Obamasphere: Coming to Canada?

Iggy take note: Obama's endless web campaign has reinvented politics.

By Crawford Kilian 10 Dec 2008 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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How to go from broke to best.

In the U.S., the Democrats and Republicans took two years to pick their candidates and then a president. In Canada, leadership can change hands in days or even hours.

Barack Obama's revolutionary campaign, in particular, was largely fought online. In this autumn of coalition and prorogation, our politicians have stuck to traditional media, especially TV and newspapers.

But traces of the Obama approach have shown up in the ouster of Stéphane Dion and the rise of Michael Ignatieff. To understand what that might portend for Canadian politics, we need to understand how Obama did it, and how his supporters will continue to be a factor in his administration.

Obama's revolution requires fighting hugely expensive campaigns involving as many troops as possible. Once enlisted, those troops are in for the duration -- and beyond.

What Obama accomplished

Before we look at what Obama's organization may do after Jan. 20, let's look at what it accomplished in the past two years.

The key element of Obama's success was technology, specifically the web. No other politician on the planet comes close to Obama's mastery of online media.

Sure, the other candidates had websites, but they were ugly, kludgy and dull. Obama's site looked good, and web designers marvelled at its cool blue elegance. More importantly, it invited visitors to come in, look around and find something that they could use.

Useful stuff included the latest campaign news and propaganda. But it also included opportunities to meet like-minded people, to join groups, volunteer for jobs and even create blogs. As a social-networking site, was Facebook with clout.

The creation of the Obamasphere

Management consultant Umair Haque, writing one day after the election, called Obama "one of the most radical management innovators in the world today."

The key factor: a "spherical" organization with a tightly controlled centre surrounded by a cloud of self-organizing volunteers. If you were trying to get out the vote in Taos, New Mexico, or Peacham, Vermont, you didn't have to wait for someone from Chicago to tell you what to do. You just did it.

And you got in touch with other volunteers online, through the Obama site's blogs and groups. If you couldn't find a group, you could start one. Or start a blog, and tell the whole Obamasphere what you wanted to do. (The site's community blogs now total almost 20,000 online pages.)

Traditional polls didn't get it. But they certainly understood that Obama had built the greatest money-making machine since the printing press. The site made it easy to donate small amounts, and Obama bloggers competed to see who could raise the most.

The site became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: it looked and felt like something new and successful, so it succeeded even more. The media and the political bloggers dropped in and found change they could indeed believe in. It was scary and exhilarating, and they enjoyed the rush.

The day after the election, John McCain's site imploded to a one-page farewell address. But the Obamasphere is still growing. That portends a true revolution in political affairs.

An online standing army

Explore and you'll find almost 9,500 local groups, over 4,000 interest groups, and thousands more classified by people, issues and national. Want to see if your alma mater has an Obama group? Chances are it does. If not, you can start one.

The size of the some of these groups is formidable. Founded on Aug. 9, Florida Women for Obama currently has 39,084 members. The National Call Team, started on Oct. 3, 2007, has 36,578 members. Since Sept. 1, 25,761 people have joined Seniors for Obama.

Even if you're ticked off with Obama, you can start a group. Since last June, over 23,000 people have joined "President Obama, Get FISA Right" -- inspired by his support for George W. Bush's illegal invasion of Americans' privacy.

You don't have to live in the U.S. to sign up. Canada for Obama in late November had almost 400 members. Vancouver B.C. for Obama had just over 100 members.

Having recruited millions for his online army, Barack Obama isn't likely to demobilize them. His troops have tasted victory, and they'll want more. So they'll await new marching orders, and it likely won't be a long wait.

Launching Barack barrages

As the Obama administration implements its policies, opponents (and some unhappy supporters) will resist. But woe betide the congressman or senator who objects to the new order. The national call team will alert those 39,084 women in Florida, not to mention the seniors and university alumni. The troops will fire off e-mails and phone calls in unimaginable barrages. Local media -- newspapers, TV, radio and websites -- will get the same.

Flash mobs will turn up in front of the objector's local office, and every dumb thing the objector ever said will pop up on YouTube. The moral will be obvious: fight Barack Obama, and you're throwing yourself under the proverbial bus.

Lessons for Canadians

Barack Obama ran and won a magnificent political campaign. Political discourse will never be the same. And Canadian politicians are already learning from him.

The Canadian party websites are almost as bad as John McCain's, but Michael Ignatieff's suggests he's a fast learner. It's bright, readable, and up to date. Within hours of Bob Rae's withdrawal from the leadership race on Tuesday morning, Ignatieff posted compliments and thanks to Rae on his blog.

By contrast, Bob Rae's site on Tuesday afternoon was still a day out of date -- making it an instant cobweb site, despite its clean design.

Neither candidate had a chance to develop a web presence the way Obama did over two years, but it seems likely that Ignatieff as Liberal leader will go on blogging, using Facebook and other social media, and building an Obama-style virtual army.

Meanwhile, Stephen Harper doesn't even have such a site, though his page on the Conservative website includes links to social media. The dull impersonality of his page may be among the greatest of Harper's many political mistakes.

Obama and his campaign clearly learned a lot in two years. To build a real grassroots democracy in the next four years, they will have to learn far more about running an online revolution. At least some Canadian politicians will follow in his virtual footsteps.

Related Tyee stories:

BC's Spring Vote, Through Lens of Obama's Victory
Lessons from the US presidential contest.

Winning Cyberspace in '08
What we can learn from Obama's new digital politics.

Reading Michael Ignatieff Whether writing on Iraq, Rwanda or Kosovo, the central character is himself.  [Tyee]

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