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Web 2.0: Political Opinion 'on Steroids'

NEW YORK -- At big-production tech conferences like the Web 2.0 Expo here, there is never any shortage of opinions about how technology will reshape the future.

Companies that fashion themselves cutting edge trot out executives to talk up how new ways of communicating and expressing ourselves on the Internet are transforming how we socialize, how we learn, how we make decisions.

So, as we head into high political season, why should the presidential election be any different?

It isn't, according to Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, a Web site that tracks how technology is influencing politics. Rasiej, a Democrat active in New York politics, maintains that the social Web, where people can broadcast their opinions in scatter-shot fashion across platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, is putting the same types of political conversations people have traditionally had across backyard fences and around water coolers "on steroids."

"That facility is upending the political power structure of our society in extremely fundamentally ways, and ways that we have yet to understand," Rasiej said.

Rasiej's epiphany came earlier this year, when he was showing his 81-year-old father how to send an e-mail to multiple recipients. His father, hardly a technological sophisticate, was blasting out a link to a YouTube video of a campaign speech that Barack Obama gave in New Hampshire.

What he was describing is a new form of grass-roots advocacy enabled by the new tools of social media that has a counterpart in the advertising world. It is called consumer-generated advertising.

In essence, the idea is to turn a passive consumer into an active proselytizer for the brand. Companies have tried this in a variety of ways, from building a simple online community on the brand's Web site to calling for submissions of 30-second video ads. But whatever form it takes, the basic idea of getting people to engage with the brand in a meaningful, voluntary way is the same.

In politics, as in advertising, this word-of-mouth message delivery carries a lot more credibility than a top-down advertisement from the candidate, or the company. Citizens are more likely to vote for a candidate based the recommendation of someone in their inner circle whose opinion they respect than because the candidate told them to.

This year's presidential election has been replete with tributes to the Obama campaign for being the first candidate to truly 'get' the Web. An arguable exception is Howard Dean in 2004, though that campaign was more inclined to whisper in the ears of a few influential bloggers rather than build a groundswell community as Obama has. Dean also did not leverage the Web as a fundraising tool with near the effectiveness that Obama has, and, of course he did not win his party's nomination.

Rasiej had kind things to say about Obama's use of the Web, from the social network My.BarackObama.com to the inspired fan endorsements that have cropped up online, such as the viral video hits ObamaGirl and Will.i.am's "Yes We Can" mashup.

Rasiej is not an unbiased observor. The career Democrat has consulted for party luminaries such as Hillary Clinton and Tom Daschle, and served as a technology advisor for Gov. Howard Dean's presidential run in 2004. But he is not unequivocal in his praise of Obama's campaign.

To Rasiej, Obama's could either be viewed as the first "bottom-up" campaign of the 21st century, or the last top-down of the 20th century. For while in many ways Obama may have created a blueprint for political campaigns to tap into social media and spread their message throughout the participatory Web, that message is still tightly controlled on Obama's official Web properties and throughout his organization.

When it comes to the application of technology to politics, Rasiej said there are two schools of thought. On the one hand, he said there are the Deaniacs of 2004 and liberal advocacy groups like MoveOne.org that build enormous lists and use technology to blast out a controlled message. But that's not community.

"MoveOn isn't introducing its members to each other; MoveOn isn't asking its members to vote in its leadership," Rasiej said. "It is picking up a tool and using it the same way you would use direct mail."

The second school of thought, he said, "believes that technology can build a more robust and participatory democracy."