The First Internet President

How Obama tapped netizens to transform American politics.

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Barack Obama is far more than the first black president; he is the first Internet president. Certainly, integrating the White House is the more historic accomplishment, but Obama's remarkable innovations in campaigning may have a longer-term impact. From this moment forward, ambitious candidates around the world will be trying to copy the successful, Web-based code of Obama's breakthrough campaign for change.

Like John F. Kennedy before him with his masterful exploitation of television, Barack Obama proved that a new medium can not merely impact, but completely transform presidential politics. Howard Dean leveraged early traction on the Web into front-runner status in the Democratic primaries in 2004, as did Republican candidate Ron Paul this year. But Dean's campaign fizzled in a yelp, and by the Republican convention, Paul was a sideshow. Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy via online video, but she never learned how to shift the focus from herself to the voters she was trying to reach online.

Obama was the only candidate who truly cracked through. On YouTube, nearly four times as many people watched official Obama campaign videos as clips of John McCain (about 96 million to 25 million). On Facebook, Obama has 2.4 million "friends," versus McCain's 623,000.

So how did Obama become the first candidate to transition from Internet darling to leader of the Free World?

In true community organizer fashion, Obama built a bottom-up machine on the Web, upending the traditional one-to-many approach of politics to truly embrace the chaotic Internet ethos of many-to-many action. Three innovations stand out. First, in the primary, Obama used speed to trump size. His rapid deployment of state-of-the-art online outreach and fundraising tools allowed his outsider campaign to beat a Goliath competitor. Second, he moved forcefully from online niche to mass appeal, translating record online activity into an unprecedented offline ground game. Finally, he successfully married the highly participatory sensibilities of the Net with offline grass-roots organizing. In the end, an unprecedented 3.1 million people donated more than $600 million to help elect Obama president.

With respect to speed, the swift launch of my.barackobama.com was especially remarkable. Where candidates like Dean relied primarily on other sites to develop an online community of supporters, the Obama campaign broke new ground and engineered its own social network from scratch. With this home-grown hub of online activists, the campaign could, among other things, encourage members to invite their friends to Obama rallies, reward active users with a points system and direct supporters to develop their own fundraising drives. With the custom platform in place, the campaign could quickly roll out new features like an organizing resource center with tutorials on everything from canvassing to fighting e-mail smears.

Just as candidates must switch nimbly from appealing to motivated activists in the primaries to centrists and swing voters in a general election, Internet candidates must bridge the gap between online and offline voters. Obama's team clearly knew from the beginning that it needed to parlay his initial online strength into a broader base of support. Like Dean and Paul, Obama used money raised online to buy advertising time in traditional mass media, especially TV. What distinguished Obama's efforts were the numerous ways the campaign guided online enthusiasts to reach non-techies. During the primaries, Obama's campaign pioneered a way to combine voter databases and telemarketing tools into a home-based phone banking system that allowed current supporters to easily call undecided voters in key states. Likewise, through e-mail and Web recruitment, the Obama campaign guided tens of thousands of netizens to volunteer in regional, offline voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. The campaign armed its organizers with online tools like a dashboard tracking system to organize, pace and tally their work.

But perhaps the most powerful and successful element of Obama's overall Web strategy has been pairing the many-to-many credo of the Web to its natural offline partner, grass-roots organizing. On my.barackobama, nearly 30,000 user-created electronic mailing lists, such as Harlem for Obama or Filmmakers for Obama, coordinated largely spontaneous activities of local-, national- and issue-based groups. Group members could talk directly to each other and coordinate independent campaign efforts that ranged from sharing informal personal stories to planning big-ticket fundraisers, getting together for modest debate watching parties and organizing mammoth weekend get-out-the-vote efforts.

Given the resonance of Obama's campaign with young voters, some of this activity would almost certainly happened without facilitation by a central office; just witness the hundreds of slick, independently produced videos such as will.i.am's Yes We Can video, Humanitainment's The Empire Strikes Barack and Charles Stone III's Wassup 2008. But the deft orchestration of the campaign shrewdly turned the raw, organic energy and determinism of the web into a smart and broadly effective political tool. Though any one of Obama's netroots initiatives would have produced little on its own, in the aggregate they led to an overwhelming advantage in online traffic and awareness over his competitors.

Obama now presides over the largest, best-organized, best-funded, most enthusiastic political operation in the country. As one leading Republican commented in a recent New York magazine cover story, "They have basically invented their own party that is compatible with the Democratic Party but is bigger than the Democratic Party. Their e-mail list is more powerful than the DNC or RNC." Without the Internet, much of that success would have been impossible. Obama's ability to communicate with and mobilize millions of supporters will inevitably redefine how he and future presidents campaign and govern. From the beginning of his campaign, Barack Obama encouraged his supporters to believe that they could "bring about real change in Washington." His innovative campaign has already shown they have.