The campaign website for American Democratic Presidential hopeful, Senator Barack Obama, has pulled out all the stops to embrace social software. From the main index, visitors can join the site and create a profile which they can then use to network, find or plan events, or write a blog. Obama’s site calls their suite of social networking features “My Barack Obama”.
Anyone who followed the Howard Dean campaign last time around will undestand how powerful a tool the internet can be in helping candidates, or in this case nomination hopefuls, organise their supporters and get their message across whilst, at the same time, bypassing the traditional media gatekeepers (and, one could argue, dodging the questions of professional journalists)
The Barack Obama website takes social networking a step further by not just providing features on it’s own website, but by reaching out and embracing the communities already using flickr, youtube and facebook.
Using social media sites is likely to help Obama’s campaign find new audiences to engage with but will lack the ability to fully control those interactions – something you and I probably think is a good thing but which must scare the hell out Obama’s campaign staffers. Or maybe not.
When TechCrunch “exposed” a “very ugly bug at BarackObama.com”, Obama’s New Media Director, Joe Rospars, was quick to visit and post a comment to explain. He stepped out, acknowledged the problem and engaged with it positively and transparently. The bug, it would seem, wasn’t really a bug, just a feature that showed the title of the most recent group created on the site as an example to the next visitor(s). Rospars wrote:
“It’s up to folks who support this kind of open approach to politics online to push back on the kind of knee-jerk “look! look! look!” that more traditional or tech-phobic writers are inclined to engage in.”
“The past few years have taught most people that it’s a non-story when people post crazy/critical/racist/whatever things in the comments on a politician or organization’s site, and that’s what makes it possible for people in jobs like mine to keep these tools open for all. It’s going to take all of us, no matter what candidate you support, to avoid pretending these kind of things are stories to continue to make progress.”
Michael Arrington’s response? Try to draw some links from bloggers, of course, by going completely off the rails and aiming for the jugular:
“Joe – way to reach out to the community. When you fuck up, the best thing to do is not attack the people who alerted you to it. Why in the world you allowed something like this to happen is beyond me. Why didn’t you just hard code the example into the page? It would have been easier and this wouldn’t have happened.”
“This isn’t Washington DC politics, and you shouldn’t assume I have some racist or other bias against your campaign. We’re a tech blog and I pointed out what looks like a rookie mistake on your site that caused some embarrassment. Most of our readers (me included) are going to be inclined to be on your side. But Obama just lost my vote, because of you.”
Over the top? Yes, extremely.
You can’t preach about engagement then, when someone does it, misinterpret much of what they’ve said and get-all-hot-under-the-collar-unstoppable-rage-could-smash-the-headlights-on-a-car-with-a-baseball-bat-defensive about it.
The barackobama.com website guy was right to point out that it’s a non-story that people will try to do stuff like TechCrunch spotted. That’s what happens when you trust people to be adults and set up systems that enable people to pariticipate without controlling every move they make. Once aware, it appears that the Obama website quickly removed the content and changed the procedure for starting new groups so that now a member of staff has to approve each.
Rather than blogging – including what was, in my opinion, wildly speculative and irresponsible comments about the “bug” either being introduced “maliciously by one of the developers of the site” or caused by a “security hole” without actually trying to find out the real story first – what he no doubt thought was a great, highly diggable exclusive about “malicious coders, Arrington could have simply been adult about it and hit the alert button like everyone else. Yet again, the blogger lynchmob casts a shadow over the more reasonable amongst us…
[Update: Bivings has a useful round-up of reviews of the Obama website]