You’ve Got a Friend in Barack Obama: Integrating Social Networking Tools into Political Campaigns

Cross-posted on techPresident

First fruits of Netroots Nation — this morning, Chris Hughes and friend-of-e.politics (and new Obama campaign employee) Judith Freeman led an overview of how the nominee-to-be’s campaign has used social networking tools of all kinds to bring in new supporters, organize locally and (most importantly) put volunteers to work on their own. Let’s break down the tools and how the campaign uses each.


MyBarackObama is a “walled garden” social network, meaning that it’s a campaign-specific site and not a public social network like MySpace or Facebook. Whether it’s an actual social network with cross-connections among users has been questioned, but it and its million+ members are clearly extremely useful to the campaign. The critical point is that the MyBO features give participating activists tools to organize in their own communities, for instance by throwing house parties and fundraising drives, BEFORE the campaign has begun to direct volunteer activities from above.

For instance, based on Chris and Judith’s presentation, it sounds as though MyBarackObama is most important in the period before the campaign has a chance to set up an official organization in an area, since it gives people an immediate outlet for their political enthusiasm. And when official campaign staff do create a presence in the area, MyBO provides them with an automatic pool of local helpers and a pool of data about online activity, making it easy to identify the all-important super-volunteers. Once the campaign is up and running in a given area, the professional staff will begin to direct more of the local volunteer activity, but even then MyBO usage does not appear to drop off significantly.

Organizing on Facebook

Of course, as we’ve covered many times before, relatively few political organizations will be able to set up a system like MyBarackObama, in part because of the difficulty of hitting critical mass and in part because of cost, so the Obama campaign’s outreach tactics for mass audience online social networks (Facebook, MySpace) are more likely to be useful as a model. Obama’s Facebook outreach breaks down into three elements:

  • Profile page. The best known part of Obama’s Facebook outreach, his Page currently has 1.15 million “friends,” three times as many as any other Page (political or not). Critically, having a Page allows the campaign to mass-message its supporters, providing an email supplement/replacement whose messages are guaranteed to get through. And of course it’s a convenient catch-point, creating that initial supporter contact that the campaign can then leverage to encourage deeper levels of activism.
  • Local groups. All through the primary election process, Obama field organizers were told to create LOCAL Facebook groups, which can actually grow very quickly from a small nucleus — Facebook Newsfeeds automatically promote the signup process, since your friends’ feeds are updated when you join a group. And again a local Facebook group is another email supplement/replacement for one-to-one or one-to-many organizing messages.
  • Facebook Application The Obama Facebook App spreads campaign messages directly to supporters’ friends as they visit the supporter’s profile, greatly increasing distribution — like a badge or a button, but with constantly updated messaging from the campaign. So far, hundreds of thousands of people have installed the Obama App, and I’d be fascinated to know how many conversions have come directly from people seeing it on their friends’ sites.


As anyone who’s used the two sites knows, MySpace pages allow much more customization than Facebook profiles, meaning that MySpace offers great flexibility to a political campaign. For instance, on MySpace it’s much easier to add obvious and easy email signup forms to ensnare supporters and to provide clear links back to important features on the main Obama campaign site.

It’s also relatively easy for individual MySpace users to add different features to their own profiles, and the Obama campaign has created a slew of buttons, badges and widgets to help them spread the word. Ultimately the campaign is trying to use each MySpace supporter’s profile page as a communications hub in that supporter’s own social circle, ginning up volunteers friend-to-friend.

The Obama campaign has also been active on other soc nets such as Black Planet, and in each case they adapt their approach to meet the particular rules, requirements and customs of that site. But despite impressive fundraising, the campaign’s resources are limited, and it would be difficult to have a robust presence in every place they would like.


Though it’s good to see how a well-funded and well-organized campaign approaches online social networks, most political organizations won’t have to resources to do in-depth outreach and build a devoted cadre of super-activists — much less cultivate their own walled gardens. But as we’ve discussed before, providing supporters with the tools to promote a candidate or cause on their own is relatively simple — profile pages, badges, buttons and even widgets are easy to build (believe me, if e.politics can have a widget, anyone can). In other words, campaigns don’t have to dive right into the deep end — sometimes a dipping a toe or two into the pool of Facebook and MySpace fans will be enough.


Written by
Colin Delany
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