Everybody talks about “social media” and the Obama campaign, but what’s it about?

What we in Germany call a “Stammtischgespräch” is the informal, half-informed, half-opined in an establishment that typically serves beer among other things. In a setting like this, I would have felt perfectly confident in talking about about “how important social media was for the Obama campaign”.

Luckily, my course on “Media, Politics and Power” is trying hard enough to enlighten me and understand at least aspect of HOW the campaign used social media to their advantage. Reading the HBS case “Barack Obama: Organizing for America 2.0” as well as two pieces in the Huffington Post (“The New Organizers, What’s really behind Obama’s ground game” and “Neighbor To Neighbor: How Obama Targets Undecideds Block By Block”) gave me some insights into what concretely was done and how meaningful the impact of this is.

There are many different themes that these readings touch upon: the questions whether politicians should constantly engage with their constituents over policy (one could ask, why elect them then?) or how the implied constant campaigning that is aided by Organizing for America (OFA) will affect politics in the future.

Bringing the pieces together though, I see at the core of the argument (which all use the Obama campaign as an example) how “organising” can be revolutionised using digital technology. Both Huffington Post journalists focus, in particular, on the “neighbor-to-neighbor” utility that the campaign used to organize all over the country. The case even implies that this tool is what fundamentally gave the Obama campaign the decisive edge over the Clinton campaign in the 2008 primaries (the counterfactual being that he may not have prevailed without it).

Looking more closely at the HuffPo articles, I wonder, however, how convincing that argument is. It takes Zack Exley only 3 paragraphs to get to a point in his description of the program where a field organizer gets together with a recruitable from his community to get her to help recruit other volunteers. He has her contact from a campaign email list and tries to get her on board in a cafe, in person. I wonder, how exactly that supports the central argument of the article? I mean, it’s not like latest technology was much involved in this example or that technology (bar email) has enabled “organising” in a revolutionary way. Of course, this is not to say that the “neighbor-to-neighbor” programme was not an incredibly useful tool for the campaign. In fact, Seth Walls make a clearer point in his piece of how the organizers now have access to highly relevant and targeted data in their campaigning. Especially the reach of the “neighbor-to-neighbor” programme as well as VoteforChange.com speak for themselves. One can see that these developments have been greatly aided by the use of digital technology.

Nonetheless, I am not totally convinced that technology per say has revolutionised organising at its core. In fact, I think – and Exley’s piece picks up on that – that a) very effective management practices met b) a cause that came at the right time (if you read the case, the “Brand Obama” is nicely worked out) and c) technology (however, as I see it in the form of very well crafted databases) came together and help to resurrect the long forgotten art of organising.

Whether technology alone would have provided such results, however, remains an open question to me.


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