Looking back at the 2008 campaigns, I think its most significant achievement was to harness the Internet as an organizing tool.
I always thought that the Internet had the opposite effect, which is disorganize thought and people, because the fun act of clicking away led to so many disparate and unrelated sites.
But the 2008 presidential Internet campaigns—particularly the one waged by Obama—showed that when used strategically, the Internet can be a powerful organizer of crowds. It can help form coalitions and lead people toward a common goal.
The most ground-breaking achievement was fund-raising. A question must to be asked, however. Did the Internet create first the interest in and commitment to the candidate, which then led to crowd to a single-minded mobilization of massive amounts of money to elect him? Or did other forms of media or communications (not the Internet) create the commitment to the candidate first, and the Internet merely served as a tool for collecting contributions?
It is more likely the former. As Garrett reflected in class a few weeks ago, the Internet was there from the start, serving to create a small base of adherents to Obama, which started to legitimize him as a possibly credible leader. The Obama campaign then used the Internet once again to deliver new campaign messages while exploiting the Internet’s networking potential, which then created progressively larger political bases and a stronger legitimizing environment for Obama.
This happened as a snowball effect, with the Internet playing a bigger and bigger role. Serious fund-raising came in at some point and by that time, the snowball effect was so exponential that the amounts raised become phenomenal. The analogy to a ripple effect is inaccurate. No one threw a rock, no rock sank to the bottom. And Obama’s campaign certainly cannot be characterized by ripples that do not reinforce themselves but instead dissipate outwards and become nothing.
In other words, the Internet’s crowd-organizing power is at the same time a crowd-sourcing tool—to reinforce the candidate’s legitimacy, and to mobilize money.
This has important implications for campaigns and fund-raising other than for presidential elections. It seems doubtful that an abstract cause per se can directly rally large masses to make financial contributions. Much more effective, it seems, is a determined individual who starts with a small base, obtains legitimacy from them, and then uses the Internet to broadcast that incipient, legitimate platform. Then he goes back out again through the Internet and through networking, he invites more people (or he “sources the crowds”) to help amplify that vision, that mandate, in a participatory way (e.g., through blogs, wikis, Facebook, MySpace, etc.). Repeating this process enlarges the sphere of his legitimacy and carries progressively greater masses of people around an evolving political vision. It crosses a certain line where the periodic burst of messages becomes a constant buzz. This is the point where asking for financial donations can take off exponentially.
This is what I think I have learned, but it remains to be tested. Perhaps this social development and organization theory around Internet use can be useful to what I want to do eventually regarding participatory journalism for promoting good governance and anti-corruption in developing countries.
But for now, it all starts with someone who believes in something important.