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Obama for America's Lessons on Technology for Social Change
Ethan Zuckerman, 7 Apr 10

Michael Slaby, the chief technology strategist for TomorrowVentures, recently spoke at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Michael was the Chief Technical Officer (CTO) for “Obama for America,” which is sometimes described as “the most technologically advanced political campaign in history.” He quickly deflects this praise – “That’s true for every presidential campaign. A lot happens in four years. Unless you’re really not trying, you’re going to be the most technologically advanced.”

He further notes that the Obama campaign was coming at a unique moment in history. “There was a movement, desperation for a kind of leadership that sounded different from what had been going on.” As a result, there was “no need to create momentum or passion. Instead, there was a need to empower people who were passionate.”

Some aspects of the Obama campaign are probably repeatable, but we can’t expect the same results given different circumstances. A list of 13 million email addresses won’t raise $500 million for another cause, Michael tells us. It was a unique historical circumstance and heavily dependent on the strengths of a uniquely gifted candidate.

Michael suggests that one shouldn’t get hung up on particular tactics – those tactics are mutable. One of his team members suggested “we should start using Twitter.” He wasn’t sure – it didn’t look like an especially big thing. (And he was glad to be proven wrong.) But it’s a losing game to pick winning technologies – instead, we need to use whatever works to put forward a clearly articulated set of values.

“Even smart communications folks forget that we have a progression from values to mission, mission to strategy, strategy to tactics.” The campaign was successful because the tech decisions were led by this progression and empowered by the willingness of folks like David Plouffe to be open to innovation action.

Michael reminds us of the importance of being genuine: "You cannot fake who you are.” When an older candidate tries to sound cool, they are always disingenuous. “If you fail the 'genuity' test, you’ll lose the ability to connect with followers.”

To be genuine, the Obama campaign tried very hard to “respect, empower, include” their supporters. Iowa was ground zero for this conceptual shift – the campaign had dozens of offices on the ground, but never forgot that they were visitors. To communicate with Iowans, they needed to empower people at the bottom to take control of the campaign.

Michael reminds us that we have to be generous with ownership. Communications people love message control – they fear creating open spaces where people can badmouth their brands. But people are going to say angry things if they’re unhappy – they’re just going to say them elsewhere. If you give them a space, you’ll have a chance to engage with them. And you need to understand that, “people trust other people about you more than they trust you about you.”

“If people share your mission and passion, it’s fine to let them speak – they won’t say exactly what you want them to, but they’ll pass the 'genuity' test.”

The metric Michael is most excited about wasn’t that Obama generated 2 million Facebook friends – the impressive bit is that half those friends did something for the campaign offline. The campaign succeeded because half those people gave money, participated in real-world events, and because the campaign was generous with ownership and control over what they did.

Technology, Michael reminds us, is a tool, not the end in itself as we think about advocacy. He tells us that he’s not interested in creating novel technologies for the sake of crafting them. As a technologist working on a political campaign, he continually asks “Will this help us win?” by translating online energy into action and into votes.

Framing these issues more broadly, Michael reflects on Secretary Clinton’s Internet Freedom speech. He notes that it’s incredibly important that she gave it and that the speech came from such a high level in government. But he notes that democratization is still a goal of US foreign policy. The idea that there’s a liberal democracy trying to get out in every country isn’t necessarily correct. It’s not always safe or a good idea to go from an authoritarian regime to an election, he suggests – elections are just an easy public thing to do.

As such, internet freedom is a good first step, but just a step. “This needs to be a partisan process – we like certain freedoms,” like political freedoms, but we support censorship of other forms of publishing and communication, like child pornography. We can’t just support internet freedom – we need to be partisan and support the sort of communication we want to see take place. And we need to ask ourselves the purpose of using these tools and not simply get stuck in strategy and tactics.

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Asked about the “narrative” of the Obama campaign, Michael notes that the narrative was that of the candidate’s own life, his diverse background and work as a community organizer. He mentions that Obama was often at his best when connecting on a very personal level with voters. The campaign organized a set of dinners with the candidate for small dollar donors, where four would be selected at random to meet Obama. This is quite rare for campaigns to do – the candidate’s time is the most valuable thing, and you usually deploy it towards large money donors – but “President Obama loved this thing.” They filmed the events, but cut off the camera near the end so Obama could speak freely.

Q: How do you get people involved with the campaign to be on the same page?
A: One answer in the case of the Obama campaign was ensuring that the director of new media was a peer, not a subordinate, of the director of communications.

Q: What mistakes were made and lessons learned from them?
A: The Obama campaign built a complex system that allowed donors to buy individual items for the campaigns – you give $200, and we show you the van we rented for two days, send you a photo, etc. It sounds cool, but doesn’t work in practice. This shows you the danger of echo chambers – you need to try these ideas outside the narrow group of tech people who are bound to think they are cool.

Q (my question): Most political campaigns try to use online tools to build email lists and use those to fundraise. You’ve made the case that the Obama campaign did something else – let people articulate their support for the candidate. But those three steps – collect email, collect money, display support – don’t get us towards a real world social movement. How do we bridge that gap?
A: Campaigns focus on money, message and mobilization, and email is king for getting money. But the Obama campaign was very good at converting online interest to offline action. The most important metric for the online campaigns wasn’t the number of online users – it was what they did offline.

In practical terms, the Obama campaign made it easier for people to sign up for campaign volunteer shifts online. They let people find other supporters locally and create advocacy groups through Mybarackobama.com. In the future, we might see people using tools like Jumo, which allows people to build groups and then draw organizations to them, rather than needing to build their own organizations.

Q: How do we listen to the voices of our supporters?
A: There are tools out there, including Ushahidi’s new tool, Swift River. But the real issue isn’t choosing the right tools – it’s having people who understand the media you’re using. “Don’t go into a social medium you’re not prepared to support with meaningful staff and resources.” The Obama campaign had close to 100 paid staff focused on new media at HQ, plus state staff and interns. You can’t fool people into thinking that you’re listening if you’re not listening – all you can do is have enough staff to listen to them.

Q (from David Weinberger): The Howard Dean campaign was celebrated for using social media four years before the Obama campaign… though, of course, Dean didn’t win. The campaign was pretty bad about answering questions – instead, they focused on building horizontal connections between supporters, rather than connections between supporters and the candidate. The goal was to build structures that could be useful in governing – did this come into play with the Obama campaign?
A: Horizontal connections are necessary but not sufficient. And it’s important to understand that campaigns are temporary. Yes, Obama for America has turned into a useful movement for the Democratic National Committee (DNC), but some of these strategies were specifically focused on the election, not on later governance, which people aren’t always as interested in.

Q: How do you measure social media impact?
A: If you figure it out, let me know, and I’ll invest in your company. Facebook makes it fairly easy, using their event calendars. We did well in sending text messages and tracking how many volunteers we got. But we never got to the holy grail of measuring the impact of these tools.

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