Much has been made of my.barackobama.com, and deservedly so. The site, which has been called “the best of the Dean model and the best of the Bush model,” allows users to create their own blogs, link up with friends, fundraise, plan events, and form groups. By putting such organizing tools in the hands of supporters, Obama is opening the door to grassroots influence in the campaign.
In 2004, Howard Dean’s popularity skyrocketed with the support of the netroots, which at the time consisted primarily of email lists and several influential blogs. He succeeded at getting this base of support while others failed because he took his online audience seriously. He treated the netroots like a real community of people, not merely a techie sideshow or interesting footnote to the “real” campaign. Because of this, he was able to utilize online organizing in the service of real-world campaign efforts. In order to become the successful Web 2.0 candidate, Obama must similarly learn to translate online efforts into real votes.
And he is poised to do so. By adopting Students for Barack Obama, a group that got its start on Facebook, as the official youth outreach wing of the campaign, Obama is showing that he is willing to blur the line between the “online” and “real” dimensions of his campaign. Kyle Monson on AppScout has a great list of steps candidates can take to amp up the effectiveness of their web campaigns. Other ideas include using Google maps to coordinate door-knocking efforts or local rallies. The netroots is indeed its own community, but it is also a network of people connected to their own networks of local, more off-line people. My.barackobama.com should now present its users with tools for connecting with these folks.
The Obama campaign’s email list has capitalized on Obama’s larger-than-life popularity, with subject lines like “Cleveland Rocked!” and articles touting the number of members and groups on my.barackobama.com. In a campaign season already so driven by online mediums such as YouTube, the photogenic and web-savvy Obama has emerged at the head of the online pack. But with the election still more than a year and a half away, can the glitz and excitement keep up momentum?
Youth have a reputation for being fickle, and many still doubt whether online support can directly translate to real votes. But this time around, we have an opportunity to disprove the naysayers. In this presidential cycle, as opposed to 2004, our online tools allow us not only to connect, but to engage. The key to keeping up the momentum will be for tools like my.barackobama.com to respond to the needs of its community, and for the two-way communication to continue. People have shown that they are willing to sign up and tinker around with social networking sites, but for them to stick around they need to feel involved. Why not give online supporters a task? Maybe host a contest and ask entrants to come up with ways to utilize web tools to execute a new kind of get out the vote effort. Or challenge them to film their own campaign video showcasing their local community. The possibilities are endless. Now let’s keep it up.