’s technologically innovative 2004 campaign left off, Obama’s team has constructed a powerful, efficient, and remarkably inclusive grass roots organizing and fund raising tool. Bridging the gap between social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook and a sharp “real world” community-organizing component, my.barackobama.com boasts over one million members and has raked in 70% of all monetary donations to the Obama campaign.
The Facebook comparison is no coincidence. My.barackobama.com was developed by Chris Hughs, one of the students on the Harvard team that designed and developed Facebook in 2004. Through Hughs’s leadership, the use of social networking technology in politics has leapt from the Wright Brothers to Apollo 11 in just four years, to paraphrase Howard Dean’s tech tsar, Joe Trippi. All of the evolutionary steps between have essentially and perhaps irreverently, been skipped.
Many have argued that the innovative use of technology by a political campaign must work in concert with the established values, culture and identity being promoted by that campaign. "You can have the best technology in the world, but if you don’t have a community who wants to use it and who are excited about it, then it has no purpose,” says Hughs. After the New York Times published an article in July quoting a Mashable editor as saying that McCainSpace— McCain’s social networking tool— was "virtually impossible to use and appears largely abandoned," the McCain camp wisely reacted to the need for a flexible, dynamic and organized social networking component to their website by hiring blog consultants to rebuild the function from the ground up.
As their engaged and competitive online presence suggests, both candidates have recognized the vast potential for economic, technological, and educational advancement offered by the internet. In essence, John McCain and Barack Obama hold similar notions of what the internet should be. Where they differ is on how best to achieve this goal. McCain, echoing his general economic stance, thinks that like the market, the internet is best left to self-regulate and should not be tampered with by the federal government. “John McCain does not believe in prescriptive regulation like “net neutrality”, but rather he believes that an open marketplace with a variety of consumer choices is the best deterrent against unfair practices,” declares a statement on johnmccain.com. It’s difficult to argue with the laudable goals he sets forth; it's getting there that's up for discussion.
Obama has a slightly broader reach, showing focus and sensitivity on the democratizing potential of shared media and communication in addition to web-based market and commerce. Following a statement that reads much like McCain’s, albeit in favor of net neutrality— the regulation of broadband connections to ensure equal access— Obama goes into some detail on what he sees as an almost anti-democratic consolidation of power among media purveyors. He states states that “the nation’s rules ensuring diversity of media ownership are critical to the public interest,“ before bemoaning the fact that the FCC has, over the past several years, valued consolidation over diversity— a position Obama would purportedly challenge as president.
In fewer than five weeks, we’ll have all the time in the world to further scrutinize the various nuances and idiosyncrasies of the winning candidate’s technology platform. Today, the Obama campaign offices are less concerned with minute policy details than they are with facilitating the transition from data bases full of personal information to folks on the ground volunteering. From the glossy field boxes and drop down menus of MyBo.com to real people knocking on doors and making phone calls.
Because of the presence of internet and cell phone technology, field organizers are hoping volunteers will be able to knock on 300,000 doors in Virginia this weekend. Utilizing carefully culled lists of likely undecided, independent, and inconsistent voters and their addresses, organizers spend many hours each week printing off maps of “turf” that has been painstakingly “cut” (using internet mapping) into clusters of no more than 60 residences— about the number that a pair of experienced canvassers can “hit” in a comfortable two-hour session.
As voting day draws draws nearer, the news and polls often seem remote and abstract in the midst of everything else going on— the immediate concern is that canvassers have driving directions to their designated neighborhoods and Google maps clearly indicating a logical path to the doorsteps of the voters targeted in their packets. If this race follows the last two and comes right down to the line, as it is likely to, the number of contacts made could be the deciding factor. Tellingly, there’s a sign on the door in the Obama Camp’s Fredericksburg office that gravely asks the reader,“On November 4, will you have done everything that you could have?”
The historical significance of the technological advances seen in this campaign season will likely pale in comparison to the history made by the new occupant of the White House. Yet it seems all but certain that this election cycle will be cited for years to come as the one that finally launched American politics into the digital age.
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