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« Tapping on the wisdom of the crowd: Social network analysis software tools on Wikipedia | Main | Second Call for Papers / Funding for doctoral student training for Harvard conference on networks »

24 February 2008

Obama, techology, and social networks

There is a very nice piece in today's Boston Globe on the role that technology has played in mobilizing support for Obama. There are snippets below, but I recommend reading the whole article.

There are a few key ingredients, it seems to me, to the strategy. First is the facilitation of the meeting of people with shared interests and goals. Second is creating a forum for people to express their views. Third is the provision of scripts and plans for the mobilization and coordination of action.

I should note that this is a combination of a bottom-up and top-down processes. This is not really like Meetup.com facilitating the rise of Howard Dean. The engineering of the site my.barackobama.com was designed to achieve certain, very specific, ends. It is notable that the Obama campaign developed its own proprietary platform rather than rely on existing platforms, such as Meetup and Facebook (although, Obama very much has a presence on those websites as well). This was, in part, for control reasons, I assume. The provision of those plans is also clearly a top down process. However, the actual use of these tools is totally bottom up, where the decisions of people to join the website are interdependent, enthusiasm breeding enthusiasm.

The success of the Obama campaign highlights one of the shortcomings of one of the dominant perspectives on political mobilization. Following from Mancur Olson's classic book, The Logic of Collective Action, it is a puzzle why people would contribute so much time and effort when, individually, their work is extremely unlikely to be decisive. This view of collective action is based on an assumption that the reason why people act is based on the impact their individual efforts will make to the collective endeavor. In fact, humans are social animals, and it is that combination of connection (with others) and cause that is so very powerful in politics and other domains (most notably, religion).

In the comments I would be interested in hearing the observations of others about the role of networks and technology in this political season.

In any case, the excerpts:

Technology aids Obama's outreach drive
Volunteers answer call on social networking site

More than any previous presidential campaign, Obama's effort is transforming politics with its use of technology. The astounding fund-raising figures are well documented - the campaign keeps a running tally on its website as it closes in on 1 million donors. But Obama's team has taken the use of the Internet to another level by allowing masses of volunteers to self-organize over the past year and communicate through their own social networking site, my.barackobama.com.

Created with help from Chris Hughes, one of three Harvard roommates who invented Facebook four years ago, MyBO, as campaign staffers call it, has about 500,000 members nationwide, a network of groups and individuals that the campaign ultimately harnesses for the old-fashioned nuts-and-bolts of electioneering – identifying supporters and getting them to vote in primaries and caucuses.

Clinton's campaign, relying more on traditional resources such as labor unions and elected officials, is also cobbling together an Ohio organization. Using its own e-mail list, the Clinton team recently received about 1,000 online replies statewide from people willing to help. The campaign was pleased with the response. The Obama camp, in contrast, drew 500 people from the Columbus area alone to the union hall of Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 189 on a Wednesday night in the middle of winter.


Valli Frausto, a 50-year-old mother of two from Columbus, was one of the first to open a MyBO account when Obama announced his candidacy a year ago. Several months earlier, she had seen Obama on Oprah Winfrey's show.

"I've never been involved in a political campaign before, but it was like a call to action for me," she said. "I said if he runs, I want to help, and with the way he put his campaign together, with all these tools available to us, it allowed me to get involved."

For the past year, Frausto estimates she has spent 20 hours a week as one of the administrators of Central Ohioans for Obama and a few others of the more than 300 groups established in Ohio through MyBO.


The groups have put out information tables at perhaps 20 festivals and fairs around Columbus, and held a 5-kilometer road race and other fund-raisers. They also hold debate parties, phone bank events, and happy hour gatherings to socialize, brainstorm, and introduce new members.

"It was all done through my.barackobama.com," Frausto said. "We would not exist if not for that tool. It's phenomenal to me."

Now, however, with the Ohio primary approaching, the campaign is much more actively coordinating the activists, most notably through phone banking. From a MyBO page, a member can click onto a list of 20 phone numbers with a series of prompts and scripts that the caller runs through, entering the responses of voters online. The information goes into the campaign database for its primary day get-out-the-vote operation.

Posted by David Lazer at February 24, 2008 10:33 PM