I’ve just come back from a conference in Harvard on the Internet and politics, with various academics, political operatives and public intellectuals. One of the major topics of conversation, unsurprisingly, was the ways in which the Obama campaign had used the Internet as part of its organizing strategy. On the one hand, I found out about ways in which the campaign and its supporters had used the Internet that surprised me. For example, I had thought that Obama’s Facebook presence was mostly about garnering publicity through the one million strong for Facebook group – I hadn’t realized that there were apparently a multitude of small Facebook groups at high schools, colleges etc, which played a much more practical role in helping (or so the Obama people believed) to increase turnout in the Iowa caucuses and elsewhere.
Still, I did have one preconception strongly confirmed – that contrary to much of the media hype, the Obama people saw the Internet as a means to facilitate real world volunteering, rather than an end in itself. As Joe Rospars, the campaign’s New Media director, put it, “There was never anything online that was there for online’s sake.” Chris Hughes, the online organizing coordinator (and previous co-founder of Facebook) was even more direct: “the web was just the vehicle to empower the activists out there to have face to face meetings, to make phone calls, and to raise money.” So it’s perfectly clear that Internet activity wasn’t seen a form of mobilization in itself, contrary to the impression given by some of the more breathless coverage, but rather primarily as a means to more efficiently organize the traditional forms of direct contact. This fits in nicely with some of the relevant experimental work in political science, which suggests that online organizing is more likely to be useful in organizing other forms of mobilization than as an end in itself (although this of course might change over time, as people begin to conduct more of their social lives via the Internet).
fn1. The meeting was held under the Chatham House rule – the following two quotes are used with explicit permission from their sources.