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Sarah Granger

Sarah Granger

Posted: August 11, 2008 04:22 AM

Obama: "VP 2 B..."


One day soon, we may wake up, bleary-eyed, before the morning coffee, to a message on our mobile device of choice: "VP 2 B Bayh" or some other similarly terse but meaty digital-era code. It may not pack the power of a rousing speech, but leave it to the Obama campaign to keep us on our toes.

Late Sunday, the campaign contacted supporters via email and phone text message, alerting them to its latest e-tactic: the presumptive Democratic nominee's vice presidential choice will be announced via text. Signing up was a breeze -- send a text message to 62262 and type 'vp' into it. Ninety-five minutes later, the response came through: "Welcome to Obama Mobile. You will now be one of the 1st notified when the VP candidate is selected." For those already signed-up for mobile alerts, they received a message that read: "Barack will announce his VP candidate choice through txt msg between now & the Conv. Tell everyone..." With Obama bodysurfing in Oahu, the campaign timed their move well.

While it sounds exciting for supporters to "be first", it will be tough for the campaign to keep the choice under wraps. Some campaign announcements recently have been given to the media with a slight lag time before they come through the campaign email or text messaging, so it's possible most of us will know before we receive the text message with the official word. Especially if it takes over an hour and a half to get through the list, which would be understandable given the nature of the technical challenge involved.

New companies have cropped up over the past few years specializing in providing mass text messaging services. Phone Democracy, based in Silicon Valley, has developed online software for political and advocacy organizations to utilize text messaging in their campaigns. Creating a robust product that works well for mass messaging is no small feat, but use of text messaging for activism is not really that new. As the Christian Science Monitor reported in 2005, it was already being used around the globe to "mobilize protests, dodge authorities, and fire off political spam" under the term "mobile democracy." It's such a major international phenomenon that a "global summit," MobileActive08, is being planned for October in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Text based announcements have been used more sparingly in the '08 campaign than phone calls due to the limited space for information transfer and the risk of losing supporter interest through over-saturation. However, text messaging has definitely come of age as a campaign tool in '08. The Edwards campaign adopted the practice of sending text messages to supporters early on, smartly keeping text-based contact to a minimum. The Clinton camp followed suit last May, and Obama for America joined one month later. According to a paper presented at the IEEE InfoCon 2007 conference on reliability of nationwide SMS system, the message delivery failure ratio for one nationwide cellular carrier at that point was 5.1% (vs. 1.57% for email.)

Not surprising, however, the Obama organization has taken their text messaging efforts one step farther allowing supporters to subscribe by issue and to download special ringtones. At barackobama.com, users can "Join Obama Mobile." It also hooks into Twitter, which allows device updates. Twitter spreads these stories like wildfire, so it's possible we'll get our tweets before our texts. Obama's latest tweet: "Announcing the VP candidate sometime between now & the Convention by txt msg & email."

Given that statement, it would seem that signing up for the text messaging announcement was partly bait to get more people into the Obama Mobile system since the announcement will also come by email which many people receive on mobile devices. Even if that's the case, it's still a smart move and a sign of things to come from the campaign that began officially through an online announcement. As Sunday's email message from David Plouffe read, "No other campaign has done this before."

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