Politics a-Go-Go on the Web

By now, the story of Barack Obama’s use of online social tools to out-fundraise his political rivals has become a familiar one.

The soon-to-be Democratic presidential nominee created My.BarackObama.com, a massive social network that his campaign has used to build an online community and collect multiple contributions (many of modest amounts) from the same donors.

But while the social and viral elements to the Obama ascendancy seem for many to capture the spirit of the confluence of political arena and an emergent breed of participatory Web applications, the changing political landscape is really a Web-wide phenomenon.

In a primal sense, politics isn’t so different from the way people make choices about what movies to see or what restaurants to go to, said Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, a site focused on how technology is changing politics. People tend to listen to the recommendations from their friends and coworkers before they’ll take the word of an advertisement.

“Political opinion in our country is formed the same way. People talk to each other, they share opinions, prejudices, and eventually consensus is formed,” Rasiej told InternetNews.com. “The difference is in 2008, the social networking conversations that are taking place are on steroids.”

Steve Grove, head of the news and politics division at YouTube, marks 2006 as the birth of “YouTube politics,” or, less charitably, gotcha politics.

It was that year that George Allen, an incumbent Republican senator from Virginia, blew a large lead and lost his reelection campaign after someone with a cell phone camera captured the now-famous Macaca diatribe. Allen interrupted his stump speech when he spotted a staffer from his opponent’s campaign filming the event, launching into a string of verbal bullying that included calling the young man of Indian descent “Macaca.” The video of the proceeding became a viral smash on YouTube, Allen lost the election and “Macaca moment” has been admitted to the political lexicon.

The lesson that politicians took from that episode, Grove has said, was that the emerging social Web is too important to ignore. Social networks, viral content sharing and the spirit of collective wisdom they engender do in fact shape opinions, politicians have come to understand.

Fast-forward two years later, and the candidates’ embrace of social media — and the attention that social media outlets are giving the presidential campaign — has grown by an order of magnitude.

“You’re seeing a substantial change in the media ecology around politics,” Rasiej said.

YouTube is still at the front and center, building on the legitimacy conferred from its partnership with CNN for the two debates in the presidential primary. YouTube has a dedicated channel for the conventions, where users can find videos of the speakers, as well as video blogs from the Big Tent at the conventions.

Never one to sidestep the zeitgeist, YouTube parent Google has launched itself full-bore into the political frenzy, hosting a dedicated election site featuring links to news stories, its own convention site and even tools for aspiring politicians to organize their own campaign. Google and Microsoft have both secured themselves prominent positioning at both parties’ conventions, joining a tech-heavy list of official providers that includes Verizon, Comcast, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems.

More online content from the politicians themselves can be found at YouTube’s YouChoose08 channel, which features videos of the candidates in elections throughout the country giving issue positions in response to questions submitted by users.

YouTube’s Politicians channel, which features videos submitted by the candidates’ official campaigns, offers a revealing look at the respective popularity of the presidential candidates.

In terms of total videos viewed all time, Obama enjoys a more than fivefold lead over John McCain (53 million to 10 million). But set the filter to this month only, and McCain has nearly 2.5 million more views, suggesting that the Republican, often criticized for eschewing technology, might be warming up to the new media. The ad comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton certainly did nothing to hurt his viral video popularity, either.

Still, Obama comes out well ahead in a side-by-side comparison of the two candidates’ efforts to marshal the social media tools afforded by the Internet. Obama has a huge lead in terms of followers on his Facebook and MySpace pages. The dataset that he has amassed through My.BarackObama.com — which Rasiej suggested might be the largest that any candidate would ever bring to the office — now includes between 5 million to 6 million e-mail addresses and some 3 million cell phone numbers, all tied to individuals who have provided other personal information about themselves in their profiles.

“It’s been harder for [McCain] because he didn’t have the starting point that Barack has had,” Rasiej said, noting McCain’s comparatively recent entry into the social media realm. “There wasn’t an appreciation for it in his own organization.”

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