Weekly#6: Obama’s networked campaign: a role model, but not for the poor

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.

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Personal#2: An Outburst

I’m living a contradictory life – I’m a Communications professional lacking communication skills. This is pathetic. An interesting phenomenon happens when you live abroad: you don’t really learn the foreign language as it’s spoken and, at the same time, you start to forget some vocabulary and misspell words in your native language. So, I’m at this point in which the brain start to work both in Portuguese and in English, but mixing words, which is REALLY weird. When I want to say something it’s all messed up in my head, like a computer with some sort of configuration problem.

In addition to that, it’s too much information. Almost everyone has everyday – or has already had at some point – the feeling of being bombed with information coming from everywhere and being unable to digest it and absorb it. It’s the cab driver’s radio (that you don’t want to listen), the advertising posters and signs around the city (that you didn’t ask for), the Web, the TV and its overwhelming options, printed newspapers and magazines, and so on.

But I’ve settled with the fact that it’s impossible to be aware of everything. In the U.S., I learned to deal with the feeling of struggling to catch up with. Imagine you’re in a maze, like Pac-Man, where native speakers are those hungry, smiling faces consuming information pills frantically and quickly finding the exit to another level, and foreigners are ghosts lagging behind. Double effort is necessary in order to achieve 60%, or 70% of what you’re able to produce in your comfort zone, or culture and language. I mean, instead of going through the maze experience naturally and coming out of it excited about the bunch of interesting information you’ve consumed along the way, the foreigner may struggle through his/her experience and come out of it physically and emotionally exhausted.

And it’s not only about the amount of effort/energy that you have to put on something and the quality of the outcome, but also about what you’re able to take away from your experiences. In school, foreigners don’t get it all, but get the most of it in class; you can always catch up with classes by studying on your own, but it will happen “later” – I mean, sometimes there’s no real-time understanding of things. For instance, when watching a movie, you don’t get all the jokes; if someone explains you the joke, you’ll laugh, but five minutes after everybody did. It’s like having a brain in delay.

Am I being too dramatic? OK, ghosts in a maze may be an extreme metaphor because, in fact, foreigners are not invisible neither totally lost; we’re just not completely aware of the context. We’re surrounded by a culture that is not ours, and we lack references in order to fully understand what’s going on. This feeling of being apart comes with a sense of not belonging, like “I’m physically here, but not entirely here”; I’m more of an observer than a participant.

The interesting thing, though, is that this life here doesn’t really seem to be my real life. It’s like if I were playing someone else – the ghost, in Pac-Man (sorry, but I like the metaphor) – because the way I behave (and, therefore, the way I’m perceived) in another language is different from the way I am. But, one day, the game will be over, and I will go back to my real life – the ghost will reincarnate. The positive side of this game is the fact that all I can get out of it – even if I can’t get it all – is extra credit, or a different perspective that will add to my real life.

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Weekly#2: Should CEOs blog?

Yesterday I bumped into – and twitted – the article “Report: most CEOs are mum online”, from PRWeek, and it was the perfect peg for me to make up for a blog post assigned three weeks ago. According to the article, the report Socializing Your CEO: From (Un) Social to Social found out that “64% of CEOs are refraining from engaging stakeholders through online mediums like Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, as well as even the company’s commercial website or sponsored blogs.” Also, the report says there are three reasons for this: 1) “the return on investment isn’t proved yet”; 2) “legal counsel advises against it”; 3) “in general the reputation of CEOs with the public is very low right now.”

I would say to my CEO…

Yes, go ahead, if:

1)   He’s a good storyteller

2)   He has time to dedicate to his blog

3)   He agrees to share “the stage” with other thoughtful, successful businessmen who would add to his blog

4)   He’s willing to share unique insights and advice on career, or the current market and its future

5)   He’s able to share relevant, and maybe funny, episodes of his daily life with a “human” voice

6)   He intends to be sincere – according to Scott Rosenberg, author of “Say Everything”, “sincerity in moderation creates trust” (p.258). He doesn’t need, though, to be authentic and “unfraid to reveal the chaos inside” – this would be too much

Noooo, keep quiet, if:

1)   He’s not a charismatic person

2)   He wants to post and analyze complex charts about which nobody cares

3)   He doesn’t want to join conversations and share what’s in the readers’ best interest

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Personal#1: How much difference can YOU make?

Howard Wu launched, on Facebook, the campaign “Give a Stranger 10 Bucks Day” on 10/10/10 inspired by Reed Sandridge. Howard lives in Seattle, WA, works for T-mobile and runs the nonprofit Bean, which connects young professionals from all around the world. Reed is the creator of Year of Giving, a project that consists of giving away US$ 10,00 to a stranger every day during one year – and this is what Reed has been doing since December 2009. Howard’s campaign for last Sunday has called my attention especially because I participated in Reed’s project three months ago.

It was the height of the World Cup 2010 when a couple of Brazilian friends and I met Reed wearing a Brazilian jersey in a pizzeria in Arlington, VA. We were watching Brazil’s match against Chile. Since Reed had lived in Brazil for three years, we started to chat in Portuguese, and he told us about his project of giving away US$ 10,00 daily for 365 days. Guess what? We were Reed’s chosen ones for day 196; he gave us US$ 10,00, and we decided to mail it to a random address in the suburbs together with some information about Year of Giving.

So, Howard’s campaign on Facebook made me curious about how Reed’s project was evolving, and I thought it would be “good” to tell Reed’s story and how his project has impacted people’s lives by fostering the act of giving through a domino effect. Reed had just been laid off by a nonprofit hit by the economic crisis when he decided to start giving. It’s not the most prudent thing to do when you’re unemployed, but Reed said on his website, “it is exactly these times we must focus on helping others.”

So far, Reed has met hundreds of people, and every day he has an interesting – sometimes touching – story posted on his blog and less US$ 10,00 in his pocket, taken from his savings. The reward? The priceless experience of getting to know some very interesting people and their life stories – often lessons – and, of course, inspiring others to pursue altruism. “Whether that comes in the form of someone who reads this blog and wants to embark on their own Year of Giving or someone who uses the $10 to help someone else out, the specific results are less important than the overall good that we can achieve together.”

Year of Giving has its own Facebook page and, so far, 4,455 people have liked it. The project has inspired people from the U.S. and from countries such as Brazil and Saudi Arabia to do the same. “Others have decided to volunteer a certain amount of their time every week for a year,” says Reed. On his blog, there are testimonials from people who started giving, for instance, by dropping coins in parking lots, toy stores, and grocery stores; or leaving bills behind on different spots. And if you wish, you can always help people in need who Reed has met along his way through the link Lend a hand.

About the future of Year of Giving, which is supposed to end within two months, Reed is not sure. He’s thinking about the possibility of turning the project’s concept into a nonprofit. “I do not know for sure what will happen when I finish my 365 day commitment, on December 14th, 2010. What I can guarantee is that the giving will continue in some form. What started out as a personal endeavor and a blog turned into an international movement.”

You see? Do not underestimate your ability to generate and motivate good deeds.

Check out some of Reed’s favorite stories (days 5111, and 251) and some of his favorite quotes:

“Almost everyone – regardless of income, available time, age, and skills-can do something useful for others and, in the process, strengthen the fabric of our shared humanity.” William J. Clinton

“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Winston Churchill

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Weekly#4: Tomato Lover

It was June 2009 when I travelled to Tuscany, Italy, and became a tomato lover. In those tiny family restaurants hidden on narrow streets in ancient cities such as San Gemignano, Lucca, and Siena, I had the most delicious pasta dishes with fresh tomato sauce ever. Julia Roberts knows what I mean; she seemed delighted eating that Italian spaghetti with tomato sauce in “Eat Pray Love”.

My passion for tomatoes turned into almost an addiction about five months ago, when I found out about Campbell’s V8 tomato soup, with no preservatives. Tomato soup; some ketchup; tomato sauce; raw tomatoes with olive oil, oregano, and salt; or V8 juice are part of my daily life. But this is kind of new to me; so, I had never looked up online for information on tomatoes.

I started from Facebook and found around 9,300 results for “Tomato”, including organizations of agricultural products, restaurants, music band, interior design office, people whose first name is “Tomate” (Tomato in Portuguese and Spanish), management firm, fashion brand, a cat’s profile (from The Philippines), movie (Fried Green Tomatoes, from 1991) and movie reviews (Rotten Tomatoes), technology company, and many pages such as “Can this tomato have more fans than Justin Bieber?”, or “Can this tomato get more fans than Ahmadinejad?” – the latter with 27,556 “likes”, wow! I joined only “Tomatoes”, with 5,072 fans and a brief description from Wikipedia, and “Tomato soup lovers”, with 102 members and no conversations going on, a complete failure. Ok, tomatoes are not chocolates.

Disappointed, I moved on to Flickr, where I found 594,645 beautiful pictures of “tomatoes”, with the exception of someone dressed in a tomato custom and a guinea pig eating tomato, with seeds falling from its little mouth. There are five communities related to tomatoes on Flickr, and the most popular one is called “Food Porn” (ooops), with 24,921 members and 407,495 pictures. Food Porn is followed by “I Ate This”, “I Love Food Group”, “Food: I Cooked/Made This!”, and finally “A Food Photography Experience!”

Not exactly impressed by what I saw on Flickr, I went to Food.com, which would be very helpful if I enjoyed cooking (but I’m a disaster in the kitchen), or if I wanted to have my own business, such as an Italian restaurant. Food.com offers recipes for tomatoes salads, tomatoes sauce, tomatoes salsa, and tomato comfort food. Recipes are organized by categories such as “Most Popular Tomatoes Recipes”, “Newest…”, “Healthy…”, “Quick and Easy…”, and finally “Recommended Tomatoes Recipes.” Also, recipes come with pictures and are rated by communities’ members. I didn’t find any specific community about tomatoes, but I found cooking and gardening communities, with which I could exchange information on where to buy the best tomatoes, or how to prepare a delicious gazpacho.

Finally, the best: Amazon.com. Amazon shows more than 31,602 results for “tomatoes”, including several books, music, clothing, beauty (tomato toner!) and gardening products, and a variety of canned tomatoes (crunched, dried, organic, and so on). I found also three related communities: “The Gardening Community”, “The Organic Gardening Community”, and “The Cooking Community”, and I think I wouldn’t join any of those, but I would consider members’ opinions on tomato products. These people write reviews, rate books, take pictures, and, by doing so, they help others to select products that best suit their needs. In The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson, the author says, “Online, however, the consumer has a lot more help… You can sort by price, by ratings, by date, and by genre. You can read customer reviews.” (p.173). And this is awesome!

The enormous variety of tomato products available on Amazon.com at an affordable price (sometimes online is even cheaper) is a consequence of the digital era. In the pre-web era, stores had to prioritize the display and sale of high demand products because those were the ones that were worthy to sell, and that’s why there was less variety of products on the market; actually, Anderson says many products were there but not “visible or easy to find.” (p.6). With the Internet, production and distribution costs of low demand products became the same of high demand products, making niche products available to everyone. So, today, if I want to buy not only a book which contains exclusively tomatoes recipes but also a Burt’s Bees tomato facial toner – which I would never find in a store in the pre-web era – I can do it through the click of a button.

Quick note: Take a look at the website “Tomatoes are Evil”, for tomato haters. It’s fun!

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Weekly#3: Happy Web Hostages

Do we need a Bill of Rights for the social web? The Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web is well intentioned, but it seems impracticable. I may be wrong since I don’t have the technical knowledge to visualize how this perfect world of social-web-users-owners-of-their-own-data could work, but it seems unlikely to become reality at least in the short-term. I wish it were not, though. I wish I could own my own data, but sharing it is exactly the price we pay to be part of those apparently free social networks. How these networks would survive ($$$) without valuable information about us?

I opened a Facebook account in August 2009 – yes, I resisted for a long time. Seven months after joining Facebook, I separated from my husband, and I needed a healthy distance from his relatives and friends who were my friends on the social network. I thought, though, it would be rude to delete them (after all, I liked them, nothing against them); so, I decided to cancel my Facebook account and open a new one. The thing is my account was never really cancelled. I logged in afterwards, and all my albuns and information were there like if I had never left. That was scary; I was trapped into Facebook. I deleted everything I could, but my Gmail address would be forever linked to that account, which will be always in “stand-by” mode. Since I’m not using the account anymore, it would be fair that I get my data back, which will not happen.

Websites could be, at least, transparent in regards to how they use our data. Since they make money out of users’ personal information, their business rules should be clearly stated. As users of social web, we have the right to make informed decisions, such as joining a social network, or not. It doesn’t mean, though, that I wouldn’t sign up for a social network if I knew before hand that I would have my data trapped forever – I think I would join it anyway, but the thing is websites have the duty to be transparent.

Going back to the Bill of Rights, we have the right to own our data in the sense that we should be able to take it out from certain websites if we wanted to. Completely agree. But on an open web our data would be everywhere while services are in use, right? I would own my data, but I wouldn’t have much control of it anyway. Why would it be safer? Isn’t it ironic that the authors of the bill are certainly sharing their personal data with many social web services? Robert Scoble, one of them, was even called “the media” by Sebastien Provencher, and Marc Canter mentioned joining MySpace. So, how much do they care about their cause? Also, having users – not companies – in the center of the web business model is a beautiful dream. Marc Canter said, “first, users; then, their families and friends; and capitalism on the outside” – it’s a very human discourse, but social web is not a nonprofit, it’s wild business.

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