Grass Roots Planted In Cyberspace

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2007

If there's a social networking site that John Edwards is not a part of, we'd like to know what it is, pronto.

No one's sure exactly what role these sites -- a.k.a. socnets -- will play in the upcoming election. But whatever it is, Edwards isn't taking any chances. The man's flooding the zone. He's on the big ones: Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, et al., where supporters and well-wishers are sending their best to his wife, Elizabeth. Writes a fan on MySpace this week: "Washington State sends you love and health. Lots of love to you and Elizabeth. Stay strong!!!" Edwards is also on some of the newest, somewhat obscure, mostly unheard of URLs., anyone? He's there. There, too.

In fact, the former senator is signed up in at least 23 socnets -- more than any other presidential candidate. And that's not counting John Edwards One Corps, his own networking site that campaign officials say has 20,000 members and 1,200 chapters across the country.

On Wednesday night, One Corps held its first National House Party Day, with at least six gatherings in the Washington area. Holly Shulman threw a soiree in her cramped Northwest studio for eight friends and co-workers. "I'm on Facebook, I'm on MySpace, I'm on OneCorps," says the 24-year-old. "And Edwards is reaching out to all three groups."

All the presidential hopefuls are online. Everyone's got a Web site. A few hired full-time bloggers and videographers. Most have MySpace profiles, just a click away from "friending" a supporter. Yet Edwards has taken his Internet presence a step further, fully exploiting the unknown possibilities (and known pitfalls) of the social Web, online strategists say. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), judging by the number of friends on MySpace or number of views of his YouTube videos, may be the most popular online candidate, Republican or Democrat. But Edwards arguably has the most dynamic Web presence -- he's everywhere, doing everything.

Mathew Gross, Edwards's chief Internet adviser, says: "We're just all over the Net."

A good thing, a bad thing, who knows?

"I call it 'the throwing-spaghetti-on-the-wall' strategy. Try what you can. See what sticks," says David All, who runs the David All Group, an online consulting firm that works with Republicans. (All was communications director for Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.). "He's leading the pack in this regard, and I think it's a smart move," All says of Edwards.

Adds Ruby Sinreich, an online consultant who works with nonprofits and writes the progressive blog, "What you have to remember is that signing up for these social networking sites is free, and it shows that he's open to new ideas and open to the openness of the Internet. Look, voters are swayed by the people they know. That's not new. That's not about technology. But what we have now is a new technology that is all about building relationships."

Still, what's left unproven is how these online relationships translate to winning elections. Valdis Krebs, a social network analyst for 20 years and based in Cleveland, has closely followed how politicians are using the Web. He points to the lesson to be learned from Howard Dean, the first Internet candidate.

"Dean was good on technology, but he wasn't good at sociology. Take what happened in Iowa. Instead of capitalizing on the social networks that are already in Iowa, he brought in volunteers that he recruited on the Internet. The result: It was strangers talking to strangers," Krebs says. "So Edwards has to be mindful that being ubiquitous and staying connected online is one thing. It's quite another to mix the online and offline activism.

"But I do have to hand it to him. He's doing the most online."

Elizabeth Edwards is largely responsible for this. When their teenage son, Wade, died in 1996, Elizabeth Edwards turned to online support groups. A couple of years ago, staffers say she was the one who turned to her husband's team and asked, "What do you know about podcasting?"

"A lot of people are involved in some sort of online networking community, and going to Flickr, to wherever, is just like going to union halls and county fairs," says Gross, who launched Dean's campaign blog four years ago. "Not everyone is on the same group -- some are Facebook people, some are MySpace people -- and we have to go where the people are. And joining all these groups is really very much like retail politics circa 2007."

And as Gross is figuring out, online retail politics is also a lot of work.

A campaign staff member is assigned to maintain Edwards's presence on the socnets. Gross pitches in, too. And though the former senator's Facebook and Flickr profiles are regularly updated, some accounts -- on lesser-known sites such as essembly, a nonpartisan, political socnet, and TagWorld, a flashier, much smaller MySpace -- remain stagnant. Essembly has about 17,000 registered users, and TagWorld about 2 million.

It's the usual quantity vs. quality argument, Gross knows, and he says the challenge in all these sites is to "keep people engaged."

For the next 19 months.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company