A Sea Change in Political Communication

David Katz via Obama for America

David Katz via Obama for America

It’s been a little over a week since the 2008 election came to a dramatic close with Barack Obama as our new President-elect. There’s been a lot of discussion and agreement about how the Obama campaign was significantly better at harnessing the power of social media to drive support, action, donations, votes, and eventually victory, remapping the way a campaign communicates with supporters along the way.

The Internet has certainly been used in previous political campaigns (notably Howard Dean’s). But the tools, the candidates, and the rate at which constituents consume various social media channels have evolved tremendously since 2004

The younger generation voted heavily for Obama (the NYTimes notes that “more 18-29-year-olds went to the polls this year than in any election since 1972,” with 66% voting for Obama). As noted on another blog, “this group is likely to engage in two-way conversation with staff, volunteers, and clients, rather than one-way broadcasts, the style of communication most often used by organizations now.”

So how did the Obama campaign accomplish this two-way conversation? Through:
Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace (see stats here) that mobilized audiences both online and offline, and brought supporters together on issues and goals.

Blogs: According to this, about 500 million blog posts mentioned Obama since the DNC in August, and political blogs like The Huffington Post, Politico, and the (incredibly accurate) electoral statistics’ site Five Thirty Eight wielded both influence and incisive coverage across social media and mainstream media.

Videos: Videos were posted from the candidate & his campaign, as well as about the candidate in the form of user-generated videos. One person estimates that all of “Obama’s YouTube spots gathered an aggregated 14.5 million viewing hours.” Some of the user-generated videos went viral and became cultural touchstones in their own right. (For example, who didn’t see the “Yes We Can” video? Other YouTube stats here.) Also, Obama just announced that his weekly presidential radio address will also, for the first time, be recorded on video, and posted on his website and on YouTube.

Text messages: The Obama campaigns’ most famous use of text messages was probably when they announced the vice presidential pick via text message to supporters.

Photo sharing sites like Flickr: This set of behind-the-scenes photos from election night is just one great example, and the photos on this post come from that set. Another amazing compilation of photos at The Big Picture.

Twitter: Users could post updates about their voting status or problems at their polling stations through Twitter Vote Report. (Stats of campaign usage of Twitter here, and selections for the best election “tweets” here.)

(Note: An excellent overview side-by-side comparison of both candidates’ social media stats can be found here.)

President-elect Obama’s team also wasted no time in launching their new website, change.gov, the day after the election: “Throughout the Presidential Transition Project, this website will be your source for the latest news, events, and announcements so that you can follow the setting up of the Obama Administration. And just as this historic campaign was, from the beginning, about you — the transition process will offer you opportunities to participate in redefining our government.” The website asks people to contribute their “stories” and their “vision” about where Obama should focus his efforts in the first months of his administration.

David Katz via Obama for America

David Katz via Obama for America

For me, the amazing thing about the candidates’ use of social media this year was almost equally about connecting with other supporters as it was about connecting with the candidates themselves. I was genuinely surprised to discover friends and even family with whom I shared political beliefs who I had previously thought/assumed/didn’t know felt the same way. That’s exciting, and for me was a big feeling of the success of the Obama campaign. The “we’re all in this together” lines of the campaign weren’t hollow rhetoric to me, because I could see & hear it on Facebook, on blogs, and through videos that were shared and talked about.

What does all of this mean? I had a strong, visceral reaction when I read this sentence in the Times’ article about “Generation O,” “It would be hard to overestimate how much communication and an informal tone means to this generation.” As a borderline member of “this” generation, I really don’t think it’s the informal tone that is what’s important about what the Obama campaign accomplished – I think it’s the marriage of his public’s desire and his desire: for honesty, transparency, to be taken seriously, to participate fully in the process, and to enact change, because we are all in this together.

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