On January, 20, 2009, I was in Rio de Janeiro, crying in my living room while watching Obama’s inauguration on TV. I had never seen a president able to engage so many people and to cause such a commotion like Barack Obama did. By using powerful social web tools in order to mobilize voters, Obama not only joined the conversations without fear of confronting voters, but also brought them to the political debate, engaging even those who had never been interested in politics before.
Young, extremely smart, charismatic, balanced, and excellent speaker, Obama just needed effective tools to send out his plausible campaign promises (the changes Americans wanted to see), hoping to get votes in exchange. Obama used several tools to achieve his goal. According to Garrett Graff, author of “The First Campaign” (2007), the five most powerful tools for political campaigns in this new era are “cell phones, YouTube, social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, blogs, and online fund-raising” (p.15), which were all used in Obama’s campaign.
So, beyond positive personal traits, Obama had the conjuncture in his favor. Between 2004 (Bush’s second term) and 2008, technology and the social web developed rapidly, transforming the way people communicate and access information. According to the economic concept of “network effect”, the more people use a product, or service, the more useful it becomes – which is especially true for the social web: the more users, the more powerful the network become. So, in 2008, effective social web tools, available for free, were at their peak – which means millions of people connected and ready to be engaged through social media –, and it was the perfect scenario for a young politician to take advantage of these resources in order to get to the most powerful job in the world – the presidency of the United States.
With an innovative campaign approach – which was “a change” itself – and the slogan “Yes, we can”, Obama – confident and enthusiastic – raised hope for Americans to see changes finally being made after eight years of an unpopular Bush Administration. Comparing Obama’s campaigning strategy to a Business/Marketing bible, The Cluetrain Manifesto, we could say that Obama applied wisely the book’s main theses, which are basically: 1) markets are conversations; 2) conversations should sound human, genuine; 3) companies don’t listen to/interact with their markets, don’t sound human, and their corporate communications are self-centered, impersonal, uninteresting, and undesirable.
Now, in #3, change “companies”, “markets”, and “corporate communications” respectively for “politicians” and “publics” and “speeches”. Going back to Obama’s campaign, 1) Obama successfully joined the conversations and interacted with his publics through varied media. Actually, an interesting aspect of the use of social media in political campaigns was pointed out by Garrett Graff in “The First Campaign”: unlike TV, a one-way communication through which politicians don’t listen to/interact with their audiences, the highly interactive social media tools were essential in fostering the political debate; 2) Obama sounded honest, genuine, with no masks, like a real person with good intentions – not a character; 3) Most politicians and their speeches are boring and make us want to sleep, but Obama’s campaign speeches were different; he seemed to know and to believe in what he said, and he was able to give enthusiastic speeches.
Obama’s networked campaign is undoubtedly a role model, but for rich democracies, such as the United States. In Brazil, still with a high level of social inequality, high-tech campaigns wouldn’t be efficient in reaching out to the majority of voters. Especially in poor areas, we still have a predominant bread and circuses politics, in which politicians – kind of “celebrities” who, in fact, have no plans to change anything, but want the pay (direct and indirect) and the spotlight of the political life – give away caps, T-shirts, food, and even money in exchange for votes: an acceptable bargain for the poor. Sad.