December 30th, 2008
Cross-posted on techPresident
An online politics wrap-up article by Jose Antonio Vargas published in the Post this weekend has been working its way through the internet politics crowd over the past couple of days, being posted on Facebook, forwarded on Twitter and zapped via email. It’s a good piece, and it reflects the time that Jose has spent covering the online politics beat — he was one of the few mainstream journalists who really dug into HOW people were using the internet for politics this time around, as they created a profoundly new environment for politicians, journalists and activists alike.
I have to take my friend to task over the title, however — which in his defense, may have been written by a copyeditor rather than by Jose himself. “Politics Is No Longer Local. It’s Viral” sounds catchy, playing off the legendary observation that “all politics is local.” It’s also almost embarrassingly wrong, and a serious misunderstanding of the realities of the Obama campaign.
How did Obama turn out the votes that delivered the Democrats a bundle of traditionally Red states? Through an online-organized mobilization operation that was local in orientation by design. In fact, one of the central pieces of genius of the Obama campaign was that it devised and replicated an organizational structure and a set of online tools that put people to work directly in their own communities. The Obamans used database-driven block-walking as a key source of both information and votes, relying on the idea that people trust those whom they already know or with whom they share a neighborhood connection. Of course, non-local contacts and “viral” spread mattered (as did virtual phone banks, MyBarackObama and those emails and texts you sent your momma), but the essence of the Obama community organizing model WAS community, and not just of the virtual kind.
More broadly, the viral connections Jose is talking about (the spread of information from person to person to person) are often ultimately BASED on place, since most of our social connections derive from sharing a personal space — a town, a street, a dorm, a barracks or a bedroom. You can see it in the very first example he describes, which is a meeting of University of Northern Iowa students in a bowling alley. Yes, they organized through the Facebook, and yes they learned about Obama’s positions in part through YouTube, but when it was time for the real work of politics, they met face-to-face at a bowling alley, and they played their most important role by standing in line at their own precinct caucuses. Which sounds pretty local to me.
Obviously I don’t want to overstate the point, since one of the fascinating things about the internet is its ability to transcend geographic boundaries to bring people together into entirely new communities based on shared interests rather than on mere proximity. But humans more often use technology to enhance our immediate lives rather than to replace them, and elections aren’t won in the virtual world — they’re won in the real world, in the local world, in the places where we live and work and breathe. Future campaigns take note: viral PLUS local is the new reality, and one without the other is likely to fall far short of the goal.