Obama transforms Web-based politics

US President-elect Barack Obama showed other politicians how to harness the power of the Web in 2008.

US President-elect Barack Obama showed other politicians how to harness the power of the Web in 2008, bringing political campaigns kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Obama went beyond the somewhat static Web pages of most past campaigns, by tapping the power of Web 2.0 tools including Facebook, YouTube, blogs and discussion boards, to create a conversation with potential voters. Republican opponent John McCain used some of the same strategies, but many Internet experts saw the Obama campaign as the ultimate example of a politician embracing the Web.

"Obama's campaign created the textbook of how to do online campaigning," said Alexis Rice, creator of CampaignsOnline.org and a fellow at the Center for the Study of American Government at Johns Hopkins University. "Every campaign, from now on -- Republican, Democrat, independent, local level, national level, state level, will look to the Obama campaign as a model of how to do it right."

Some dissenters say that McCain and fellow Republicans made use of many of the same social-networking tools, but Obama may have gotten more credit because young voters attracted to him were predisposed to using Web 2.0 applications.

Others suggested that Obama's use of Web tools during the campaign may have been groundbreaking for politics, but his campaign made use of Internet tools that have largely been around for years.

"I am actually rather annoyed with the rosy press that the Obama campaign's technology use has gotten so far, because it is vastly underselling the full potential of Web technology for the federal government," Chris Townsend, an innovation management analyst at Forrester Research, said in an e-mail.

"Thus far, Obama's superb use of social technologies has been limited to marketing uses. But to really make an impact as a leader (rather than a campaigner), it is absolutely critical that Obama extends his use of the Web into operations."

Obama has talked more about innovation policy than creating an innovative government, Townsend added.

Still, the Obama campaign used a variety of Web tools to interact with potential voters. The campaign sent out announcements and alerts through Twitter and text messages. Blogs on the campaign's Web site encouraged debate. Obama's people posted dozens of videos on YouTube, with viewers able to comment on them.

Then there was the online fundraising. Obama raised close to US$750 million during his campaign, with more than $500 million raised online. Obama's campaign sent e-mail messages asking for donations as small as $5, and the average online donation was around $80, according to news reports.

The next step, as Townsend and others said, is for Obama to use Web 2.0 tools to transform government, not just campaigns. That's a more difficult proposition, several Web experts said.

Many US agencies don't have the resources or the ambition to open up a two-way conversation with constituents, said Maura Corbett, a partner in Qorvis Communications, a Washington, DC, public relations agency with several tech clients. The Obama administration "can't empower citizens to participate if their own agencies don't," she said. "That's the harder job. You can have the best plan for open government and communication, but most federal agencies don't have the tools to do it."

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Grant Gross

IDG News Service
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