That’s How You Do it Obama

11 Feb ’07

I love what the Obama campaign has done for political websites with the launch of Senator Obama’s new site. As far as campaign sites go – heck, as far as most mainstream sites go – the new site is filled to the brim with news ways to interact with the campaign.

Fred Wilson seems to have problems with the video on the site and says it only works with IE (a couple of his commenters had problems as well), but it worked fine for me with both Firefox and Safari (and one of Fred’s commenters says the same thing). And in any event, any problems like that are likely just temporary glitches that will be ironed out. Fred also doesn’t like that you can’t import your own political blog posts into your profile on the site. I don’t know why anyone would want to, but perhaps, I suppose.

And while Fred compliments the site’s blogging tools, my friend Mathew wonders about the effort to get folks to use the social media tools on the site, rather than using tools that allow users to integrate their online presences elsewhere. I suspect the answer to that is that the campaign is trying to reach the 99% of the population who thinks a Squidoo is something you ride on in Minnesota in January, and that Flickr is what your lights do in New York before a brownout. Mathew thinks the site is “not quite there”, but I think a site that is “not quite there” for Web 2.0 geeks is probably delivering 150% of what that 99% wants to use.

Still, all of that’s pretty small stuff in the grand scheme of things, IMO. The concept of the site reveals insight and savvy that will not be sidetracked over glitches with browser compatibility. What I love about the site is that its integration of rich and social media really does herald a new way of using technology to campaign. We’ve been waiting for this for a while – we wondered at last year’s mesh when it would happen. I think that change like this is a great thing, even though there will be lots of small bumps along the way.

The real issue, to my mind, is whether the political process is compatible with the core values of social media. Mathew notes this as well, with some doubt that campaigns are up to it. This is of course the conversation that Stowe had recently about PR, and it’s a very good point that can be equally made about most of our social institutions: authenticity is precisely what many try to avoid, and it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the rush to social media we’ve seen so far in this campaign is anything other than a cynical attempt to grab some headlines and get some “I’m with it” branding. I frankly doubt that’s true – the online success of the last Dean campaign and of netroots – except perhaps when it came to crunch time in Lieberman v. Lamont (entirely understandable, as a commenter briskly informed me some time ago) – tells us something about what the people want. And if enough people want it ….

That’s where I think the real opportunity is for Obama ’08. More than any other candidate, Senator Obama is running on the desire citizens have for profound reform of political process (with villainy like this infecting it, can you blame them?). His campaign is the ideal campaign to deploy these technologies and to experiment with what they can do. So it makes sense to me that he’s ahead of the pack, and I hope the campaign gets some wind in its sails from these efforts. I don’t think you need to be political or a fanboy to care about this (though given the deep polarization in U.S. politics and civic life generally these days that may be unrealistic). I think you just need to care about democracy and your country. Caring enough, for example, to press the candidates to ensure that their campaigning and their policies live up to the social media ideals they profess to believe in would be a very good start.

Perhaps Obama’s only pretending to care about the appetite for reform, but I doubt it. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine the courage, hope and optimism that it must take for a black man in America with the name Obama to run for President. He gets the benefit of the doubt from me. Quite a few of the posts I’ve seen about the site strike me as little more than low-level complaining, and not really that helpful. My challenge to the ‘tropolis would be to put aside the griping about the finer details of how technology is deployed in ’08 campaigns. People who take risks – who put hard work into making things change for the better – ought to be encouraged and supported (for example, see Steven O’Hear, Cynthia Brumfeld and Pete Cashmore). Those of us who understand technology and how it can be used should do what we can to make constructive and positive contributions to the process. If social media is going to make a difference, we ought to be positively encouraging its adoption and effective use.

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