Barack Obama’s Leap Into Social Networking

MyBarackObamaWell, it looks like Barack Obama has gone and done something pretty cool, creating a social networking site for his supporters in addition to continuing his support of his already existing fans on other social networking sites.

Obama’s foray into social networking, titled simply enough “MyBarackObama” (as opposed to taking a snazzy web 2.0 name like “baRackR” or “Obamaster”), gives Obama supporters the option to create a profile, post blogs, find other Obama supporters in their area and, in a move somewhat reminiscent of Howard Dean’s Meetup presence during the last presidential election, even arrange fundraisers and other Obama support events.

At the lab, we’ve always been very careful to avoid talking politics because, generally, nothing good comes from it and you usually end up with someone unhappy with you, but I couldn’t resist mentioning this. There’s a lot of strange parallels that come out when examining how presidential contenders utilize technology, which I assume is probably because, unlike lawmaking, presidential elections are more about branding and less about policy.

 Obama, for his part, has been doing amazingly well with social networking, attracting some 260,000 participants to his Facebook group since it was opened on January 16th (to compare, John McCain has attracted about 1,300 members to his group. Hillary Clinton has attracted 43.), and opening up a social networking site is an incredibly smart idea for any type of cause that has strong proponents. The two core values that social networking addresses are individuality and identification within a group, and since those are the reasons most people bother talking about politics anyway, it seems a natural medium to leverage. In this case, Obama may be able to both mobilize young voters by communicating with them in a style they’re accustomed to and inspire a huge amount of grassroots groundswell. Of course, we all said pretty much the same thing about Howard Dean’s blog four years ago, so who knows?

I would usually never recommend any brand open up their own social networking site and, instead, piggyback off one with an existing user base, but when dealing with either large organizations or things with massive fan followings, starting a branded social network could make a lot of sense. People would probably not be apt to join a Doritos social networking site, say, but I bet one built around a brand like the National Rifle Association would have no trouble attracting users. (NRA, if you’re listening, I want a cut of your profits if you steal this idea, because it would work perfectly for you).

Like a lot of the media we talk about (and user-generated content, in particular), though, sometimes employing new media can be a scary proposition for brands and, in practice, has even ruined a few presidential hopefuls.

This was one of the major downfalls of Howard Dean’s campaign for the Democratic endorsement during the last presidential primaries, according to many politicos and even Dean’s own campaign manager, Joe Trippi. While Dean’s Blog for America garnered a huge amount of interest and its comment section was an important source of self-organization and debate, Trippi said in the book “Blog!” that the volatile community of the blog began to get away from the campaign, making Dean seem much more left-wing than he actually was.

So, what’s a good description of what happened here? A community took a brand (in this case, the concept of Dean) and essentially repurposed it for its own uses, changing the meaning of the brand in the process.

Sound like anything else that has happened with UGC advertising recently?

But, now, all that being said, I have to say that this is a smooth move on the part of Obama and I’d place money that it’s going to work out well for him. Blogs had been in the background for a while, but the last presidential election really thrust them into the limelight. Maybe this can do the same thing for virtual communities.