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Originally published July 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 7, 2008 at 1:29 PM

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Election 2008

Obama harnesses power of Web social networking

Borrowing from Facebook's playbook and personnel, the Democratic candidate has used the Internet as no politician has done before — and with stunning success.

The New York Times

Last November, Mark Penn, then the chief strategist for Hillary Rodham Clinton, derisively said Barack Obama's supporters "look like Facebook."

Chris Hughes takes that as a compliment.

Hughes, 24, was one of four founders of Facebook. In early 2007, he left the company to work in Chicago on Obama's new-media campaign.

Leaving behind his company at such a critical time would appear to require some cognitive dissonance. Political campaigns, after all, are built on handshakes and persuasion, not computer servers, and Hughes has watched, sometimes ruefully, as Facebook has marketed new products he helped develop.

"It was overwhelming for the first two months," he recalled. "It took a while to get my bearings."

But in fact, working on the Obama campaign may have moved Hughes closer to the center of the social-networking phenomenon, not farther away.

The campaign's new-media strategy, inspired by popular social networks such as MySpace and Facebook, has revolutionized the use of the Web as a political tool, helping the candidate raise more than 2 million donations of less than $200 each and swiftly mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporters before various primaries.

The centerpiece of it all is My.BarackObama.com, where supporters can join local groups, create events, sign up for updates and set up personal fundraising pages.

"If we did not have online organizing tools, it would be much harder to be where we are now," Hughes said.

Obama, now the presumptive Democratic nominee, credits the Internet's social-networking tools with a "big part" of his primary season success.

"One of my fundamental beliefs from my days as a community organizer is that real change comes from the bottom up," Obama said in a statement. "And there's no more powerful tool for grass-roots organizing than the Internet."

Now Hughes and other campaign aides are applying the same social-networking tools to try to win the general election. This time, however, they must reach beyond their base of young, Internet-savvy supporters.

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By early April, Obama's new-media team was already planning for the election by expanding its online phone-calling technology.

In mid-May, to keep volunteers busy as the primaries played out, the campaign started a nationwide voter-registration drive.

And in late June, after Clinton bowed out of the race, the millions of people on the Obama campaign's e-mail lists were asked to rally her supporters as well as undecided voters by hosting "Unite for Change" house parties across the country. Nearly 4,000 parties were held.

The campaign's successful new-media strategy is already being studied as a playbook for other candidates, including the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain.

"Their use of social networks will guide the way for future campaigns," Peter Daou, Clinton's Internet director, said at a recent political technology conference.

Daou called Obama's online outreach "amazing."

Much of the technology in the Obama toolbox was pioneered by Howard Dean's 2004 campaign. "We were like the Wright brothers," said Joe Trippi, the Web mastermind of the Dean campaign.

The Obama team, he added, "skipped Boeing, Mercury, Gemini -- they're Apollo 11, only four years later."

Some of Dean's former aides (including Joe Rospars, the Obama campaign's new-media director) formed a consulting firm, Blue State Digital, to refine their techniques.

The Obama campaign purchased the backbone of the My.BarackObama.com site from Blue State and has set out to improve it.

"It's still TheFacebook," Hughes said, comparing Obama's current site to the earliest and narrowest version of Facebook. "It's still very, very rough around the edges."

Last month, acknowledging that attacks during the general election are likely to be more vociferous, the campaign tried to capitalize on its network by creating a Web page, FightTheSmears.com.

Through that site, the campaign hopes supporters will act as a truth squad working to untangle accusations, as bloggers have informally in other campaigns and as many did when CBS reported on President Bush's National Guard service in 2004.

People who have posted on the site have already taken up five rumors, including that Obama was not born in the United States (a birth certificate was displayed) and that he does not put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance (the site links to a YouTube video of him doing so).

Republican strategists say, wryly, that McCain's 2000 campaign was innovative in its use of technology. (The candidate held a groundbreaking virtual fundraiser and enabled supporters to sign up online.)

But that was back when McCain ran as an outsider. As the presumptive nominee, he is no longer an upstart.

His social network, called McCainSpace and part of JohnMcCain.com, is "virtually impossible to use and appears largely abandoned," said Adam Ostrow, the editor of Mashable, a blog about social networking.

By all accounts, McCain is not the BlackBerry-wielding politician Obama is. But he has given credit to what he calls Obama's "excellent use of the Internet," saying at a news conference last month that "we are working very hard at that as well."

The McCain campaign recently reintroduced its Web site and hired new bloggers to broaden its online presence.

Patrick Ruffini, a Republican strategist who was the Webmaster for President Bush's 2004 campaign, said that a campaign's culture largely determines its digital strategy.

The McCain campaign "could hire the best people, build the best technology and adopt the best tactics" on the Internet, Ruffini said. "But it would have to be in sync with the candidate and the campaign."

Hughes and other Obama aides say their candidate gravitates naturally toward social networking, so much so that he even filled out his own Facebook profile two years ago.

Obama has pledged that if he is elected, he will hire a chief technology officer. Hughes' face lights up at the thought.

Other administrations have adapted to the Internet, "but they haven't valued it," he said.

Hughes has not decided whether to return to Facebook, and the decision does hinge in part on the fate of the campaign. But the lessons he has learned in political life seem to reinforce those learned in Silicon Valley.

"You can have the best technology in the world," he said, "but if you don't have a community who wants to use it and who are excited about it, then it has no purpose."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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