By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Late on the day that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) announced he was forming a presidential exploratory committee, Farouk Olu Aregbe logged on to Facebook.com, the popular online community where college students post profiles, share photos and blog. On a whim he created a group called "One Million Strong for Barack."
"I remember thinking, there's got to be more supporters out there," said Farouk, 26, who advises student government at the University at Missouri at Columbia.
Farouk's group had 100 members in the first hour. In less than five days, 10,000. By the third week, nearly 200,000. Yesterday, a month after he created the group, it had 278,100 members.
There are more than 500 Obama groups on Facebook. One of the first, "Students for Barack Obama," was created on July 7 by Meredith Segal, a junior at Bowdoin College who first heard of Obama when he gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Instead of starting "a petition or something" to encourage the freshman senator to run for president, she turned to her Facebook page, created a group and invited people (first her friends, later strangers) to join.
Now it's a political action committee with nearly 62,000 members and chapters at 80 colleges, the most structured grass-roots student movement -- there's a director of field operations, an Internet director, a finance director and a blog team director -- in the presidential campaign so far. "Young people are on the Web," said Segal, 21. "That's how we're organizing."
Obama's Facebook supporters post photos of Obama on their pages alongside snapshots of birthday parties, nephews and girlfriends. They link to the latest Obama news ("Gov. Kaine of Va. to endorse Obama"), talk about their favorite Obama quotes ("I think mine is, 'I'm so overexposed, I'm making Paris Hilton look like a recluse' ") and engage in a 24-hour conversation about their candidate ("I told you guys sometime back that once Obama announces his candidacy, the sharks are going to come biting . . ."), linked to one another in the kind of community reserved for longtime players of World of Warcraft or incessant "American Idol" fans.
A few weeks ago, Segal's group staged a rally at George Mason University that drew an estimated 3,000 students -- and an appearance from Obama himself. This past Sunday, her group's Iowa State University chapter helped promote a rally that attracted more than 5,000.
While the Illinois senator's presidential campaign has outpaced his rivals in the enthusiasm it has generated on Facebook and other social-networking sites such as Friendster and MySpace, no one knows whether such online excitement can translate to votes.
Ask Howard Dean, the Web candidate of 2004. The Democratic former Vermont governor raised millions of dollars on the Web, generated huge amounts of buzz and then learned during the Iowa caucuses that online excitement did not guarantee offline foot soldiers -- or the right foot soldiers in a state that likes its volunteers homegrown.
Meetup.com helped energize the Dean campaign, but more sophisticated social-networking sites such as Facebook, Friendster and MySpace were not a factor during the 2004 election. A recent Pew Research Center poll, however, reported that 54 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds have used them. And Joe Trippi, who spearheaded Dean's e-campaign, is among those who believe they will play a significant role in the current race.
"It took our campaign six months to get 139,000 people on an e-mail list," Trippi said. "It took one Facebook group, what, barely a month to get 200,000? That's astronomical."
Peter Levine, deputy director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a nonpartisan research center at the University of Maryland that studies young potential voters, predicts what he calls "the Facebook Effect."
"Everybody -- the pundits, the online strategists -- have been waiting for the first candidate to really hit a home run with the social-networking sites," Levine said. "Obama's message is attractive to a certain type of young person. He's saying: 'You have a role to play. This is about you. About your role.' There's a real hunger for that kind of message."
Added Todd Zeigler of the Bivings Group, a D.C.-based Internet communications firm that works with Republicans: "The key point here is that the support for Obama on these social-networking sites is not being driven by the campaign itself. It is something spontaneous as opposed to something the campaign itself is orchestrating. This shows a real enthusiasm for Obama's candidacy among young people that you aren't seeing for any other candidates at this point."
Obama's main Democratic opponents, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.), have also used the Web to speak directly to voters, sidestepping mainstream media. But the Illinois senator's campaign seems to have taken some of its cues from sites such as Facebook. The campaign Web site, launched last Saturday, allows visitors to blog, keep track of their fundraising contributions, make a list of events and so on. And there is a Facebook link at the bottom of his home page.
K. Daniel Glover, who edits National Journal's Technology Daily, said that for candidates, "it's all about using the Internet to connect to people," the same way candidates connect with the local precinct chairmen and state party officials. But Glover cautioned against expecting too much from the Internet, especially when it comes to younger voters. "I don't think anyone is going to be elected because he/she is all the rage on Facebook," he said.
Clinton has about the same number of Facebook groups as Obama, but the largest has only about 3,000 members, and many of the sites are maintained by opponents. For every group called "African-Americans for Hillary Rodham Clinton" (95 members), there is a group called "A second Bush was bad enough, don't give me a second Clinton" (55 members). Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has some presence on the site; a group called "John McCain in 2008" has 1,617 members. And though Obama himself has a few detractors -- a group that calls itself "Anybody That Would Support Barack Obama for President is a Moronic Liberal" has 424 members -- no one comes close to his overall popularity.
At 11 a.m. yesterday, "One Million Strong for Barack" had 278,100 members. Two and a half hours later, 278,537. Three hours later, 279,070.