Barack Obama, The Social Web, and the Future of User-Generated Government

What follows is the unedited version of my latest post for TechCrunch, “Is Obama Ready To Be a Two-Way President.


Barack Obama’s flickr stream

Where there’s victory, there’s also opportunity…

America voted while the entire world watched and listened. Whether you supported Obama or McCain, we equally shared the hope for positive change and a new beginning towards a brighter future. This Presidential election was the first in 50 years, in which there was no incumbent President or Vice President from either party competing for the Presidential nomination. On Tuesday November 4th, 2008, history was made and America is now poised to break new ground as it continues to define and document unwritten history as we work together over the next four years.

Close to 65% of the American population voted in this election, its highest turnout since the election of 1908.

By all means, this election was profound in its results. While I’m not an avid proponent of the Electoral College system for electing our President, the numbers were absolute and decisive. Obama won both the Electoral College vote 364 to 163 and the popular vote 53% to 46% with roughly 127,000,000 votes cast.


Credit: CNN

With Obama’s wins in key “swing states” including Ohio, Florida, Colorado, and Pennsylvania, this election is considered a monumental victory that fundamentally redrew America’s political dynamics. A Democrat had not won Virginia and Indiana in a generation.

Obama’s victory is deeply symbolic. It is a justifying, magnificent, and powerful testament and redemption to those who have struggled for national and personal freedom throughout the history of the United States.

Congratulations is the very least I can send to Mr. Obama and his campaign team.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s examine the election another way, one that may bring to life a different picture of how Obama earned his place in history, and in doing so, his campaign both redrew political lines and also forever changed the political ecosystem.

Over 46% of American voters and 22 states sided with John McCain. Either way you look at it, it’s still a significant portion of America who didn’t believe #change or #hope were attributes of the Obama campaign. These voters believed their future lay with another candidate.

Politics aside, whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, Independent or member of the Green Party, we can not overlook the power of real world community relations combined with the reach and engagement of online social communities and networks.

Again, almost half the country was split with a noteworthy percentage heading into the election undecided.

Online tools such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter contributed to the netting of record-breaking campaign funding and the staggering galvanization of a younger generation of first-time voters who truly made an impact and a difference. The Obama campaign, for example, outspent McCain nearly three-to-one on TV ads toward the tail end of the campaign, which many credit the technology and the corresponding impact of sociology in of itself. The Obama campaign leveraged multiple technology platforms, social immersion strategies and good old fashioned door-to-door relationship building to engage constituents directly, raising an astounding $600 million in campaign contributions.

They went directly to the people online and in the real world.

The Obama team, for example befriended almost 130,000 friends on Twitter with an almost equal amount following him.

On Facebook, the Obama page boasted over three million fans compared to McCain’s 618,000.

YouTube also swayed towards Obama with a network of 358,000 to 191,000 with the Obama camp posting over 1,800 videos compared to McCain’s 330. These videos accounted for millions of views.

If you compare the other social networks and communities from FriendFeed to MySpace to Flickr, the stats are asymmetrical in Obama’s partiality.

Many of these two-way tools however, were simply used as broadcast mechanisms to send updates, solicit contributions, provide updates, and to also rally and unite supporters, albeit successfully.

Reaching the Other 46%

My question is, what if these same social media tools where deployed to not only communicate “to” constituents, but also to listen and interact with supporters as well as those who don’t currently endorse the President-elect?

I argue that if Obama dedicates a team aside from the outbound crew that “pushed” content through social channels in order to strategically reach, listen to, and embrace the 46 % that voted against him, he might be able to run a truly democratic term and head into the next election with a record-breaking approval rating – curtailing the necessity to campaign while in office in order to focus on the issues we elected him to fix – while also cultivating the country for greater future prosperity.

Winning over, conservatively estimating, 5% of voters who were on the fence but ultimately voted for McCain, accounts for almost three million votes.

Since 1954, the approval rating of each President has been actively tracked and published as a reflection of sentiment among the American people:

Among those Presidents with the worst all-time approval rating, our current President holds the dubious honor of ranking at the top:

- George W. Bush – 76% (in a report published 11/10)
- Truman – 67%
- Nixon – 66%
- George Bush – 60%

Perhaps even most concerning is that each President has historically disregarded these numbers so that they could focus on the issues at hand. If the White House were a business, many of these Presidents would have filed for political bankruptcy.

All signs and words emanating from the Obama camp and Mr. Obama himself, point to a strategy of leveraging today’s powerful, two-way bridges of communication.

In a text message sent to supporters on the eve of the election, he reaffirmed that they will be part of Presidency moving forward, “We have a lot of work to do to get our country back on track, and I’ll be in touch soon about what comes next.”

But perhaps the most revealing promise that revealed Mr. Obama will run his office for the “people” of the United States, not just those who voted for him, was shared through his inspirational words on November 4th:

I will listen to you, especially when we disagree…and to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.

His first step to bring the vision of running a cross party campaign is the launch of Change.gov, a portal for transparency and interaction during, and hopefully post the transition.

In a sense, Change.gov is a simple and engaging site, but also highly intricate in its goals to give voters a voice. It is resource center for sharing information, updates, jobs, and also provides a channel for people who share their vision, concern, and ideas with the President and his advisors through text, an uploaded image or video.

Mr. Obama offers a message to visitors:

I ask you to believe – not just in my ability to bring about change, but in yours. I know this change is possible…because in this campaign, I have had the privilege to witness what is best in America.

Change.gov is the first step in a long road of reshaping the dynamics of politics and communication with voters.

They’re on the right track however.

Obama’s history-making campaign that fused community relations with social sciences, after all, carried him to the Democratic nomination and also the Oval Office. Mr. Obama and his team have cultivated and collaborated with a database of millions of people that spans a sophisticated contact relationship management infrastructure that spans across the real world to all popular social networks.

With an elaborate and revolutionary channel that will only grow with his Presidency, Obama takes office with a powerful new medium that may eclipse the reach and drive of traditional broadcast media.

Transforming Voters into Customers, While Potentially Erasing Party Lines

But, what about those who voted against him?

What’s the channel for Obama to ask, “Why didn’t I get your vote?” Is it Change.gov or is it through the combination of inbound and outbound engagement that will unearth the concerns that offer genuine potential for not just listening, also but response and earned support?

Most successful businesses around the world place customers at the center of everything. Before the Web, Nordstrom built its engendering foundation on world-class, and now world famous, customer care. In today’s Social Web, Zappos is growing its business by engaging with customers and creating a public and transparent customer-focused culture that is quickly building the company into a global brand that will make it easy for the company to extend its business beyond shoes.

There’s an extraordinary opportunity here for the Whitehouse to leverage these new and influential channels of conversation to embrace and cultivate voters as if they were customers, winning market share, one person at a time.

This is era where information was and is democratized. It is also a live and unfiltered looking glass into the office of the Presidency and also the thoughts, insights, support, satisfaction, and grievances of the American People.

It’s a Two Way Street

This isn’t just about broadcasting content through new channels or merely soliciting feedback, participating in popular networks or actively listening, it’s the ability to identify and internalize themes to precipitate change and earn support through action – not just words.

For the first time, the U.S. President can simultaneously cultivate communities through traditional door-to-door interaction and also directly where people create, discover, and share information online.

Shortly after completing the first draft of this post, the Washington Post ran an article announcing that Mr. Obama will record the weekly Democratic address on the radio and also on Youtube. The videos will be hosted on Change.gov and the official YouTube video channel, with the first one already recorded.

Other opportunities include:

- Launch a social network at Change.gov and/or whitehouse.gov

- Create a citizen feedback and collaboration page at GetSatisfaction

- Solicit policy proposals that people can vote up or down on Change For Us.

- Open the blog to comments on Change.gov (with community moderation).

- Address the country on YouTube and all other video networks with updates, polls, and also address issues in between official State of the Union broadcasts.

- Capture behind-the-scenes footage of the inner workings of the White House and share across all video networks.

- Create a user-generated channel on Magnify.net that features content from constituen
ts.

- Create an @obamacares or @whitehousecares account on Twitter and other micro-blogging communities to listen and respond directly within each network.

- Complement the Presidential radio show with a regular podcast or livecast on uStream.tv or BlogTalkRadio and also interact with the people online, in real time.

- Publish speeches and important policy documents on document networks such as Scribd and Docstoc to be shared and disseminated throughout blogs and personal social profile pages.

- Create a portable and evolving Obama Widget using a SproutBuilder.

(What other ideas do you have? Add them to comments).

This is how a President, or any politician or business for that matter, can authentically connect with the people formerly known as the audience – in the real world.

It creates the foundation for people to participate in a crowd-sourced Government that doesn’t need Congressmen to share discontent or new ideas. The Web cuts through political tape to spotlight real time threats and issues to expedite support and response.

It’s through this collaboration that any public official, particularly the President, can continually maintain a real-time pulse of the country to learn from the human effects and responses to actions to run a more in-tune and effective campaign.

It’s the art and science of stripping down the politics to reveal truth. This is a political ecology rooted in sociology and conversations. People shouldn’t only have a voice during an election time; listening and responding should be an ongoing practice and process of any office.

The President can’t satisfy everyone, that’s just the reality. It’s human nature to disagree. This President-elect is not purporting to be perfect, but it seems he’s honestly willing to learn. With a national CTO in place combined with an informed engagement team versed in social sciences and psychology, we can use technology and two-way channels to not only increase economic efficiencies and boost education and media literacy, but also “listen” to those influential beacons in order to continue to redraw, or potentially erase, party lines.

My hope is that these incredible networks remain a constant source of conversation to extend beyond campaigning, but also collaborative governance that unite people across party lines.

It’s not about being Republican or a Democrat, it’s about representing the majority of the people, their views, passions, ambitions and struggles, in order to be a representative of the people for the people. This is Obama’s opportunity to use the tools and channels of today’s emerging voter demographics to rewrite the future of politics, while serving the best interests of the American People in the process.

Sometimes the best advisors and cabinet members are the very people who elected that person into office, and maybe, just maybe, also those who voted against him in the first place.

If the Obama camp reads this, I’m more than happy to release @obamacares and @whitehousecares on Twitter. I held them for you.

Special thanks to Drew Olanoff.

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  • Nimesh Shah

    Very detailed analysis on Barack Obama’s election camapign and role of social media in it. I had attempted to write on similar topic. Do share your comments and feedback on that blog post.

    http://windchimesindia.wordpress.com/2008/11/09/barackobama/

  • Ken

    Very great post Brian. I believe that there is great potential for President-Elect Obama to reach the masses beyond what is already done by the current administration and past presidents. We’ll just have to wait and see what he does…it’s only a few weeks away!

  • timbotheking

    Good stuff. As we’ve heard before in the last two weeks, Obama is in a great position to leverage his current network. Shoot, he could probably just rely on them to go out and get the other 46%.

    He’d better do it soon, though; if he and his team don’t organize the network, the network will organize itself. Oooooo…

  • Brian Solis

    Nimesh, thank you…I’ll take a look.

    Ken, thank you. Standing by…

    Tim, love it. That’s exactly right. “If he and his team don’t organize the network, the network will organize itself.”

  • Mayank Dhingra

    The way Obama and co have leveraged social media to connect with voters is commendable. They’ve set up a wonderful platform for free and easy flow of communication all around and rightly said, if they don’t organize the network, the network will organize itself. Brilliant post Brian, I particularly liked your suggestions about Getsatisfaction, opening blog to comments and sharing of behind the scenes footage.

  • Vicki

    > They went directly to the people online and in the real world.

    Brian – you left out two important points

    * Let the man keep his Blackberry

    * Ensure that the entire government knows how to use (and uses) email.

    "we can not overlook the power of real world community relations combined with the reach and engagement of online social communities and networks."

    "Online tools such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter contributed to the netting of record-breaking campaign funding and the staggering galvanization of a younger generation of first-time voters who truly made an impact and a difference."

    Yet now we hear that "they" are going to drag this president back into the dark pre-networked days of the 20th century, starting with "give up the Blackberry and give up Email".

    It's 2008. It's time for Change. The Internet helped make this campaign successful. How do we keep moving forward?

  • Jay Deragon

    Brain:

    As usual, outstanding review and commentary. Thanks for all your work which seems to be perpetual :)

  • Jeff

    I,m curious how the Obama administration will use these tools while in office.

    I agree that it is important to reach out to those that did NOT vote for Obama and find out why, and see how the message can get to them in a positive way. It is just as important to LISTEN as it is to disseminate.

    I for one would love to see the administration embrace social and community tools to communicate with the public. I have many close friends and family member who may have voted another way had they been more connected and/or informed. This is a step in the right direction. I’m curious to see how it will pan out in terms of political socialization.

  • Narciso

    ‘INCLUSION’ to me is an operative word, not only for Obama’s campaign, but what looks like his cabinet ( http://tinyurl.com/5agc7p ). This is something that is truly changing the landscape of politics and communication.

    Inclusion is a key element to what made their campaign work on a variety of levels.
    * It brought people in
    * It gave everyone some ownership
    * It revealed new ways to talk
    * It revealed new ways to listen
    * It created a dialogue
    * It created change

    By golly, it created CHANGE.

    In my opinion, at the heart of inclusion is social media. If nothing else other than being the vehicle to have some ‘inclusion,’ social media is one tool that helped create this change.

    What you’ve done with this piece (just like others), Brian, is show how truly inclusive this whole process can be in social media – not necessarily because it has to be, but because that’s where it truly shines.

  • Peter Corbett

    Brian and others, I’d be really interested to get your thoughts on what we just did for the DC.gov – we held an innovation contest and payed out $20k in prizes. The value returned to DC was in excess of $2,000,000:

    http://www.istrategylabs.com/apps-for-democracy-yeilds-4000-roi-in-30-days-for-dcgov/

  • Anonymous

    I am pleased as could be with Barack’s comments and appointments since being elected President. My main concern for his administration is that a thorough study of NCLB be undertaken. In some of my reading I read where NCLB would never have come into existence if Bill Clinton had served one more term.NCLB is a waste of billions with little to no results. I am glad that he has read TEAM OF RIVALS. I hope he also reads Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel’s COMMON GROUND.

  • Craig Stoltz

    Brian–Great stuff, very thoughtful and contextual.

    I have a slightly different take, however. If you view the BO Administration like any other business approaching social media, it’s not about trying to “use” social media–it’s about trying to [carefully, respectfully] take advantage of the great, unruly, unmanageable social conversation happening everywhere. Trying to control a group that persistently self-organizes, and rejects overt attempts to market to it, will lead to trouble.

    i.e., it’s not about 2.Obama, it’s about You.0.

    More on this: http://2ohreally.com/2008/11/its-not-20bama-its-you0/#comments

  • Prokofy

    >I argue that if Obama dedicates a team aside from the outbound crew that "pushed" content through social channels in order to strategically reach, listen to, and embrace the 46 % that voted against him,

    I have a better idea. How about if Obama and his tech team, instead of being aggressive push media like moveon.org, which has almost nil genuine interactivity and user-generated content, would stop conceiving of "the 46 percent" of people to be "pushed over" and annihilated politically, but people who will in fact *push the president and his extreme leftist backers* to a more moderate position.

    That's politics. That's America. That's democracy.

  • Mark

    Hi

    Could anyone help me i am looking info on the PR team behing this election. As i am using it as a case study for a PR assignment. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  • Anonymous

    The use of social media by Pres. Obamas campaign team is interesting and commendable. As a means of generating awareness about issues I have no problem with it, at all.

    I want you to ask yourself one thing however: Do you really want an administration that follows not it’s own, clear course (based on expertise, the “big picture”, political/legal necessity), but becomes prone to sway with the opinion of the mobosphere for the sake of approval? Some of histories worst atrocities were widely approved by the general populace of states, other decisions that proved to beneficial in the long run and absolutely necessary for a nation’s long-term growth were unpopular. Not to mention that these channels could be easily manipulated by various power groups (this alone means the legality of such an undertaking would be doubtful).
    What about the millions of people that – even in industrialized countries – never used a computer before?

    I for one want an administration that is – yes – democratically elected, is in touch with the reality of the other citizen’s of it’s country (by the check through elected representatives), adheres to the consitution, the laws, human rights – BUT is able to independently enact necessary policies without having to seek approval from every citizen.

    Everything else would not be a democracy. It would be mob rule.

    It is such a fundamentally bad idea that it’s hard to grasp how people could think of it otherwise.

  • Anonymous

    Anonymous said…
    The use of social media by Pres. Obamas campaign …. would be mob rule.

    That’s what it all is. The greater public only doesn’t grasp it – YET. They will, after a decade or so when they slowly start realizing what more or less worthless crap they’d created … air-bubbles… as kids we used soap water – nowadays we use the media “internet” and “social network” for it… what’s the difference?

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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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