Obama: America's 'First Online Social Networking President'

"Well, people are still fired up and ready to go," Ernest E. Johnson says of people like himself who campaigned for Obama. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"Fired up, ready to go -- that was the campaign slogan," says a beaming Ernest E. Johnson on a recent Saturday. A real estate agent and longtime Washington activist, the 60-year-old worked the streets and the Internet, networking and organizing to make sure Barack Obama got elected president.

"Well, people are still fired up and ready to go," he continues. "What's next?"

Therein lies the challenge for the Obama White House. His online team might have written the playbook on leveraging the Internet to campaign victory, building a grassroots network on My.BarackObama.com, amassing a record amount of online donations and collecting an e-mail list of more than 13 million addresses, by far the biggest in Washington.

Like Johnson, many of those people aren't going away. A survey released yesterday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 51 percent of online Obama supporters expect to get e-mail, text messages or other communications from the new administration.

But how will all that online energy be channeled from campaigning into governing?

With some notable exceptions, federal Washington -- how agencies deal with citizens, the process in which policies and laws are created -- is stuck in the Encyclopaedia Britannica era. A relatively small group of editors and contributors is in charge. A growing portion of the country, however -- the Web-enabled set that swears by MySpace and YouTube (and note the emphasis on "My" and "You") -- lives by the wisdom-of-the-crowd, I-have-something-to-contribute ethos of Wikipedia. In the same way that anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry, not only will Web-acculturated citizens speak their minds, but they also won't ask anyone's permission to do so.

It has been only a decade since an American president first used the Internet. In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration created WhiteHouse.gov and ordered all federal agencies to get online. For the first time, the government used the Web to describe what it was doing in its own terms, bypassing media middlemen. George W. Bush's two terms brought podcasting, online chats and videos to the presidency's online presence.

"Clinton was the first Web president. Bush is the first digital president," says David Almacy, who served as Bush's Internet director from 2005 to 2007. "Obama is the first online social networking president."

And online social networking is designed to foster a community. For that approach to be effective, WhiteHouse.gov can't just push information out -- it has to pull content in, too. And once it does so, the administration will have to decide whether, when and how to incorporate those voices into its decision-making process.

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On Change.gov, a transition Web site launched two days after Obama won, a constant stream of information is doled out. You can watch YouTube videos of transition staffers. You can track meetings between the transition team and outside groups, which provide searchable documents online (and allow visitors to leave comments for the team). You can post questions in the "Open for Questions" feature, where submitted questions are voted to the top by other users. In its first week, the feature got 978,868 votes on 10,302 questions from 20,468 people.

The transition team's Internet department -- which include Macon Phillips, a veteran of Obama's online team, and Jesse Lee, who formerly worked for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic National Committee as an online adviser -- won't reveal exactly how many people have signed up on Change.gov. But they've been amazed by the number of people who've used it. More than 290,000 résumés, for example, were sent to the site.

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