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  • How ObamaReally Did ItSOCIAL TECHNOLOGY HELPED BRINGHIM TO THE BRINK OF THE PRESIDENCY

    By DAVID TALBOT

    oeTrippi, Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign man-ager and Internet impresario, describes Super Tuesday II-the March 4 primaries in Texas, Ohio, Vermont, and RhodeIsland-as the moment Barack Obama used social tech-

    nology to decisive effect. The day's largest hoard of delegates wouldbe contested in Texas, where a strong showing would requireexceptional discipline and voter-education efforts. In Texas, Dem-ocrats vote first at the polls and then, if they choose, again at cau-cuses after the polls close. The caucuses award one-third of theDemocratic delegates.

    Hillary Clinton's camp had about 20,000 volunteers at work inTexas. But in an e-mail, Trippi learned that I04,Ooo Texans hadjoined Obama's social-networkingsite, www.my.barackobama.com,known as MyBO. MyBO and the main Obama site had alreadylogged their share of achievements, particularly in helping rakein cash. The month before, the freshman senator from Illinoishad set a record in American politics by garnering $55 million indonations in a single month. In Texas, MyBO also gave the Obamateam the instant capacity to wage fully networked campaign war-fare. After seeing the volunteer numbers, Trippi says,"I remembersaying, 'Game, match-it's over.'"

    The Obama campaign could get marching orders to the Texansregistered with MyBO with minimal effort. The MyBO databasescould slice and dice lists of volunteers by geographic microregionand pair people with appropriate tasks, includingprepping nearbyvoters on caucus procedure. "You could go online and download thenames, addresses, and phone numbers of ioo people inyour neigh-borhood to get out and vote-or the 40 people on your block whowere undecided," Trippi says. "'Here is the leaflet: print it out and

    get it to them.' It was you, at your computer, in your house, printingand downloading. They did it all very well." Clinton won the Texasprimary vote 51 to 47 percent. But Obama's people, following theirMyBO playbook, so overwhelmed the chaotic, crowded caucusesthat he scored an overall victory in the Texas delegate count, 99to 94. His showing nearly canceled out Clinton's win that day inOhio. Clinton lost her last major opportunity to stop the Obamajuggernaut. "In 1992, Carville said,'It's the economy, stupid,"' Trippisays, recalling the exhortation of Bill Clinton's campaign manager,James Carville. "This year, it was the network, stupid!"

    Throughout the political season, the Obama campaign has domi-nated new media, capitalizing on a confluence of trends. Americansare more able to access media-rich content online; 55 percent havebroadband Internet connections at home, double the figure forspring 2004. Social-networking technologies have matured, andmore Americans are comfortable with them. Although the 2004Dean campaign broke ground with its online meeting technologiesand blogging, "people didn't quite have the facility," says Lawrence

    Photographs by PORTER GIFFORD78 FEATURE STORY

  • Lessig, a Stanford law professorwho has given the Obama campaignIntemetpolicy advice (Lessigwrote "The People Own Ideas!" in ourMay/June 2005 issue, available on technologyreview.com). "The

    world has now caught up with the technology." The Obama cam-paign, he adds, recognized this early: 'The key networking advancein the Obama field operation was really deploying community-building tools in a smart way from the very beginning."

    Of course, many ofthe 2008 candidates had websites, click-to-donate tools, and social-networking features-even John McCain,who does not personally use e-mail. But the Obama team put such

    technologies at the center of its campaign-among other things,recruiting 24-year-old Chris Hughes, cofounder of Facebook, tohelp develop them. And it managed those tools well. Supportershad considerable discretion to use MyBO to organize on theirown; the campaign did not micromanage but struck a balance

    between top-down control and anarchy. In short, Obama, the for-

    mer Chicago community organizer, created the ultimate online

    political machine.

    VVEB J )CIKEY Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the 29-year-old cofounder andchief technology officer of Blue State Digital, the company behind Obama'ssocial technologies, says that "on every metric, this campaign has operatedon a scale that has exceeded what was done before" Beyond fund-raising,the Web tools enabled event planning, phone banks, and targeted e-mailing.

    The Obama campaign did not provide access or interviews forthis story; it only confirmed some details of our reporting andoffered written comments. This story is based on interviews with

    third parties involved in developing Obama's social-networking

    strategy or who were familiar with it, and on public records.

    AN ONLINE NERVOUS SYSTEM

    A row of elegant, renovated i9 th-century industrial buildings lines

    Boston's Congress Street east of Fort Point Channel. On any given

    day, behind a plain wooden door on the third floor of 37 4 Congress,

    15 to 20 casually clad programmers tap away at computers. On theday I visited, the strains ofCreedence Clearwater Revival filled theroom; a Ping-Pong table dominated the small kitchen. This is the

    WWW.TECHNOLOGYREVIEW.COM FEATURE STORY 79

  • technology centerfor Blue State Digital,whichmeans that it is also the nervous system for itstwo largest clients, the Barack Obama cam-paign and the Democratic National Commit-tee. Founded by alumni of the Dean campaign,Blue State Digital added interactive elementsto Obama's website-including MyBO-andnow tends to its daily care and feeding. Thesite's servers hum away in a Boston suburband are backed up in the Chicago area.

    JaschaFranklin-Hodge,2 9 ,greetedmewitha friendly handshake and a gap-toothed grin.He has a deep voice and a hearty laugh; his faceis ringed by a narrow beard. Franklin-Hodgedropped out of MIT after his freshmanyear and spent a fewyears inonline music startups before runningthe Intemet infrastructure forthe Dean campaign, which received a then-unprecedented $27 mil-lion in online donations. "When the campaign ended, we thought,'Howard Dean was not destined to be president, but what we aredoing online-this is too big to let go away,'" he says. He and threeothers cofounded Blue State Digital, where he is chief technologyofficer. (Another cofounder, Joe Rospars, is now on leave with theObama campaign as its new-media director.)

    The MyBO tools are, in essence, rebuilt and consolidated ver-sions of those created for the Dean campaign. Dean's websiteallowed supporters to donate money, organize meetings, and dis-tribute media, says Zephyr Teachout, who was Dean's Internetdirector and is now a visiting law professor at Duke University. "Wedeveloped all the tools the Obama campaign is using: SMS [textmessaging], phone tools, Web capacity," Teachout recalls. "They[Blue State Digital] did a lot of nice work in taking this crude setof unrelated applications and making a complete suite."

    Blue State Digital had nine days to add its tools to Obama'ssite before the senator announced his candidacy on February10, 2007, in Springfield, IL. Among other preparations, the teambraced for heavy traffic."We made some projections oftraffic levels,contribution amounts, and e-mail levels based on estimates fromfolks who worked with [John] Kerry and Dean in 2oo4," recallsFranklin-Hodge. As Obama's Springfield speech progressed, "wewere watching the traffic go up and up, surpassing all our previousrecords." (He would not provide specific numbers.) It was clearthat early assumptions were low. "We blew through all of those[estimates] in February," he says. "So we had to do a lot of workto make sure we kept up with the demand his online success hadplaced on the system." By July 20o8, the campaign had raised morethan $200 million from more than a million online donors (Obamahad raised $340 million from all sources by the end of June), andMyBO had logged more than a million user accounts and facili-tated 75,000 local events, according to Blue State Digital.

    MyBO and the main campaign site made it easy to give money-the fuel for any campaign, because it pays for advertising and staff.Visitors could use credit cards to make one-time donations or tosign up for recurring monthly contributions. MyBO also made giv-ing money a social event: supporters could set personal targets, runtheir own fund-raising efforts, and watch personal fund-raisingthermometers rise. To bring people to the site in the first place,the campaign sought to make Obama a ubiquitous presence onas many new-media platforms as possible.

    The viral Internet offered myriad ways to propagate unfilteredObama messages. The campaign posted the candidate's speechesand linked to multimedia material generated by supporters. Amusic video set to an Obama speech-"Yes We Can," by the hip-hop artist Will.i.am-has been posted repeatedly on YouTube, butthe top two postings alone have been viewed io million times. Asingle YouTube posting of Obama's March i8 speech on race hasbeen viewed more than four million times. Similarly, the cam-paign regularly sent out text messages (at Obama rallies, speakersfrequently asked attendees to text their contact information to hiscampaign) and made sure that Obama was prominent on other

    TECHNOLOGY REVIEW SEPTEMBER /OCTOBER 200880 FEATURE STORY

  • YES, VVE NETWO/3"-K After Hillary Clinton suspended her campaign,Barack Obama's campaign e-mailed members of its social-networking siteexhorting them to hold "Unite for Change" parties on June 28. More than4,000 parties-arranged by supporters using the Obama site-were orga-nized in days; these are scenes from three such parties in the Boston area.The Obama site has helped volunteers organize more than 75,000 events.

    social-net