Sunday, January 25, 2009

Obama and the Internet

Am back after a nearly four month hiatus. An unpardonably long break for a blogger, no denying that. And the first new post is on the growing influence of the Net on public opinion, on politics in particular.

That President Obama used the Net for his campaign and is a Blackberry-lover is  well-known.  Actually, history could well record that there are at least three separate initiatives that Obama took early on that happened to stimulate the growth and usage of the Internet. These are :

His campaign made the Internet the killer app” towards getting elected

Firstly, by raising significant money for the campaign:

Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to forego using public funds. A public financing system for U.S. Presidential candidates was set up after the Watergate scandal, which is financed by tax payers who voluntarily allow $3 of their taxes given to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. Thus, McCain who used federal funds could spend only up to $84 million in months of Sep and Oct while Obama who chose to go privately funded raised $150 mio in Sep alone. This enabled him to buy half hour prime-time spots on several TV channels in the week prior to the election.

An estimated 3.1 million people may have contributed to Obama’s campaign via the Internet, with many contributing amounts under $200, (amounts that can be anonymous ) and comprise in all about half of the $650 mio that Obama has raised since last year. Grass-roots financing also has the advantage that candidates are not then beholden to corporate sponsors. Unlike other candidates, he did not have to spend time calling up rich donors but could use the time to campaign.

Secondly, by articulating his campaign policies and ideas:

Obama not only raised money, he used the Net to articulate his policies and ideas. He announced Biden’s selection as his VP mate through mail & sms (text messages).

Thirdly, by enabling mobilize supporters:

Though the Net was used for the first time in a groundbreaking way for a political campaign in 2004 (by Democratic party candidate Howard Dean with a site built in Drupal and with the use of Meetup) and also used in 2008 by several candidates including Hillary & McCain (he used Google Adwords to raise money !), these were primarily for fund-raising. Obama’s campaign was the first to  exploit the full power of interactive web tools to organize  supporters / volunteers, in this he built on some pioneering work by Dean

Obama used social networking websites such as My Space (his primary profile  here had 850,000 friends as in end-November ’08: there were 60 other official profiles too). "Friends" of Obama on Facebook (over 500,000) got automatic news feeds from the campaign sent to their profiles, which were then seen by other friends. The campaign mass-texted (sms-ed) news updates ("CNN just projected Obama wins Wisconsin") and reminders of where to vote in upcoming primaries. He is my second degree friend on Linked-In !

His campaign used data mining tools to identify and tap potential supporters. A firm called Catalist (whose CTO is former executive Vijay Ravindran) did this. Chris Hughes, ex co-founder of Facebook helped build the online community

The campaign took advantage of YouTube for free advertising. Some argue that those videos were more effective than television ads because viewers chose to watch them or received them from a friend instead of having their television shows interrupted. Quote: “The campaign’s official stuff they created for YouTube was watched for 14.5 million hours, to buy 14.5 million hours on broadcast TV is $47 million.”

Separately, during the 2008 campaign, there has also been a sea change in fact-checking, with citizens using the Internet to find past speeches of politicians and determine if they have been consistent and then using the Net itself to alert their fellow citizens.

Obama had a massive preference among young voters, first in the primaries vis-à-vis Hilary and then over McCain: the Net was an important force here. 

2. He has been looking at ways to use the Net to govern

In a bid to make the government more transparent, he is attempting to organize his campaign supporters into a political force that he can tap into in tough times. Just like Net was not used for campaigning, it has not been used to govern before.

This has been true both during his transition period when he started a site  and now as President with the official site This again represents a first in terms of use of the Net.

Roosevelt pioneered fireside radio chats, JFK and later presidents used TV. Obama is posting his weekly addresses - as President-elect and now as President - on videos, not just putting it out on TV. The first address he made as President-elect was put out on You Tube at 6 AM, ahead of the radio broadcast. Again, during the transition, members (an estimated 11 million) in Obama’s email list were sent a mailer asking what ideas they had for the incoming Administration.

Post his taking over last week, he has asked his CTO to make within 120 days the Administration more Internet friendly, says this report on CNET.

3. Catalyzing use of the Internet, going forward

The expected $825 economic stimulus package for the U.S. economy will put money into public-works (i.e. infrastructure) programs such as construction, repair of schools, expand broadband access and put energy-efficient technologies in buildings. He has also supported the idea of a neutral Internet.

In announcing his public works program, the president-elect said it's unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption. Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online," Obama said.

For this initiative, the House of Representatives Committee has on date already approved $6 billion while the Senate has recommended $9 billion . The money will essentially go to strengthen the rural broadband infrastructure.

In a related but separate story ,it’s been opined that Obama’s rise has now made the company Google into a powerful force too..

Update : Here is an masterly report that shows the Obama campaign actually raised the bulk (over $500 million of the $600 million odd) through the Internet, sent 1 billion mails across 7000 targetted messages to 13 million recipients, registered 1 million for it's text messages, developed 7 million friends across 15 social networking sites, had design and analytics teams, not unlike an actual Internet start-up would have done.  And here is an earlier report of Aug '08 (again from The Washington Times).