By Matthew Fraser & Soumitra Dutta (Originally published in The Guardian)
He may be older than most Facebook users, but Barack Obama understood the potential of social media to communicate and to raise funds - and left his 72-year-old opponent floundering
As the musician Brian Eno noted on the BBC's Question Time this week, Barack Obama's triumph was the first US presidential election that was won on the internet. While most pundits focused on the question of race, one largely overlooked factor was his powerful techno-demographic appeal.
We know Obama's landmark victory was due in part to a groundswell of support among young Americans. Early in his campaign, political pollsters were observing that Obama was "rocking the youth vote". This was proved true: exit polls on Tuesday revealed that Obama had won nearly 70% of the vote among young Americans under 25 - the highest percentage since US exit polling began in 1976. Obama, in a word, enjoyed a groundswell of support among the Facebook generation.
This was the first election where all the candidates - presidential and congressional - attempted to connect directly with American voters via online social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. (It has even been called the "Facebook election".) It is no coincidence that one of Obama's key strategists was 24-year-old Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder. Hughes masterminded the Obama campaign's highly effective web blitzkrieg on everything from social networking sites to podcasting and mobile messaging.
Facebook was not unaware of its suddenly powerful role in American electoral politics. During the presidential campaign, the site launched its own forum to encourage online debates about voter issues. Facebook also teamed up with the major television network, ABC, for election coverage and political forums. Another old media outlet, CNN, teamed up with YouTube to hold presidential debates.
Obama's masterful leveraging of web 2.0 platforms marks a major e-ruption in electoral politics – in America and elsewhere - as campaigning shifts from old-style political machines, focussed on charming those at the top of organisations, towards the horizontal dynamics of online social networks. The web, a perfect medium for genuine grassroots political movements, is transforming the power dynamics of politics. There are no barriers to entry on sites like Facebook and YouTube. Power is diffused towards the edges because everybody can participate. It's being used not only for vote-getting but - as the Obama campaign demonstrated - for grassroots fundraising too totalling more than $160m (£80m) from people who gave comparatively tiny amounts - $200 or less.
But what's also remarkable about the Obama team's online efforts is how comparatively cheap they were. TechChrunch says that Obama's spending on online advertising was comparatively tiny - $7.97m (£4m) - which pales into insignificance against his TV spending, including $4m on a half-hour TV special in the final week alone. (And $3.5m of the online spend was on adwords by Google searches. The figures for Facebook was tiny - $467,000 in total, almost all ($370,000) in September.
The thing about the web though is that it's a low-cost, high-reach place. According to a survey by U.S.-based Pew Research Center, 46% of Americans used the web, email or text messaging for news about the presidential campaign, to contribute to the debate, or to mobilise others. Some 35% of Americans said they'd watched online political videos - three times more than during the 2004 presidential election. (Unsurprising, perhaps: YouTube hadn't been created then.) And roughly 10% said they'd logged on to social networking sites to engage in the election.
Obama, who was often seen thumbing messages on his BlackBerry during the campaign, has a shrewd understanding of the electoral power of the web. Pulling out all the web 2.0 stops, his campaign used not only Facebook and YouTube, but also MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, Digg, BlackPlanet, LinkedIn, AsianAve, MiGente, Glee - and others.
Obama was by a long stretch the most effective online politician during the presidential campaign – not only against John McCain, but earlier too against his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. For the past two years, Facebook has overwhelmingly been pro-Obama virtual territory. While political pundits were following the Obama-Clinton head-butting on the hustings, Obama was outmanoeuvring his Democratic rival below the radar on Facebook. In early 2007, more than a year before he won his party's nomination, Obama had attracted a massive following on Facebook while Hillary Clinton was struggling with the negative fallout of a Facebook movement called "Stop Hillary Clinton". While Obama's Facebook page had attracted more than 250,000 members, Clinton's page counted a paltry 3,200.
At 47, he may be older than the average user there, but Obama is a natural Facebook politician. On his personal profile there - which featured his "Our Moment is Now" motto - Obama named his favourite musicians as Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, and Bob Dylan, and listed his pastimes as basketball, writing, and "loafing w/kids" (note the hip shorthand).
The 72-year-old John McCain, by contrast, never managed to connect on Facebook. He gave one of his pastimes as "fishing" - which may be popular in some places, but ain't hip - and listed Letters from Iwo Jima among his favourite movies. His profile even got "punked" by a prankster who hacked it and posted a phony policy announcement on his online profile: "Dear supporters, today I announce that I have reversed my position and come out in full support of gay marriage...particularly marriage between two passionate females."
The statistics are telling. Obama had more than 2 million American supporters on Facebook; McCain, just over 600,000. On the microblogging platform Twitter, Obama could count on more than 112,000 supporters "tweeting" to get him elected. McCain, for his part, had only 4,600 followers on Twitter. (A map of declared support by American Twitter users found every state overwhelmingly Democrat, apart from South Dakota - which was only "mildly" Democrat.)
On YouTube, Obama's supporters uploaded more than 1,800 videos onto the BarackObama.com channel, which counted about 115,000 subscribers. The channel attracted more than 97 million video views by some 18 million channel visits. Compare that to McCain's YouTube presence: only 330 videos were uploaded to the JohnMcCain.com channel, which attracted just over 28,000 subscribers. The McCain channel attracted barely more than 2 million visits and some 25 million video views. Obama beat McCain 4 to 1.
The YouTube coup de grace was the blockbuster "Yes We Can" videoclip. The viral circulation of that video, watched by millions of Americans only days after it was first posted, gave Obama solid electoral credibility in Middle America. Suddenly he was like a pop star on MTV. The video wasn't even made by the Obama campaign team: it was produced spontaneously by the hip hop star Will.i.am, from the group Black Eyed Peas.
Obama also effectively used podcasts and electoral messaging to mobile devices (he had already been doing so as a U.S. Senator). As one observer put it: "While Obama was making great use of podcasts, John McCain was missing in action." The McCain campaign finally came up with the idea of posting a videogame called "Pork Invaders" on his Facebook page to underscore the war hero candidate's determination to take on Washington "pork barrelling" (in which politicians manouevre lucrative schemes for their areas into legislation, to ensure reelection or repay favours bought to get them elected). The Obama team, meanwhile, was harnessing the power of network effects through an "Obama app" for iPhones, which allowed supporters to spread the pro-Obama message to everyone on their contact list.
The internet had already been deployed in political campaigns, but mainly to raise money. As voters shift by the million towards the internet to interact, to buy things and to participate in politics, those seeking office are rushing to establish an online presence and connect on the ground. During the U.S. elections, more than 500 American politicians had their own Facebook page.
Many more will in future elections – not only in the United States, but also in Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and other democracies. In the UK, Gordon Brown has a Number 10 channel on YouTube where voters can submit questions to the Prime Minister - and even see them asnwered. Many other British politicians meanwhile are using Facebook pages to connect with their constituency voters. Liberal Democrat MP, Steve webb, was briefly in the news when, to his consternation, Facebook deleted his profile believing it to be a forgery. A more colourful Lib Dem, Lembit Opik, has been using Facebook in his bid for the party leadership. The Conservatives, for their part, have a Facebook page featuring the uninspired slogan "Your Country Needs You". And last year David Cameron used the site to make his policy pledges and launched a £500,000 ad campaign to attract online "friends". Labour politicians on Facebook include Peter Hain, Hillary Benn and Hazel Blears.
Yet Blears, the communities secretary, clearly has mixed feelings about people power on the web. While she recently bemoaned civic disengagement from politics in Britain compared with the inspiring surge of political participation in America, Blears nonetheless turned her wrath on political bloggers – apparently because many of them are conservative.
In truth, the open-ended social dynamics of the web 2.0 universe give free access to anybody. It's up to British politicians, who indeed are lagging behind their American counterparts, to harness its energies. From now on, success in electoral politics depends on having friends in low places.