Politics is Viral — AND Local

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.


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • Hey Colin, nice post, although I disagree with your critique of the Vargas piece. I remember reading that last week and thinking the same thing when I read the title, but maybe it was just that it WAS poorly titled. Vargas probably could have made a stronger point – as you did – about how the virality of social media makes the locality of politics that much more powerful. I think, though, that he really does make that point pretty well through his examples, and the Northern Iowa example is exactly that.

    You make a good point, though, talking about how (well, I THINK this was your point) the Obama campaign was smart about taking advantage of social media’s ability to “validate” relationships that people make on the local level in order to cement those relationships. The result was the strength of these unbelievable local machines that the campaign built. This was entirely innovative, and does seem to be the most powerful lesson to be learned.

    My question would still be how this is applied beyond the campaign. Andy

  • Andy, I love you like a brother, and it hurts me deeply to have to point this out, but I think you’re actually agreeing with me by the end. Boil it down and what I said was, good piece, bad title, and the piece actually contradicts the title. Which is also I think what you’re saying!

    As for the broad applicability, we’re seeing it every day in the nonprofit world, as plenty of groups are learning to use their supporter lists for more than overnight fundraising and email advocacy — some are finding ways and providing tools to turn supporters into evangelists in whatever communities they’re a part of (whether local or not).

  • Hey Colin, you’re right, I do agree with you more than I disagree. Your post was thought-provoking and I was showing the thought that it provoked, I guess! I like your additional points about the nonprofit world, by the way.