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Winning Cyberspace in '08

What we can learn from Obama's new digital politics.

By Crawford Kilian 29 Apr 2008 |

Regular Tyee contributor Crawford Kilian is the author of Writing for the Web 3.0 (Self-Counsel Press.)

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Barely political founder Ben Relles and Amber Lee Ettinger, a.k.a Obama Girl.

In 1994, in a forgotten magazine called Infobahn, I looked at the political implications of the Internet and its strange new child, the World Wide Web. The Clintons, the Americans' hip new political family, were beginning to grasp what might be done online, but most of us didn't even have computers. You couldn't make much of a pitch over a 14.4 dialup modem.

Starting in 2000, we glimpsed the potential of online political campaigning. In 2004 Howard Dean raised a lot of money over the Internet, and then blew it with a scream also transmitted over the Internet. The blogosphere, not even imagined in 1994, then destroyed the campaign of John Kerry.

Canadian politics was slower than the U.S. to grasp the opportunity of the web. In 2004, I reported here and here on the abject failure of Canada's political parties to exploit the new media of the web.

And after the 2006 election, I reported my own abject failure to stay "in the message box" as the NDP's media guy in North Vancouver.

Just two years later, U.S. politics have been transformed by people who understand the new media. Those campaigning for Barack Obama are far in the lead. The next Canadian party to win power will likely be the one that first learns what Obama's people are teaching.

Propaganda in the one-way media

Old-style propaganda flourished in the "one-way" media: print, film, radio, and especially TV. Historically, the message went from an active sender to a passive receiver, who was supposed to respond by joining the army, voting for the national saviour, buying war bonds, or doing whatever else the sender wished.

But the sudden advent of interactive media has changed propaganda into a two-way street, a conversation, a screaming match -- and a rock concert. One-way media and interactive media are themselves interacting, creating a political environment unlike any before it.

The campaign of Barack Obama is not just thriving in this environment -- it's defining 21st-century campaign politics.

A U.S. online magazine, the National Journal, recently offered the best analysis yet of Obama's success. In one article, Ronald Brownstein shows how Clinton and Obama (but especially Obama) are exploiting the web to raise money and recruit volunteers.

Turning TV into a two-way medium

In another, Alexis Simendinger described a 30-second TV ad, run during the Super Bowl, that turned television into an interactive medium: it invited viewers to send a text message that in turn would draw them into the Obama campaign as volunteers. Yet another article shows how Facebook and other social-network media are engaging students and getting them out to recruit still more.

This is not just a slicker way to drop brochures in people's mailboxes. Of course it shows that Obama's team understands the new media. But it also shows that it knows who else understands the new media: the young people who use their laptops in coffee houses while juggling their iPods and camera phones. The message Obama is sending out is very simple: I speak your language.

Voters as mash-up artists

It's routine, on Obama's campaign website, to run video clips of his talks, usually within hours or even minutes of his giving them. When he recently spoke to an estimated 35,000 people in Philadelphia's Independence Park, the video included shots of young people with their arms extended. It was no fascist salute -- they were shooting their own videos, with their cameras and phones.

Then someone posted a mash up of Obama's speech with a set of stills, followed by a video of supporters leaving the park and marching through downtown Philadelphia, chanting "Yes, we can." The mash up was all over the web in hours.

So Obama's team includes a lot of amateur and professional volunteers who are comfortable with the new media. The most notable is probably, who put together a mash up blending Obama's concession speech in New Hampshire with various celebrities putting his words to music. It became example of viral marketing that must have staggered every advertiser who's seen it.

Obama Girl is another formidable volunteer marketer, throwing more sex into a political campaign than we've seen since Marilyn Monroe sang "Happy birthday, Mr. President" to John F. Kennedy.

Speaking of that era, I well recall how Adlai Stevenson doomed himself in the 1956 campaign. Someone asked his opinion of Elvis Presley, and Adlai replied: "Who is Elvis Presley?" As a 15-year-old Stevenson supporter, I experienced a painful blend of shock and contempt for my candidate.

Brushing off the critics

Obama is far more sophisticated. The night after the disastrous Philadelphia debate on ABC, he spoke to supporters about the "gotcha" questions he'd been given, and then brushed off his shoulders. The crowd went wild.

Not having paid much attention to pop music since the Beatles broke up, I needed an explanation. The web was quick to provide one -- Obama was alluding to a popular 2003 Jay-Z rap video. While Jay-Z's art is beyond me, I understood the implication: Obama knows and shares the culture of the young people who have long ignored politics.

The technical term for this is "exformation" -- the information you don't need to put in your message because your audience already knows it. The more exformation you share with your audience, the less you have to tell them. An allusion is all they need, and the impact is all the greater for its brevity.

That's why the Obama "1984" video also works so well: The classic Apple commercial is part of the exformation of a quarter-century of computer users, even those who haven't seen it. Put Hillary in the place of IBM, turn the Apple logo into an Obama logo, and everyone who sees it will get it.

The branding of the candidates

The commercial is also an apt comment on the candidates' branding. The websites of Hillary Clinton and John McCain are dull and cluttered. Obama's is clean, clear, and cool, admired by web designers. And his campaign's overall graphic design has received praise from some of the country's top designers, such as Michael Bierut.

In 1994, computers were expensive toys for geeks, and politicians ruled through the one-way medium of TV. Now computers and the hardware of the other new media have given TV and radio and newspapers new channels to reach audiences . . . audiences who can now answer back.

It's still quite possible that Barack Obama will lose to Hillary Clinton or to John McCain. Even so, he has already given his opponents a near-death experience, and every future American political campaign will study Obama '08.

Canada as interactive democracy

If Canadian politicians study Obama too, they must realize that becoming a two-way, interactive democracy will require big changes -- and probably the biggest will be personnel changes at the top.

Can you imagine a Harper Girl in a tight T-shirt, shaking her booty to help the Conservatives? Or Stephane Dion brushing criticism off his shoulders? Or Jack Layton allowing his supporters to break out of the party's message box? I can't either.

Canadian politicians will eventually figure out how to apply Obama's armoury of communication skills to our own battles. Some party will realize it needs a new leader -- not a web-savvy Trudeau or Mulroney, but a person of our own time who understands both us and the media we use as a communicating community.

That party will stay in power in this century the way Mackenzie King's stayed in power in the last.

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