It's reality time at MyBarackObama.com. The latent tension between a conventional top-down presidential campaign and the bottom-up social-networking Internet operation it launched has burst into the open in the form of a grassroots insurrection against Senator Obama's decision to support legislation granting legal immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with the Bush administration's program of wiretapping without warrants.
The Obama campaign, by far the most Internet-savvy presidential campaign thus far, operates several web sites. BarackObama.com is a straight-forward campaign site, where visitors can see videos of speeches, read about issues, and or course donate money. MyBarackObama.com is a full-fledged social networking site built along the lines of Facebook. Once a visitor registers as a MyBarackObama member, he or she can post blogs, join discussion groups, send each other messages, organize events, and create networks of "friends," just as on Facebook or MySpace.
In fact, MyBarackObama.com is actually a Facebook knock-off, shepherded into reality over a year ago by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. The Obama campaign's early recruitment of Hughes, which enabled the campaign to pull a virtually bug-free social networking site out of its hat early on in the campaign, was one of the most pivotal yet least noted turning points in the presidential race.
MyBarackObama.com has been critical to the spectacular fundraising success of the Obama campaign. But what Senator Obama might do with this novel asset beyond simply raising money was an open question. And what MyBarackObama.com might do with Senator Obama was a question few even asked.
Noam Cohen wrote in the New York Times last month, "The receptiveness of the Obama campaign to such bottom-up influences raises a question: might the candidate actually model his approach to politics on the informal communal spirit the Internet encourages?"
Political commentator Andrew Sullivan thought the question had already been answered. "It's a new form of politics. It is likely to last beyond the Obama campaign and to change the shape of all campaigns to come."
Not so fast, argued Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of the DailyKos. "The Obama campaign is still very much a top-bottom operation. They've made it very easy for people to hop on the bandwagon, but those in the back of that wagon still get no say in where the campaign is going."
Well, this week it started to get really noisy in the back of the wagon. A new "group" started on MyBarackObama.com called "Senator Obama -- Please, No Telecom Immunity and Get FISA Right." By last night there were 7,000 members. At noon today there were 11435, just short of making it the largest group on the MyBarackObama site. During the time I wrote this column, more than 800 more signed up. By the time you read this, it will almost certainly be the largest. There is even a contest being organized to see who can predict how many members the group will have by the time of the FISA vote next week.
Note to the Obama campaign: even a cursory glance at the history of social networking on the Internet ( MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter for starters) shows that when content creation is put into the hands of the users who also have the ability to communicate and share with one another, the result becomes highly dynamic and unpredictable.
So here we are, balanced at the precise point where the bottom-up dynamics of Web 2.0 meets the top-down dynamics of an American presidential campaign. Depending on your take on Obama, you might imagine the Senator as railing in private against the power his Internet advisors have unwittingly given his base, or alternatively, as being secretly delighted at the unruly democratic spirit his campaign and its Web tools have unleashed.
In my most recent post, I wrote about the tension between Obama's Internet fundraising operation -- the 1.5 million small donors -- and his conventional fundraising. I wondered who would have the most influence with Obama, the small group of big donors who have faces and phone numbers the candidate knows, or the 1.5 million small donors.
It seems that the social networking tools of MyBarackObama.com may give some of those small donors a collective face and point of contact. At this moment, the contact is the "Senator Obama -- Please, No Telecom Immunity and Get FISA Right" group.
There is of course no guarantee how much real influence the members of this group will have with Obama. But they certainly have his attention. In fact, the good folks at Obama HQ are without doubt counting every new member. 12,261 and counting.
Some comments from "Senator Obama - Please, No Telecom Immunity and Get FISA Right":
After going through the long and difficult primary I truly believed that Senator Obama was the man we needed.
It did not take long for him to prove me so wrong.
The Senator from Chicago became an inside the Beltway wonder in such a short period of time.
What I want, and I say want, not please, is to see him stand up and as the leader of the Demos and stop this FISA bill. The FISA part of the bill is just as wrong as the telecom immunity. But how can you condone the telecoms disregard of the law? Please tell me how?
If he does not I am finished and I will not vote for him or any Demo. This is very difficult to say with McShame running on the GOP ticket.
But if Senator Obama can't stand up for me and my right to privacy (4th Amendent) who the hell will?
this is a group that REFUSES to support a candidate that supports a measure that is _unconstitutional_. Playing that "it will get McCain elected" game doesn't fly here. We're concerned about the CONSTITUTION, remember that thing?
I'm done capitulating. If the contributors to the Obama campaign truly own it, as Obama likes to say, then it's time we started acting like it.
I have just contacted the Obama campaign and asked for my money back that I have contributed. They have agreed to refund it. If Senator Obama changes his mind and opposes FISA I will send all of my money back to the campaign.