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Obama Online -- Using Technology, It's the Electorate That Has Changed, Too

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*UPDATED*

Change, of course, carries many definitions, as Barack Obama won the White House a year ago this week, expanding the American electorate by drawing new voters, raising millions from small-dollar donations and, for the first time in presidential politics, placing modern technology (the Internet, text messaging, social networking) smack in the middle of the campaign. Change, in this context, meant putting everyday people -- the voters -- at the heart of the operation. Change, in other words, meant us. We changed -- the way people participated in politics changed.

And that resulted, when we look back, in staggering numbers:

* Some 3 million individual donors made a total of 6.5 million donations online adding up to more than $500 million. The average donation was $80, and the average Obama donor gave more than once.
* The campaign had an e-mail list of 13 million addresses. In 2004, Sen. John Kerry had 3 million e-mail addresses as the Democratic nominee; Howard Dean, during the primaries, had 600,000.

* One million people signed up for the campaign's text messaging program. Obama announced his vice presidential pick, Joe Biden, via text message.

* My.BarackObama.com, or MyBO, the campaign's own social networking site, boasted 2 million profiles -- more than 200,000 offline events were planned and 35,000 volunteer groups created.

* Obama attracted 5 million supporters in other socnets, maintaining profiles in more than 15 online communities including including BlackPlanet, a MySpace for African Americans, and Eons, a Facebook for baby boomers. On Facebook, where about 3.2 million signed up as his supporters, a group called Students for Barack Obama was created in July 2007. It was so effective at energizing college-age voters that senior aides made it an official part of the campaign.

I covered the 2008 campaign for nearly two years, writing specifically about how technology impacts politics. And the entire time I felt as if I were watching two disparate campaigns unfold: the campaign as the traditional mainstream media covered it (which meant that certain political reporters who had never been on YouTube were sent to Charleston, S.C. to write about the YouTube/CNN-sponsored debate), and the campaign as the people using the Internet shaped it, from the heady days of money-bombs in support of Rep. Ron Paul to Facebook-organized, text message-promoted Obama rallies from Waterloo, Iowa to Fairfax, Virginia. It became very clear, very quickly, that the challenge for political reporting is for reporters to adequately and fairly cover how everyday people -- from any party, of all races and backgrounds -- are engaging with the political process, never mind what the political consultants and predictable parade of cable TV talking heads say. Of course we can't ignore the digital divide that separates the plugged from the unplugged. We also can't forget that the Internet reflects and amplifies our worst impulses. But fact is, in our social networking-driven news era, the typical who's-up, who's-down, horse race coverage that passes for political reportage and analysis -- written by reporters who seem to be writing more for each other rather than for their readers -- is nearing its end. Good riddance.

In my time on the trail, I met Linnie Frank Bailey -- first on Eons, where we exchanged a few e-mails, then in the historically conservative town of Corona, in southern California, where the freelance writer and mother-of-two lives, and later inside Room 307 of the Sacramento Convention Center in Sacramento, Calif., where she attended a meeting of the state delegation for the Democratic National Convention. All of was triggered by a $10 donation online to Obama -- the first time she ever gave money to a presidential candidate.

A few days before the election last year, I met Katie Stoynoff in the small town of Green, just outside Akron, Ohio, that perennial battleground of all battleground states. On Feb. 10, 2007, the day Obama officially announced his candidacy, the college instructor and mother of one logged on to BarackObama.com, signed up for a MyBO account and created the online group Akron for Obama, which drew dozens of new members as the months wore on.

And one of very first Obama supporters I met, before Obama even announced his White House bid, was Tobin Van Ostern, then a student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and one of the administrators of the Facebook book Students for Barack Obama. Working for Obama's campaign became more than a full-time job for Van Ostern. I interviewed Van Ostern at a packed student rally at George Mason University in northern Virginia on Feb. 2, 2007, and one of the things he said hat stuck with' me -- and a quote I did not get to use in article I wrote for the Washington Post -- was this: "I just feel that he's [Obama] going to win." This was, mind you, early February 2007 -- when the press had all but declared Sen. Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Van Ostern told me: "It's weird to think that it has been a whole year, weird to think that just a year ago..." He stopped himself. Still a big Obama supporter, he now works at Campus Progress, the youth arm of the Center for American Progress. "A lot has changed, a lot of has changed permanently," he continued, "especially when it comes to use people use technology to express themselves politically."

Earlier this week, Campus Progress released a study called "One Year Later: Young Americans Rate Progress on National Priorities." Written and researched by several youth groups such as 80 Million Strong for Young American Jobs, Rock the Vote and Y. I. Want Change: Young America's Campaign for Real Health Care Reform, it's a nine-page assessment of specific issues and how the Obama administration has -- and has not -- addressed them. Individual summaries of each issue begins with a tweet that's been making the rounds on Twitter. On climage change, for example, the tweet reads: "Meaningful climate legislation is still possible in '09 & we can lead in Copenhagen #gametimeobama #1yrlater"; on immigration, the tweet reads: "Immigration reform undone, need pathway to citizenship & DREAM Act, civil rights struggle of our time #1yrlater." Nearly a fifth of last year's electorate were voters under 30, who overwhelming voted for Obama.

And using technology -- the very tools they leveraged to organize around an insurgent candidate -- they're now pushing the White House, hoping the Obama administration listens.

Because here's the lasting legacy of last year's election: For as much as Obama has brought change to Washington, it's also us, the people participating and engaging with politics using technology, that have changed, too.

So, one year after the election, has the way you express yourself politically changed? Tweet your response (our Twitter hashtag is #OneYearLater), or post it in the comments section.

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