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Obama, the first social media president

As if the president-elect weren't being fitted for enough mantles already (Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan?), pundits and commentators are already imagining for Obama a suit of rocket robot armor, suitable attire for the man who's now being dubbed the first tech president.

What exactly that means is still largely the stuff of speculation, admittedly fun in this case. This is still the postelection hype-o-sphere, remember, where rampant optimism and drunken soothsaying go unchecked by messy reality. Obama's transition team is hardly commenting on anything, so when it comes to soberly assessing the new administration's vaunted approach to technology, we're rather limited.

Some things we know: Obama is no Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. And he's no Mark Zuckerberg (the founder of Facebook). Rather than being given to deranged leaps ...

... of techno-insight, Obama's tech talent is finding novel uses for available tools.

And he's already slapping a custom saddle on three of new media's biggest workhorses. How about social networks as a means of encouraging civic engagement, online video as a means of informing the citizenry and a Google search-minded approach to the sharing of government documents?

Obama's best-known tech bona fide is the social network his campaign designed. My.barackobama.com (or MyBo, as its users call it) took social networking -- until then, little more than an amusing way to stay in touch with far-flung friends or chat with colleagues -- and developed it into a powerful tool for fundraising, community building and voter turnout.

It may even have had a few surprising side effects. I went on MyBo and asked users what their experience had been like.

“Before I joined this blog, I didn't know what 'Twitter' meant, other than what a bird might do,” wrote MyBo contributor Maeve Andersen of Des Moines. “Nor did I know Digg, or any number of Internet sites and programs. I didn't even really appreciate what 'blogging' meant.”

Pamela Coukos, a Bay Area organizer for the Obama campaign, called the campaign's outreach “old school and new tools.” “The ideas about how to organize people and build meaningful personal connections are very traditional,” she wrote in an e-mail, but the difference was that, with the networked community, “you could reach a huge audience very fast, with a whole lot of information.”

MyBo activity has declined since the election, but, said Coukos, many users are still on standby. “I get lots of people asking me what's next, 'How can I stay organized? How can I be engaged?'.”

They might not have to wait long to find out. Gene Koo, who studies digital methods of education at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, suggested that the new administration might convert the Obama network into a hub for civic action -- though that kind of revamp would not be a slam dunk. “It's not the same thing to make changes in the environment or healthcare as it is to elect a person, where the goal is very singular, where there's a moment of victory or defeat.”

But Koo thinks it's doable. For one thing, “you need some kind of leader who can rally the troops, if that's Al Gore on the environment or Hillary Clinton on healthcare -- then you push down to the local level what you need them to do.”

The Obama team broke another media mold by posting 1,800 videos to YouTube during the campaign, including a dozen with more than a million views each -- the most popular being his speech on race, which has become one of YouTube's most-viewed videos. Last week, the administration-to-be announced that online video would replace radio as its default method for the weekly national address, and the first one, despite being mostly unremarkable, has scored nearly a million views since Friday.

Daniel Manatt, founder of PoliticsTV.com, a progressive video site, said he expected the new government to treat YouTube as an important conduit to keep citizens informed. “I'm imagining that we're going to see the Obama administration not just using Web video but using dynamic, rich media visual presentations” -- here he mentioned colorful, Gore-like slide shows -- “to convey complex policy matters in a way we haven't seen much before in government.”

In one of his YouTube videos, Obama tells viewers about a third major element of his digital approach: transparency. “We will put government data online in universally accessible formats.”

If that sounds familiar, it's because it's a tweaked version of Google's mission statement: to “organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt is a member of Obama's economic advisory team and has been mentioned as a candidate for the new Cabinet-level position of technology czar. Schmidt, who said he'd probably take a pass on the offer, appeared on MSNBC's “Rachel Maddow Show” Monday and made a case that Google-izing government records would be a win for government accountability.

“Most of what government does is still not public,” Schmidt said. “Not because they're trying to hide it but because they've never talked about it.” But if all of that info finds an intuitive, easily searchable home on the Internet, he said, “you can get a much better outcome if everyone's looking.”

But let me leave you with this: It's almost 2009, the year when YouTube will turn 4, MySpace will turn 6 and Google will turn 11. Isn't it a little disconcerting that a tech-friendly presidency still seems like a new idea?

— David Sarno

 
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