Technology

Obama Wants to Be Your Friend


The Presidential candidates are trying to tap the power of social networks by signing up supporters on MySpace and Facebook

Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) has Hillcasts on her Web site that address issues like children's health care and energy. Users can click on Mitt TV on Mitt Romney's site to watch highlights from the last Republican debate. But the political video that captured my attention was posted on YouTube (NWS) by Obama Girl. The sultry-voiced adolescent belted: "I've got a crush on Obama." I was alerted to the YouTube posting by a friend on Facebook.com.

Like so many other young adults who have come of age in a wired world, I've been using social networks since 2002, when Friendster creaked and groaned under the collective weight of millions of curious college kids. I log on to MySpace and Facebook daily to listen to music, connect with friends, and make plans, so exchanging information there on all of the latest candidates comes naturally. In fact, in my demographic—yes, I'm a Gen Xer—29% of my peers are logging on to social networks, according to Forrester Research (FORR). And among college kids, that percentage leaps to 70%. More than one in three of them are actually creating content by uploading videos, writing blogs, and making Web pages.

Kiss Your Talking Points Good-Bye

Naturally, candidates are trying to tap this phenomenon. They're forming online groups and building applications on Facebook, creating profiles in MySpace, and uploading videos on YouTube in order to influence America's young voters. It's the 2008 equivalent of MTV's (VIA) Rock the Vote campaign in the early '90s, says Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of Techpresident.com, a blog that tracks candidates' efforts in social media.

But tapping into the online world of social networks isn't as easy as recruiting a few rock stars to do a benefit concert. Social networking poses a distinct problem for the candidates. For starters, the opinions of peers matter much more than the top-down messages candidates are accustomed to delivering. Candidates like to control their messages. Social networking and social media tools like video- and photo-sharing sites and personal blogs are all about shifting that control from institutions to individuals.

Take Leah Kauffman, the 21-year-old singer who, along with her friend Ben Relles, 32, made the Obama Girl video in which a model lip-synced lyrics such as "You tell the truth, unlike the right/You can love but you can fight." At last check Friday morning, the video had been watched 419,377 times. Of course, the model is also dancing in the video wearing scanty underwear and a tight T-shirt.

Relles, who filmed the video, hopes to produce other short films over the course of the campaign. "This is episodic humor," he says. "It's really difficult for political candidates to control their message, because of stuff like this." Relles says a team of about four friends made the video because they like Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and his popularity.

How does Obama feel about the adulation? A spokesperson declined to comment.

Getting to Know You?

On the Web, there's no shortage of candidates willing to befriend me. Nearly every candidate has a profile on MySpace. These are mostly odd amalgamations of faux-personal information with a smattering of videos of speeches and blogs that are maintained by earnest campaign staffers. Consider Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who with 36,822 friends, appears to be the Republican candidate with the most friends on MySpace. From his profile, I can discern that his favorite movie is Viva Zapata and his favorite television show is 24. I can also click a link to sign his petition to improve our country's border security. I can read silly comments like "Wazz up John McCain?" posted by Cory, an 18-year-old male from Michigan. Or something more meaningful from Danny, 19, from Lodee, Calif, who writes, "Senator John McCain. If this truly is your myspace and you read these comments—I also agree with you we can't just take our troops out of Iraq. I believe the more segregated we are the more the terrorists are winning."

Republican candidates Representative Ron Paul (R-Tex.) and Mitt Romney have both accumulated more than 20,000 friends as well. Paul, by the way, has posted the rock song Critical to Get Political by Steve Dore on his profile, and his wife, the grinning, round-faced Carol Paul, occupies the first slot in his top 24 friends. Mitt Romney has gone with an Elvis Presley ditty, A Litte Less, and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is listed above Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat under books he loves. Meanwhile, among the Democrats, Clinton, former Senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), and Obama have each cobbled together more than 20,000 MySpace friends. Obama is in the lead with 106,907 friends.

Obama has established himself as the most forward-thinking when it comes to the Web, but he also has made some critical missteps. On Apr. 29, MySpace took down 29-year-old Los Angeles paralegal Joe Anthony's unofficial Obama profile, which had accumulated more than 160,000 friends. The campaign officials were worried about not being able to control such a large group as it gained virtual street cred in MySpace. But the move was a classic example of not understanding the medium. The move backfired, angering many cyber supporters, and more than a month later, Obama has not regained all of his MySpace friends.

On Facebook, where all of the candidates have profiles, Obama is the only one who has taken advantage of Facebook's recent move to open the site to outside developers. Obama launched an application that lets supporters download to their Facebook profile up-to-date information on how many of their friends support the candidate. It also offers video of Obama and links to a profile where Obama supporters post messages that are a bit more coherent than those of their MySpace counterparts.

Turning Friends into Voters

One Obama supporter, Maxwell Gold, a 19-year-old Vassar student, posted a link to a software application he built. The software, or widget, which can be downloaded to any profile, lets the user collect all the Obama speeches that Gold has been able to find online. "I'm not that technologically savvy," Gold apologizes when asked about the widget. "It was like me trying to teach myself. It was fun."

This will be the first election in which Gold is old enough to vote, and he readily acknowledges that he wouldn't be paying attention this far in advance of the election were it not for the candidates' creeping onto Facebook. (As for MySpace? "I used to use it," he says, "you know, when I was young.")

Of course, the Holy Grail is trying to figure out how to turn the online enthusiasm and creativity of folks like Gold and Kaufman into offline votes. With many months to go before the election, it will be a long time before candidates can determine whether their efforts at social media pay off. As for me, I always vote, but I won't be signing up to be friends with any of the candidates.


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