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The Geeks Behind Obama's Web Strategy

A group of Boston geeks helped Barack Obama turn the Web into the ultimate political machine. Will he use it now to reinvent government?

By David Talbot
January 8, 2009
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On a February night nearly two years ago, a Boston computer programmer named Jascha Franklin-Hodge was entertaining a first date over dinner at Shanti, in Dorchester, when his cellphone rang, displaying a Chicago number. Bolting from his plate of korma and dashing outside, he heard good news from the fledgling Barack Obama campaign. Franklin-Hodge and his squad of Web designers and programmers at Blue State Digital -- a small start-up in a creaky-floored loft office on Congress Street in the Seaport District -- had been hired to build much of Obama for America's digital backbone: the interactive and social-networking features of my.barackobama.com, or MyBO.

MyBO would become the hub of the campaign's online efforts to organize supporters, channel their energies effectively, enable them to call millions of voters, and, of course, collect donations. Today President-elect Obama has a new soapbox, change.gov, the official transition website (also built by Blue State Digital). It features such novelties as Cabinet nominees giving YouTube replies to comments posted by average Americans. The extent to which Obama goes on to use the Web -- as a portal to release more government data for public consumption, as an instrument for rallying Americans to advance his agenda, and to bypass traditional media -- is yet to be seen. But his campaign platform promised Obama would use technology to create "a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation." When Obama takes the oath of office nine days from now, his hallmark is likely to be a massive use of the Web.

He certainly took online campaigning to a new level. His e-campaign included not only MyBO, of course, but also the powerful leveraging of everything from text-messaging to YouTube video propagation to supporter networks on platforms like Facebook -- and on a scale that dwarfed what was achieved by Hillary Clinton or John McCain (for example, Obama had more than 3.4 million Facebook supporters, six times McCain's number). Of course, that night at Shanti, all that was clear to Franklin-Hodge was that a polished but long-shot junior senator would step to a Springfield, Illinois, lectern nine days later, on February 10, 2007, to announce his candidacy. Franklin-Hodge -- a baritone-voiced MIT dropout, now 29 years old -- had been around this block once before; he was part of a core group of geeks who built the then-novel online apparatus for the Howard Dean campaign. But 2003 was still the Dark Ages for online social networking. The Dean tools for setting up meetings and donating were a little rough. More important, fewer Americans were comfortable using the Internet to form communities and to organize. (In 2003, Facebook didn't exist in its present form but today has more than 40 million American accounts; it seems every other Joe Sixpack has a Facebook profile.)

So after Dean self-immolated with his "I Have a Scream" speech, Franklin-Hodge and three others cofounded Blue State Digital to hone the software for Democratic and progressive organizations. (Both Ted Kennedy and John Kerry have used the company.) While Blue State is based in Washington, D.C., the choice of technology headquarters was no accident: Boston has the political activism of D.C. and the technological edge of Silicon Valley; it's the Hub of the progressive geek universe. And by 2007, everything came together for a national Web-centric political campaign -- the technology, its acceptance by more Americans, and, of course, the BlackBerry-bearing Barack. The Obama campaign "embraced what it was we were trying to do: show that technology wasn't just a tool in the arsenal, but a transformative force," Franklin-Hodge recalls. "They knew they didn't have the kind of political machine Clinton was going to come in with. They had to build their own machine, and the way to do this was with the online tools. The campaign understood the power of the Internet to get people engaged in the process on a scale never done before." One of Blue State's cofounders -- Joe Rospars, another Dean alumnus -- became embedded in the Obama campaign as its new-media director. Franklin-Hodge, who is Blue State's chief technology officer, ran the Boston technology boiler room. By the time Obama wrapped up his Springfield speech, the company's main bank of servers, in Somerville, was getting hammered with hits.

Newcomers to MyBO found simple, intuitive ways to get involved. You could click a button to donate. You could see maps displaying locations and details about area house parties. You could, of course, organize your own event and download the Obama message du jour. You could establish your own fund-raising efforts and watch the "thermometer" rise as your acquaintances ponied up. And after you surrendered your e-mail address, you would get messages signed by everyone from Michelle Obama to Al Gore, with new exhortations as the primary and general election campaigns progressed. (Similar tools were available on the Democratic National Committee's website, also built by Blue State.)

Compounding the power of MyBO, Blue State added new ways for the campaign to allow any casual volunteer to make calls to voters. This powerful nexus was enabled by a second local company, Voter Activation Network, in Somerville's Davis Square. "The VAN," as it is known, is putting ever-sleeker interfaces on the DNC's national voter database, turning yesterday's state-by-state spreadsheets into something as easily accessed and manipulated as an iPod song list. Tens of thousands of volunteers -- including many logging onto MyBO, others entering from the DNC site or from computers at local campaign offices -- clicked a button to download small batches of voters' names, a script for querying them about their views and voting plans, and their local polling addresses. Millions of such calls were made during the heated primary battle -- a scale unprecedented because of the previous practical barriers. "The improvements from a few years back is unbelievable," says Mark Sullivan, cofounder of VAN. In the four days before Election Day, thousands of volunteers used MyBO to make more than 3 million calls.

It is possible to overstate the role of the Web in the 2008 presidential campaign, but not by much. Clinton and McCain wielded (or, eventually wielded) all of the same tools, but did not place the Web at the center of fund-raising, organizing, and communicating -- or do so from the very start -- to the extent Obama did. The Web was to Obama what television was to John F. Kennedy, and then some. Obama's campaign garnered a staggering $500 million in online donations from more than 3 million people. (Dean got $27 million in Internet donations during his bid for the nomination.) Within MyBO, supporters' self-directed fund-raising efforts raked in $30 million from 70,000 individuals. People spent 14 million hours watching campaign-related Obama videos on YouTube: 50 million views in all. And in the days before November 4, Web-based volunteers helped form "the biggest nationwide field organization ever created," Franklin-Hodge says.

Given these numbers, there's little doubt Obama's people will adapt the e-machinery to governing; just how is a work in progress. His transition team did not grant an interview for this story, but clues are on display on change.gov. His radio address is now also a YouTube video address. His team has solicited public comment on policy matters, asked people to organize house parties to talk about healthcare, and wheeled out aides such as Health and Human Services Secretary-designee Tom Daschle to provide YouTube answers to posted submissions. They have launched an "Open for Questions" feature in which visitors can ask and vote on questions for the administration: In one week at the beginning of December, 20,000 people posed 10,000 questions and cast 1 million votes on them. In an early nod to increased openness, the transition team has also posted a sortable, searchable list of donors who contributed $200 or more to the Obama inaugural committee.

It's far from clear whether all of this amounts to substantive change, or merely represents a patina of changelike communications. Obama's campaign promised to use the Internet to furnish easily searchable files on everything from government spending to data on regulated industries, and to Webcast more public meetings. When I spoke before the election to Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor and Internet adviser to the campaign, he pointed out that Obama needs to fight hard for real change -- like fixing healthcare, radically reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to fight climate change, and ensuring Internet freedoms -- to sustain his network's enthusiasm. "The thing they don't quite recognize is how much of their enormous support comes from the perception that this is someone different," Lessig said. "If they behave like everyone else, how much will that stanch the passion of his support?"

At a technical level, the potential for his network to help fight the big fights is staggering. The Obama campaign collected the e-mail addresses of 13 million supporters and, equally important, knows a great deal about them, thanks to their Web activities: what issues they care about, what organizing and donating they've done, who belongs to their social networks, and so on. (Due to federal elections rules, the White House can't directly use this, but the Obama campaign could first transfer it to the DNC or form another entity to exploit the list.) Beyond the Obama organization, the DNC has supercharged its own voter databases after years of trying to catch up with the Republicans. In just the final two months of the campaign -- thanks in no small part to the millions of calls through MyBO -- American voters provided some 223 million pieces of data about themselves to callers and canvassers, Sullivan says, helping bolster the DNC's voter dossier by a factor of 10 since the 2004 election. Some of this is useless ("refused to talk"), but much is good data about their stands on issues and who they voted for. Similar improvements have been made to a comparable database owned by Catalist, a Washington, D.C., firm founded by former Clinton administration deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes. Catalist's voter list adds intelligence gleaned from progressive organizations' membership lists.

Of course, there's always the risk of fatiguing people with a blizzard of new requests. And the average supporter who was fired up about ending the reign of George W. Bush's party may not get his blood up advancing nuanced arguments about Medicare reform. "It remains to be seen just how well-utilized this will be -- and whether people who were motivated by a campaign will be motivated by the whole bill-become-a-law thing," says Thomas Gensemer, the managing partner of Blue State Digital and another cofounder.

While the Web-centric governing strategy is not entirely formed, it's not a tough call to say that the future of politics will revolve around the Web and new media. McCain's campaign may have been slow to put the Web at the center (though it arguably had equally good tools and equally skilled geeks on its side), but count on a Republican technological surge. Last month, Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society brought together leading political operatives for a retrospective of the 2008 e-campaign wars. Among them were several Republicans: Chuck DeFeo, the e-campaign director for Bush/Cheney in 2004; Mike Connell, a former Bush operative who founded Ohio-based New Media Communications (call it the Blue State Digital of the right); and David All, a conservative Web consultant.

Change can cut both ways, and it's clear that the Republicans have no more intention of permitting Democrat Web superiority than the Democrats had of allowing a permanent Republican majority. "Obama ran a campaign based on promises, but when you govern, you disappoint people," All points out. "Getting people fired up about whatever 'change' and 'hope' means to them -- once you have them fired up about your agenda, it will upset people" if you don't follow through, he says. This reality provides a huge opening for the GOP, and the technological lessons of 2008 are hardly lost on Obama's opponents. "What [the Republicans] need to do is create an effective online war-room response mechanism, where they have people paying attention to every single thing that Barack does and forming a response," All says. "Last I looked, there were 15 change.gov videos, and not a single Republican put out a single message." But with the Republican National Committee now in the mode of fighting the power -- rather than being forced to echo Bush -- they are well positioned to leverage the Web to fight back.

At the Harvard event, Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager and founding father of Internet-centric campaigning, declared that the Obama victory ensures that future elections will be won not because the candidate was anointed by a powerful party, but because he or she was best at using a Web and new-media strategy to rally the masses.

Whether Trippi is right about the decline of the party establishment -- and regardless of whether President Obama uses the Web more as a beacon of good government or more as a megaphone for polished multimedia administration statements -- it's a pretty safe bet that Franklin-Hodge, his Blue State Digital partners, the Democrats, and their counterparts on the right will find plenty of work. (For Blue State's part, campaign and DNC work is in the cards, not White House communications.) So while Franklin-Hodge went home alone from Shanti that night, the dinner wasn't a total bust. "It wasn't meant to be," he says of the date. "But at least there was one long-term relationship that came out of the dinner."

David Talbot is chief correspondent at Technology Review magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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