Thursday New Tools Feature: The End of the Beginning

In the past weeks, I’ve been discussing the use of new tools in this election cycle. There can no longer be any doubt that these new tools are playing an increasingly important role in elections; for example, a fascinating new article by Sarah Lai Stirland in Wired magazine explores the definitive success of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s organizing operation (the model for which was engineered by two Harvard professors), and its integration with Obama’s social networking site, From the article:

…Obama is the first to successfully integrate technology with a revamped model of political organization that stresses volunteer participation and feedback on a massive scale, erecting a vast, intricate machine set to fuel an unprecedented get-out-the-vote drive in the final days before Tuesday's election.

"I think what was recovered in this campaign is the sense of what leadership is, and what the role of the technology is, so that you get the best out of both," says Marshall Ganz, a public policy lecturer at Harvard who designed the field-organizer and volunteer training system used by the Obama campaign. "The Dean campaign understood how to use the internet for the fund-raising, but not for the organizing."

"We've really poured a lot of energy and thought into making this focused on real-world organizing activity," says Chris Hughes, the 24-year-old co-founder of Facebook, who left that company last year to help Obama with his online organizational efforts.

Obama’s advanced, tech-savvy new organizing system has undoubtedly helped him in this election cycle (as Simon explained in another great Wired article a few months back); he used this new model in the primaries in Iowa and South Carolina, which he won, while sticking with a more traditional strategy in New Hampshire, which he lost. Obama's model works because it brings people together, makes them a part of a team, and gives them easy ways that they can translate their inspiration and enthusiasm into concrete action.

But with the election coming to a close in just a few short days, it is worth it for us to take a step back and recall just why all of this matters in the first place. These developments aren’t exciting because of their novelty, or because of our innate love of all things shiny and new. They aren't exciting solely in the context of electing a particular candidate. They are exciting, or they should be exciting, because technology is making citizens not just better informed but also more involved, allowing them to participate more directly and more effectively in government, which makes our nation itself more authentically democratic.

As Simon and Joe Trippi argued at our excellent event here earlier this week (watch the C-SPAN footage here), this trend cannot and must not end with the election. To be successful, the next president must be someone who embraces the new era of politics. Senator Obama in particular stresses ownership and involvement, and often reminds us that change comes from the bottom up. We will be watching to see if, should he win the presidency, his actions match his rhetoric.

With the launch of new sites like BigDialogue and, the tools are there waiting to be picked up. These sites aim to give people a more direct voice in governance. In the words of BigDialogue’s founder David Colarusso, “the way we interact with Government is about to change, and the shape of that change is up to us. The Internet is not just a way to raise money or mobilize supporters. It's a way to shrink the distance between people and politicians. For the first time in history, it's possible for hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people to have a single conversation.”

I highly encourage everyone to visit both of these sites and try them out. These are some of the most exciting new tools that I’ve seen in a long time; the question is, will our next president embrace them, or ignore them?

<shameless plug> NDN has been at the forefront of advocating for an increased use of social networking sites in politics; to learn more about the myriad possibilities of social networks, read our New Politics Institute's New Tools paper, "Leverage Social Networks." </shameless plug> 


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