Category Archives: Weekly Posts

Here Comes Everybody

Promise + tool + bargain.  The road to the White House?

Technology has put us squarely in the midst of a social revolution.  Gone are the days when neighbors discussed politics and gossip over the fence.  Instead, people around the world named Fred agree to meet in a single spot on a single day, a person in China edits a definition I enter on a virtual encyclopedia, and one email or blog sparks a revolution.  As Clay Shirky puts it, “we can have groups that operate with a birthday party’s informality and a multinational’s scope.”


The political campaign that does not embrace this change is the campaign that accepts defeat.  Shirky argues in his book, Here Comes Everybody:  The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, that a successful online venture requires the a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain with the users:

In the context of a political campaign, achieving the trifecta means giving people a reason to support the candidate and join the campaign; providing supporters with easy ways to participate in the campaign; and clearly stating what supporters must bring to the campaign and what the campaign will deliver to them.


The Obama presidential campaign demonstrates success when the trifecta is met and lost opportunity when just one element falls short. 


Obama’s campaign promise of “Change We Can Believe In” and now “Change We Need” hits the “sweet spot” Shirky describes.  That is, it is “big enough to inspire interest, yet achievable enough to inspire confidence,” and offers “some value higher than something else he/she already does.” 

Once Obama sinks these supporters with his message, he throws them a line with easy tools to participate:  unprecedented grassroots organizing, online fundraising and volunteering, virtual communities, neighbor to neighbor outreach.  He’s made his campaign a community you don’t want to be excluded from.

Finally, Obama has made the bargain of his campaign clear from the start:  if you commit to me, I’ll commit to you and together we’ll change the world. 




So, he’s perfect, right?  Not so fast.  Early in the summer, Obama bargained with supporters that if they gave their cell phone numbers to the campaign he would reward them by texting his VP choice, ensuring they’d be “the first to know.”   The  campaign provided an easy tool (click here) and unprecedented numbers of supporters handed over their cell numbers, lured by the promise of access to the inner circle.  One problem:  Obama didn’t live up to the bargain.


“That promise was undercut when news organizations confirmed around 1 a.m. today that Obama had settled on Biden. The announcement was sent about two hours later — apparently with no glitches, said Kevin Bertman of Distributive Networks, the District-based mobile company hired by the campaign to send its texts.

Yet some awaiting word were complaining on various blogs and social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. “What happened to the text message?” wrote Hunter Woods on the wall of Obama’s official Facebook page.”

And because we live in a new world, what once may have been one neighbor complaining to another became blogs, postings and emails from Alaska to New York.


1948 Rolls Into 1972

Karabell defines the 1948 presidential election as “the last campaign,” arguing that it was the last time that “an entire spectrum of ideologies was represented in the presidential election.”  In 1948, radio and print media were the dominant mediums through which the candidates reached the voters.  Reporters saw themselves as “the Fourth Estate,” and expected to play a role in the presidential campaign.  Reporters of that era “believed they served a vital purpose.  They believed…they had the power and responsibility to mediate the election.”


Reporters and candidates traveled together and candidates were accessible for news conferences or informal chats.  Truman played poker with the reporters and used the accessibility to his advantage.  Stories of the race contained the basics and reporters wrote what they saw and what the candidate, sticking to the “cut-and-dried formula stories.”  Truman in particular took advantage of this type of reporting, engaging in a “Give-‘em-Hell-Harry” strategy full of negative campaigning and empty promises.  Dewey, in contrast, ran a civil but dull campaign that would become the model for future candidates struck by the advent of technology and intrigue.


By 1972, as Crouse so vividly documents, the reporters on the train had become “the boys on the bus.”  The reporters covering McGovern, Nixon, Humphrey and Muskie were a different breed than their predecessors covering Truman, Dewey, Thurmond and Wallace.  By this time television had begun its revolution of political coverage and the young, educated reporters were there to “analyze the political process and report on how it worked.”  The press at this point responded to the dull, scripted campaigns that Dewey had introduced by focusing on the game of the race over the standard quotes on the issues delivered by the candidate and his staff.  TV journalists devoted less time to candidates’ qualifications and positions on the issues than had been printed in newspapers a generation before.  Candidates responded by closing in rank and focusing on offering the perfect shot for the camera more than the perfect quote for the paper.


In both elections, the push-and-pull of the media and candidate relationship was a constant.  The candidates were able to manipulate the press (“If the press operation is this good, they must have a helluva voter registration operation!”) in the same vein the press held power over the candidates (“Well, Marty,” said the Senator [Muskie].  “I guess you’re right.”…he apologized for his outburst).  Crouse hits the nail on the head in defining campaign journalism as, by definition, pack journalism.  In 1948 and 1972 alike, reporters on the train and reporters on the bus followed each other’s lead, too often responding to the whims of their editors “whose suspicions of any unusual story made pack journalism look cozy and inviting to their reporters.”